Interview with Marlena Shaw

Marlena Shaw talks to 441 about her career and the making of Lookin' For Love

Where were you born? I was born in Valhalla, NY

How did you get started?
I didn’t know anything about the music business. I was trying to make money for the weekend. I had my kids at that point. My girlfriends and I were at this joint and after a couple of beers they said, “you can sing better than that. Ask the man if you can sing.” This was in Springfield, Massachusetts at the Famous Star. I was 19 or 20 years old then. The guy playing the piano, Jim Arqiro – his trio has played with Susan Anton, he conducted for me when I was with Sammy Davis Jr. He was playing “All Of Me” in the wrong key. I walked over and played the piano in the right key. We laugh about that now.

What was it like working with Count Basie?
Intense. Touring with him, it was just being at the right place at the right time with the right people. The make up of the band went so well with me. He was a master psychologist; he knew how to work you. I learned quite a bit working with him, about tempos and rhythms. It’s interesting how you fit a voice in the middle of a big band. You never fail to learn something. Learning comes with osmosis. I’m working again with big bands and am having a lot of fun these days. I’m going to be performing soon with the Count Basie band at Macanaw Island… we’re just signing the paperwork now. I toured with his from 1968 until about 1972 or 1973. The first time I met him was in Las Vegas. By that time I had “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” I met his accountant at the Playboy Club where I was performing and he asked me if I had any copies of the record on me, and just like I do now, I had them in my purse.

You were the first woman signed to Blue Note Records. How did that happen?
But I was told I was supposed to be signed with United Artists. Shirley Bassey was the star and did not want other females on the label.

How’d you come up with the title “Who Is This Bitch Anyway”?
There were a couple of stories behind that. I was more interested in the kind of title Richard Pryor kind of title, like “That Nigger’s Crazy.” It was about the freedom of thought and how you said things during that period ~ 1974. It was coming out of rage and how things were going socially. I was also performing in St. Louis, and one of my hits, “Just Don’t Want to be Lonely” off the album From The Depths of My Soul was out. There was this guy playing it on the jukebox over and over and over. That guy was there all day and by the end of the day was getting a little bleary eyed. By the end of the day the manager came over and was going to pull the plug on the machine, but the guy protested, saying “The lady who sings this song is right there” at which point the manager turned around saying, “Who is this bitch, anyway?”

How’d you get involved with the Jazz Cruise?
I love them. I look forward to them every year. Joe Williams used to encourage me to send in material to who’s hiring. I’m afraid of the water, but I do have sea legs! I find it’s really friendly on a ship. It’s a great opportunity to hear other artists and musicians… all the camaraderie. It’s great to see everyone else. As far as the audience, I’m a people person and story teller, and it’s a great place to get a lot of information from the fans.

Tell us about recording Live In Tokyo and Lookin' For Love.
I can hardly remember feeling the first one – it was such a unique experience in a nightclub, a very intimate situation. It had been a while since I recorded live. A lot of my performing has to do with rapping with my audience, and being that it was in Japan I had to cut it down, so it was a little different from what I’m used to. But once you get your rhythm down, it’s the music that you’re trying to get across, it’s your personality that you’re trying to get across. I’d get attention over the years; it was just that personality thing. But working with Rickey Woodard – he’s got such a sound, not like other sax players.

Looking For Love was a helluva experience. I felt like I was mic’d from my toenails to the top of my head. It was funny – one time my stomach growled and all you could hear was this “grrrr,” sounded like crashing cymbals, and they said, “I guess that’s the last song.” I work with Dave Hazeltine a lot. In live situations, I look at Dave a lot, but during the recording of “Don’t Know What Love Is,” I didn’t look at him but I could hear him breathing. It was easy to get your solo going in the making of this CD with just the two of us without bass or drums. It was really a one-take kind of thing. It was so beautifully mic’d I could hear him breathing with the piano; it was really like air. It was recorded at Sony Studios in Tokyo – a really beautiful studio.

