One of eleven children, Mary Stallings was born in San Francisco in 1939. In her teens, she began singing in San Francisco night clubs and performed with Ben Webster
, Earl Hines
, Red Mitchell
, Teddy Edwards
, and Wes Montgomery
. Before graduating from high school, she joined R&B singer Louis Jordan
's Tympani Five. In the early '60s, she performed with Dizzy Gillespie
at both the Black Hawk nightclub and the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival.
Her debut album was Cal Tjader Plays, Mary Stallings Sings
(Fantasy, 1961). It turned out to be her last recording for 29 years. Even though she still toured with Gillespie, and Billy Eckstine
, it was after a three-year residency with the Count Basie Orchestra
from 1969 to 1972 that she decided to stop performing. In 1972, in semi-retirement, she gave birth to her only child, R&B singer Adriana Evans. She added, "I also stopped performing because I was fed up and knew that I had no more heart for it at that time. I thought that was going to be the end of it." After continual prodding by friends and musicians, she came back and recorded Fine and Mellow
(Clarity Recordings, 1990). Songs Were Made To Sing
is her tenth album since then, and her first for Smoke Sessions Records. It opens with Oliver Nelson
's "Stolen Moments," a bright, classic song which begins a record of looking back on life and the choices that one has made (see YouTube video below). Right away, her husky, warm, weary voice tells us, even after heartache, it was all worth it. She is accompanied on the album by a superb band, featuring Eddie Henderson
, Vincent Herring
, David Hazeltine
, David Williams
and Joe Farnsworth
. The rhythm section plays with empathy and subtlety throughout. Henderson and Herring get ample opportunity to contribute.
"Lover Man" has a soft, wistful feel, with a Latin sound to it. "Blue Monk" is a mid-tempo blues with Stallings testifying that "Life is a school, unless you're a fool, and the learning brings you pain." Her phrasing is impeccable and filled with compassion. Another Thelonious Monk
tune, "Round Midnight" is performed in a beautiful, pensive manner with Henderson getting a chance to shine. As with other tracks on the record, she takes an old warhorse tune and makes it her own.
The songs here are mainly ballads or mid-tempo pieces. "Prelude to A Kiss" is an exception; it starts full throttle with Farnsworth working the high hat. However, when Stallings enters, she sings it as a mid-tempo ballad. The counterpoint between the band's enthusiasm and her more tempered reading of the lyric is very effective. Herring gets his chance to blow, while moving between the tempos. She sings, "Give Me the Simple Life" as an autobiography, accompanied only by Hazeltine on piano, while Stanley Turrentine
's "Sugar" is sung as a funky, blues jaunt with Herring taking the tenor role.
This album was released just before the pandemic. About that time Stallings said, "Since the shutdown, I've gone back and listened to some things, old recordings, and thought, my God, how I've grown. As you get older, you lose some of your chops. But your storytelling takes over because you're speaking of your life's experiences. It deepens. And that's what it's supposed to be about. I'm all about telling the story, and my story's even stronger, because of the things I've lived. It's all in the music; all these things are in the music. I've been in this business a long time, and I can tell you that this music is spiritual. You give from your soul."
The album title comes from the song, "While We're Young." It is a bouncy, uplifting tune, extolling the hope and joy of youth. It contains the lyric, "Songs were made to sing, while you're young." The great news here is that singers were made to sing at any time. At the seasoned age of 80, her voice is in remarkable condition. She explained, Sonny Stitt
took me under his wing and taught me how to breathe correctly. He said, 'If you use these techniques, your voice will always stay youthful and fresh."
Mary Stallings shows us that she should be mentioned in the same breath as Sarah Vaughan
, Carmen McRae
and Betty Carter
. The pianist, Eric Reed
once said about Stallings, "If you want to talk about jazz, with its subtleties and intricacies, the storytelling and the harmonies, there isn't a woman alive who sings better." On Songs Were Made To Sing
, she lives up to that hype.
Stolen Moments, Lover Man, Blue Monk, Ill Wind, While We're Young, Lady Bird, When I Close My Eyes,
Prelude to a Kiss, Third Time Is the Charm, 'Round Midnight, Soul Mates, Give Me the Simple Life, Sugar.
Daniel Sadownick: percussion (2, 6).