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Arts + CultureMusicRemember Me: How 'California Soul' legend Marlena Shaw took...

Remember Me: How ‘California Soul’ legend Marlena Shaw took on a changing world

The late singer expanded jazz with feminism and funk, then embraced sampling as her voice defined hits through generations

The title alone sounds like a lost Betty Davis session or an unreleased song by Rihanna. 

Who Is This Bitch Anyway?, right. But it’s a 1974 album that launched jazz singer Marlena Shaw into a Gloria Steinem-meets-Shirley Chisholm, soon-to-be post-Nixon multiverse. Where social commentary, cold funk, and women’s liberation stewed in a bouillabaisse that took jazz, soul, and R&B and weaponized it to inspect a changing world, when political and gender norms were moving away from that antiquated era.

From the comedic opening “You, Me and Ethel,” a coy lampoon of singles bar culture as it navigated new rules, to Roberta Flack cover “Feel Like Making Love,” but with a bit more gusto. Those selections and this career-defining album were zeitgeisty. Delivering blunt-speaking straightforwardness, enlarging the parameters of what a jazz album could be. 

Maybe not Miles Electric, but just as experimental.

Who Is This Bitch Anyway? would serve two purposes: deliver Shaw her best-selling Blue Note label release, and gift generations of sample-savvy producers and DJs material for dance floors, chill rooms, hip-hop classics, electronic experimentations, and lively house sets.

In other words: Everything.

Shaw passed on January 20 at the age of 81, listening to some of her favorite songs, according to her daughter Marla Bradshaw. No cause of death was given.

Gilles Peterson, revered selector and international tastemaker, marked her death on his BBC radio show: “The late Marlena Shaw for you this afternoon. We heard the news of her passing, just a couple of hours ago, and with sadness of course. Hearing that music all over again as we listen to ‘Yu-Ma-Go Away Little Boy,’ and ‘Look at Me Look At You (We’re Flying).’ Just thinking of artists like Jill Scott, there would be no neo-soul and all that good stuff if it hadn’t gone through labels like Cadet and singers like Malena Shaw and Chaka Khan and later on the Chicago scene. So many records from Marlena.”

In an interview from 2007 after performing for a sold-out morning show at Ireland’s Electric Picnic Music and Arts Festival, Shaw is sassy, on fire, turning the charm up to 11, chatting with Mark Downes and Anya Stafford, who are more than half her age.

When asked how she feels about being sampled, she replies with bravado and a double-take head-turn. “I think it’s beautiful. Especially since I have all the publishing.”

In a time when Beyonce goes out of her way to name 22 vocalists on a song who have been sampled endlessly but never paid, or acknowledged for that fact, Shaw’s answer IS gold.

Grinning on the inside, knowing deep down she’s out here at this festival and many more around the world because of newer-ish additions to her cannon such as “Remember Me” the 1997 song by British DJ Alexis ‘Lex’ Blackmore under his pseudonym Blue Boy, constructed around samples performed by Shaw. The arrangement became a top-10 hit in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. It originally appeared on Mark Farina’s seminal remix album Mushroom Jazz Volume One.

On the Eurochart Hot 100, the track reached No. 13. Shaw is a global commodity.

“Remember Me” is built around samples from “Woman of the Ghetto” by Shaw: “Remember me? I’m the one who had your babies,” a reference to African-American maids raising white children for little pay, came from a live version, whereas the “ging, gi-gi-gi-gi-ging…” sample repeated throughout the song is the scat portion of the original song’s refrain. 

Which Shaw was elated by:

“When 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 ‘Oh my goodness! How in the world can I possibly stand onstage and sing those same notes, and those same lyrics, over and over again?’! You know, ‘I’m the one who had your babies—ha-ha-ha-ha’!

“I mean, it’s different when it’s being recorded and you’re 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 it’s been the onstage version I did on the (1973) Live at Montreux 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 flavor to it.”

Born on September 22, 1942, in New Rochelle, New York, Marlena Shaw was first introduced to music by her uncle Jimmy Burgess, a jazz trumpet player. In later interviews she credited Count Basie and Ray Brown for their input on how to lead a band, but it was Horace Silver who bestowed to her the best advice of all: “Baby, make sure you get your publishing.”

Shaw began her music career in the 1960s and would eventually release 17 albums with eight different record labels including a spate of releases for the legendary jazz imprints Blue Note and Verve Records. 

“California Soul” propelled her into the spotlight. The immortally sunny slice was written by powerhouse songwriting couple Ashford and Simpson, was included on her second album on Cadet, a subsidiary of the seminal blues and jazz label Chess Records, and was arranged by Richard Evans and psychedelic soul maestro Charles Stepney. Already recorded by the 5th Dimension and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Shaw and Stepney plotted out new terrain for the single.

“We’d work out the arrangements and stuff over the telephone,” said Shaw who at the time was based in New York. In true Stepney form, his penchant remained in creating dense atmosphere, so they built that backing track with handclaps, a driving beat, and then these cosmic orchestral accents, a la Beatles, Beach Boys, and the psychedelic adventures of the Rolling Stones.

My God, those Stepney-arranged strings made the track official, like General Patton charging up that battlefield, while Marlena is adding on yarns about the manufacturing of sounds associated with this state of mind that is California. 

“California Soul” was released in 1969 as a B-side to the pop ballad “Looking Through The Eyes of Love,” which initially did not seem to make a chart impact. But where American tabulations go awry is how the song gained momentum throughout decades of being played on rotation on the “rare groove” circuit in the UK. Music that had failed to gain acceptance in a previous time was given a “new lease on life” by DJs on pirate radio stations. In the States, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Africa Bambaataa played ’70s rare groove records, or cherry-picked songs from compilations, at the first incarnations of hip-hop parties.

So it was only a matter of time before DJ Premier of Gang Starr would repurpose those charging strings to elevate the words of Guru for “Check the Technique.”

Or for DJ Shadow to create the meditative psalm that was his first single from landmark debut record Endtroducing….. “Midnight In A Perfect World” provided outta-gas glow-stick partiers a mellow arrangment.

Sounding like Of Montreal manipulated with pitched down block-rockin’ beats, that track, recorded at The Glue Factory in San Francisco, pieced together lyrics from Organized Confusion at the beginning of the track, a sorrowful piano section from 1969 song “The Human Abstract” by David Axelrod, flipped parts of “California Soul,” and sewed together a theme song for thousands of rave chill rooms over the next decade. 

But still, it’s the voice of Marlena Shaw, that provided such a bountiful resource for 20th Century producers. As she would remark about during her numerous career comebacks: Her voice was the sun, and all these micro-genres you can perceive as flowers: hip-hop, trip-hop, house, electronic music, did indeed prosper from the golden rays her voice cast upon them.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

John-Paul Shiver
John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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