Counting the Stars

Treasured Singer-Songwriter Brenda Russell Shares Her Story

by Christian John Wikane

6 October 2017

Love Life cover (A&M Records) 

"I've Got Light Years on My Mind"


“I smoked a joint with John Lennon! It was so fun!”

Whereas “So Good, So Right” opened Brenda Russell with a serene yet soulful touch, the title track to Love Life fired on all cylinders from the moment Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro sparked the beat. “Jeff was fierce,” says Russell. “His talent was ridiculous in his sense of soul. He was passionate. He had the look of a smiling wild man, sometimes. Just laying it down with a big grin on his face.”

“It’s got me countin’ the stars, whoa-oh-oh,” Russell sings, enraptured and inspired by the limitless possibilities of life. “I’ve always been a flower child,” she says. “I was trying to inspire people because I was inspired. Let’s enjoy what we’ve been given here. [Sings] ‘Love life, if you want to …’ It’s up to you to say you want to be here and that you want to take part of this society.” Bill Champlin, Donny Gerrard, Jay Gruska, David Lasley, Arnold McCuller, and Russell’s mother Cinnamon Sharpe join the singer on backgrounds, breathing verve and spirit into the song’s refrain.

Musically, “Love Life” is full of changes and colors, including a recurring motif that evokes a series of chimes. The track veers towards rock during a solo by Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who mirrors the fervency in Russell’s lead vocal. “Luke’s a very energetic rock kind of player, and I love that,” she says. “I love rock music. I was raised on it. That’s where Luke’s heart is. He’s just brilliant at that.”

Brilliance is precisely what shapes “Rainbow”, the album’s radiant cynosure and a song that towers alongside Russell’s finest solo work. The melody and chords coalesce like an ocean reflecting moonlight. “When I’m writing, it’s a very spiritual experience for me,” she says. “I feel like I’m channeling. That’s how I’ve been writing music my whole life. It’s a very natural instinct. You have to be open to it. I never plot it out.”

“Rainbow” finds “the magic in the mystery” of our shared humanity, beyond the confines of race. “The song is talking about how people see color and I see a rainbow,” Russell explains. “I’m always inspired to bring people together and to help people see each other as brothers. I just never understood the racial conflict in our country. In my whole life, I never felt angry about someone because of their race. I was never raised like that. I still don’t have that element in my system.” Her lyrics strike an illuminating conversation with listeners, juxtaposing fear and logic with honesty and wonder.

Accompanying herself on piano, Russell leads her band through “Rainbow”‘s sumptuous musical phrases. Dean Parks embellishes the ambiance with his solo on acoustic guitar. “Dean is a genius guitarist,” Russell says. “I loved working with him. I love working with musicians I have some kind of affinity to because they pick up on where you’re coming from. They feel what your song is about and then they play it. Some people can walk right in and some don’t because you’re not asking the right musician to play the part.

“Way back in the ‘70s, when I was doing records with my ex, I remember calling up Steve Cropper, because we just loved Steve Cropper. We played him this song that had nothing to do with the kind of music he played. We were very eclectic. Our songs weren’t Otis Redding or Sam & Dave. That was his thing and we weren’t writing songs like that. He said, ‘Guys, I don’t think I’m the right person for this.’ We were so naïve. We thought, He can play anything—he’s Steve Cropper! You have to know that the musician is right for the song. That was a huge lesson about making records.”

Fortunately, a simpatico group of players help manifest Russell’s musical vision on Love Life, with Neil Larsen lending keyboard textures to the sublime “Something I Like to Do”. “I admired, respected, and loved Neil,” says Russell. “He had a sensitivity to the music and to where I was coming from. You know who loves ‘Something I Like to Do’? Steve Porcaro, who wrote ‘Human Nature’ (Michael Jackson). He said, ‘Brenda that song is so good.’” Another of the album’s core band members, Porcaro subtly places a synth line in “Something I Like to Do”, shrouding the song with atmosphere.

“Don’t think you’re taking up all my time, I got light years on my mind,” Russell sings on “Something I Like to Do”, caressing the melody with warmth and tenderness. “I love those lyrics,” she says. “The lyrics come from some personal experience I was having because that’s what I usually write about. Usually, love is the topic—how you try to get it, how you lose it.” On “Something I Like to Do”, she savors not having to look for something (or someone) that’s been there all along.

“Lucky” conveys joy in every note, capping the album’s original Side One with Russell’s dynamic playing. “I loved the piano part,” she says, singing the song’s main riff. “I’ve got a little gospel thing going. It was just a fun song to write.” Russell clearly inherited piano chops from her grandmother. “My parents were both singers and my mother was a songwriter,” she continues. “They used to say my grandmother could ‘pick a piano’ like Scott Joplin.” From start to finish, Russell’s playing and singing on “Lucky” creates a tangible air of jubilation that rocks the soul.