How did you find it to get around Japan?
I’ve been going back and forth over 20 years, my first time was touring with Sammy Davis, Jr. in ’86. We worked Buddakan or these martial arts venues that hold 50,000 people, so we had a much different experience. I was part of a big show with important entertainers like he was, so the whole emphasis is not on you; you’re playing catch up. It was fine, but there was nobody to help me understand what was going on. These older cats were really laid back so there was no one there to introduce you.

The gigs I’m doing now are in much smaller clubs. It was funny, this promoter told me, “I’m going to make you an important star in Japan.” And I said, “Do I have to go to everybody’s house?” I’ve had such great times there, and am really surprised by the generosity of spirit. Knowing that someone’s driven six hours to see you in concert, it’s very humbling. I know the Creator didn’t make a mistake to give you a talent, and I’m pleased to be a steward to it.

I loved the way “Looking For Love” was recorded. I had been on too long of a tour and this was recorded at the end of the tour. When you’re that tired there’s no time for artiface, and it’s hard to show soulfulness. Like the difference in song stylings, from standards to material that really hasn’t been worked. I’m crazy about everything that’s been changed, such a different attitude. Such different attitudes from song to song. Like from “Everything Must Change” to “Sweet Georgia Brown” – it shows different my attitudes and my personality. A critic said I was like a chameleon with different personalities on each song. I can get down and dirty or I can be very sweet.

I’m sure it’s all right with me. I love the stuff that works so splendidly on stage. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do – be onstage. As a little girl I envisioned Lena Horne walking down the street, hearing me sing Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me” through the 3rd floor window of my Grandma’s house.

On “Hope In A Hopeless World”
It pays to have friends in the record business. I spoke with Leo Sacks. Asked if he knew a writer. Of a song for something social and spiritual. He put me in touch with Roy. I didn’t know someone else had recorded it in the early ‘90s. It’s very relevant, especially now.

On “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”
When I first recorded “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” I never associated it with love gone wrong or that no matter how you treat me, just have mercy on me. I had the idea of Cannonball Adderley playing it in my head. Now it’s tongue in cheek for me. I’ve lived long enough to know human beings have no mercy!

How do you pick your material?
I like variety, a lot of different things. First it’s based on lyrics and then I go for the music. But it’s all a part of the creative process. I could explain it to you but the next time it would be different. The only thing of consistency would be the lyrical content.

Any future projects in the works?
There is an ongoing project. I’d like to do a gospel album. And a rap album, but not rap in the sense people think, but more like a testimony. (And I’m trying to downsize now and buy this million dollar house down the street.) And I’m in the midst of giving a lot of music to the UNLV (University of Nevada at Las Vegas) archives. Yes, I live in Vegas now, and am very proud of my work with the UNLV jazz ensemble, and also with high school. The Jazz Band at the Academy Las Vegas came in 1st place at the Lionel Hampton weekend in their division.

Any advice for the newcomer?
Learn the piano, because not all of you will become rock stars. Yes, learn an instrument, because it will help you with your own keys, your own arrangements, and you won’t always be at the mercy of the musicians. You’ve got to get to know something about what you’re doing. Not everyone knows how to help you.

Where are you touring?
In the next few months I’ll be with the FSB big band in England. I played with a 5 piece group with Nathan Haines on Sax in London. He did an album called Squire For Hire. I’m playing in Seattle, and the St. Lucia Jazz Festival, and a tour of Japan. I’ll be in Japan for two and a half weeks during June/July. Oh, there’s my Lemon Chicken. Mmmm. Can you see that?

Do you cook?
I’ve got 5 children and 7 grand children and a close to 6’4” foot, 250 lbs husband, so I’ve learned out of necessity. I used to keep a vegetable garden, now I just have a pot garden. I’m too busy – 3 years ago I spent 210 days on the road, and that’s just too much. I was back and forth three times to Amsterdam, including the Hague. It doesn’t keep me thin, young or rich, but it does keep me fit. I love it though. Doing different kinds of things – from big band to five piece groups to R&B. Like the “California Soul” success. Ashford and Simpson wrote that. My version is in The Italian Job and in England it was part of a KFC commercial, so I’ve been enjoying like a kind of a rebirth in the U.K. and Scotland.