During a career that began in 1967, Marlena Shaw has recorded albums for some of the biggest and most famous, record labels. Her first label was Cadet Records, a subsidiary of Chess Records, where she released two albums Out of Different Bags in 1967 and Spice of Life in 1969. From there, she headed to Blue Note, one of the legendary jazz labels where she released four studio albums between 1972 and 1976. These were Marlena in 1972, From the Depths of My Soul in 1973, 1974s Who Is This Bitch, Anyway? and Just A Matter of Time in 1976. Her next label was Columbia, where she released three albums, including the album this article is about Sweet Beginnings in 1977. This was followed by Acting Up in 1978 and Take A Bite in 1980. In total, Marlena had released nine albums during a thirteen year period for three of the biggest, and best known record labels in music. Although many people who love jazz and soul will know Marlena Shaw, many people will be unaware of her and her music, which I’ll now tell you about.

Marlena Shaw was born Marlena Burgess in September 1942, in Rochelle, New York. She was the niece of Jimmy Burgess, the jazz trumpeter, who introduced Marlena to the music of jazz greats like Miles Davis and Dizzie Gillespie. Another type of music Jimmy introduced Marlena to was gospel music, inluding Al Hibbler, who was famous for his phrasing of a song. This must have made a deep impression on Marlena, who later in her career, was able to phrase a song perfectly. By 1952, aged ten, Marlena joined Jimmy Burgess on stage at the Harlem Apollo Theater, where she sang with his band. Later, Jimmy wanted Marlena to go on tour with his band, but Marlena’s mother wasn’t in favor of this, and instead, she enrolled in the New York State Teachers’ College. She didn’t finish her studies, having gotten married, and subsequently having five children. However, Marlena didn’t let family life get in the way of her musical career.

Having started singing in jazz clubs, in 1963 she started working with Howard McGhee, a jazz trumpeter.  It was with Howard McGhee’s band that Marlena was meant to sing at the Newport Jazz Festival. However, after a disagreement with one of his band, she left the band. 

Later in 1963, John Hammond spotted Marlena, and asked her to audition for Columbia Records. Unfortunately, she was nervous during the audition and didn’t do herself justice. Undeterred, Marlena continued singing in clubs, but her break came when singing at the Playboy Club in Chicago. In the audience were people representing Chess Records. Impressed with Marlena’s show, they met with her, and soon, she’d been signed to Cadet Records, a subsidiary of Chess Records. On Cadet she released two albums, Out of Different Bags in 1967, and The Spice of Life in 1969. On The Spice of Life were two songs that have since became synonymous with Marlena Shaw, Woman of the Ghetto and California Soul. Of all the songs Marlena has recorded in her career, these two songs are by far, the songs she’ll be remembered for. Both are hugely powerful pieces of music, featuring outstanding, emotive vocals from Marlena. After releasing two albums for Cadet, Marlena was signed to Blue Note, one of the biggest labels in jazz music.

Now on Blue Note, Marlena released four studio albums and one live album. The first studio album was Marlena, released in 1972. It had been recorded in just three days in August 1972. Marlena’s second album on Blue Note was 1973s From the Depths of My Soul. Like it’s predecessor, it only took three days to record, and featured a much smaller personnel on the album. 1973 was a busy year for Marlena, with Marlena Shaw Live At Montreux recorded in July of 1973, and released later that year. Instead of the bigger bands of her first two albums on Blue Note, the album featured Marlena singing with just a trio accompanying her. On the album is a  mammoth, near ten minute version of Woman of the Ghetto, which is one of the album’s highlights. Who Is This Bitch, Anyway released in 1975, was a departure in style and subject matter for Marlena. The album was an exploration of feminism, politics and sexual identity, set against a funk drenched backdrop. Of all the albums Marlena released on Blue Note, this is her best album, the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Her final album on Blue Note was Just A Matter of Time, released in 1976. Ironically, it was the most commercial of all the albums Marlena released on Blue Note. Having been with Blue Note for four years and five albums, Marlena signed to Columbia, over a decade after failing an audition for them.

