MARLENA SHAW: Califorina Soul II Soul
Pete Lewis speaks to legendary soul/jazz songstress Marlena Shaw, on the eve of her forthcoming performance in Edinburgh as part of ‘Bulleit Originals’ - a series of live music events sponsored by American whisky brand Bulleit Bourbon to celebrate the best in soul and funk.
Indeed, with said event’s aim being to demonstrate how much of the music we listen to today is inspired by original pioneering musical genres by showcasing pioneering musicians alongside their contemporary peers, Marlena’s presence (alongside several modern-day UK acts) befits her position as one of the most diversely talented soul divas of all time.
Born Marlina Burgess in 1942 in New Rochelle, New York, Marlena began her recording career in 1966, upon being signed to legendary Chicago-based soul label Chess Records. For whom she released two R&B albums, while simultaneously earning praise from the more highbrow jazz fraternity with her five-year stint fronting the equally-legendary Count Basie Band. 1972, meanwhile, saw her becoming the first-ever female artist signed to the prestigious Blue Note label. With whom her five critically-acclaimed albums ranged from 1974’s controversially-titled ‘Who Is This Bitch, Anyway?’ to 1976’s ‘Just Matter Of Time’. Whose uptempo, US-charting single ‘It’s Better Than Walking Out’ preceded her ensuing three-album stay at Columbia Records. Where she attained one of the disco era’s biggest hits with her 1980 club-fuelled remake of Diana Ross’ ‘Touch Me In The Morning’; while her 1977 US Top Ten update of ‘Go Away Little Boy’ - with its famed, humorously sensual monologue - remains a revered woman’s anthem within the African-American community to this day.
Moving on to the independent South Bay label in 1982, Marlena (who to this day remains admired internationally for her warm, supple voice and relaxed charm) has since recorded albums for both Verve and Concord Jazz.. While her unrivalled overseas popularity eventually led to 2000’s ‘Anthology’, a definitive collection of her best-known and acclaimed tracks, released through London indie Soul Brother Records.
Meanwhile, the multi-cultural and timeless appeal of Marlena’s music has led to classic recordings from her four-decade-plus career (particularly ‘Woman Of The Ghetto’ and, more recently, ‘California Soul’) becoming both remixed and heavily sampled by today’s download/hip hop generation; in addition to being prominently featured in numerous high-profile TV commercials and movies.
A bubbly and highly personal interviewee, a charming, witty Ms. Shaw - whose busy live schedule frequently still finds her on the road for over 200 days a year - reacquaints herself with ‘B&S’ from her California home.
What we can expect from Marlena’s live show this time round
“I’ll generally be doing the songs people have heard from me on CD, as well as the ones they’ve become familiar with through the dance DJs, etc. So of course I’ll do doing stuff like ‘California Soul’ and ‘Woman Of The Ghetto’. But I won’t have any jazz insets in this particular show, because the guys that I’m working with are mostly R&B/rock-style musicians. So there’ll be lots of energy. You know, I never do the same show twice, even in the United States! And what I particularly like about the UK is the feeling and the VIBE that you get from the people. It’s never an ‘OK Marlena, show me what you can do’ kinda thing. The people are already involved when I walk onstage. There’s a definite warmth there, as if you’re meeting up with old friends. So, even though my audiences are getting younger these days, I still feel a strong kinship with them.”
How she felt about Blue Boy’s 1996 UK Top Five smash ‘Remember Me’ prominently sampling her 1969 classic recording ‘Woman Of The Ghetto’
“When it first happened, and the Mushroom Jazz people contacted me from San Francisco, I was kind of excited about it. But then, once I actually HEARD it, my first reaction was ‘Oh my goodness! How in the world can I possibly stand onstage and sing those same notes, and those same lyrics, over and over again?’! You know, ‘I’m the one who had your babies - ha-ha-ha-ha’! I mean, it’s different when it’s being recorded and you’re just pushing the button! But then, once I got used to the idea, I became excited all over again! And actually several other people have sampled the song since, though with them it’s been the onstage version I did on the (1973-released) ‘Live At Montreux’ album that seems to have got more attention - I guess because it was more spontaneous. Which, as I say, is something that HAPPENS in my live performances! And I particularly liked the St. Germain version, which had more of a jazz flavour to it.”
Marlena’s ideas on being sampled by today’s hip hop generation in general
“I don’t really have any particular feelings one way or the other about it. I mean, there are good versions out there: there are some I’ve heard and some, believe it or not, I’ve NOT heard! You know, it mostly just comes through the publishing company and then I read the stats at the end of every quarter, or what have you. I mean, they may not even mention the artist’s NAME. Because, a lot of times these things are dealt with via production companies. But I guess, in general, I feel blessed than anybody wants to reach back and get something of mine. You know, to me that’s glory.”
How she feels about another of her late Sixties tracks - ‘California Soul’ - enjoying a major resurgence this decade through its prominent use in TV commercials, films and hip hop samples
“Well, what can I SAY?! I mean, with ‘California Soul’ there’s just been an EXPLOSION! Though I don’t think that it’s possible to always know just how these things come about. As far as the original recording itself goes, it was Richard Evans - who was generally my closest producer on the (1969-released) ‘Spice Of Life’ album - who brought the song to me. All I knew about it was it had previously been done by (late Sixties pop/soul harmony quintet) The Fifth Dimension. And, with a lotta the stuff we were doing back then - though most of the actual RECORDING was done live - we’d actually work out the arrangements and stuff over the telephone. Because my kids were young, and I couldn’t just get a baby-sitter at a moment’s notice to get on the plane and fly to Chicago. So I’d play piano to Richard down the phone and be like ‘Do you like this?’… He’d be like ‘OK, maybe we’ll add such-and-such here’… But, as far as how I was actually feeling when I was recording it?... Come on Pete, this was back in like ‘68/’69! I was YOUNG, and just excited to be recording ANYTHING!”
