Since starting my website I've always been honored when artists, producers and musicians visit my site and then contact me to share information and tell me about
themselves and what's going on with them presently.
I've thought about doing a "where are they now" wing in The DiscoMuseum for almost as long as the site has been around. A few months back a friend of Marlena's
contacted me and told me he was going to point Marlena to my tribute page to her. He did and she graciously wrote me to thank me for the biography of her and her work. At
that point she mentioned an interview for the site, but as with all hard working entertainers timing was an issue.
Well I finally had the chance to speak with Marlena on the phone today (November 16th, 2004) from her house in Las Vegas. A place she has called home for some 31 years,
22 of those years with her current husband Gill, with her five children and some very lucky grandchildren.
I had already been warned that Marlena had a wonderful sense of humour and I can attest that most of the conversation had me laughing uncontrollably, but I wasn't
prepared for her brilliant wit which she displayed so naturally.
Talking with Marlena about her childhood years and the influence her uncle had on her career she shared with me that she began playing the piano at an early age. And
that music was really all she had, her grandmother didn't allow her to "iron clothes, or go outside and hang out, or do much after school except practice music.....there was
no such thing as a latchkey kid back then in New Rochelle." And so a diva was born.
She credits Cannonball Adderley and Joe Williams with getting her lots of work throughout her career. But her famous pairing with The Count Basie Orchestra came about
by chance. "I was working at the Playboy Club In New York, back then I always carried my records in my purse (LOL), and after my show Basie's manager came up to me and
introduced himself and we talked. He asked if I had any demos and I said "Honey wait right there!" and I ran to my dressing room and got him some demos." The rest is
history as they say as she became one of the elite handful of vocalists to enjoy such legendary backing. On that subject she was sad that there isn't any albums recorded of her
wonderful performances with the great orchestra but did share that a friend of a friend got her a video tape of a 1968 performance she did with the Count Basie Orchestra,
she treasures it dearly. On that same note she shares: "I was recently cleaning out things to prepare to move and this slip of paper fell out, when I read it, it was from John
Hammond he said in the note that I should record with The Count Basie Orchestra.....how prophetic is that?"
She talked about her different labels, how she did mainly blues stuff early in her career. We talked about Cadet Records, and how St. Germain used "Woman Of The
Ghetto" samples for his 2000 album "Tourist" and the cut "Rose Rough" from her Cadet recordings. At Cadet she recorded two albums before moving over to Blue Note for a
lengthier run of four albums, including her first Live recording and the infamous "Who Is That Bitch Anyways?" album. "That album was rather shocking at the time, people
didn't know what to make of the title. Working with Bernard (Ighner) was probably the happiest studio experience I ever had. Not only was he talented but a really sweet
person to work with."
She talked about working with Sammy Davis Jr. "He was such a sweet man and so talented. I worked with Sammy on & off for about 3 or 4 years. We were on tour and Blue Note had limos at my disposal until they
got wind that I was about to sign with Columbia and then I got a telex informing me that my limo service was cancelled. It was a control thing, it wasn't like Sammy was gonna let me walk to the shows or anything." This
goes to show just how unaffected by fame Marlena is and how she realizes that it's all about the music and having fun. A subject we discussed several times. We talked about that move to Columbia Records. I of course had
to ask her about "Pictures And Memories" which is my favorite disco cut of hers. "Oh yeah Bert DeCoteaux, he brought me to the streets. We had a great working relationship, back then record companies had A&R
men who brought us 20-25 songs then Bert and I would pick the ones we thought we could do something with. That was how we did "Sweet Beginnings." I loved "Pictures & Memories" in fact a girlfriend of mine called
me recently and left her singing that on my answering machine (LOL) she always wanted to do the backgrounds on that one." The album, her most popular (sales wise), remains an enduring classic thanks to the landmark
"Yu-Ma/Go Away Little Boy" single. With it's innovative rap it just proves that Marlena can sing anything with brilliance.
Her years at Columbia were not only successful but personally fulfilling as it allowed Marlena to reach her widest audience ever. While there she had the opportunity to record the theme for the Diane Keaton movie
"Looking For Mr. Goodbar." "My manager at the time Linda, she was always running around, happened to over hear that the original person chosen to sing "Don't Ask To Stay Until Tomorrow" had backed out at the
last minute. She stepped in and said I have just the person for you and quickly calls were made and then before I knew it I was singing that song." Her tenure at Columbia produced three albums in as many years and her
final release for the label was her disco triumph "Take A Bite" which earned her a spot in The Discomuseum. "I'm equally proud of the flip side of the album as well, it's always nice when fans discover the other side of
that album. When my contract ended with Columbia I lost all the publicity agents and booking agents that went with being with a major label. So I started calling clubs myself to get bookings, honey were they
shocked. Quite a few jaws dropped and I often met with disbelief but I didn't care. I needed to work and wasn't too big to seek out bookings on my own."
She then moved over to South Bay Records for one 12" single. "Never Give Up" came about because of this eye doctor. He kept after me wanting to record me. I finally agreed and the song became my last club hit.
I'm not sure whatever happened to him after that." I then asked her about being a part of the Boystown Gang "Dance Trance Medley"...her response: "Oh yeah I forgot all about that. Yeah I did do that" I guess it just
wasn't that important to her. Despite her lack of remembrance it remains a classic performance, of which she has many.
She says that: "touring with nine musicians became costly and that with her 'reel to reel band' was able to play smaller clubs. It's always been about performing for the fans." It's clear to anyone that knows anything
about Marlena that her recordings are superb but it's live and in person where she cooks. And for her it's always been about performing live, in fact I got the feeling that her recordings are just a byproduct of being a live
performer. Her touring has taken her around the world. "In the early years I toured with Ashford & Simpson, George Benson and many others before my years of touring solo and then with Count Basie's Orchestra and
the Kendrick Oliver Orchestra. I've done some memorable tours of England, Sweden all over Europe. The fans over there are really special, they bring entire stacks of albums to the shows...I sometimes sign my
autograph "Who Is This (insert fan's name) Anyways?. I really love going overseas and touring."
Life's been good to Marlena, she seems at peace with herself and at a great point in her career. "Having worked with so many people that I have respected for years has given me a special confidence on stage. When
someone that you have appreciated tells you how honored THEY are to work with you it just gives you a great feeling. I think my performances now are the best they've ever been, I'm more relaxed and more focused,
it's that confidence." That confidence has allowed Marlena to write for Nathan Haines (along with Phil Asher) the popular track "Squire For Hire." It has allowed her to branch out in recent years recording with Jimmy
Smith and Ray Brown. She even has a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial running in the United Kingdom where she sings "California Soul." All a testament to one gutsy lady that is totally in charge of her life and career.
Her recent activities include her release "Lookin' For Love" for her new label 441 Records. She was in Chicago at the DuSable Museum for a concert back in February 2004, which I sorely missed and on Labor Day
weekend she appeared with The Count Basie Orchestra at the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island to rave reviews. She just completed an audition for a possible new commercial and an exciting performance at Cape May. As
you can see Marlena, who celebrated 42 years in "shaw biz" back in June 2004, is one busy lady. I'm so happy that she took the time to share with me her thoughts, wit and sense of humour. She is one classy lady who could
sing the phone book and make it sound great. With love and respect I thank her and wish her the best!.