Marlena Smalls: Beaufort's vocal inspiration

Marlena Smalls stars as Etta James this weekend onstage at USCB Center for the Arts. Photo ESPB/Kim Sullivan

By Kim Sullivan | Imagine a place you could find inspiration through sounds of the rhythm and blues. Where the air is filled with notes flowing from the piano, spoons and washboards mixed in with some amazing vocals full of life and history. A little girl named Marlena found herself listening to these soulful sounds when she was just six years old. And music became a lifelong thread to her voice as a true artist from that moment on.

Marlena Smalls, successful singer, actor, and educator, sat down with me to chat about her upcoming role as the great American singer Etta James which will be featured at USCB Center of the Arts this weekend here in Beaufort. But I wanted to hear more about what led her to this role?  Her joyful spirit was contagious as she spoke of her love of music and the details of performing early in her career. “My mother was a pianist. A musicologist. She loved to play hymns and gospel music.  But beside my home was a juke joint where I could hear jazz and the blues playing from the inside. The blues felt free to me. Full of  expression. My mother used to say that man plans. But God plans as well. We forget that sometimes.”

Born and reared in Ohio, Marlena’s parents were very involved in civil rights as she grew up. Her journey led to South Carolina in 1982 when she moved to Beaufort with her children and  reconnected with her roots and Gullah heritage.  Even though she was classically  trained, Marlena noted how it felt to perform during that time in our history. “When I was performing for a white audience, I tried not to be too black. And when I performed for a black audience, I tried not be too white.  I wanted to be heard  for me. For my voice.”

It was a tour through ninety-nine countries in Europe with the Hallelujah Singers that Marlena Smalls made powerful observations. “When I came back I knew there were three types of performers; singers, entertainers, and vocalists. Each one has unique sound.” She  smiled when asked about her personal favorites who inspired her throughout the years including Dinah Washington, Patti LaBelle, Nancy Wilson, and Judy Garland.  “Blues music is the only one you don’t have to have a melodic voice for. You tell a story. I do my best to tell my story through song. I go there for that one reason. Whether it’s for 50  people or for 50 thousand.”

The USCB Center for the Arts stage will be Smalls next venue to share her story in “A Tribute to Etta James”. The show features Velma Polk and Elaine O’Connell as well as The Lowcountry Jazz Orchestra, so full of musical talent they will have you moving to the sounds,

And according to USCB center Director Bonnie Hargrove, everyone in this show is from Beaufort. “It’s a show you won’t want to miss,” Bonnie said.

I asked Marlena as a performer, what does she hope ticket holders will take from the show.  “They should see the show to remember. To remember the sounds that made America really great. And to get reacquainted with the music of Etta James. To be inspired by the beautiful story told through the music from blues, R&B, soul, rock and roll, jazz, and gospel.  The history of the music. The architecture. The clothing.  It is the story of America.

I asked Marlena if she could talk to her 15 year old self,  what would she say? After pondering the thought with a smile she simply said, “ I’m so proud of you. You climbed the hills. You cried rivers of tears. You kept your eyes on God while holding your children. You took one step at a time. You maintained Marlena. You maintained.”  

Yes she did.

Come hear the amazing sounds this weekend and experience it for yourself!

Show times for Sunday, January 22 is at 3pm and at the time of this publication there were only less than 50 tickets remaining.

Call The USCB Center for the Arts for tickets at 843.521.4145