A true survivor of the music business, Marlena Shaw began her career in the 1960s with music that crossed genre boundaries with unusual ease, as she made her mark on jazz, R&B, disco, and soul music at various times, all without changing her sharp, soulful musical personality. During her long career she was eventually able to see her music honored by the next generation, in the form of samples from her songs that appeared in hip-hop recordings.
Shaw was born on September 22, 1942, in New Rochelle, New York. Marlena Shaw was a stage name, and prior to its creation she went by the names of Marlina Burgess and Marlene Bradshaw. Her introduction to music came from her uncle Jimmy Burgess. Burgess was a jazz trumpeter who performed with pianist Horace Silver and brought his niece on stage to sing during a program at the famed Apollo Theater in New York’s Harlem neighborhood when she was ten. “He introduced me to good music through records—Dizzy [Gillespie], Miles [Davis], a lot of gospel things, and Al Hibbler, who really knows how to phrase a song,” Shaw told the New York Times.
Despite the appreciative crowd that had encouraged Shaw at the Apollo, Shaw’s mother refused to let her teenage daughter go on the road as a singer. Instead, Shaw enrolled to study music at the New York State Teachers College in Potsdam (now the State University of New York at Potsdam). But she dropped out, married, and had five children, the youngest of whom were twin daughters. Shaw still dreamed of a musical career, however, and she tried to squeeze in singing engagements whenever she could. In 1963 she made some appearances at New England clubs with a jazz group led by trumpeter Howard McGhee. She was set to appear that year with McGhee at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival, but left the group after an argument with one of the members of his band.
Shaw suffered another setback when she botched an audition with legendary Columbia label talent scout John Hammond because she was so nervous. However, she didn’t give up. She continued to sing in small clubs in 1964 and 1965, appearing at the Sniffen Court Inn in New York and in the Catskills mountain resort region. She was plagued by mysterious illnesses, including a complete loss of her voice that lasted for a full month and forced her to communicate by writing messages on notepads. In 1966 she landed an ongoing gig with the Playboy Club chain, and her career took off from there.
The connection with the Chicago-based Playboy firm led her to cross paths with the city’s Chess Records, a blues-oriented label that had discovered such famous artists as Chuck Berry. Shaw was signed to Chess’s Cadet subsidiary in 1966 and recorded a moderate hit, a vocal version of Cannonball Adderly’s instrumental “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” She was brought into the studio in 1968 to record her first full-length album for Cadet, Out of Different Bags. The album announced Shaw’s boundary-crossing intentions from the start, mixing blues and jazz pieces with Southern soul and the Broadway standard “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.”
Meanwhile Shaw continued to hone her jazz skills with a vocalist slot in the prestigious Count Basie Orchestra. At her first rehearsal with Basie, at the Sands hotel in Las Vegas in 1966, she thought she had blown another major audition when Basie left the room after she sang a number. But as she recalled in an interview segment on National Public Radio, Basie returned with two glasses of wine, welcomed her, and said, “Save your voice, sugar, you’re going to need it for tonight.”
Shaw’s second and final album for Cadet, 1969’s Spice of Life, contained several songs that would number among her best-known recordings. Though some jazz fans would accuse Shaw of selling out with her later disco recordings, “Woman of the Ghetto” and the Nickolas Ashford-Valerie Simpson composition “California Soul” were aimed squarely at the pop market. “Woman of the Ghetto” was a jazz-tinged political pop song similar to the social-themed recordings of the period by the likes of the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. “My children learn just the same as yours/As long as no one tries to close the door,” Shaw sang. “California Soul” was later sampled on the hip-hop recording “Check the Technique” by Gang Starr.
In the 1970s Shaw returned to straight-ahead jazz, becoming the first female artist signed to the Blue Note label and recording five albums there. The title of one of them, 1974’s Who Is This Bitch, Anyway?, gave a clue to the evolving approach of Shaw’s stage show, which mixed humor and improvised monologues with music, and contained elements similar to the raunchy “raps” of soul singer Millie Jackson. Shaw’s virtuoso vocal stylings evoked comparisons to divas Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington.
Shaw continued to cultivate her pop instincts as well, however. In 1977 she moved to the Columbia label and capitalized on the growing popularity of disco music with her Sweet Beginnings and its “Go Away Little Boy” single, which became another of her most famous songs. She recorded three albums for Columbia, spawning several major dance-club hits. The single “Don’t Ask to Stay Until Tomorrow,” from 1978’s Acting Up album, was featured as the theme song of the highly successful film Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Shaw attracted the services of top-flight disco producers such as Meco Monardo and Tony Bongiovi on her Take a Bite album of 1980.
In the 1980s Shaw continued to record both dance music and jazz. Is It Love (1986) and Love Is in Flight (1988), recorded on the venerable jazz label Verve, drew positive critical evaluations, as did her two albums on Concord Jazz in the 1990s, Dangerous (1996) and Elemental Soul (1997).
By that time, even though she had never become a household name, Shaw was something of a fixture on the jazz nightclub scene. Her routines mixed her hits with virtuoso treatments of standards and her own compositions, complete with formidable “scat” singing skills, and her improvised comedy was often interwoven with her music. She toured on an international circuit and began to accumulate fans in such places as England and Japan. Two compilation albums, Go Away Little Boy: The Sass & Soul of Marlena Shaw and Anthology, brought new listeners to her older music, and fans of all ages frequented her shows. The year 2004 saw Shaw with a new release, Lookin’ for Love, on the 441 Label, and a three-night engagement at the Jazz Cafe in London, England.