Marshall Law

Maria Marshall's journey from a dining-room table in Pennsylvania to the big time

Trumpeter Shavers's troubles weren't in the casino, but on the bandstand. "Charlie Shavers was the only musician in the entire time I was with him [Goodman] that I ever saw Benny have a scene with," says Marshall. "They did not get along. Charlie always did his own thing."

Although the bespectacled bandleader had mellowed considerably from the heyday of the Swing Era, he was still a no-nonsense type of guy. "Familiarity breeds contempt," Marshall allows. But the corollary may very well be, it's lonely at the top. Marshall's second meeting with current MTV darling Tony Bennett is an illustration. After a botched initial meeting (Marshall asked him a question about his marriage, which was on the rocks at the time, after which she dissolved into tears of shame), she was reintroduced to the crooner in Vegas. To get back in his good graces, she offered to cook him lasagna, and even threw a party with Bennett as the guest of honor. "The guys in the band said, 'If you invite Benny, we're not comin'.' So you see what I mean. They could relax, drink, go in the bathroom and [she sniffs]," Marshall says. Vices are hard to avoid in this business, the singer admits, fishing in her purse for a cigarette. She quit for three months, only recently falling back into the habit, and two butts reside in her ashtray at the beginning of this interview.

But Marshall's own impression of the clarinetist who chopped down color barriers by sharing the stage with vibist Lionel Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson was much different. "He was wonderful. He was a gentleman. Everybody said they had never seen him so happy before this tour." He also dubbed Marshall "Hot Pepper" for her unrestrained joy and enthusiasm, which comes across loud and clear on World-Wide, whether she's putting a brassy finish on "I Can't Believe You're in Love with Me" or vamping it up on "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home."

With her Goodman stint a cherished memory, Marshall moved down to South Florida in 1968, with then-husband Tony Prentice, a pianist, at the urging of Chubby Jackson. Jobs were numerous: the Traveler, the Rancher, the Bonfire, the Playboy Club, and a three-year gig at the Hasta restaurant in the Gables. "Things have changed a lot," says Marshall. "A lot of the clubs that were plentiful for swinging little groups are dead. They just can't afford it."

Something else that's changed is that she's no longer married to Prentice, although they still enjoy a professional relationship and will perform together tonight (Thursday) at Erny's in Delray Beach. "Tony is the best for any singer," she says. "He's very compassionate and sensitive with singers. He likes singers. He likes lyrics." Marshall states a preference for small jazz combos, despite her days fronting ten and sixteen pieces. "You have a lot of space to phrase out. You don't like to step on anyone's lines." And vice versa.

The show at Erny's should provide plenty of opportunities for the vocalist to stretch out in the company of local stalwarts such as Prentice, sax-flute man Eric Allison, bassist Dennis Marks, and drummer Steve Bagby. Delray is something of a distance for the North Miami Beach resident, who shares quarters with four cats (real cats, not the jazz kind). But you go where the gigs are. "I want to keep working here in Miami," she says. "See if I can get my name out there and see if people will give me a chance to bounce back. I just want to keep it going."

Not given to scrapbook compiling -- she feels it's a sign of impending retirement -- Marshall carries her fondest reminiscences in her heart. One such memory is of a particular inscription in her senior high school yearbook: "It says, 'Although Maria dislikes late hours, her main ambition is to sing with a name band,'" she quotes. "And it came true. Nobody was more surprised than me."

Maria Marshall performs tonight (Thursday) from 7:00 to 11:00 at Erny's, 1010 E Atlantic Ave, Delray Beach, 407-276-9191. There is no cover charge or minimum.

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