© Jeffrey Kliman
Vocalist Marlena Shaw is a true original with a sound that is soulful, swinging and versatile. Whether she’s delivering a down-home blues or a passionate ballad that’s smooth as silk, Shaw’s voice translates each song into a very personal statement. She also displays her incredible style, wit and charm on this show, much to the delight of an enthusiastic Kennedy Center audience. Shaw kicks off the performance with a show-stopping rendition of Ray Brown’s "At Long Last Love."
Born in Valhalla, NY, Shaw's first musical influences were her uncle and grandmother, who loved to sing and play gospel music on the family’s "hi-fi" record player. As a girl, Marlena was also involved with numerous gospel singing groups. Her first experience singing before a large audience was with her uncle, who played trumpet and exposed her to the music of jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie. At only 10 years old, Shaw performed with her uncle at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and they were asked to return for the next week’s show. As Shaw recalls, her uncle got booked elsewhere on the same night, and young Marlena had to take the stage solo at the Apollo for the second show.
Shaw’s professional aspirations were rejuvenated after she was married and living on an Air Force base near Springfield, MA. Encouraged by friends, she auditioned and got some gigs near the base, then made a demo tape in the garage of Charlie Parent, a local drummer. The tape eventually landed her a regular gig at the Concord, a resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.
Shaw’s big break was an invitation to sing with the Count Basie Orchestra. Basie’s accountant heard her at the New York Playboy club--"Oh, I was singing there..," Marlena emphatically quips, much to the amusement of the audience. Basie was sent a copy of one of her records, while Marlena met with Basie alumnus and trumpeter Frank Foster to arrange charts of some of her numbers. The next thing she knew, she was flown out to meet the whole band at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
Marlena wasn’t sure she had the gig yet. She thought her first rehearsal was an audition, and grew anxious when Basie walked off the bandstand after she started singing. But he came right back with a two little glasses of wine, welcomed her to the group and said, "Save your voice, sugar, you’re going to need it for tonight." Shaw fondly recalls Basie’s words of wisdom, such as his advice about setting the tempo for a number, "Well, Darlin’, now just remember: don’t put it above a heartbeat." Marlena also shares a few laughs about some of the characters in the band and the great camaraderie she experienced with members like guitarist Freddie Green. She then sings a rhythmic rendition of Green’s "Corner Pocket" in his honor.
Throughout the show, Shaw exhibits a natural ability to connect with the audience . At one point, Dr. Taylor asks how she manages to communicate so well. Shaw jokes that her poor eyesight, combined with the bright lights, won’t allow her to see anyone’s face. "I don’t see anybody frownin’…we’re just in my living room." Shaw definitely conveys this level of comfort with her warm and soothing renditions of ballads like "Blackberry Winter."
When an audience member asks what themes run through her music, Shaw emphasizes the spiritual. She reminisces about her grandmother’s ability to find strength in song, then delivers a powerful a cappella version of her own composition, "Why, Oh Why?" But Shaw also sees the lighter side of music as a way to uplift the spirit, noting that life experiences inspire such songs. She delivers a hilarious adaptation of "Go Away Little Girl," replacing "Girl" with "Boy" and ad-libbing lyrics that drive the audience into hysterics.
Spirits are running high as Shaw rounds at the show with great numbers like "Blues in B" and the gospel influenced "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free." With their resounding applause the audience sends a clear message to Marlena: "Don’t go away, little girl."
Don't miss Marlena Shaw in our Photo Gallery!