Marlena Shaw – 1969 – The Spice of Life

 Cut for the Cadet label in 1969, Spice of Life ranges from soul and proto-funk to jazz and MOR-hued material. Shaw shines throughout, showing her power on politically charged, Aretha-styled cuts like “Woman of the Ghetto” and “Liberation Conversation“, while also delivering supple interpretations of such traditional jazz fare as “Go Away Little Boy” (shades of Nancy Wilson). And with a gutsy take on “Stormy Monday“, it’s clear Shaw doesn’t shrink from the blues either. Across this sound spectrum, arrangers Richard Evans and Charles Stepney envelope Shaw in unobtrusive yet exciting pop-soul environs, throwing kalimba runs (a few years before Earth, Wind & Fire picked up on the instrument), psych guitar accents, and bongo-fueled organ riffs into the mix.

Their widescreen touch is particularly well essayed on strings-and-brass standouts like the Bacharach-inspired Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil composition “Looking Through the Eyes of Love” and Ashford & Simpson’s “California Soul” (a classic reading heavily favored by the crate-digging set).

A perfect way to get familiar with Shaw’s impressive early work.

A1 Woman Of The Ghetto 6:02
A2 Call It Stormy Monday 3:01
A3 Where Can I Go 2:21
A4 I’m Satisfied 2:48
A5 I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free) 3:12
B1 Liberation Conversation 2:03
B2 California Soul 2:59
B3 Go Away Little Boy 2:45
B4 Looking Thru The Eyes Of Love 3:00
B5 Anyone Can Move A Mountain 3:03

Spice of Life saw recorded during sessions in February and July of 1969, at Chicago’s Tel Mar Studios.  Marlena was guided by the experience of producers Charles Stepney and Richard Evans. Charles Stepney had plenty of experience, previously working with Rotary Connection, Ramsey Lewis, The Dells and Muddy Waters on his Electric Mud album. During these sessions, Marlena, Charles Stepney and Richard Evans recorded songs by songwriters that included Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, T-Bone Walker and Ashford and Simpson. It was Ashford and Simpson who wrote California Soul, and Marlena Shaw that made it her song, with some stunning production by Charles Stepney and Richard Evans. Little did they know then, but the song would become a classic, and one that would be recorded my a huge number of artists. The other song that became synonymous with Marlena Shaw was Woman of the Ghetto, which Marlena cowrote with Richard Evans and Bobby Miller.

Like California Soul, Charles Stepney and Richard Evans’ production on the track transforms the song into a brilliantly, overblown epic, that again, became a classic. Of the other eight tracks, T-Bone Walker’s Call It Stormy Monday was transformed by Marlena, with Charles and Richard’s help into a slinky slice of jazz. With such great music on Spice of Life, you’d have thought that this would turn Marlena Shaw into a huge star. Sadly that wasn’t the case, the album wasn’t a commercial success, but was well received by critics. Since then Spice of Life is seen as one of Marlena Shaw’s best albums.

Of all the Marlena Shaw albums I own, Spice of Life is by far, my favorite. After all, it features two classic tracks Woman of the Ghetto and California Soul, two of the best tracks Marlena ever recorded. Both tracks have become synonymous with Marlena Shaw, with her versions the definitive versions. However, there are more than two great songs on the album, with Where Can I Go, (They Call It) Stormy Monday, Liberation Conversation and Go Away Little Boy all stunning tracks. In fact, there isn’t a bad track on the album.

Spice of Life must be the most complete album Marlena Shaw has ever released. It brought her to the attention of many people, and since then, many other great albums have followed for labels like Blue Note and Columbia. Recently, she hasn’t produced many new albums, but has a back catalogue that many artists would envy. Previously, I reviewed her 1977 album Sweet Beginnings, a great album, full of wonderful music, but for anyone wanting to hear Marlena Shaw at her very best, Spice of Life is the album to buy. 


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