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Real Music - December 2014 - Mary Stallings

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Real Music - December 2014
Mary Stallings

by Robert Feuer

A Force of Love

For most of us, the lives of successful musicians are distant fantasies, worlds of glamour and excitement, outside everyday life. For Mary Stallings, who’ll be singing at Sonoma State University’s Schroeder Hall, Dec. 14, that world has played a vital role since her tenth year. 

Stallings, like many African-American musicians, started at church services, where she overcame shyness to sing in a family gospel group with her mother and two sisters, but it was her uncle, bandleader Orlando Stallings, who “taught me mostly everything,” she says during a phone interview from her lifelong home, San Francisco. 

Mary Stallings - A Force of Love“It became a big part of me,” she says of her attendance at his rehearsals at her house. “Everybody who was in town would come in and hang out.” Eventually, this led to her having her own band, and performing with jazz luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine and Count Basie.

“Music saved a lot of people’s lives, and gave a lot of children direction in a crucial, harsh environment,” Stallings says. “It’s a great force of love.”

During her late teens in the 1950s, she performed at classic hometown venues like the Hungry I, the Purple Onion and El Matador. “Anybody who came into town, I was the one they called to perform.” 

The fantasy in high gear, she sang in Australia at age 18, where “they treated me like a queen. I was pretty spoiled.” In the 60s, Eckstine asked her to join him, a gig that lasted a year, and she toured South America with Gillespie. 

 Stallings relates how Basie’s agent offered her a round-trip ticket from San Francisco to Chicago, to which she responded, “I’m gonna make it – give me a one-way ticket.” 

After spending 1969-72 with Basie, Stallings married, leaving the business for ten years to raise her daughter. “Sometimes you’ve got to stop and breathe, and make a change,” she says. Occasionally she succumbed to offers from people like Gillespie during that period. “They didn’t let me alone. Then, I couldn’t resist anymore.”

 “I loved them all equally,” she says of the great musicians she joined. “I was a little kid. They treated me with such respect, never acting like they were great. That’s what I think greatness is.”

In 2011, Stallings became the first jazz artist to appear at the Prague National Theater, home to classical music, opera and ballet since its construction in 1881. “It was a spiritual place,” she says, especially coming on the occasion of the country’s mourning their President’s death. 

She’s made three appearances each at the Monterey and San Francisco Jazz Festivals, and remains very busy, including a recent performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Stallings calls her talent “an innate gift,” adding, “I learned everything on the bandstand and feel more comfortable there than I do anyplace. I got the roots, the grit of all of it from those nightclubs, but that’s the blues. It’s all part of the music. Nothing makes me happier. It’s life.” 

Photo by Mars Breslow