Marlena Shaw obituary

<span>Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Over the course of a long career, the American singer Marlena Shaw moved from jazz to soul and back again, searching for settings that would best enhance her fine voice. In later decades she commanded the allegiance of the British fans of the rare-groove movement, who rediscovered and particularly cherished her version, released in 1969, of a much recorded song called California Soul.

Shaw, who has died aged 81, made her first stage appearance at the Apollo theatre in Harlem, New York, when she was 10 years old. Billie Holiday was still alive and Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington were other inescapable influences on a jazz-inclined teenage singer seemingly destined to work with big bands in dancehalls and smaller groups in nightclubs. In her later years she became familiar with the sound of hip-hop artists basing their hits on samples from her singles and album tracks.

Shaw’s recording of California Soul, a song written by Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, popped up in Gang Starr’s Check the Technique and Stereo MCs’ Sofisticated. It was also used in American TV commercials for Dockers shoes, KFC fast food and Dodge trucks, and in 2022 it was awarded an official gold record by the British Phonographic Industry.

Born Marlina Burgess in New Rochelle, New York, she showed musical talent from an early age and was given her first opportunity to take the stage in 1952 by her uncle, Jimmy Burgess, a trumpeter and bandleader who was performing at the Apollo. It was through his tuition that she acquired her understanding of jazz phrasing, while her mother encouraged her to study music at New York State Teachers’ College in Potsdam, a small town close to the Canadian border.

But she failed to complete the course, marrying young and bringing up five children before picking up the threads of a performing career that had barely begun. There were more false starts. In 1963 she missed an appearance at the Newport jazz festival with the trumpeter Howard McGhee after an argument with the musicians, and an attack of nerves ruined an audition with the great talent scout John Hammond, who had signed Holiday and Bob Dylan, among many others.

But in 1966, while singing at the Playboy Club in Chicago, she was signed up by the locally based Chess label, the home of many popular soul and R&B performers. Her first single was a vocal version of Joe Zawinul’s gospel-style tune Mercy Mercy Mercy, which had been an instrumental hit for Cannonball Adderley.

In 1968 Shaw toured Europe with Count Basie’s orchestra, involving the bandleader in an amusing routine as she improvised new words to Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey? It was while appearing with Basie at the Sands hotel in Las Vegas that she decided to make the gambling capital her home, moving there in 1970.

A contract with the Blue Note label led to a series of albums in a smooth soul-jazz style, including one recorded live at the Montreux jazz festival. The title and content of another album, Who Is This Bitch, Anyway?, indicated a desire to challenge the then-current popularity of the sexually explicit singer Millie Jackson.

A move to the Columbia label in 1977 saw her transforming Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s Go Away Little Girl, originally recorded by Bobby Vee, from a lovelorn ballad into a statement of female independence introduced by a lengthy rap directed at a feckless, workshy lover: “I figure if I’ve got to get up and go to work every day, then every able-bodied in the household is supposed to get up and go … If for some reason you feel that you can no longer be the man you were at the beginning of our relationship, then I’ve got this one thing to lay on you, my sweet. Go away, little boy …” But eventually the attitude softens, and after a seduction scene the song fades out on a note of surrender: “You think you can get a job by Thursday? You promise? Then you might as well stay … Don’t go away … ”

It became one of her most popular songs in live performance, the prefatory rap acquiring extra twists, turns, and layers of sardonic saltiness. At the New Morning club in Paris in 2010, the man in the song had become someone who had picked her up at an airport giftshop, its final scene acted out with elaborately dramatised hand gestures, smiles, laughter and a winning command of her audience.

An elegant presence on the concert stage, she sang with a symphony orchestra in New Zealand and toured for four years with Sammy Davis Jr. There were further recordings for the Verve, Concord and South Bay labels, and in 1989 a duet with Joe Williams, another former Basie singer, on an update of the old Louis Jordan song Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby earned her a Grammy nomination.

Shaw ceased all professional activity in 2016, retiring to her home in Las Vegas. Her survivors include her daughters April and Marla, a son, Robert, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

• Marlena Shaw (Marlina Burgess), singer, born 22 September 1942; died 19 January 2024