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Marlena Shaw, Oft-Sampled ‘California Soul’ Singer, Dead at 81

Marlena Shaw, the oft-sampled soul singer best known for her enduring 1969 hit “California Soul,” has died at the age of 81.

Shaw’s daughter Marla Bradshaw confirmed her mother’s death Friday on social media; no cause of death was provided.

“It’s with a very heavy heart for myself and my family I announce that our beloved mother, your beloved icon and artist Marlena Shaw has passed away today,” Bradshaw said. “She was peaceful. We were at peace… She went listening to some of her favorite songs.”

Shaw’s onetime label Verve Records added in a statement, “We are saddened by the passing of Marlena Shaw, a wonderful singer whose ‘California Soul’ is as popular today as it ever was and whose album It Is Love: Recorded Live At Vine St. helped relaunch the Verve label in 1987.”

The New Rochelle, New York-born singer first made her mark at jazz clubs in the mid-Sixties before signing with Chess Records offshoot Cadet Records, which released her first two albums, 1967’s Out of Different Bags and 1969’s The Spice of Life. The latter LP featured Shaw’s rendition of the Ashford-Simpson composition “California Soul.”

While Shaw wasn’t the only artist to record the track — the Fifth Dimension released their version first, and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s take arrived after Shaw’s — her rendition remains the most popular, appearing in television commercials, films and other artists’ work over the decades that followed.

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While never a chart-topping artist, Shaw remained active throughout the Seventies and Eighties, recording albums for Blue Note, Polydor, Columbia and Verve. Shaw also notably recorded “Don’t Ask to Stay Until Tomorrow,” which served as the theme for the 1978 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Shaw’s catalog would later become a treasure trove for turntablists and hip-hop producers, with her music sampled on songs by the likes of Gang Starr, the Avalanches, Drake, Schoolboy Q, Ultramagnetic MCs, DJ Shadow, The Game, Jay Electronica and Ghostface Killah, with the latter’s “Ghetto” prominently making use of Shaw’s “Woman of the Ghetto.”

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