You may not instantly recognize Marlena Shaw's name, but you've heard her voice sampled in hip-hop and dance music, or featured in commercials or films. Shaw is one of the most versatile singers in post-World War II black music: She can stretch out solidly over R&B, disco, and soul without sounding like a pop singer. Producers love that about her voice, and it's made her the best-known unknown singer ever.
Born in 1942 and raised in upstate New York by her mother, grandmother, and in foster homes, Shaw imbibed jazz early in life via the record collection of her uncle, the trumpeter Jimmy Burgess. After she debuted with Burgess at Harlem's Apollo Theatre at age 10, her grandmother pulled her out of the music business. She didn't get back into it until her mid-20s, but wound up singing with jazz royalty like Count Basie, Benny Carter, and Ray Brown.
The depth of her jazz background let Shaw establish herself as a solid soul singer. Her 1969 album, Spice of Life, featured the songs that would cement her legacy: the orchestral Ashford and Simpson–penned "California Soul," the funk-blues scat tune "Liberation Conversation," and the fiercely conscious "Woman of the Ghetto." Produced by psychedelic soul masters Richard Evans and Charles Stepney, the album spotlights Shaw's smooth confidence and the unique "gang-gi-gi-gang" chanting that proved irresistible to the sampling generation.
Shaw attributes her penchant for scatting to her grandmother. "She'd sit me on her lap and improvise these stories that had these rhythms, like 'Here come the farmer, and the farmer had to run, and here come the rabbit say boogity-boogity-boogity,'" she says. "It's like she ingrained it in my DNA."
During the '70s, Shaw furthered her name in the jazz and disco scenes of New York, often performing both genres in the same night. Early in the decade, she recorded four straight-ahead jazz albums as the only female singer signed to Blue Note, then a clutch of dancefloor releases during the height of the disco era.
For much of her career, Shaw has been greatly celebrated by both African-American audiences, and a generation of soul aficionados in Europe and Japan. After three decades of steady recording and touring, Shaw saw her vocals from yesteryear get reconfigured in the digital era for dance music and hip-hop audiences.
Shaw's rediscovery began after Scottish acid jazz producer Blue Boy sampled a live version of "Woman of the Ghetto" for his 1996 hit "Remember Me." Samples of other bits from that version also fueled French beat-man St. Germain's "Rose Rouge" in 2001. Hip-hop producers like DJ Shadow and DJ Premier of Gang Starr sampled Shaw's material (on "Midnight in a Perfect World" and "Check the Technique," respectively), and L.A.'s Top Dawg Entertainment crew jacked both a full verse and the title of "California Soul" for a Jay Rock tune from 2007 that featured the Game. "California Soul" has even been licensed for ads for Grölsch beer and the Dockers clothing brand.
Because her emergence as a sample source happened after producers started clearing samples and paying royalties, Shaw hasn't needed to take a James Brown–style call-the-lawyers approach to getting paid. So she is more grateful about others borrowing from her songs: "I feel like the sunshine and all these people [sampling me] are part of what I made grow."
Shaw draws on all the genres in which she's worked for her live shows, which sets her far apart from most of the manufactured soul and R&B singers who have come after her. That versatility, along with the sheer non-pop power of her voice, is what draws producers to sample her. "I've never seen myself as a pop singer, and nobody's ever accused me of being one," she says. "I can't do it. It's gotta be deeper."