Counting the Stars

Treasured Singer-Songwriter Brenda Russell Shares Her Story

by Christian John Wikane

6 October 2017

Love Life cover (A&M Records) 

"You Can Reach Me With Your Mind": A Tribute to Brenda Russell

“She’s liquid, a gentle stream.”

Jazz virtuoso Don Grusin describes Russell as “the Living Priestess of the Music Pulpit”. It’s easy to see understand why. She inspires poetry in other songwriters. Vocalists and musicians marvel at her melodies and lyrics. Artists derive inspiration from the path she’s created for herself. As groundbreaking drummer Terri Lyne Carrington attests, “Brenda has found a way to continually evolve her artistry and stretch herself to new heights at every juncture. Her example helped me have the courage to follow my own artistic dreams.”

Indeed, the love and respect for Russell as both a singer and songwriter goes deep. Her musical genius has influenced several generations of artists, from bands like Skylark and Rufus & Chaka Khan introducing “Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me of a Friend)” to music audiences in the early ‘70s, to Lalah Hathaway and Snarky Puppy recording their Grammy-winning rendition of “Something” (2013), a tune Russell wrote with David Foster and recorded on her own album Two Eyes (1983). In fact, Foster and Hathaway are among more than 20 singers, songwriters, producers, and music legends who join PopMatters in our exclusive tribute to Russell and the influence of her exceptional talents.

David Foster

“One of my favorite subjects—Brenda Russell—a triple threat. I was so blown away with her voice, her songwriting, her piano playing and everything about her when I first met her. She has written some of the best songs on the planet and she continues to be a driving force in the music business with no regard to boundaries. She doesn’t write R&B music. She doesn’t write jazz music. She doesn’t write pop music. She simply writes music, beautiful and melodic music for all ages and times.

She also has the most spectacular spirit, which only enhances all of her other wonderful abilities. I always have been and I always will be a Brenda Russell fan. I am so happy that I was just one of many that got to witness her talent up close and collaborate with her.”

Valerie Simpson

“There are songs that speak to your spirit and those are the kind of songs that Brenda Russell writes: ‘Piano in the Dark’ and ‘Get Here’ are audiovisual masterpieces that are timeless! So happy to know her and see her break boundaries through the music of The Color Purple, and continue to grow musically.”

Neil Sedaka

“I’ve always marveled at how versatile Brenda Russell is as a musician, a singer, and a songwriter. We were very close during the Rocket days. ‘Piano In the Dark’ and ‘Get Here’ are great pieces of writing. And then to successfully cross over into writing songs for the theater is even more impressive. Like all the great artists, Brenda continues to raise the bar and reinvent herself.”

Bobby Watson (Rufus)

“Brenda’s one of those people who has her finger pressed on some button that leads to another planet. When she presses that button, all of these beautiful chords on the piano and these meaningful lyrics come through.

When Rufus was getting ready to cut Rufusized (1974), André Fischer brought ‘Please Pardon Me’ to rehearsal. He played it on a little cassette player. We listened and everybody said, ‘That’s nice. We can play that!’ We went into the studio and cut a track on it. Chaka came in at night and did her vocals. Everything is gold with Brenda!”

Gino Vannelli

“Dear Brenda, the moment you opened your mouth and began singing the chorus lines to ‘Summers of My Life’ (1976), I knew that voice of yours was special and way overqualified for the job; and even more importantly, the soul behind your eyes made me think of a runner in ready position, eager to take off. Glad we got to work together.

With love and respect, Gino.”

Paulette McWilliams

“I’ve always felt Brenda Russell was a brilliant, gifted writer. I love her as a human being and I’ve loved her all of my professional career. When I was looking for songs to put on my first album, I stopped at her song because I knew that was the one. At the time that I recorded ‘Don’t Let Love Go’ (1977), I thought it was better than anything else that was out there. It was unique in its lyric content and also just how it was laid out. A lot of times I’d hear things that she wrote and I knew it was Brenda, like ‘Get Here’.

Her songs go right to the gut. As an artist, I think she’s incomparable.”

Bruce Sudano

“The Brenda I Know … A sweet and humble heart. An innocence of spirit. A funky left hand and soulful voice. A knowledge and respect for history. A unique ability to paint with words. A subtle yet intricate sense of harmony. A deep respect for the gifts she’s been given. The generosity to easily share them. The faith and courage to follow her muse. Child, mother, sister, friend. There’s a sultry romance to her music. A sophistication that oozes emotional beauty. An underlying wisdom, a knowing, a warmth.

She’s liquid, a gentle stream.”

