Jazz and R&B Singer Known for Hit “California Soul” Succumbs After Brief Illness
Marlena Shaw, the legendary jazz and R&B vocalist best known for her 1969 hit song “California Soul,” died on Saturday at her home in Los Angeles at the age of 81.
Shaw’s family confirmed that the singer passed away peacefully after a brief illness.
“It is with deep sorrow that we announce the passing of our beloved mother and grandmother, Marlena Shaw,” the family said in a statement. “While we mourn her loss, we celebrate her extraordinary life and career, and the inspiration she gave to so many through her music.”
Early Life and Career Beginnings
Born Marlina Burgess in New Rochelle, New York in 1942, Shaw demonstrated remarkable vocal talent from a young age singing in church and school choirs. She adopted the stage name “Marlena” as a teenager.
Shaw began her professional career touring with vocal groups before landing a solo record deal with Cadet Records in 1966. Her debut album “Out of Different Bags” showcased Shaw’s versatility across jazz, soul, and pop.
Over the next few years Shaw built her reputation through live performances in jazz clubs and as an opening act for artists like Count Basie. Her profile grew through appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand.
|Out of Different Bags
|“Wade in the Water”, “A Taste of Honey”
|The Spice of Life
|“California Soul”, “Me and Mr. Jones”
|“Woman of the Ghetto”, “Just a Little Lovin'”
Breakthrough Hit “California Soul”
Shaw reached new heights of popularity with her third album, 1969’s “The Spice of Life,” which included her iconic cover of the Ashford & Simpson penned “California Soul.”
Backed by the swelling string and horn arrangements of Richard Evans and highlighted by Shaw’s smooth, evocative vocal, “California Soul” became both a crossover pop and R&B hit reaching #28 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #4 on the R&B charts in 1970.
The success of “California Soul” established Shaw’s signature soulful, sensual sound. The song has endured as a soul classic covered by countless artists over the past five decades.
Style Evolution in the 70s
Shaw continued to evolve her style through the early 70s, exploring nuanced fusions of jazz, blues, and soul while addressing socially conscious themes in songs like “Woman of the Ghetto” and “Where Were You.”
She leaned into her jazz roots on acclaimed records like 1974’s “From the Depths of My Soul” while scoring further R&B/Disco hits with “Go Away Little Boy” and “Make Me Believe in You.”
By the end of the 1970s, Shaw had cemented herself as one of the most versatile and soulful song stylists around. Through her music and captivating live performances she won devoted fans within the jazz, R&B, and pop worlds.
Later Works and Accolades
While Shaw never again reached the mainstream commercial success of “California Soul,” she continued recording and performing her unique blend of jazz, soul, funk, and blues to critical acclaim.
She was honored with the 2006 Jazz Foundation of America’s Jazz Legend award in recognition of lifetime achievement. And in 2021 Shaw was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, having spent part of her childhood in Little Rock.
Over her six-decade career, Shaw toured the world over displaying her vocal mastery in interpretations of jazz standards and pop covers along with her own heartfelt original songs.
In recent years Shaw had discussed plans for a new album in collaboration with the Dap-Kings, building anticipation among longtime fans eager to hear how her talents would pair with the retro soul revivalists.
Reaction and Remembrances
News of Shaw’s death prompted an immediate outpouring of affection and tributes to the beloved artist known for her warm personality and good humor as much as her transcendent voice.
Fellow musicians, actors, athletes, and public figures shared memories and expressions of the inspiration Shaw provided over her long, impactful career:
“The world has lost a true musical pioneer and icon today. Marlena’s buttery voice and masterful storytelling through song influenced so many and will live on forever. She’ll be missed beyond measure.” – John Legend, singer-songwriter
“Marlena Shaw had a sound like no other. Effortless, smooth, sensual…she was one of a kind. Rest in power to this remarkable woman and artist.” – Alicia Keys, singer-songwriter
“So sad to hear about the passing of the wonderful Marlena Shaw. I was lucky enough to work with her many times over the years. Not only a fabulous singer but a lovely soul who brightened every room she walked into.” – Dionne Warwick, singer
Shaw’s family says plans for a memorial service are still coming together with details to be announced in the coming days.
Without a doubt “California Soul” and other SHAW classics will be echoing in tribute around the world. Though she’s left too soon, Shaw’s iconic voice will play on for generations to come.
Shaw’s Enduring Legacy
Marlena Shaw leaves behind an incredible musical legacy spanning 24 studio albums over nearly 60 years in the spotlight.
While “California Soul” brought her fame and mainstream success, Shaw was always too musically adventurous to be defined by just one song. Her skill and vocal control shown bright whether singing lush romantic ballads, funky dance tunes, or hard hitting social commentary.
Through the peaks and valleys of the entertainment industry, Shaw stayed true to her artistic vision and unique jazz/soul fusion sound. Along the way she broke barriers for female artists and inspired latter generations of singers to inject more real talk into popular music.
Looking back on her career Shaw said, “I’ve stayed true to myself, true to my music. I do what I want to do and enjoy every minute of it.”
That passion and joy Shaw brought to her craft earned enduring respect from critics and contemporaries alike. As musician Greg Phillinganes put it simply in 2021: “Marlena is the real deal…her intonation is ridiculous, the most ridiculous singer on the planet.”
While Marlena Shaw may be gone, thanks to her voluminous catalogue preserved on record, her ridiculous, unmistakable voice will continue inspiring artists and soothing souls for ages to come. The world has lost a true original, but we still have the gift of “California Soul.”
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