Marlena Shaw. Photo by Alan Mercer.
The title of Marlena Shaw’s debut album, “Out of Different Bags,” released in 1967 by Chess Records, proved prophetic. Throughout her long career, she’s been tagged with various stylistic bags: soul, jazz, even disco.
“I just consider myself a singer,” Shaw, 70, says by phone from Las Vegas, her home for the past 41 years.
Gospel music is the foundation of her vocal approach. She grew up singing and playing piano at Union Baptist Church in New Rochelle, New York, where her childhood friend Richard Roundtree was a also a member.
Later, during the 1970s, she recorded two gospel songs — “No Hidin’ Place” and “The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away” – on a couple of her albums. The only instrumental support to her vocals was her own pumping gospel piano.
Shaw does not play piano in her live performances, however, although she says she might if she didn’t have “fake fingernails.”
“On one of those records,” she explains, “you can hear my fingernails clicking. I told somebody, ‘I should get two monies ‘cause I’m playing piano and percussion.’”
Gospel music continues to inform Shaw’s singing. “I am very spiritual,” she says. “I know that my Redeemer lives. Everything about my music, to me anyway, is because of the gospel. A lot of people say they hear a jazz style, but I was accused of having too much jazz in me when I was playing for the church.”
From 1968 to 1973, Shaw toured with the Count Basie Orchestra. She says Basie asked her to record with the band, but that Chess, to whom she was under contract, blocked it.
“They didn’t even want me to be associated with the word ‘jazz,’ she recalls. “How shortsighted was that?”
Shaw became more firmly identified with jazz after producer George Butler (the late brother of noted Oakland pianist and composer Jacqueline Hairston) signed her to Blue Note Records in 1972. Blue Note label-mate Horace Silver advised her on how to protect her songwriting and publishing rights.
In recent years, Shaw was been collecting royalties for her 1969 Chess recording of the Ashford and Simpson song “California Soul,” which has been sampled by hip-hop artists including Gang Starr and DJ Shadow and used in television commercials and a video game.
Her hits over the years include a vocal rendition of Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (Larry Williams and Johnny “Guitar” Watson had a 1concurrent hit with a version of the tune that had entirely different lyrics) and the Carole King-Gerry Goffin ballad “Go Away, Little Boy.” Shaw’s arrangement of the song, originally a hit for Steve Lawrence as “Go Away, Little Girl,” sports a saucy, humor-laced monologue that has long been a highlight of her shows.
Shaw will perform Thursday, Nov. 29, through Sunday, Dec. 2, at the Raazz Room, 222 Mason St. in San Francisco, with three of the Bay Area’s finest jazz musicians – pianist Glen Pearson, bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Leon Joyce, Jr. – providing accompaniment.