Over the last few decades, “Lucky” has emerged as a surprise favorite among listeners. “I had a really wonderful thing happen last year when I was working in LA at a rehearsal studio,” Russell says. “There was a young man next door. He must have been in his early 20s. He said, ‘You did a song called ‘Lucky’. I really like that song.’ I thought, Wait a minute. This young rock ‘n’ roller’s telling me how much he loves ‘Lucky’ and he wasn’t even born when I wrote that song! I was very touched when he said that. Some of my own friends don’t even know that song.”

Flipping the record over, the soft sound of Neil Larsen doubling on Fender Rhodes and organ opens “Sensitive Man”, a declaration of love and affirmation for men who transcend rigid, conventional notions of masculinity. “I always liked men who were sensitive, let’s start there,” says Russell. “My gay brothers were catching hell at that time. They were suffering a lot. I wanted to show the sensitive man how lovable it is that you could be a man and be sensitive, which was so different from the image of ‘you don’t cry if you’re a man’.”

Steve Lukather’s expressive guitar playing acts as another kind of voice on “Sensitive Man”, complementing Russell’s performance. Her vocals soar with passion. “What I’m trying to say is, Don’t be afraid of being who you are, having that sensitivity towards life and nature,” she says. The way that sentiment—“Don’t you think that you’re going too far”—climaxes from the chorus to the bridge, and through the closing vamp, leaves no doubt that sensitivity is its own strength.

Simply mentioning “Deep Dark and Mysterious” prompts a sly chuckle from Russell. “That was all about girlfriends,” she says. “We’d talk about guys all the time: ‘he’s deep dark and mysterious, honey!’” Appropriately, of all the cuts on Love Life, “Deep Dark and Mysterious” drops the deepest groove. Lenny Castro (percussion) and Jeff Porcaro launch the track, with Russell and Abraham Laboriel (bass) fashioning a funky interplay between their parts.

Though Russell penned “Deep Dark and Mysterious” on piano, she emphasizes how vital the players were to the track’s appeal. “When the musicians come in, they add a huge amount of energy that kind of swells,” she says. “Music is all about spontaneity. In those days, the whole band was in the studio playing together. I’m singing in the booth. The musicians start riffing off of your vocals as you’re doing it. That’s why on that record in particular, and my first album, there would be all of these beautiful musical riffs that would be talking off of what I just sang. You can’t get that on overdubs. It’s not the same thing. Overdubs really take away the opportunity to exchange real time.”

The vocal exchange between Russell, Arnold McCuller, and Donny Gerrard on “Deep Dark and Mysterious” is particularly galvanizing. In the third chorus, she italicizes “mysterious” while McCuller and Gerrard accentuate the sibilance of the last syllable. As the track fades, they punctuate Russell’s guttural ad libs with airborne harmonies.

Russell knew Gerrard from years earlier in Canada when he sang in Skylark. “Donny is so natural,” she says. “He’s not trying to do tricks. He opens his mouth and some amazing stuff comes out.” Stewart Levine highlights those qualities on “If You Love” where Russell and Gerrard share a duet during the song’s coda. Their voices entwine in a delicate dance of melody and harmony.

Featuring Don Grusin on Fender Rhodes, “If You Love” deftly shifts between different musical dynamics, capturing the wistful yet hopeful tone of Russell’s lyrics. It also adheres to one of the tenets of Russell’s songwriting. She explains, “When I was 28 or 29, I had this motto in my brain: I never want to write songs that say ‘I’ll die without you. My life is over.’ You can’t add on to that type of energy. You have to lift people up and let them think that they can do anything after you’re gone. I always wanted to uplift. That has always been my thing from day one, no matter what style.”

Levine collaborated with the singer on “Thank You”, a song that could easily summarize Russell’s feelings about recording Love Life. “We were having way too much fun. I had to say ‘thank you’ to somebody,” she laughs. “It’s like God heard all of my prayers. That’s how I felt because these guys were people that I admired. I had more than what I could possibly dream.” Lines like “Thank you, for sharin’ with me moments overpowered / I never knew this could be mine / It’s such a special place in time” put the bow on the whole Love Life experience.

Tragically, John Lennon was murdered outside his apartment at the Dakota in New York during the course of Russell’s sessions for Love Life. “I was devastated,” she says. “I was devoted to the Beatles, as musicians, for inspiration—the way they thought about love, the world, peace. I learned so much from the way they wrote songs. They didn’t stick to any script about it. They brought such an awareness to young writers: Don’t be strapped in, break the rules, break the song structure.” In honor of a man who’d been a tremendous influence in her life and career, Russell dedicated Love Life to Lennon.

