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Mary Stallings: The Best-kept Secret in Vocal Jazz

Andrew Gilbert profiles the soulful jazz singer from the Bay area

Mary Stallings

Each generation, it seems, discovers Mary Stallings anew. A supremely soulful jazz singer, the San Francisco native has spent her life in the Bay Area, reappearing on the national scene every five or 10 years with an acclaimed album or high-profile gig. She’s worked and recorded with a steady succession of jazz giants, but when it comes to enduring renown, she’s been a bridesmaid far more than a bride. With her supple sense of swing, blues-inflected phrasing and gift for empathic lyric interpretation, she often inspires superlatives, praise almost invariably coupled with bewilderment at her lack of fame. With the 2001 release of her MaxJazz album Live at the Village Vanguard, the New York Times declared that “[p]erhaps the best jazz singer singing today is a woman almost everybody seems to have missed.” That’s a wild overstatement, of course, as Stallings has enjoyed several significant stretches of visibility. But there’s no denying that with fewer than a dozen albums over five decades, her discography is criminally thin.

Never interested in singing pop or R&B, she survived long stretches with little label interest, and even dropped out of the scene for much of the 1970s and ’80s. Through all the ups and downs, Stallings, 71, has never lost confidence in her own abilities. She grew up in a large, supportive and highly musical family, and started performing as a child in a gospel group with her mother and two sisters. Drawn to jazz, she was profoundly influenced by Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald. But her uncle, saxophonist and bandleader Orlando Stallings, encouraged her to develop her own sound. “I made a conscious decision I was going to be a singer as a little girl,” Stallings says between sips of herbal tea at a Berkeley café. “I thought at one point that my career was over. But then you find out, it’s never the end; it’s just one more gig, one more call that you’re going to take. I did resist some telephone calls for a while, though, I really did.”

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