Not a single lyric on Songs Were Made To Sing was written by Mary Stallings, but each one represents a chapter in her life and a piece of her soul. On her latest album, due out May 17 from Smoke Sessions Records, the incomparable vocalist has crafted an exquisite collection of classic songs to reflect on a life well and passionately lived. With Songs Were Made To Sing, Stallings puts her distinctive stamp on a diverse set of 13 songs, using her gift for interpreting a lyric to transform familiar melodies into profoundly personal and captivating stories.
From the youthful passions and heartbreaks of “Stolen Moments” and “Lover Man,” to the wistful ruminations of “While You’re Young” and “Give Me the Simple Life,” Songs Were Made To Sing travels a journey of decades, with songs that collect wisdom and maturity along the way. Impulse ripens to romance, hope deepens to reflection, and Stallings’ voice captures every emotional step along that path with a perfectly chosen lyric from some of the greatest songwriters of all time.
“It’s amazing how you can feel things in your heart and in your mind but not find the words to say them,” Stallings says. “But I can always find a song that expresses everything that I need to say. So I pick tunes that seem to apply to me personally, and a story grows out of that.”
The soulful Bay Area chanteuse worked closely with master pianist David Hazeltine (Joe Henderson, James Moody), who tailored the album’s vibrant arrangements to Stalling’s singular voice and to the stellar band that was assembled for the date, which brings together such greats as saxophonist Vincent Herring (Cedar Walton, Nat Adderley), bassist David “Happy” Williams (Roberta Flack, Elvin Jones), and drummer Joe Farnsworth (McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders). Percussionist Daniel Sadownick (Michael Brecker, Steely Dan) is added to the mix for Latin-tinged takes on “Lover Man” and “Lady Bird.”
Adding extra meaning to the occasion is the appearance of veteran trumpeter Eddie Henderson (Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, The Cookers), whose friendship with Stallings stretches all the way back to their days as students at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, when the singer was already a well-known presence on the city’s thriving jazz scene.
“I always admired the way Mary sang,” Henderson recalls. “And, I was ecstatic to reunite with her and play together again. She makes the lyrics come alive; she’s not just saying arbitrary words, she means it.”
The middle child of 11 siblings, Stallings grew up around music, getting her first professional experience with her mother and two older sisters in a family gospel group. Her uncle, tenor saxophonist and bandleader Orlando Stallings, introduced her to jazz – still considered by some in the church at that time as “the devil’s music.”
“My music was gospel but I loved to listen to Uncle Orlando play bebop, too,” Stallings says. “They called it ‘sinful music,’ and I wanted some of that sin.”
Decades before it became one of the cornerstones of psychedelic rock, San Francisco’s Fillmore District was lined with jazz and blues clubs, becoming known as the “Harlem of the West.” This was the scene that Stallings dove into as a teenager in the early 1950s, performing with such giants as Ben Webster, Cal Tjader, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Red Mitchell, Teddy Edwards, and the Montgomery Brothers – Wes, Buddy, and Monk.
1961’s Cal Tjader Plays, Mary Stallings Sings earned the vocalist her strongest accolades and led to a busy decade in which she toured with Tjader, Billy Eckstine, and Dizzy Gillespie. She spent three years fronting the Count Basie Orchestra, after which she spent the majority of the 1970s focused on raising her family – including her daughter, the acclaimed R&B singer Adriana Evans. Stallings made a full-fledged comeback in the early ’80s, releasing a string of albums with such luminaries as Gene Harris, Monty Alexander, Gerald Wiggins, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Geri Allen.
Stalling’s long-running musical relationship with Buddy Montgomery, which lasted until his death in 2009, provided a strong bond with Hazeltine. During his own formative years in Milwaukee, Hazeltine was taken under Buddy’s wing while the great vibraphonist and pianist lived in the Midwestern city for more than a decade before returning to the West Coast. “Buddy was one of my main mentors, and Mary loved Buddy and worked with him a lot,” the pianist says. “That gave us a nice connection.”
Stallings had long admired Hazeltine’s skills, both through Buddy and the recommendation of vocalist and friend Marlena Shaw, for whom Hazeltine long served as accompanist and arranger. “David is a very fine musician,” raves Stallings, “and boy, did he make magic with the treatments that he gave to this music. He has a great insight and I was thrilled to work with him.”
Hazeltine reciprocates the admiration. “I just can’t say enough great things about Mary. She’s imaginative and soulful, with perfect intonation and a creative way of approaching the tunes. I am in awe of her singing ability.”
Surely those expressive qualities are the fruit of nearly eight decades of musical, not to mention life, experience. Stallings brings the entirety of that life to bear on her lyrics, and proudly faces the landmark birthday she’ll commemorate this August.
“I’m going to be 80 years old and I’m very proud of it,” she announces. “I’m still here. I’m still breathing. I’m still living. And I’ll live until I die, spending every day doing something positive. I’m the product of everything that I’ve been through in my life, and that comes through in my music. My joy is getting on that stage and having people listen to my stories.”
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