The first album Marlena released for Columbia was Sweet Beginnings, which this article is about. Sweet Beginnings saw Marlena again work with Bert De Coteaux, who’d produced Marlena’s 1976 Blue Note album Just A Matter of Time. He was able to bring together all of Marlena’s musical strengths on Sweet Beginnings, the result being an album that combined soul, jazz, R&B and even disco. When the album was released in February 1977, Sweet Beginnings reached number fourteen in the US R&B Charts and number sixty-two in the US Billboard 200. Two singles were released from the album, the first of which was Yu-Ma/Go Away Little Boy in March 1977. It reached number twenty-one in the US R&B Charts, while Pictures and Memories released in May 1977, reached number twenty-four in the Disco Charts. After Sweet Memories, Marlena released two further albums on Columbia, Acting Up in 1978 and Take A Bite in 1980, both of which were produced by Bert De Coteaux. 

Following Take A Bite, Marlena left Columbia, and since then, has released just five further studio albums. The first of these was Let Me In Your Life, released in 1982. This was was followed by two albums on the Verve label, It Is Love released in 1986 and 1988s’ Love Is In Flight. After a gap of eight years, Marlena released Dangerous in 1996 on Concord Jazz and Essential Soul in 1977. Since then, Marlena hasn’t released a studio album, but her music still remains hugely popular and she continues to make occasional concert appearances.However, of the fourteen studio albums Marlena has released since 1967, Sweet Beginnings is one of her best loved and most popular, and it’s that album I’ll now review.

Sweet Beginnings opens with Pictures and Memories, the second single released from the album. Straight away, the disco influence in the track is apparent, with crisp, quick drums, sweeping strings, chiming guitars and the bass combining before sweet sounding backing vocalists enter. Their soft, sweet voices are a marked contrast to the power and confidence of Marlena’s vocal. Behind her, the tempo is quick, swirling, shimmering strings, chiming guitars and the rhythm section key to the tracks success. Similarly, the backing vocalists contribution is an important part of the track’s sound and success. For the last ninety-seconds,  Marlena improvises, vamping it up, atop the the disco stylings of the arrangement. However, without a somewhat ballsy, confident and powerful vocal from Marlena, this lush sounding, hook-laden disco track wouldn’t be half as good. Here, Marlena is transformed into a disco diva extraordinaire, carrying the role off brilliantly.

Yu-Ma/Go Away Little Boy was the first single taken from the album, and gave Marlena a R&B hit. When this jazzy track opens, you’re immediately struck by how different in sound and style it is. It’s a much more downtempo jazz sound, with Marlena catting, before half-speaking the introduction, while behind her, rasping horns, the rhythm section, chiming guitars and piano combine to create an understated sound. Marlena sings about how happy she is, in her new relationship, that is, until he quits his job, expecting Marlena to keep him. At that point, the song changes, and Marlena sings the vocal “proper,” telling him to go away, unless he changes, gets a job. However, by the track’s end, Marlena has fallen for his charms again. From here, a really jazzy sounding track unfolds, with lush strings, piano a slow rhythm section, chiming guitars and rasping horns combining magnificently with Marlena’s emotive and charismatic vocal. Together, they create an irresistible track, one that I’ve always loved. No wonder it was released as a single, not only does it sound great, but it’s laced humor, emotion and passion.

There’s a real Latin feel and sound to The Writing’s On the Wall, which is combined with elements of Southern Soul. When the track opens, a piano, the bass line and percussion combine to create a Latin sounding backdrop, before rasping horns and drums enter. Then when Marlena enters, she gives a powerful, emotive vocal, while backing vocalists soulfully unite to help her create a track that desperately wants to be a Southern Soul track. However, it’s having to fight against the Latin backdrop that’s a constant throughout the track. Two musical styles combine, with the Latin sounds winning out when the vocal drops out. When the vocal returns, Marlena and her backing vocalists give outstanding performances, and by now, I’ve been won over by the track, mostly because of the drama and emotion of the vocal. Although it’s the vocal I like best, there’s a catchy, infectiousness in the Latin sounds of the arrangement. As the track ends, I’ve been won over by the Latin influence, but I’m left wondering just what the song would’ve sounded if transformed into a real slice of Southern Soul? Just what would Willie Mitchell or Rick Hall have made of this track?

Keyboards and percussion combine, before the rhythm section enter, as Marlena gives a much more restrained vocal on Walk Softly. Her voice is much more gentle, with a softness in it as she sings the lyrics. They’re about a relationship that’s broken up, and how the character in the song is coming to terms with her loss. Meanwhile, the arrangement meanders slowly along, with the sound having a lovely understated sound, that seems to borrow part of its sound from country music, especially the way the keyboards, rhythm section and backing vocalists are used. Later, strings sweep in, adding further to the emotion and sadness of the song, which Marlena brings to life wonderfully, Although quite different from the previous tracks, it’s a track with a lovely understated sound.