In fact, ever since she was a young girl in junior high school, selling her illustrations of the Beatles to her classmates, Russell had dreamt about meeting each of the Beatles. “I met all of them,” she says. “I had the honor of meeting Ringo Starr when I was pregnant with my daughter Lindsay. We were at the Roxy. He sat next to me and all he could do was touch my stomach because I was eight months pregnant. I’m thinking, I’m sitting next to a Beatle! George Harrison had his own label, Dark Horse. Brian and I had just done our first album (Word Called Love) on Rocket and were at a record label party. George came over to me and said he loved our album. He was so nice. He didn’t have to tell us that—he’s a Beatle!—but he did. Is that cool or what? He knew who we were. I was done.”

Russell met Paul McCartney earlier in the ‘70s when she, Brian Russell, and Donny Gerrard sang background for Elton John at Wembley Stadium in London. “Paul came over to me, Donny, and Brian afterward and said, ‘You guys are great!’” Around the same time, producer Robert Appère introduced Russell to Lennon. “Robert worked in a studio not far from us,” she recalls. “He called us at about three or four o’clock in the morning and said, ‘Get down here now.’ We went down and met John Lennon and … some other people. All I could remember was John! [laughs] How I met John was, he passed me a joint. I thought, I smoked a joint with John Lennon! It was so fun!”

With the singer’s dedication to Lennon inscribed on the back of Love Life, A&M selected a portrait of Russell for the cover art. Her stunning visage was an invitation to eight songs rooted in several musical sensibilities. A&M issued “If You Love” as a single, which only dented the R&B singles chart at #50. Love Life missed the album charts altogether.

“I don’t think I got airplay on that,” says Russell. “I did have airplay on ‘Rainbow’, I remember. A lot of work goes into making these records, spending a year of your life recording an album, giving blood, sweat, and tears, as they say. In our world now, everything is judged on its monetary value—‘It didn’t sell, it can’t be good.’ You start thinking that yourself as an artist, and that’s not good. It’s demoralizing for artists when you don’t recognize what their strength is.”

When it appeared that Love Life wouldn’t secure her future at A&M, Russell found a new label home at Warner Bros. Tommy LiPuma had since become Warner’s Vice President of Jazz and Progressive Music. He signed Russell and produced her third album, Two Eyes (1983). The set included her homage to Al Jarreau (“Jarreau”) as well as writing efforts with Michael McDonald (“Hello People”), Don Grusin (“Stay Close”), and David Foster (“It’s Something!”). Stevie Wonder recorded a harmonica solo on “I’ll See You Again” while Russell and LiPuma assembled an all-star choir on “Look Down, Young Soldier” that featured Jarreau, Randy Crawford, Christopher Cross, James Ingram, Joe “Bean” Esposito, Rita Coolidge, Patrice Rushen, and even a young Maya Rudolph.

Despite the caliber of Russell’s songwriting and LiPuma’s production, Two Eyes met the same fate as Love Life. In Sweden, the album garnered interest from television producers who invited her to perform on a Stockholm-based music program, Måndagsbörsen. Though Warner dropped Russell from the roster, she recorded “When I Give My Love to You” with Michael Franks on his Skin Dive (1985) album shortly after WEA Sweden released her single “This Time (I Need You)” (1984). Interestingly, Russell would find her way back to A&M in a roundabout series of events.

“Get Here” and Getting Back to A&M

While living in Stockholm, Russell was inspired to write what became one of the signature compositions of her career, “Get Here”. She recalls, “I had a little penthouse apartment. I was looking out over the city. They had hot air balloons going up. I’m thinking, How many ways can you get to a person? By horse, by caravan, by a balloon, windsurfing … It became a game and it became one of my best lyrics. That’s how I wrote ‘Get Here’. I played it for Janne Ugand who was Peter O. Ekberg’s engineer. He was the first person to hear it and he convinced me it was a great song.

“The first time I played ‘Get Here’ in Los Angeles was amazing. I was singing at this little club. All of these amazing artists came to see me. Herb Alpert was there. Melissa Manchester was there. Michel Colombier, a brilliant French composer, was in the audience that night. When I sang ‘Get Here’, they went crazy! They lost their minds! Melissa said to me, ‘Everybody at my table was like Alice Cooper—the mascara was running down their faces.’ They were just screaming from the audience, ‘Sing it, Brenda! Sing that song, girl!’ Herb said, ‘Okay … you’re back.’ He signed me. It was amazing.”

Re-signing with A&M, Russell enlisted producers Ekberg, Stanley Clarke, and André Fischer for her fourth album, Get Here (1988). At the time, she and Richard Perry had recently co-produced her song “Dinner With Gershwin” for Donna Summer on All Systems Go (1987), winning a Top 20 hit in the UK. Russell was now primed to score the biggest hit of her solo career when “Piano in the Dark” (her collaboration with Jeff Hull and Scott Cutler) shot to number six on the Hot 100 in June 1988.

