Marlena Shaw: the underappreciated queen of soul

Marlena Shaw, press photo, Cadet, 01It’s a real struggle to try and sum up what’s so arresting about Marlena Shaw. This New York-born chanteuse of soul and blues is best known in the UK for her interpretation of ‘California Soul’, the exuberant, feel-good soul-stunner written by Ashford & Simpson.

From the instant Shaw’s coffee-blend-rich voice takes over from the gust of strings and hand claps that greet your ears, you are enveloped by visions of a picturesque California. Glamorous figures gliding by sun-soaked beach strips; open-topped convertibles streaking through the heat haze, coursing down bare roadways; M&S Food ad-style close-ups of buffet tables and barbeques awaiting party guests; lovers laughing together like not a thing in the world could trouble them. Not just good times, the best of times.

It’s a feeling you get every time you turn on Shaw’s ‘California Soul’, which has made it a staple of soul music the world over. However, despite its popularity very few people appear to have ventured forth to see what else she has to offer.

I’m just as guilty, of course. It was only this spring – after spending and entire afternoon and evening blasting out her up-tempo version of ‘Wade in the Water’ – that it dawned on me to check out Shaw’s studio albums. And what luck I did, too. Trudging up and down the suburban streets of my town in the company of Marlena Shaw’s debut album, I was utterly convinced I’d discovered the Holy Grail of undiscovered 60s soul. Well, maybe if Shaw’s early LPs and 7” floor-shakers, such as ‘More’ and ‘Showtime’, weren’t already highly sought after by northern soul collectors and other aficionados in the know.

Shaw’s vinyl records may be in demand, but she’s nowhere near as well-known or appreciated as she deserves to be.

It’s all because of her voice. That powerful, statuesque voice. A voice as strong as Etta James’ and as soulful as Aretha Franklin’s, with a womanly swagger that even Beyoncé would bow down to. She talks the talk with the same been-there-done-that honesty as Bobby Womack – just listen to her spoken word shakedown ‘Yu Ma / Go Away Little Boy’.

Marlena Shaw - Out of Different Bags artwork, edit (600x316)Her debut album, Out of Different Bags, is a fine taste of what she’s capable of. It’s an old-school jazz record of tremendous class, though barely acknowledged when it was released on Cadet Records in 1967. That same year, the Beatles’ seminal Sgt Pepper changed music forever, Motown fever was still in full swing and the space race was just starting to heat up. With this in mind, Shaw’s debut record was something of a bygone even in its day. Though, in retrospect, perhaps the most accomplished bygone of the 1960s.

There’s a decidedly 50s, or even 40s, feel to Out of Different Bags. It’s the backing chorus harmonising their ohs and ahs with the discipline of a classic Disney musical. The arrangements, too, are all sultry jazz and midnight blues with a furrow of strings and piano keys to give them that lushness. Shaw’s voice is the centrepiece and treats you to some of the most spine-tingling verses ever committed to wax.

You’ve got to have a serious set of lungs to be heard over the bellow of a lively backing band, strumming, drumming and trumpeting for all they’re worth – especially on the club circuit, where Shaw started out. So ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’, where she delivers a grandiose finale as the instruments reach their crescendo, is enough to leave you enthralled by the power of this woman’s voice. But there’s more. She conjures an irresistible vision of big city gamblers and lonely hearts in ‘A Couple of Losers’. On ‘Ahmad’s Blues’, chattering reverberations of the double bass and doo-wop harmonies set the mood for late-night socialising and the nonstop pace of urban life. (Seriously, hop on the Tube while that’s playing and I defy you not to start feeling like you own the place.)

She serenades with her gentle yearning to be seen “through the eyes of love”. She understands what it means to face those lonely nights more than close friends ever could (‘I’ve Gotten Over You’, ‘Somewhere in the Night’). And she’s not immune to letting her thirst for adventure run away with her (‘I Stayed Too Long at the Fair’). Shaw takes on misfortune, heartbreak and loneliness with such elegance, such femininity, such unbridled sparkle that you’ll feel far from down after spending time with this record.

Out of Different Bags has become an album I can’t get enough of. I’ve cued it up over and over, day after day for the last six months, and I’m still amazed by its tuneful maturity – and the same could be said for her 1969 LP, The Spice of Life.

Whether you’re feeling blue or you’re in the mood for a joint to make you strut Rick James-style around your neighbourhood, whether you’re a go-getter or a shy small-timer, whether you’re a northern soul junkie or a pop addict, you need Marlena Shaw in your life. Give her music a listen and learn to respect her majesty.

If you enjoy what you’ve heard of Ms Shaw’s music, I implore you to take a chance on her first two albums, Out of Different Bags and The Spice of Life. Both are available as a remastered set, with several of her cracking 7” singles as bonus tracks, from Amazon MP3, Google Play and iTunes.

Image: Cadet Records/UMC

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