‘California Soul’ Singer Marlena Shaw Dies, Age 81

Marlena Shaw died, California Soul singer
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Marlena Shaw died, California Soul singer
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Photo Credit: Cadet Records

Marlena Shaw, the jazz and R&B singer behind the definitive recording of ‘California Soul,’ has passed away aged 81.

Jazz and R&B singer Marlena Shaw, whose recording of Ashford and Simpson’s “California Soul” is hailed as the definitive version, passed away on Friday, January 19, aged 81. Her daughter confirmed the news on the singer’s official Facebook page.

“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,” says Shaw’s daughter Marla in a video posted on Facebook. “She was peaceful; we were at peace.”

“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,” she added. “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.”

Marlena Shaw was born on September 22, 1942, in New Rochelle, New York. In the 1960s she began singing at jazz clubs, performing with what the New York Times described as a “harshness” that is at first “off-putting.”

“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,” said the outlet in 2005.

“California Soul” was written by Ashford and Simpson and first recorded by The Messengers in 1967. Despite its many covers, including a 1970 duet by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Shaw’s 1969 version of the song, recorded for her album, “The Spice of Life,” has remained the most well-known.

In particular, Shaw’s version has held an important place in hip-hop, having been sampled over 30 times in songs like Gang Starr’s “Check the Technique,” Nightmares on Wax’s “Soul-Ho,” Jay Electronica’s “The Curse of Mayweather,” the Stereo MCs’ “Sofisticated,” and Diplo’s “California Soul” remix.

Shaw’s version of “California Soul” is also a favorite in soundtracks, including 2003’s “The Italian Job,” Netflix’s 2022 series “The Lincoln Lawyer,” and video games like Grand Theft Auto V.