Featuring Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante on piano and a haunting guest vocal by Joe “Bean” Esposito, the song almost didn’t make it to the radio. Russell recalls, “If it wasn’t for Herb Alpert, nobody would have heard ‘Piano in the Dark’. They had picked another single which was not ‘Piano in the Dark’. I was walking by Herb’s office one day. He’s in there playing his horn. He saw me and goes, ‘Brenda, just so you know, I think we should put out ‘Piano in the Dark’‘. The wheels were turning to release this other song. He stopped all the motion on the other song and put everything behind ‘Piano in the Dark’. He was the only person who could have done it because he’s Herb Alpert. That’s why I had that hit.”

Get Here would earn Russell a Grammy nomination for “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female” and two additional nominations for “Piano in the Dark”, including “Song of the Year” and “Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group”. She received the ultimate prize when Bob Dylan called her after the ceremony. “He loved ‘Piano in the Dark’,” the singer recalls. “He said, ‘I think you should have won the Grammy.’ I was floored and so honored. A legendary cat who changed the face of music in his day telling you something like that? It’s like winning a gold record. That’s how I felt.”

The success of Get Here and “Piano in the Dark” marked a pivotal turning point for Russell. Among several projects in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, she co-produced “Soul Talkin’” with Russ Titelman for Chaka Khan and collaborated with Roberta Flack and Barry Miles on “You Know What It’s Like” for Flack’s Oasis (1988) album. Of course, Oleta Adams helped create a modern standard when she recorded Russell’s “Get Here” on Circle of One (1990), taking it to the Top Five in 1991.

In between countless writing, producing, and recording collaborations, Russell’s own solo career resumed with one more A&M album Kiss Me with the Wind (1990), featuring co-productions with Narada Michael Walden, André Fischer, and Larry Williams. She released Soul Talkin’ (1993) on EMI and signed with Hidden Beach for her seventh solo set, Paris Rain (2000). Four years later, she recorded Between the Sun and Moon (2004), working with an esteemed cadre of co-producers including Stephen Oberhoff, Lee Ritenour, Jochem Van Der Saag, Stephen Bray, Joe Vannelli, and Incognito founder Jean Paul “Bluey” Maunick.

Could Brenda Russell have imagined during Love Life that one day she’d help compose a Tony-winning Broadway musical? “Never,” she laughs. Yet nearly 25 years later, she teamed with Allee Willis and Stephen Bray in scoring The Color Purple (2005). The prospect of venturing into musicals, where millions of dollars are invested before an audience ever hears a note, could have been daunting, but Russell welcomed the challenge. “Something told me to approach it like it’s already written,” she says. “There’s a great book called The Remembering Process (2015). It talks about approaching things as if they already happened in your mind, so you just have to remember how you did it.”

The Color Purple won multiple Tony Awards during its original run and recent revival, including “Best Revival of a Musical” (2016), plus “Best Actress in a Musical” nods for both LaChanze (2006) and Cynthia Erivo (2016). In February 2017, the revival’s accompanying cast album, featuring Erivo, Jennifer Hudson, and Danielle Brooks, won the Grammy Award for “Best Musical Theatre Album”. In between, Diana Ross became the very first music legend to record a song from The Color Purple when she included “What About Love” on her album I Love You (2007).

Russell’s innate versatility only bolstered her capacity to compose for Broadway. Her openness to different styles is also central to her longevity as an artist and songwriter. “I have so many levels of expression when it comes to music,” she says. “I can go to Brazil, I can do rock & roll, gospel … I just love it all. I still want to do a country song!” Even on Love Life, Russell tilled a mixture of elements that foretold her growth with future musical endeavors. 

Perhaps the fact that Russell recorded Love Life on her own terms, especially after surviving the sting of a shelved album, is the ultimate measure of its success. “Someone has to sign that check to let you make a record,” she says. “You don’t really realize the odds of something like that happening when you’re in it because you’re young and driven. I was fortunate because not many artists had that opportunity, that the record company would release them from any type of restrictions of what they should sound like or what song to pick. They gave me a lot of leeway to do what I wanted to do because they recognized that I could do it.”

Decades later, Brenda Russell appreciates the place Love Life holds for listeners, whether they’ve been spinning the album since 1981 or have just discovered “Rainbow” for the first time. She remains grateful to Stewart Levine, engineer Al Schmitt, and the musicians who recorded the album. “Stewart was wonderful,” she says. “I loved working with him because he was so damn funny. He made us howl. I had the best musicians. I love all of those Toto guys. It was just a really fun thing to do.” From one side of the rainbow to the other, Russell is still putting love into everything she does.

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