Marlena Shaw: “Woman Of The Ghetto” (The Spice Of Life, 1969)

So this thing happens sometimes where I have two versions of a song that I really want to post, and can’t decide which one to go with. I’ve had Phyllis Dillon’s reggae cover of this song on my iPod for years, and it came up yesterday, and I instantly knew I’d write about it, but I recently heard the original and love that too. So I’ll just do both.

First, the original version, recorded in 1969 by Marlena Shaw, who had a strange career. She started performing at a very young age with her uncle, Jimmy Burgess, who was a jazz trumpeter, but her mother soon put an end to that. She went away to teaching college, but dropped out and got married.

Shaw had five children, but somehow managed to reignite her music career while still taking care of all of them, performing on free nights. She was in Howard McGhee’s band for a while and had a regular job at the Chicago Playboy Club for a time, and even scored a minor hit in 1966 with “Let’s Wade In The Water,” one of about a bazillion versions of that song to be recorded in the mid-20th Century.

She signed with Chess, and they put her on their Cadet imprint. The Spice Of Life was her second album, and it’s a broad mix of MOR pop, jazz and brooding, socially conscious funk, of which this song is the best example.

And man, this song has some intense lyrics. “How do you make your bread in the ghetto?/baked from the souls of the dead in the ghetto.” Dang. I love that “my children learn just the same as yours/long as nobody tries to close the doors” part, too. The groove just slides along, but there are some neat little details in the production—flourishes of sitar and other little unexpected noises, solos that come in out of nowhere, those processed backing vocals near the end. This is from a time when psychedelia could actually be a vehicle for something and wasn’t mostly used as a fashion accessory.

Shaw’s children were getting older by the time she made this, and after the album dropped, she broke with Cadet to sign with Blue Note for her next five albums. That run included Who Is This Bitch, Anyway?, which has to be one of the best album titles ever, especially when paired with the awesome cover photo. Shaw is still performing today.