Marlena Shaw, singer best known for her much-sampled hit California Soul – obituary

Marlena Shaw in 1977
Marlena Shaw in 1977 - Michael Putland/Getty Images

Marlena Shaw, who has died aged 81, was a jazz and soul singer whose version of the song California Soul has been sampled dozens of times by artists including Drake, Deee-Lite and Shaun Ryder’s band Black Grape, as well as being used in television ads; she thoroughly approved of her work being recycled, she said: “It kinda makes me feel like the sun, and I shine on all kinds of things.”

California Soul was written by the husband-and-wife team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the Motown duo whose other hits included Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing. Ashford released his version of the song in 1968, and Marvin Gaye and the 5th Dimension also covered it, but Marlena Shaw’s version became the standard.

Though California Soul is her best-known work, another song from her Spice of Life album, Woman of the Ghetto, which she co-wrote, has been sampled even more prodigiously, with 54 songs known to use elements of its live version and another 15 drawing upon the studio recording.

“Attacking phrases in a sharp, biting voice with no soft edges, she bends notes and subjects tunes to spiky rhythmic scrutiny,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times in 2005. Her rendition of torch songs like Cry Me a River, he continued, “evokes the battle of the sexes, which she suggests is continuing and ultimately hopeless. Her weapon of choice is a voice with the cutting edge of a meat cleaver.”

With Count Basie in 1969
With Count Basie in 1969: they performed extensively together - Graham Bezant/Toronto Star via Getty Images

She was born Marlina Burgess on September 22 1942 in New Rochelle, New York, and played piano at a Baptist church as a young girl. She got into jazz through her uncle, the trumpeter Jimmy Burgess; she was 10 when he summoned her up on stage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem to play piano and sing with him.

“I just remember being very scared and a lot of tittering coming from the audience,” she recalled. “Like, if you know anything about the audiences years ago at the Apollo during amateur night, a lot of people would come just to laugh at you. But, once they heard me sing, they got kinda quiet.”

She began studying music at the New York State Teachers College, but dropped out and began playing jazz clubs, while also bringing up five children. An audition with Columbia Records in 1963 was scuppered by nerves, and it was not until 1966 that her career began to fly, thanks to a gig at a Playboy Club in Chicago that led to a contract with Chess Records.

She made two albums for the label, including The Spice of Life, and toured Europe with Count Basie, then in 1972 she became Blue Note’s first female vocalist, for whom she made a series of smooth jazz albums, including one recorded live at Montreux. The title of her 1974 album for the label, Who Is this Bitch Anyway?, was reportedly a reference to the rise of the singer who became known as “the mother of hip-hop”, Millie Jackson.

On stage in 1970
On stage in 1970 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Marlena Shaw toured for four years with Sammy Davis Jnr and explored a poppier sound on such tracks as Don’t Ask to Stay Until Tomorrow, the theme song for Diane Keaton’s 1977 crime drama Looking For Mr Goodbar.

In 1977 she joined Columbia and surfed the disco wave; she recalled a night in 1980 in New York when she played a set at the Savoy Ballroom with her jazz trio and a set with the Count Basie Band. “Then I changed clothes, was picked up in a limo, and was driven to a disco place and sang my latest records there. And I made three times as much at the disco than I’d made at the Savoy.”

She released 17 albums across eight labels and kept up a hectic touring schedule into her seventies, often playing 200 dates a year, spending her downtime at her home in Las Vegas.

Marlena Shaw, who retired in 2016, had five children.

Marlena Shaw, born September 22 1942, died January 19 2024