Lady Mem’fis, also known as Jacqueline Ruth Johnson, passed away Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, at 6:12 a.m. at Home Sweet Home, a skilled nursing facility in Daly City, California, age 73. She was born May 28, 1945, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to the union of the late Joseph and Irene Johnson. She grew up in Baton Rouge where she attended Mount Zion Baptist Church, pastored by the late Reverend T.J. Jemison Sr. As a child, she discovered her passion for music, which was developed out of the need to comfort herself in lonely times. At age 3, at the insistence of her Aunt Sarah, she sang her first solo in church titled “It’s a Highway to Heaven.”
As a young girl, she patterned herself after her older sister Barbara Jean, who was also musically inclined. Jacqueline graduated from McKinley Senior High School. She was an active majorette. Following graduation, she attended Southern University, where she majored in audiology and speech pathology.
She moved to San Francisco to help her sister Jheri through her last pregnancy and attended San Francisco State University. She married the late Richard Livingston Sr. and gave birth to her son, Robert Henry Johnson. She worked for the San Francisco Unified School District for 39 years.
During these years she was well known for her singing accomplishments as a recording artist with Tulane Records.
She was a cherished and renowned vocalist in the Bay Area, appearing in several musicals, plays and productions as well as garnering a name for herself in the music industry and appearing in major music festivals and nightclubs until her earthly departure.
She was a fun loving person who always kept the family laughing. When she and her sister Jheri would get together, even strangers and people who did not know them would be doubled over in stitches, holding their sides, laughing at their organic, unrehearsed comedic interactions.
Because they were so close, the humor that came out of them was natural and loving. Jackie played the “straight man” – strong in her pragmatism, worldly views and authoritarian role – whereas Jheri was the “funny man” – light hearted, filterless and innocent. They were known as an item, making all who were present blessed to be in their company.
Jackie was the family historian, an avid family picture collector and an entertaining storyteller. She was a giving and generous woman and deeply loved by her family. She loved sewing and making clothes for her friends. Everyone praised her for her gift for flair and high fashion. She was never seen walking out of the door of her house without looking like she had stepped out of the pages of Vogue magazine. Her community lovingly regarded her as “Big Jackie.”
She was preceded in death by Irene Johnson-Jones (mother), Joseph W. Johnson (father), Terry Lee Jones Sr. (stepfather), Barbara Jean Johnson (sister), Henry Clay Johnson (brother), Joyce Marie Johnson (sister), Richard Livingston Sr. (ex-husband), Dante Salisbury (nephew), Michael Triplett (nephew), Yvette Cloud (niece), Tiffany Cloud (niece), Joe and Lena Knox (maternal grandparents), and Henry and Ella Johnson (paternal grandparents).
She leaves to cherish her memory one son, Robert Henry Johnson; three sisters, Geraldine “Jheri” Price, Janice Triplett, Saundra (Donald, husband) Wilson; two stepbrothers, Terry L Jones Jr. and Darrell Wayne Jones; 17 nieces and nephews, Joseph Johnson, Daniel Bell, Deborah Bell, Ronald Bell, Cheryl Henry, Jackie Johnson, Phaedra Sayles, Don Man Johnson, Alwandro Johnson, John Forest Johnson, Shaunda Cloud-Gainey, Shemika Cloud, Jamal Coleman, Tamra Triplett, Jabar Triplett, Quinton Triplett, Khary Ode Wilson and a host of grand and great nieces, nephews, cousins and extended family members.
Memorial service is Friday, Feb. 22, 11 a.m., at San Francisco Christian Center 5845 Mission St., between Olive and Acton in San Francisco. Parking is available. The repast will be 1 to 3:15 p.m. at the African American Art and Culture Complex at 762 Fulton St. at Webster on the third floor in the Hall of Culture in San Francisco.
Robert Henry Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
Tribute to Lady Mem’fis
by Wanda Sabir
When Kim Nalley had Jazz at Pearls, we could see top notch women artists like Lady Mem’fis regularly. With Tammy Hall on piano and Kim Nalley on vocals, it was a destination without rivals. Rassalas on Fillmore had its regulars and, well, then there were those of us who had to travel. I remember the reunion concert at the Rrazz Room at Hotel Nikko – gone now just like Pearls. It was a stellar lineup: Lady Mem’fis, Kim Nalley, Ms. Faye Carol and Denise Perrier (if I remember it correctly).
The divas were of course great, but Lady Mem’fis always had an edge – don’t know what it was. Perhaps the fact that she was “blessed with a beautiful voice, sang with depth, soul and swing and with a style that resonate[d] back through her deep Southern roots with every note.”
Lady Mem’fis would stand “steadfast, throw back her head and belt out Jazz and the Blues. Struttin’ on the pavement, swank and slinky, going uptown and downtown … She had a voice like a coronet,” said Jon Carroll, San Francisco Chronicle, of her artistry.
“She began singing as a child in Baton Rouge, gained early success on the coursing New Orleans R&B scene of the early ‘60s, and put down roots in the explosive San Francisco jazz scene of the late ‘60s. Falling victim to the ebb tide of jazz in the disco era, Lady Mem’fis gained a resurgence in the late ‘80s that she’s been riding ever since.
Jack Bowers says in a review of her CD “Expressions of a Legacy for All About Jazz”: “‘Lady sings with honest emotion, not to mention a sizable measure of talent. One senses that she not only understands the lyrics to the songs she sings but empathizes with them as well, so visibly honest is the impression of heartache and yearning. … Stylistically, there are occasional nods to Billie, Dinah and others, but Lady Mem’fis has a special persona of her own, built on tradition but thoughtfully framed and deeply personal.”
“Lady Mem’fis herself gives us the secret of her style on the liner notes to Expressions of a Legacy. ‘As I sang certain songs,’ she writes, ‘I could smell and taste the red clay dirt from back home … I saw all the people in the neighborhood – the ragman, watermelon man, gambling man and, yes, the preacher man. I saw big families, little families and ladies walking under the hot sun with beautiful umbrellas. I reached back and retrieved those feelings, thoughts, smells [and] colors … I thought of all the heartache, pain, joy and laughter of those who came before me and paved a way so that my travels might be a bit easier. I thank heaven for them.’” (Jazz at Pearls).
As I sang certain songs, I could smell and taste the red clay dirt from back home … I saw all the people in the neighborhood – the ragman, watermelon man, gambling man and, yes, the preacher man. I saw big families, little families and ladies walking under the hot sun with beautiful umbrellas. I reached back and retrieved those feelings, thoughts, smells [and] colors … I thought of all the heartache, pain, joy and laughter of those who came before me and paved a way so that my travels might be a bit easier. I thank heaven for them.
I remember at one of the Black History Month Local Hero Awards shows, both she and her son, Robert Henry Johnson, performed. I don’t if it was then that I learned that the singer’s name was the ancient capital of Kemet. Depth? Can’t get any deeper than Kemet (smile). I loved to watch the mutual admiration and respect the mother and son had for each other and the stories Robert Henry, in particular, would share about his fantastic mom and what it was like to have an artist as a mom.
Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, 11 a.m., at the Christian Center at 5845 Mission St. at Olive in San Francisco, is an opportunity for the community to come out and dance, sing, party with Lady Mem’fis as she begins her final ascension into the next realm.
The repast is 1 to 3 p.m. at the African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St. near Webster on the third floor in the Hall of Culture. There will be a Jazz Trio with food.