By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Maria Marshall's first gig was on top of her family's dining-room table in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. The large Italian brood would gather for Sunday dinner. The men played cards while the women cleared the table and tended to the dishes. The children went off for a nap. "By the time the nap was finished and the women were talking their women talk, the poker game would be over," Marshall reminisces between bites of a garlic bagel at a North Miami eatery. "I would come in again, rubbing my eyes, and somebody would say, 'Eyyy, Maria, canto un cancione.' Sing a song. And they'd put me on top of the table and I'd be singing for them and they'd throw nickels and dimes."
Coming from a musically oriented family -- mandolin-playing Uncle Vince was a big influence -- it's not surprising that Marshall was drawn to the limelight. And after a friend sneaked the underage singer into a nightclub to hear Sarah Vaughan, there would be no turning back. "I was totally mesmerized," Marshall remembers. "I'd heard Sarah Vaughan on the radio, but to see her in person like that and to listen to the rhythm section... That rhythm section was so tight and swingin' and the atmosphere of the club... I said, 'This is for me.'" Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jolson, and June Christy were also big influences, she adds, singing a snippet of Christy's "Something Cool" in a clear vocal that belies her throaty speaking voice.
Friends persuaded a local club owner to give Marshall a shot. That was the easy part. Convincing her traditional Italian parents that she should be allowed to sing in a smoky gin joint, well, that was another story. After securing promises from the club owner that their seventeen-year-old Maria would be watched over, her parents relented. And Marshall began her informal night-schooling, occasionally nodding off in one of her more formal classrooms the following morning.
Marshall joined a Dixieland band after graduating from high school (a concession to Mama) in the late Fifties, a move that helped her perfect her natural gift for swing. Then she made the move to New York City. Her efforts paid off and soon Marshall had two albums and one single to her credit, including the classic Jazz from Then to Now. (On the Everest label, the record was chosen for inclusion in the Library of Congress.). About that time, Benny Goodman was opening at Basin Street East, and the word was out that he was looking to "discover" a singer.
The albums Marshall had cut with bassist Chubby Jackson were her entry. A day or so after dropping the sides off at the club, Marshall received a call from Jay Feingold, Goodman's road manager. "He said Mr. Goodman wanted to know if I could come up and do an audition, and to bring a piano player. So I brought Marty Napoleon and he [Goodman] knew Marty and he said, 'Hey, Marty, howya doin'?' And maybe because he knew Marty, I got the job," she laughs. "He auditioned about 200 singers."
Goodman's reputation for being a perfectionist hard-ass was widespread, so the question of nerves on the part of the auditionee is a no-brainer. "I was terrified, are you kidding?" Marshall says with a mouthful of bagel. ("I'm eating a bagel," she tells the tape recorder on the Formica tabletop.) However, it was Goodman's collection of Wedgwood china that made the biggest impression on the wide-eyed twenty-year-old. "I said to myself, 'If nothing happens with this audition, I can say I was in Benny Goodman's penthouse suite and I saw all of his beautiful treasures.'"
Of course something did happen, and Marshall was chosen to accompany the touring Benny Goodman Band, which featured some of the greatest jazz figures of the time: trumpeter Charlie Shavers, Basie vocalist Jimmy Rushing, trombonist Urbie Green, and tenor man Zoot Sims, to name a few. The barrel-shaped Rushing was a particular favorite of Marshall's. "Just hugging him felt good," she recalls. "He was beautiful to me. He was beautiful to everybody. This guy had the most beautiful soul in the whole world." And his wife whipped up a mean baked Alaska, which Marshall tasted for the first time at the singer's house. And Sims? "Oh, Zoot, he was a flirt! I loved him. He used to hang out with [beat poet] Lord Buckley, and Zoot got involved with his wife. I used to go out with them, we'd go bowling, and then they'd end up in the bedroom."
Marshall was the only woman on the tour. A young woman, at that. "The guys were very protective of me," she says. "But I was very protective of them." Especially of Sims, because Zoot liked to drink. Marshall recalls one night in Las Vegas after the band got paid, and Sims went straight away for the roulette table, drink in hand. So Marshall did what any good friend would do. She filched a hundred dollar bill from his stack. "The next morning he would yell up -- 'cause he was in the other apartment across the way -- 'Hey, babe! You got any coffee?' So he used to come up and I'd make coffee for him and he'd sit there in my apartment reading the paper. So I said, 'How'd you make out last night?' And he says, 'Terrible. I blew the whole thing.' And I said, 'You're kidding. How're you going to pay your rent?' He says, 'I don't know.' I said, 'Well, okay, I might as well tell you the truth.' It was like he'd found gold. 'Did you do that? Oh, man, you saved my life!'"
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.