MARLENA SHAW / “California Soul”
Marlena Shaw (née Marlina Burgess) got her first break back in the late Sixties when she recorded a hit vocal version of the well-known jazz tune “Mercy Mercy Mercy.” From there, Marlena toured with Count Basie and, in 1972, apparently became the first female artist ever signed to Blue Note records. (Although I haven’t been able to confirm that.) Although her early years were spent either on the lounge circuit or performing straight-ahead jazz, today Marlena is best known for her string of saucy, spicy, sassy and, of course, soulful R&B records, a few of which we’ll sample here. The feature cut is “California Soul” (from Spice Of Life, Cadet - 1969) a mighty slab of hard-R&B goodness that hip-hop fans will recognize as the sample source of Gang Starr’s “Check The Technique.” You have to love records that announce their intentions immediately: Marlena and Co. weren’t messing around on this one. “California Soul” jumps off right away with both heavy drum licks and a blaring string section already in full swing. (Can a string section ‘blare’? This one does.) Marlena waits just one measure before jumping in herself, but even so, the monster drum break that the tune is best known for (in hip-hop circles, at least) has already beat her to the punch. This isn’t a rock record, but something about the way everything slams in right from the beginning and all at once, makes me think ‘Black Rock Coalition.’ Marlena’s loose and funky vocals are every bit the match of that killer groove: if this one record was all you had to go on, you’d never guess she was a jazz singer. “When you hear the beat, you wanna pat your feet,” she says, “And you got to move, ‘cause it’s really such a groove.” Now, that’s what I call ‘truth in advertising.’ What a record. There was a time (though surely a product of wishful thinking on my part) when every woman in the ghetto looked like Pam Grier, spoke like Angela Davis, kicked ass like JoAnne Chesimard (BKA Assata Shakur) and sang like Marlena Shaw. Marlena’s performance on “Women Of The Ghetto” (also from Spice Of Life) should be time-capsuled to show what being a young black woman in America circa 1969 was all about. The vocals are proud and expressive, but with that essential laid-back element that characterizes all culturally black activity…it’s that thing we have no real name for but simply call ‘cool.’ Dig the way Marlena says, “Now, how do you make your bread in the ghetto?” and, “Strong, true / My eyes ain’t blue.” The lyrics strike a good balance—specific enough to make the point, casual enough to avoid preachiness. Despite its relative obscurity, this is quintessential Soul music. All the elements are there: a strong yet mellow bassline; gospel-esque backing vocals; powerful lead vocals; an easily memorable (though never sappy) hook; and, of course, evocative instrumentation from a full band. Plus, you have to love those kalimba breaks! By the way, am I the only one who thinks the kalimba on “Woman Of The Ghetto” sounds like a berimbau? Just wondering. Sounding a little like a laid-back Betty Davis, Marlena came back strong with the Who Is This Bitch, Anyway? LP (Blue Note - 1975). In addition to a beautiful cover of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” (which we feature in this week’s Cover segment), the album includes the intriguingly-titled “Loving You Was Like A Party,” with which we’ll wrap up this batch of selections. “Loving You” is so good not because of what Marlena does say, but because of all that she doesn’t say. Think about it: if loving dude was like a party, and now the party is over, what does that really mean? It probably means there’s hell of a mess to clean up, there’s strange people still waking up in your house (and it’s the next day…in the afternoon) and you have one hell of a hangover. Despite all that the title suggests, the song never really talks about whatever went wrong. Instead, Marlena’s tone is almost wistful as she reminisces on the way things were: “Everyday was like a party,” she coos. “Come on, love me again.” Some people never learn. Since the late Seventies and a largely unfortunate flirtation with disco (was there any other kind of flirtation with disco?), Marlena has returned to her roots, releasing a series of mostly jazz and blues recordings for the Concord label. I have to say, the majority of Marlena’s later material just doesn’t do it for me. I hear it and imagine a creaky, old club full of men wearing polyester suits and fake gold watches and women showing too much age, cleavage and mascara. But never mind all that, like most Soul singers, Marlena Shaw was at her best during the late Sixties and through most of the Seventies. You can find much of her best material—though none of the three songs talked about in this post—on Sony’s The Sass And Soul Of Marlena Shaw collection. But you also can’t go wrong with either Spice Of Life or Who Is This Bitch, Anyway? For all that Marlena has recorded over the years, we are deeply grateful. —Mtume ya Salaam Why? I know some readers are wondering: why is BoL featuring Marlena Shaw and who is she, anyway? Well, to get an insight on who she is go to this week’s Cover section and read the intro quote from Marlena. As for why we are featuring her, the truth is there was no particular premeditated reason. Mtume and I have warehouses full of music and from time to time we’ll dip deep in the crates and pull out something, which will lead to something else, and that leads to another thing, and before you know it, voila, here’s an idea, let’s do this…. Which all is kind of how this Marlena thing jumped off. But another and more important reason to feature Marlena is because she is so under-appreciated by the industry and by the general public. I embrace Marlena’s stance, her attitude, her life motions, going her own way with her wicked-ass wit and upfront social consciousness. So, in keeping with the classic theme of this section, I present three cuts. The first is "Why?," an a capella rendition in a quasi-gospel mode from Elemental Soul, a relatively recent 1997 album on the Concord label. The song speaks eloquently and persuasively for itself. Amen. Then, from the same album comes a radical remake of the Gershwin standard “My Old Flame.” From the jump, by employing an R&B beat, Marlena and Co. are alerting us that this will not be the standard ballad/nostalgic reading of a jazz chestnut. Instead, Marlena is in her humorous, sitting on a barstool half-serious/half-bullshitting, contemplative bag. Her rendition is enchanting as she reminisces without romanticizing past romances. Musically, I especially like how she re-phrases the song’s melody line, taking liberties like a high-diver, making difficult flips look easy. The degree of difficulty on this song is somewhere around seven or eight, and she aces each flip. By the end of the song, she is in storyteller mode, improvising both music and lyrics. Don’t miss that talking-in-the-sleep line. My closing argument is a 1973 live version of Marlena's classic “Woman Of The Ghetto” with only a jazz trio backing. Recorded at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, Marlena opens the heavy song in a light mode by parodying a preacher as she introduces the band members. Catch that little sound check she does when she calls for the piano player to hit her home note so she can make sure she is on key. That may seem to be like a throwaway, but it’s really an indication that she is a serious musician and not just an entertainer clowning around. And again, this song speaks for itself. I just thought of a third reason for doing a Marlena Shaw week—young female singers would benefit mightily from Marlena’s example. Enough said. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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