MARLENA SHAW-SPICE OF LIFE.
MARLENA SHAW-SPICE OF LIFE.
Recently, I wrote a review of Marlena Shaw’s 1977 album Sweet Beginnings, and in that article mentioned an album that featured two songs that will forever be associated with Marlena Shaw. These songs are Woman of the Ghetto and California Soul, both of which were on Marlena’s 1969 Spice of Life. Spice of Life was Marlena’s second album for the Cadet label, a subsidiary of Marshall Chess’ legendary Chicago label Chess Records. Cadet was originally called Argo Records, a label that had been set up for Chess Records’ jazz artists. When the name was changed to Cadet, the label featured artists like Terry Calier, Etta James, The Dells and Rotary Connection. It was to Cadet Marlena was signed after being spotted singing in Chicago’s Playboy Club. After her debut album Out of Different Bags was released in 1967, the follow-up two years later would feature two songs that even today, are synonymous with Marlena Shaw.
Spice of Life saw recorded during sessions in February and July of 1969, at Chicago’s Tel Mar Studios. Although many more tracks were recorded, only ten made it onto Spice of Life. Marlena was guided by the experience of producers Charles Stepney and Richard Evans. Charles Stepney had plenty of experience, previously working with Rotary Connection, Ramsey Lewis, The Dells and Muddy Waters on his Electric Mud album. During these sessions, Marlena, Charles Stepney and Richard Evans recorded songs by songwriters that included Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, T-Bone Walker and Ashford and Simpson. It was Ashford and Simpson who wrote California Soul, and Marlena Shaw that made it her song, with some stunning production by Charles Stepney and Richard Evans. Little did they know then, but the song would become a classic, and one that would be recorded my a huge number of artists. The other song that became synonymous with Marlena Shaw was Woman of the Ghetto, which Marlena cowrote with Richard Evans and Bobby Miller. Like California Soul, Charles Stepney and Richard Evans’ production on the track transforms the song into a brilliantly, overblown epic, that again, became a classic. Of the other eight tracks, T-Bone Walker’s Call It Stormy Monday was transformed by Marlena, with Charles and Richard’s help into a slinky slice of jazz. With such great music on Spice of Life, you’d have thought that this would turn Marlena Shaw into a huge star. Sadly that wasn’t the case, the album wasn’t a commercial success, but was well received by critics. Since then Spice of Life is seen as one of Marlena Shaw’s best albums, which I’ll now tell you about.
Spice of Life opens one of the album’s best tracks Woman of the Ghetto. As the song begins, the arrangement starts to build, with just the rhythm section accompanying Marlena scatting. This gives way to her vocal, with backing vocalists constantly repeating the same phrase. Meanwhile, the arrangement repeats constantly and builds and builds. Keyboards then percussion cut in joining what’s not only an intriguing and wonderfully repetitive, arrangement but one that sounds angry and powerful. The lyrics are full of social comment, frustration and anger at the poverty and hardship of bringing up a child within the ghetto. Later, an almost psychedelic sounding harmonica wails its way above the arrangement. Joining this are wah-wah guitars and percussion, joining the rhythm section and keyboards. Overall, the effect is an amazing soundscape, with Marlena’s stunning voice, full of compassion anger, as she sings the lyrics with passion and anger. After six minutes of majestic and seminal music, you realize you’ve just a heard classic track, one that forevermore will be synonymous with Marlena Shaw.
Over the years, I’ve heard many versions of (They Call It) Stormy Monday, but I always love Marena’s slinky, jazzy version of T-Bone Walker’s classic. With a wailing harmonica blowing as the track opens, accompanied by a small jazz band with an upright bass, chiming guitars and drums accompanied by a Hammond organ they provide the perfect backdrop for Marlena’s slow, swinging vocal. With the harmonica accompanying her during the track, and the Hammond organ playing a similar important role in the track, Marlena demonstrates her versatility as a vocalist. Both the harmonica and Hammond’s sounds compliment each other, especially when the vocal drops out. Meanwhile, Marlena really accentuates T-Bone Walker’s lyrics, brings them to life, in her own way. No longer is this a hugely sad, slightly sombre track, no it swings along beautifully, thanks to Marlena’s joyousm jazz tinged vocal and the tight jazz band accompanying her.
Where Can I Go is very different from the previous track, with the arrangement combining elements of jazz and funk from the rhythm section and guitar before the vocal enters. When Marlena’s powerful thoughtful vocal enters, the arrangement grows to include to percussion, Hammond organ, chiming guitars and the rhythm section who all lock into a jazz groove. The arrangement is full, with bursts of harmonica accompanying Marlena’s emotive vocal. She’s happy her wandering days are over, and at last, she’s free. Here, Charles Stepney and Richard Evans have surpassed themselves again, their arrangement and production complex yet powerful and jazz drenched, and a fitting accompaniment for Marlena’s emotive and powerful vocal.
