Going back right to the beginning, when did you take an active interest in music?
When I was very young because my uncle (trumpeter Jimmy Burgess, who played with jazz pianist Horace Silver) was in the house playing trumpet and my grandmother sang in church. I was raised by my grandmother. All I can tell you is that it seems like I’ve always sung. My mother used to tell a story about me at three years old singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on a float. I’ve always liked music and I didn’t really think in terms of show business I don’t think. Even back in the ’60s, when you think how I got with the Count Basie band, it was from other people talking about me. I was never so bold as to say “okay, I want you guys to listen to me, I can really sing.” I was always waiting for somebody to say: “Marlena, would you sing a song for us?”
So you didn’t push yourself at all?
No. And I still haven’t (laughs).
Well, you’re doing well out of it aren’t you?
Isn’t that something? It was always word-of-mouth back with (singer) Joe Williams and the saxophone player Cannonball Adderley. They just liked the way I sang and they would tell whoever they were working for, managers and club owners, “call this girl.” I used to get calls all the time: “are you Marlena Shaw? Are you Marlena Shaw?”
You auditioned for Columbia Records’ legendary A&R man/producer, John Hammond, who’d discovered Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan.
I’d made a tape in a friend’s garage. The friend, Gene Strydell, who was a wonderful singer, made a record of the tape and sent it to John Hammond. John Hammond got Ellis Larkins, who was Ella Fitzgerald’s pianist at the time, to play for me but I got so nervous I blew the audition. But John Hammond wrote to me and said “obviously you’re young, you don’t have a stage presence yet. I suggest that it would be nice if you could get with somebody like Count Basie.” I didn’t know anything at all about Count Basie except that my mother danced to his music.
You eventually joined Basie’s band. What did you learn from working with the Count?
Count Basie was the most fabulous time-setter. He said “don’t put it above a heartbeat if you want to get the attention.” He just had that natural way of setting the tempo. He’d tell me: “Don’t try to be too hip for the room, scatting it and carrying on. Just take it easy, lay back and there it is. Get it in the cut, right above the heartbeat, right where people can feel it.” And he loved children so he was very thoughtful of me and was very protective of me in certain situations. Like one night, I was still standing in my slip – oh, is that a term that we don’t use any more! – in my dressing room and Basie bust in and he said “hurry up, get dressed.” I said: “what the hell?” So I found myself almost running after him through the casino ‘cos he could move those little short legs of his. So we finally got to where we were staying, next door to each other in one of the little bungalows and I said “what was that all about?” He said: “Sinatra has been asking about you: ‘where’s that singer of yours? We never see her after the show is over.” That’s because I’d disappear and go to my room. It was so loud (in the casino) and I couldn’t bear all that jingle jangle of the slot machines – but I could stand in front of an 18 piece band, right? Anyway, just to keep down any kind of confusion, Basie wanted to make sure that I was in my room. He didn’t really explain it all to me until the next morning. When I woke up I was still in my jeans lay across the bed because I thought something else was going to go down. I thought, well, maybe I’d better start packing. But it was that he was just protecting me (from Sinatra, who was a notorious womaniser).
You had several stints with Basie.
Oh yeah. My kids were just too young to stay on the road. He actually brought me to Las Vegas. I came twice to Vegas and then he took me to Europe. So I was never constantly with him. It was just like you’ll be there for two weeks, or one week, that kind of thing. I only spent a little bit of time in the United States on the bus with the band.
Before you joined Basie you signed your first record deal with Chess in 1966. How did that come about?
I was singing in the Chicago Playboy Club. I doubt I had been there three days when Dick LaPalm (a Chess Records’ executive) was asked by Billy Rizzo to come see me. Billy was working at the Playboy club at the time and he and Dick were friends. He said to Dick: “I have a girl singing in the club, I want you to listen to her.” Dick LaPalm came over and the next thing I knew I had a record deal. “I want you to sign with us,” he said. It was a whirlwind. The only part of that that really was a pain in the ass was all the managers; “you sign with me, you sign with them and then sign with somebody else.” I made that mistake, signing. But anyway it all worked out.
Your second Chess album, ‘The Spice Of Life,’ included one of your most famous songs – the much-sampled ‘Woman Of The Ghetto,’ which you co-wrote. Do you remember how it came about and what inspired it?
Just actually talking with Richard Evans (her bassist/producer/arranger) about things that were going on in the school districts. These were things that we were living through at the time. I was socially conscious like many young people are and felt that you’d change the world by your words. I don’t really know how I started singing it, because we were talking on the telephone at this point – I was in New York and he’s in Chicago. He said, “maybe it needs some kind of chant” because I had already started writing the song but it had no title. I was just talking to him and then I would be rhyming and singing and he started writing as well. He was actually writing what I was singing over the phone on the piano. It really kind of worked out. I remember writing some of the lyric on a piece of brown paper bag on the aeroplane going to Chicago to record. I didn’t realise you get food on the plane so I took my food in a brown paper bag and after I had eaten it, I just ripped open the bag because that was the only paper I had and I continued writing it.