Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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MARLENA SHAW: Califorina Soul II Soul

Marlena Shaw
Marlena Shaw Marlena Shaw Marlena Shaw Marlena Shaw

Pete Lewis speaks to legendary soul/jazz songstress Marlena Shaw, on the eve of her forthcoming performance in Edinburgh as part of âBulleit Originalsâ - a series of live music events sponsored by American whisky brand Bulleit Bourbon to celebrate the best in soul and funk.

Indeed, with said eventâs 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, Marlenaâs 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 1974âs controversially-titled âWho Is This Bitch, Anyway?â to 1976âs âJust Matter Of Timeâ. Whose uptempo, US-charting single âItâs Better Than Walking Outâ preceded her ensuing three-album stay at Columbia Records. Where she attained one of the disco eraâs biggest hits with her 1980 club-fuelled remake of Diana Rossâ âTouch Me In The Morningâ; while her 1977 US Top Ten update of âGo Away Little Boyâ - with its famed, humorously sensual monologue - remains a revered womanâs 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 2000âs âAnthologyâ, 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 Marlenaâs music has led to classic recordings from her four-decade-plus career (particularly âWoman Of The Ghettoâ and, more recently, âCalifornia Soulâ) becoming both remixed and heavily sampled by todayâs 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 âB&Sâ from her California home.

What we can expect from Marlenaâs live show this time round

âIâll generally be doing the songs people have heard from me on CD, as well as the ones theyâve become familiar with through the dance DJs, etc. So of course Iâll do doing stuff like âCalifornia Soulâ and âWoman Of The Ghettoâ. But I wonât have any jazz insets in this particular show, because the guys that Iâm working with are mostly R&B/rock-style musicians. So thereâll 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. Itâs never an âOK Marlena, show me what you can doâ kinda thing. The people are already involved when I walk onstage. Thereâs a definite warmth there, as if youâre meeting up with old friends. So, even though my audiences are getting younger these days, I still feel a strong kinship with them.â

How she felt about Blue Boyâs 1996 UK Top Five smash âRemember Meâ prominently sampling her 1969 classic recording âWoman Of The Ghettoâ

âWhen 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 âOh my goodness! How in the world can I possibly stand onstage and sing those same notes, and those same lyrics, over and over again?â! You know, âIâm the one who had your babies - ha-ha-ha-haâ! I mean, itâs different when itâs being recorded and youâre 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 itâs been the onstage version I did on the (1973-released) âLive At Montreuxâ 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.â

Marlenaâs ideas on being sampled by todayâs hip hop generation in general

âI donât really have any particular feelings one way or the other about it. I mean, there are good versions out there: there are some Iâve heard and some, believe it or not, Iâve 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 artistâs 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 thatâs glory.â

How she feels about another of her late Sixties tracks - âCalifornia Soulâ - enjoying a major resurgence this decade through its prominent use in TV commercials, films and hip hop samples

âWell, what can I SAY?! I mean, with âCalifornia Soulâ thereâs just been an EXPLOSION! Though I donât think that itâs 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) âSpice Of Lifeâ 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 - weâd actually work out the arrangements and stuff over the telephone. Because my kids were young, and I couldnât just get a baby-sitter at a momentâs notice to get on the plane and fly to Chicago. So Iâd play piano to Richard down the phone and be like âDo you like this?â⦠Heâd be like âOK, maybe weâll add such-and-such hereâ⦠But, as far as how I was actually feeling when I was recording it?... Come on Pete, this was back in like â68/â69! I was YOUNG, and just excited to be recording ANYTHING!â

Marlenaâs early background

âWell, 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.â

Her first-ever live performance, at Harlemâs Apollo Theatre, aged 10

âIt was very nerve-wracking for me! You know, I was at that age where I wasnât yet a teenager. So, from my grandmotherâs 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 wasnât as nervous as when I had to go back there on my own! You know, because theyâd discovered my uncle was a professional, he wasnât allowed to perform with me the following week. So I had to go back my myself, and I was like âOH, SHIT!â! 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 didnât win!â

Marlenaâs time with Chess Records from 1966 to 1970

âMy first hit was âMercy, Mercy, Mercyâ, which I co-wrote and was released on Chessâ subsidiary label Cadet in 1966. Prior to which I recorded a cover version of (jazz/soul pianist) Ramsey Lewisâ âWade In The Waterâ. Chess was actually my first recording contract. They offered me a deal after Iâd been working for six months live on the Playboy Club circuit. Iâd 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, âCan you sing this part on so-and-soâs record?â⦠âYeah, sureâ... Though, unfortunately for me, I was the only who lived in New York while everybody else was living in Chicago. So I didnât really get much chance to be a neighbourhood background singer.â

Hooking up with the Count Basie Band, with whom she toured permanently from 1968 to 1973

âWell again, I was working at The Playboy Club - and Basieâs accountant happened to see my show. And, once Iâd 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 âWould you like to go to Las Vegas with Count Basie?â⦠And my first words were âHow much?â! You know, âI have five little children! Come on, sugar!â... Which really annoyed my mother, who was like âWe danced to Count Basieâs music while I was growing up! And you talk about HOW MUCH?â! So yeah, it was a whirlwind - quite an exciting time. And you have to understand that, while Iâd 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 âAll Of Meâ. 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 âBAM!â. And I was so shocked I literally ended up on the FLOOR! I just slid right down the chair, because Iâd never HEARD anything like that! So, to be honest, I didnât 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 Iâm like âOh shit, I guess that means I didnât GET it!â. 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 âSave your voice! Youâre gonna need it for tonight!â⦠And thatâs how I knew I had the job! He was so special in the way.â

How Marlena recalls becoming a prominent disco diva during her time with Columbia Records from 1977 to 1981

âThe 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 Yorkâs 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 Iâd 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, Iâd be like âWell, I donât 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!â!â

Marlena Shaw performs at âBulleit 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.

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