Marlena’s early background
“Well, our neighbourhood was mixed. We had black, white, Jewish, Italian... And my grandmother was my main focus as far as music was concerned, because she sang solos in a gospel choir. She also made sure that my SPIRITUAL upbringing was taken care of. She taught me how to pray, how to be close to God, etc. etc… And my other musical influence in the house of course was my uncle (Jimmy Burgess), who was a jazz trumpeter. So I basically heard all kinds of music. And I guess I just got whatever I got musically by osmosis.”
Her first-ever live performance, at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, aged 10
“It was very nerve-wracking for me! You know, I was at that age where I wasn’t yet a teenager. So, from my grandmother’s standpoint, it was no high heels, no stockings... She even wanted me to wear socks, but I did win THAT argument! It was basically just me playing the piano and singing, while my uncle was singing and playing trumpet. And I guess, because I was with him, I wasn’t as nervous as when I had to go back there on my own! You know, because they’d discovered my uncle was a professional, he wasn’t allowed to perform with me the following week. So I had to go back my myself, and I was like ‘OH, SHIT!’! I remember my mother borrowing a dress from somebody in the neighbourhood. And, as far as my performance itself, I just remember being very scared and a lot of tittering coming from the audience. Like, if you know anything about the audiences years ago at The Apollo, Harlem during Amateur Night, a lotta people would come just to laugh at you! But, once they heard me sing, they got kinda quiet!.. Though I still didn’t win!”
Marlena’s time with Chess Records from 1966 to 1970
“My first hit was ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’, which I co-wrote and was released on Chess’ subsidiary label Cadet in 1966. Prior to which I recorded a cover version of (jazz/soul pianist) Ramsey Lewis’ ‘Wade In The Water’. Chess was actually my first recording contract. They offered me a deal after I’d been working for six months live on the Playboy Club circuit. I’d been singing jazz and then, one night in Chicago, I was approached by Chess - and I went on to release two albums for them. You know, I was very fortunate to be there with acts like (critically-acclaimed soul/rock outfit) Rotary Connection and Donny Hathaway. And what I most remember about Chess is how the artists all co-operated with each other. You know, ‘Can you sing this part on so-and-so’s record?’… ‘Yeah, sure’... Though, unfortunately for me, I was the only who lived in New York while everybody else was living in Chicago. So I didn’t really get much chance to be a neighbourhood background singer.”
Hooking up with the Count Basie Band, with whom she toured permanently from 1968 to 1973
“Well again, I was working at The Playboy Club - and Basie’s accountant happened to see my show. And, once I’d finished, he asked if I had a record. So I went to the dressing room, took my single out of my purse, and brought it to him. He played it to Basie. And, within a couple of days, I got a call saying ‘Would you like to go to Las Vegas with Count Basie?’… And my first words were ‘How much?’! You know, ‘I have five little children! Come on, sugar!’... Which really annoyed my mother, who was like ‘We danced to Count Basie’s music while I was growing up! And you talk about HOW MUCH?’! So yeah, it was a whirlwind - quite an exciting time. And you have to understand that, while I’d probably heard their records, no way had I ever seen them IN PERSON. And so the first time I heard the Basie Band live was when I was in Oakland, onstage with them singing their opening song ‘All Of Me’. Where they start out very with just a rhythm section - very quiet, very sweet and nice… And then, probably within maybe eight bars, the entire band would come in ‘BAM!’. And I was so shocked I literally ended up on the FLOOR! I just slid right down the chair, because I’d never HEARD anything like that! So, to be honest, I didn’t hold out much hope of him keeping me on! But then, when we got to Las Vegas, I was singing at rehearsal - and Basie gets up from the piano and walks out the ROOM! So I’m like ‘Oh shit, I guess that means I didn’t GET it!’. But then he came back in with two what they called in those days Pony glasses - small glasses, filled with wine. And he put one on the stage for me, and just said ‘Save your voice! You’re gonna need it for tonight!’… And that’s how I knew I had the job! He was so special in the way.”
How Marlena recalls becoming a prominent disco diva during her time with Columbia Records from 1977 to 1981
“The record business itself was going through a lot of different changes at that time. I mean, the disco thing kinda caught big companies like Columbia off-guard. And I LOVED it! You know, I was offered disco records - and I DID them, because they suited my voice! I remember back in 1980, I had a date at New York’s Savoy Ballroom - which they were trying to bring back to prominence at the time - where I went onstage with my jazz trio, did some standard songs, and then did three songs with The Count Basie Band. Then, after that show, I changed clothes, was picked up in a limo, and was driven to a disco place and sang my latest records there. And I made three times as much at the disco than I’d made at The Savoy that same evening! So yeah, I had a HELLUVA time with disco! I had a lot of energy at that age, I made some nice money out of it, and the disco crowd were happy to HAVE me! You know, I never look down on ANY form of music! And, while a lot of jazz musicians at the time had a problem with the repetition in the disco rhythm, I’d be like ‘Well, I don’t have to PLAY anything! As a singer, I can still sing what I WANT to sing over the track, as log as it fits in between the bars!’!”
Marlena Shaw performs at ‘Bulleit Originals', The Caves, Edinburgh on January 30. Tickets available from Ticket Scotland. Marlena also plays Ronnie Scotts from the 3rd to the 5th of February.
Words PETE LEWIS