Marlena Shaw - Woman of the Ghetto
Miss Marlena Shaw
From the “time flies while you’re having fun” department, the Funky16Corners blog is rapidly approaching its one year anniversary. As I was going back through the records I’d posted in the last year, I noticed that there was a paucity of female recording artists represented, and perhaps the ladies weren’t getting their propers. This is certainly not due to any lack of female singers/musicians in the Funky16Corners crates, so I have to attribute it to oversight, and do what I can to rectify it, posthaste. As a result, I pulled some favorite Sister funk and soul 45s out, and will feature them over the next few weeks (and do what I can to make sure that more of them get posted from now on). The first of these is a record that I’ve wanted for a long time and only scored a copy of very recently. Marlena Shaw is a name that should be familiar to beat diggers due to the use of the drum break from her version of ‘California Soul’ on the DJ Shadow/Cut Chemist ‘Brainfreeze’ mix. As a result Ms. Shaw’s funkier 45s became something of a hot commodity and started to change hands in an elevated price range (especially for ‘California Soul’ which occasionally breaks the $100 mark). While I dig ‘California Soul’, and wish I had my own copy on 45, the Marlena track I dig the most, and which I bring to the table today is the mighty ‘Woman of the Ghetto’. Readers of the Funky16Corners web zine (and occasional posts here) will know that I am a huge fan of Richard Evans. Evans was the composer/producer/arranger behind the Soulful Strings, as well as any number of amazing records for the Cadet label. He was a master of creating a sophisticated sound and then mixing in unusual instrumental touches. In his years at Cadet he worked his magic with the aforementioned Soulful Strings, as well as Terry Callier, Odell Brown & The Organizers, Dorothy Ashby and of course, Marlena Shaw. Shaw started her career singing with small jazz groups in bars and supper clubs in the Northeast. She was signed to Cadet records in 1966, and had her first hit in 1967 with a vocal version of Cannonball Adderly and Joe Zawinul’s ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’ (also done vocally by fellow Chicagoans the Buckinghams who had a hit with a similar version a few months after Shaw). Though there are touches of soul on her first Cadet LP ‘Out of Different Bags’, Shaw was mainly a jazz vocalist with a sophisticated pop edge. Her second LP, 1969's ‘The Spice of Life’ still featured a few standards, but Shaw and Evans started to take things in new directions. The arrangements by Evans take traditional orchestrations and flavor them with heavier guitar and drums as well as “world music” touches like kalimba. ‘Woman of the Ghetto’ is not only a departure for Shaw musically, but marked a move into “topical” material. Co-written by Shaw, Evans and Bobby Lee Miller, the lyrics are a powerful social/political statement, and unusual in her Cadet catalogue. She lays down a soulful vocal with bits of improvisational spice. The tune has a slightly menacing edge, with some cool, echoey background vocals. The arrangement builds slowly, with a pulsing bass line and new sounds being added as the record (which clocks in at over five minutes) moves along. At one point Evans seems to run the kalimba through a wah-wah pedal which makes for an interesting effect. The recording stands out as an epic of sorts, and is one of the finest that Evans ever had a hand in (and that’s really saying something). Though the record didn’t chart, it was influential, garnering cover versions in the US by Doris Duke and in Jamaica by Marcia Griffiths, Hortense Ellis and Phyllis Dillon (Shaw’s version appears to have been released in Jamaica). ‘Woman of the Ghetto’ has been sampled a few times as well by both Lyrics Born and No ID. After leaving Cadet, Shaw toured for four years as a vocalist for the Count Basie Orchestra, after which she became the first female vocalist signed to the Blue Note label. In the years since then she has continued to record for Columbia, Verve and Concord Jazz, and still performs today.
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