Marlena Shaw, Venerable Nightclub Chanteuse, Dies at 84

Marlena Shaw, who cultivated a sultry stage presence and husky voice from the final echoes of the big-band era, to the go-go Playboy Clubs of the 1960s, to the rise of funk, to disco and finally to the modern cabaret circuit, died on Jan. 19. She was 84.

Her daughter MarLa Bradshaw announced her death on social media but did not share any further details.

Ms. Shaw first came to public notice in the mid-1960s, when she performed at Playboy Clubs around the country. Describing one of those performances in 1966, The Los Angeles Times labeled her a “pretty girl singer” but also called her “the surprise of the bill.” That same year, Jet magazine reported that “three record companies were waving contracts in her face” after a New York engagement.

She signed with Cadet Records, which in 1967 released her recording of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” a vocal version of the Joe Zawinul tune that had been a hit for Cannonball Adderley. It reached No. 58 on the Billboard pop chart and 33 on the R&B chart.

It also got the attention of Count Basie, who invited Ms. Shaw to try out for a job singing with his band.

She traveled to Las Vegas for an audition. “I have to admit,” she recalled to The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1975, “that when I was first asked to sing with the Count I thought he was dead.”

Halfway through one of her songs, Basie walked out. Ms. Shaw was not surprised: She didn’t think she had a chance at the job.

Then he reappeared, holding two glasses of Courvoisier. He handed one to Ms. Shaw.

“Don’t push the voice,” he told her, she recalled to The Inquirer. “Save the pipes; you’ll need them tonight.”

She sang with his band for several years.

“From Basie, I learned that you can put on a good show without having to have a frantic pace going,” Ms. Shaw told The San Francisco Examiner in 1977.

She also toured and performed with Sammy Davis Jr., but by the early 1970s she was mainly embarked on a solo career.

She began developing a half-mischievous, half-melancholic style.

The jazz label Blue Note released her album “Who Is This Bitch, Anyway?” in 1975. Its lead track, “You Me and Ethel/Street Walkin’ Woman,” featured a skit in which Ms. Shaw played a commanding and clever but down-and-out prostitute — she works, she says slyly, in “social services” — who gently shakes off a would-be john offering only $25. The album’s liner notes said that, for her, its songs narrated “some of the scenes I’ve lived through.”

She transformed yet again in 1979 with an up-tempo disco album, “Take a Bite.” Although she continued to release albums until 2004, she never made it big as a recording artist. Journalists often noted that she had not garnered the acclaim or celebrity that was once expected of her.

“Marlena Shaw is one of those evergreen performers, a trusty force in jazz even when she isn’t at the top of the charts,” the jazz critic Josef Woodard concluded in The Los Angeles Times in 2001.

Live performance became the focus of her career. As late as 2003, she worked 175 dates a year. She was inspired to sing gospel after trying out the style on a jazz-themed cruise. She studied how to relate to audiences, regaling them with ribald stories. When she sang “You’ve Changed,” a ballad made famous by Billie Holiday, she reminisced about a cross-dressing boyfriend.

Not everyone enjoyed the shtick. In 1978, the New York Times music critic John Rockwell praised Ms. Shaw’s ability to make even “the plainest of songs” into “jazz extravaganzas,” but he deplored her use of “the elegantly vulgar sexual miming that is so popular on the supper‐club circuit.”

Another Times critic, Stephen Holden, took the opposite view. “Her outstanding skill is an ability to interpolate amusing, semi-improvised commentary within songs, in a variety of musical styles, that turns them into personal testimony,” he wrote in 1987.

In 2005, when Ms. Shaw was performing at the Manhattan cabaret Le Jazz Au Bar, Mr. Holden found that her act had retained the kind of appeal it had nearly 20 years earlier.

“She evokes the battle of the sexes, which she suggests is continuing and ultimately hopeless,” Mr. Holden wrote. “Her weapon of choice is a voice with the cutting edge of a meat cleaver.”

Marlina Burgess was born on Sept. 22, 1939, in New Rochelle, N.Y. She grew up singing in a church choir, and during her girlhood she performed at the Apollo Theater. She hoped to go on tour with her uncle, a trumpeter named Jimmy Burgess, but her mother forbade it. She later adopted Marlena Shaw as a stage name.

One night when Ms. Shaw was in her 20s, she was at a bowling alley when a girlfriend of hers insisted that she ask the bandleader who was performing there if she could sing. With the courage endowed by two beers, Ms. Shaw put herself forward. She got a job singing at the joint for $15 a night.

As of the mid-1970s, she had five children and was married to Ed Boyer, a bassist, but family life did not stop her from touring. “We talk about problems on the phone when I’m on the road,” she said about her relationship with her children in a 1977 interview with The Oakland Tribune. “They’re very cool about my traveling.”

Ms. Shaw lived in Las Vegas for decades. Complete information about survivors was not available.

In recent decades, some of Ms. Shaw’s records provided soundtracks to TV commercials and material for sampling, including “California Soul” (which was used by KFC and Dockers) and “Woman of the Ghetto” (which was sampled by Fat Joe and Beenie Man, among others).

Before her death, her birth year had generally been listed as 1942 or 1944, but her daughter wrote in the death announcement that she had actually been born in 1939. On that subject, Ms. Shaw once told The Oakland Tribune that she had learned a lesson from Sammy Davis Jr.: “He taught me to use everything I have onstage; I don’t hold anything back, except my age.”

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