George Taylor's smile is as bright as a klieg light, and in his wingtips and a feathered fedora, he is dapper as they come. Taylor is also the real deal, and he hails from Memphis, home to a style of sound associated with singers such as Al Green, Isaac Hayes, and Otis Redding, who were (in part) made household names by record labels such as Stax and Hi Records. Singing since 1969 with groups such as Soul Explosion and Phase 6, Taylor's past includes such illustrious events as opening for Stevie Wonder. But his next concert isn't just about him -- it's part of a arts performance to help those in need. Along with the other performers in A Night With the Stars April 9 at SFJAZZ Center, Taylor is a participant in San Francisco's Community Housing Partnership program.
The Community Housing Partnership was founded in 1990 with the intention of assisting the estimated 7,000-10,000 homeless people on the streets of San Francisco with housing, job training, and reintegration into society. They currently manage over 900 housing units in eleven buildings in the city and provide treatment for substance abuse, family and youth programs, courses on social justice and leadership, and more.
A Night With the Stars is an annual event that gives Community Housing Partnership residents a chance to express themselves in performance. Performers are selected by audition and paired with a local artist, who acts as mentor. Aside from being a showcase in which all performers are paid and a winner takes home a prize, the event is a fundraiser for Community Housing Partnership's ongoing programs.
After being selected for A Night With the Stars, Taylor was paired with choreographer David Herrera to develop his act. Herrera, who founded David Herrera Performance Company in 2007, was inspired to participate after watching the program a year ago at the invitation of his company's theatrical director, Jean Johnstone, who, in addition to running Oakland's activist Applied Theater Action Institute, serves as the artistic director for the event.
"I grew up poor," Herrera explains. "I'm always looking for ways to give back, to bring art to communities that are otherwise excluded."
Together, Taylor and Herrera selected and rehearsed The Temptations' "I Wish It Would Rain" for the performance, an ideal choice for someone who, despite drug addiction, poverty, and days of "just roaming the streets," describes as the central tragedy in his life of losing the girl he loved.
Vitally, as Taylor puts it, the mentorship program has given him and other "people who are invisible" the opportunity to express themselves and the "chance to have some dignity and find some confidence in themselves."
For Herrera, who frequently draws on experiences from his family and culture in his work, including a 2009 piece on his mother's immigration to the United States, "This has been one of the most exceptional experiences of my life as an artist."
Both agree that inspiration comes from such unexpected encounters. As representatives of the population served by Community Housing Partnership, Taylor and the other performers realize that their stories and acts deliver a message of hope for the thousands of people homeless on the streets of San Francisco.
"There are a lot of jewels out there, a lot of diamonds in the rough," Taylor says. The evening is an opportunity to watch them shine.
Community Housing Partnership presents A Night With the Stars at 7:15 p.m. April 9 at SFJAZZ Center, 201 Franklin St., S.F. Tickets are $60-$125; chp-sf.org.