The title track Sweet Beginnings was co-written by Leon Ware and John Bettis, and marked another change in style, funk with disco. A combination of the funkiest of bass lines, piano, punchy drums, a floaty flute and blazing horns combine before Marlena’s lilting vocal enters. Later, wah-wah guitars and layer upon layer of the lushest strings are joined by Maxine and Julie Walters singing cooing, breathy backing vocals. The arrangement is fuller, combining a disco beat drenched in funk. Like Pictures and Memories, it’s a hook-laden, catchy, dance-floor friendly track, that still sounds fresh nearly twenty-five years later. Credit must be given to producer Bert De Coteaux, for this arrangement. Not only is it complex, featuring multiple layers of strings, but successfully fuses elements of funk with disco.

Look At Me, Look At You (We’re Flying) is a song with a deeper meaning. Rather than just look at a person briefly, and forming an opinion straight away, you should instead look at them in a much deeper, spiritual way. Against a mid-tempo arrangement where a strong bass line plays an important part in the arrangement. It combines with chiming guitars, tinkling keyboards, drums, lush sweeping string and a flute. Atop the arrangement sits Marlena’s strong thoughtful, searching vocal. As the arrangement sweeps along, subtle backing vocalists accompany Marlena, their voices a contrast to Marlena’s vocal. This faster, floaty arrangement suits the lyrics which Marlena delivers thoughtfully and with care. As the track ends, you’re still thinking about the song’s message, proving the power of good lyrics that are delivered carefully and thoughtfully by a hugely talented singer.

A piano, rhythm section and blazing horns open No Deposit, No Return before Marlena sings. It’s a track that swings along in a jazzy style, with braying horns and piano key to the arrangement’s sound and success. Behind it, is Marlena jazz styled vocal, as she sings about how to get love, you’ve got to give love. This she does brilliantly, against a much simpler sounding arrangement. Here, there’s no wah-wah guitars or multilayered strings, just a really tight band playing a brilliant swinging, jazzy arrangement that’s perfect for Marlena’s joyous, emotive vocal. This results in one of the album’s highlights written by Marlena herself.

Johnny is another slow track, sung against a slow, string drenched backdrop which features the rhythm section, keyboards and chiming guitars. They provide a beautiful, slow and thoughtful backdrop for Marlena’s much gentler, thoughtful vocal. Both the arrangement and Marlena’s vocal have a lovely, dreamy sound to them, that draws you in and holds your attention. By the end of the track, you’ve been smitten by the dreamy nature of the track, and been won over by this slower  track.

Sweet Beginnings closes with I Think I’ll Tell Him, another jazzy track. Rasping horns, a punchy rhythm section and guitars open the track, combining to create a joyous sound. It’s against that backdrop, that a stronger, emotional, jazzy vocal from Marlena enters. Again the track swings along, with rasping horns key to the track’s success, while drums provide brief bursts of drama. Meanwhile, Marlena decides it’s time to tell her husband she no longer loves him, but loves someone else instead. As she vamps up her vocal, she does so against a an excellent jazz arrangement. Not only is this a great track, one of the best on the album, but it’s a good way to end the album, on a musical high.

When I first heard Sweet Beginnings, two things struck me, firstly, the sheer quality of the music on the album. Each of the nine songs are of the highest quality, with not a bad track on the album. The other thing that struck me, was the wide range of musical styles on the album. There’s everything from disco, funk, soul and jazz, and even a smattering of country music. On the disco tracks, Pictures and Memories and Sweet Beginnings Marlena comfortably assumes the role of disco diva, carrying the role of with aplomb. Then, when the style changes to jazz, Marlena flourishes on Yu-Ma/Go Away Little Boy, No Deposit and I Think I’ll Tell Him. Among the best of the other tracks, the country influence of Walk Softly is a lovely song, with a perfectly understated arrangement. Overall, Sweet Beginnings is an excellent album from Marlena Shaw that I’d recommend to anyone. If you’ve never heard Marlena’s music, I’d recommend Sweet Beginning and Anthology, released by Soul Brother Records as a starting point. These two albums would provide you with the perfect introduction Marlena Shaw and her magical and wonderful music. Standout Tracks: Pictures and Memories, Sweet Beginnings, No Deposit and I Think I’ll Tell Him. 


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