She's known as a jazz artist, but some only knew her as a disco artist, while others yet think of her in an R&B mode. So who is Marlena Shaw? Well.....she is all of these. Ask Marlena and she'll flat out tell you she's a jazz artist, yet there's no denying her R&B sides and her disco undertakings.
Born Marlina Burgess on September 22, 1942 in New Rochelle, New York, she inherited her love of music and jazz in particular from her uncle. After her uncle, Jimmy Burgess, introduced her to the recordings of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, she caught the jazz bug, and purchased records by Al Hibbler, a vocalist who had a big influence on her singing style. When she was ten she performed at Harlem's Apollo Theater, and despite the enthusiastic reception she received in front of one of the world's toughest audiences, her mother refused to let her go on the road with her uncle, a trumpet player.
Shaw began attending the State Teachers' College in Potsdam, N.Y. but later dropped out. For a time in 1963 she worked around New England with a trio led by Howard McGhee. By the mid-1960's she was performing regularly for audiences in the Catskills, Playboy clubs and other New York area clubs. She was discovered by Chess Records in 1966 while singing on the Playboy lounge circuit. On Chess' Cadet subsidiary, under the aegis of producer Richard Evans, she performed vocal counterparts of jazz hits such as "Mercy Mercy Mercy" by Cannonball Adderley and "Wade In The Water" by Ramsey Lewis Trio. Chess released two albums and a series of singles before Shaw left the company in 1968.
Through her accountant, she was brought to the attention of bandleader Count Basie, and she ended up singing with the Basie band for four years. In 1972, after leaving the Basie Orchestra, Shaw was the first female vocalist signed to Blue Note Records, and she toured for a while with the late Sammy Davis, Jr. Shaw recorded five albums and several singles for Blue Note, and critics likened her singing style to Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan.
By 1977 Shaw was ready for a move. The move was two- fold, first to a new label, Columbia Records, and secondly to the more profitable pop and R&B arena. Her first offering was "Sweet Beginnings." It produced the out-of-the-box smash "Yu-Ma/Go Away Little Boy" which has since become her trademark song. A second album followed in 1978, "Acting Up" which was finely crafted and well produced and contained the hit single "Don't Ask To Stay Until Tomorrow." The song was the theme from the blockbuster movie "Looking For Mr. Goodbar."