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Marlena Shaw, Singer Behind Definitive Cover of ‘California Soul,’ Dies at 81

Marlena Shaw, the jazz and R&B singer who recorded the definitive version of Ashford and Simpson’s “California Soul,” died on Friday from unknown causes. She was 81.

Shaw’s death was confirmed by her daughter Marla in a video posted to her official Facebook page. Marla said, “Hello everyone, it is with a very heavy heart that for myself and my family, I announce that our beloved mother, your beloved icon and artist, Marlena Shaw, has passed away today at 12:03.”

“She was peaceful, we were at peace,” she added. “I know that you just saw posts of a birthday celebration just as soon as yesterday, and my twin sister and I were very grateful, and our family, that she was here in celebration for that.”

“Obviously I’m not going to go into too many details, but as her fans, when it’s needing to be known, it will be,” Marla said also.

Written by Ashford and Simpson and originally recorded by The Messengers in 1967, “California Soul” was covered by some of the biggest acts of the era, including by the 5th Dimension in 1968 and as a Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duet in 1970. But Shaw’s 1969 version, recorded for her album “The Spice of Life,” turned it into an iconic example of late 60’s pop and an enduring classic.

Shaw’s version has a particularly important place in the evolution of hip hop, having been sampled more than 30 times. Notable samples include Gang Starr in “Check the Technique,” Nightmares on Wax in “Soul-Ho,” the Stereo MCs in “Sofisticated,” Jay Electronica in “The Curse of Mayweather,” and Diplo in “California Soul (Diplo Remix).”

It’s also periodically been a go-to deep cut for soundtracks, showing up in “The Italian Job” 2003, Netflix’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” TV series (2o22) and the soundtrack to the video games “Grand Theft Auto V” and “Grand Theft Auto Online,” among other projects.

While “California Soul” was her biggest hit, Vanderbilt English professor Emily Lordi told NPR that Shaw’s song “Woman of the Ghetto” offered a compelling look at the singer’s activist stance.

Lordi said of one part of the song, “She’s chanting. It’s kind of chain, chain, chain, chain, chain, chain, chain (ph). There’s something really interesting about her decision to use those sounds. They’re kind of suspended between the two words chain and change. “

“In that way, the song, I think as a whole, is doing something really interesting, talking about conditions into which black people in the so-called inner city seem to be chained and then this potential for change and for movement and even transcendence beyond these conditions,” she added.

Shaw was born on Sept. 22, 1942, in New Rochelle, New York. As reported by the New York Times, she began singing at jazz clubs in the 1960s, and she performed with a “harshness” that the outlet described as “off-putting,” but only at first.

“You don’t go to one of her shows expecting to hold hands and dream. But once you realize that her aggressiveness isn’t defensive or hostile, but is her way of swiping away pretense and artifice, Ms. Shaw’s raw honesty feels bracing,” Stephen Holden wrote in 2005.

Shaw continued to perform well into the 2000s, and sang at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1999, 2001, and 2007.

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