A wailing gospel influence Hammond organ accompanies Marlena’s harmonies on I Wish I knew, before the track is transformed into a swinging track that combines jazz and gospel brilliantly. With the Hammond joined by a harmonica, and guitars that set of at breakneck speed Marlena gives a joyous delivery of the vocal. Against this backdrop Marlena’s vocal is softer, full of joy and happiness as she sings about freedom, somehow managing to keep up the tempo set by the guitars. By the time the track ends, it’s almost impossible not to be swept along by this jazz and gospel influenced arrangement and of course the joy in Marlena’s gentle, tender vocal, on the track the ends side one of Spice of Life.
Side two of the Spice of Life opens with another track Marlena is always associated with, Liberation Conversation. Again, the Hammond organ opens the track, joined by quick, chiming guitars that reverberate and an equally quick rhythm section. When Marlena’s vocal enters, it strong and powerful, as she sings and scats her way through the track. Her vocal soars powerfully and quickly, while effects are used occasionally on her voice. During the song she demonstrates just how talented a jazz singer she really is. One minute she’s singing the lyrics, the next scatting, then improvising, changing the words and dropping in lyrics and phrases from other tracks. It’s a wonderful demonstration of a jazz singer’s craft, with an arrangement that sounds just as energetic and stunning.
Probably the best know song of Marlena’s career is the Ashford and Simpson penned California Soul. It’s the type of song that once you hear it, it blows your mind. It’s a brilliantly overblown epic of a track, that benefits the big production given the track by Charles Stepney. Marlena was the perfect person to sing this track, making it her own and providing the definitive version. Nothing else comes close. From the swirling strings, rasping horns, punchy rhythm section, piano and guitars that open the track, your taken on a majestic musical journey. Marlena’s voice is powerful, but passionate, while behind her, strings sweep, horns blaze and the rhythm section provide the song’s heartbeat. By now the song is swinging, with Marlena testifies, vamping it up, her vocal sitting splendidly atop the arrangement. Behind her, the arrangement just gets even better, a myriad of horns, strings, handclaps and drums. However, in just under three minutes later, this magical musical journey is over. Although the joyous journey was short, it was brilliant and well worthwhile. After hearing the track, your spirits are lifted, you rejoice and give thanks to everyone who made the journey worthwhile.
Following a real classic track is a difficult thing to do. One way to approach it, is by following it with something very different. That’s the case here, Marlena follows California Soul with the gently jazzy Go Away Little Boy. Her rendition of the track starts off tender, against a small traditional jazz band, augmented by a flute. It’s just stand up bass, piano, drums and guitars that accompany Marlena, until blazing horns enter. By then, Marlena’s voice becomes powerful and full of passion. Later, her band decide to swing, with horns a blazing, joining Marlena in bringing the track to its brilliant, jazz drenched conclusion.
Looking Through the Eyes of Love opens with rasping horns, piano, chiming guitars and rhythm section accompanying Marlena’s emotive vocal. Her voice soars above the arrangement as she tells the story of an unlucky man, a loser in life, who although nothing goes right for him, is a hero in his wife’s eyes. There’s a sense of sympathy and empathy in Marlena’s voice as she sings the lyrics. Behind her the arrangement meanders along, with dramatic peaks, where strings swirl and horns rasp accompanying Marlena’s soaring voice. The arrangement has a real sixties feel, but is full of emotion and sadness, and with Marlena’s vocal atop it, quite beautiful.
Spice of Life closes with Anyone Can Move A Mountain a track that begins with a slightly dramatic, string lead sound before the drums, piano and rasping horns accompany Marlena’s slow and thoughtful vocal. Her voice becomes strong, with backing backing vocalists accompanying her, while the arrangement grows, with lush strings, piano and drums playing an important role as Marlena sings about the importance of belief, and how with belief, anything is possible. The result is an impressive, fuller sounding track that brings the album to a satisfying end.
Of all the Marlena Shaw albums I own, Spice of Life is by far, my favorite. After all, it features two classic tracks Woman of the Ghetto and California Soul, two of the best tracks Marlena ever recorded. Both tracks have become synonymous with Marlena Shaw, with her versions the definitive versions. However, there are more than two great songs on the album, with Where Can I Go, (They Call It) Stormy Monday, Liberation Conversation and Go Away Little Boy all stunning tracks. In fact, there isn’t a bad track on the album. Spice of Life must be the most complete album Marlena Shaw has ever released. It brought her to the attention of many people, and since then, many other great albums have followed for labels like Blue Note and Columbia. Recently, she hasn’t produced many new albums, but has a back catalogue that many artists would envy. Previously, I reviewed her 1977 album Sweet Beginnings, a great album, full of wonderful music, but for anyone wanting to hear Marlena Shaw at her very best, Spice of Life is the album to buy. The best way to buy the album is as part of a two disc Chess remasters series, which also features her debut album for Cadet, Out of Different Bags. These two albums are the perfect introduction to one of the best and most versatile female vocalists of the past fifty years. Whether it’s jazz, soul, or even funk Marlena Shaw sings it with aplomb, emotion and passion. Standout Tracks: Woman of the Ghetto, (They Call It) Stormy Monday, Liberation Conversation and California Soul.
MARLENA SHAW-SPICE OF LIFE.