Marlena Shaw was nowhere near the West Coast when she recorded her classic paean to the region, “California Soul,” from her 1969 album The Spice of Life. When she and Cadet Records producers – Richard Evans and Charles Stepney – were figuring out her approach to the song which had previously been done by The Fifth Dimension and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, among others, she likely wasn’t even in Chicago where the label recorded. “We’d actually work out the arrangements and stuff over the telephone,” said Shaw, who was based in New York at the time. “Because my kids were young, and I couldn’t just get a babysitter at a moment’s notice to get on the plane and fly to Chicago.”
But despite her physical distance from the area, Marlena managed to capture something enduring about, what history professor Kevin Starr calls, the only state in the union that “has attached its identity to the concept of a dream.”
Evans had the idea for Marlena to do “California Soul,” written by the husband and wife duo of Ashford and Simpson, for her second album on Cadet, a subsidiary of the seminal blues and jazz label Chess Records. Evans and Stepney – who would later help the band Earth, Wind, and Fire develop its signature sound – crafted a backing track that was grounded with handclaps and a driving backbeat, while at the same time, nodding to the symphonic flourishes of rock groups such as The Beach Boys on Pet Sounds and The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.
The Stepney-arranged strings rise and crash like rough surf, as Marlena weaves a tale about the creation of a sound, one that emanates from the natural rhythms of the wind and the sea and is fully realized once it merges with the “rockin’ and reelin’” of a couple making love on the sand. Marlena conveys the tune, not like she’s some bikini-wearing babe watching from the beach, but as if she’s Mother Earth or the West African deity Nana Buluku, looking down on her children at play.
“California Soul” was released as the b-side to the pop ballad, “Looking Through The Eyes of Love.” Neither made much of a chart impact, nor did they help move copies of The Spice of Life. Marlena soon left Cadet and scored her biggest hit in 1977 with “Yu Ma/Go Away Litte Boy,” which includes a spoken word intro where she excoriates a live-in love for spending more time with his Afro-Sheen products than he does looking for a job.
However, with the dawn of the hip-hop era, Marlena’s version of “California Soul” was rediscovered and sampled by acts such as Gang Starr, The Game, Jay Electronica, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, Coldcut, and more. Then in 2008, LA-based DJ/producer Diplo gave it a dubby, dancefloor remix. The song has since been used in a KFC commercial, on the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto V, and by a contestant on The Voice.
Marlena, now retired and based in Las Vegas, told The Voice why she thought the ethereal yet funky vibe of “California Soul” has such long-lasting appeal: “It’s like when it’s late summer and you’re taking a walk, and you’re hot, but you can feel that little cool thing happening in the air.” And as she sings, seductively, on the song, “No matter what you do/It’s gonna grab a hold of you.”