Beloved jazz and R&B singer of hits like “California Soul” and “Woman of the Ghetto” Marlena Shaw has died at age 81. Her daughter, Marla Bradshaw, announced her passing last Friday, January 19.
“It’s with a very heavy heart for myself and my family I announce that our beloved mother, your beloved icon and artist, Marlena Shaw, has passed away today at 12:03,” Bradshaw said in a video posted on Facebook. “She went very peacefully, and she went listening to some of her favorite songs.”
Shaw was best known for her recording of “California Soul,” written by famed Motown duo Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. The pair also wrote classics like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.” Ashford, Marvin Gaye, and The 5th Dimension also released versions of “California Soul,” but Shaw’s 1969 recording became the standard. The song is still widely popular and has been used in commercials for Dockers, KFC, and Dodge and sampled by several prominent artists like Gang Starr, Stereo MC, DJ Shadow, and Diplo. “California Soul” currently has over 100 million streams on Spotify.
Shaw’s other major hit, “Woman of the Ghetto,” has also remained a popular track for artists to sample. From her album, “The Spice of Life,” the track has been remixed by artists like Jorja Smith, French Montana, Jessie J, Mabel, and Ghostface Killah. Shaw co-authored the song with Bobby Miller and Richard Evans.
Shaw was born Marlina Burgess in New Rochelle, New York, on September 22, 1942. She began her career playing in jazz clubs at the encouragement of her uncle, jazz trumpet player Jimmy Burgess. Her first stage performance was at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York when she was just ten years old after her uncle invited her onstage to sing with his band. Shaw later began singing at various clubs until she landed a gig at The Playboy Club in Chicago in 1966. This served to kickstart her career.
She was signed with eight record labels over the years, including Chess Records, Blue Note, Columbia Records, and Verve Records. Shaw toured for more than fifty years, continuing to perform live through the 2000s. She put out seventeen albums over the course of her career; her highest charting album was 1977’s Sweet Beginnings. She recorded the theme song “Don’t Ask to Stay Until Tomorrow” for the film Looking for Mr. Goodbar in the same year. Shaw was celebrated for her live performances all over the world, including touring with Sammy Davis Jr. for four years and accompanying a symphony orchestra in New Zealand. Verve Records released a statement remembering the singer.
“We are saddened by the passing of Marlena Shaw, a wonderful singer whose ‘California Soul’ is as popular today as it ever was and whose album, ‘It Is Love: Recorded Live At Vine St.,’ helped relaunch the Verve label in 1987,” the record label wrote.
In addition to her illustrious musical career, Shaw raised five children, including Bradshaw. She is survived by her children, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.