Verdine White (Earth, Wind & Fire)

“When you hear Brenda Russell, you know it’s her. I love her voice. It’s very direct and very pure-sounding. Her records are meticulous. Nobody can do it like her, in terms of structure and memorable songs. For an instrumentalist, a bass player like myself, you’re excited about working with somebody like Brenda because you know the song is going to be great.

Back in the day, what brought everybody together was the artists themselves because they were fans of each other’s music. It wouldn’t be unusual to have the greats in one room at one time. Everybody was in this little circle that we created. I knew that Brenda was friends with David Foster. She knew Allee Willis. We had some tremendous success with them. She brought quality to “And Loves Goes On” (1980). Philip Bailey tells me that, to this day, it’s one of his favorite songs, vocally.

It was great working with Brenda. The work is still here. It was coming from the heart.”

Greg Phillinganes

“Brenda Russell is, without question, one of the greatest and most underrated songwriters of our time. While many of her songs have been covered by other adoring artists, Brenda’s voice adds an extra dimension of intrinsic value to her songs, allowing the listener access to the depths of her heart.”

Sarah Dash

“Brenda Russell has written some phenomenal songs. I heard her rendition of ‘God Bless You’. David Wolfert was my producer at the time. We were talking about songs that I wanted to do and ‘God Bless You’ was a song that I really liked. In my spiritual world, it’s dedicated to my dad because he was a pastor. He always said, ‘God is going to bless you.’

It was an honor for me to interpret or translate through my own vocal abilities some words and music that Brenda had written. I also sing ‘Get Here’. That’s still in my repertoire. Oleta Adams really did justice to it, and Luther Vandross did wonders with’“If Only for One Night’.

The simplicity of [Brenda’s work] is so powerful. She has those meaningful lyrics and chord structures that people can really identify with. She is one of the greatest writers of our time. I love her.”

Steve Lukather (Toto)

“Brenda has such a unique soulful voice and she writes great songs too! She is one of a kind. I was honored to work with her and become friends too ... great times!”

Russell Ferrante (Yellowjackets)

“I have great affection and admiration for Brenda. She is a truly authentic and empathetic individual, two indispensable qualities for an artist. Everyone who knows Brenda thinks they’re her best friend! She connects deeply with those around her and with their stories. I’m sure that’s why she’s such a great collaborator.

In addition, her musical palette is wide, ranging from blues and gospel to jazz and beyond. I cherish every opportunity I’ve had to make music with Brenda and am thrilled she is receiving this well-deserved recognition.”

Joe “Bean” Esposito

“Brenda’s an incredible songwriter. I compare her to Carole King. I always felt that way. I’ve been friends with her since we did American Hot Wax (1978) together. She got me on the gig to sing the TV theme to Diff’rent Strokes—her, myself, and Arnold McCuller. She has a beautiful, sultry voice. She’d call me for sessions every now and then, and asked me to do the duet on ‘Piano in the Dark’.

She has a different way of writing. It’s a step above, like the way Sting or Paul Simon would write. ‘Dinner With Gershwin’, ‘Piano in the Dark’ … I mean, who comes up with stuff like that? It’s genius.”

Dave Koz

“Since the day I met Brenda, I’ve called her ‘The Queen’ because, quite simply, that’s what she is. She has this very regal, yet very real way about her—and I’ve met few people in my life that truly ‘get it’ like Brenda gets it. I think that’s what informs her writing, and why she has had so much wonderful success over the years. She operates from such an authentic place and lives such a true life, that it’s inevitable those qualities come out in her music.

The essence of all of Brenda’s songs is really the essence of Brenda herself … there’s an ocean of love in every word and every note. This woman has brought so much love into the world, with her music, her gorgeous voice, with her humanity and her huge Spirit. She deserves her title of ‘Queen’ indeed, but she’s gotta be the coolest Queen of all time!”

Freda Payne: Brenda Russell is one of the great songwriters of our time. She is a friend as well. I can’t say enough about her!

Narada Michael Walden: Brenda Russell is a brilliant woman with integrity and musical genius to the skies! She has brought to the earth a sound of her own and one that has changed us for the better for All Time. I playfully say, she’s got “Oo-wee Oo-wee” power! Soul power. Sincerity power. Love open heart power. We adore Brenda because she never lets us forget our divine light. And her music … she is a God Gift to us all. She is simply the best ever! Amen Brenda. Can’t wait to work with you again. Lovingly your brother, Narada.

Lisa Fischer

“Brenda moves me like deep waters swelling, under a full moon, with stars sparkling on the surface, the vastness of emotional possibilities. Her voice, her lyric, her music ... she is pure heaven.”

Roberta Flack

“It’s very hard for me to put all of the bigness and magnificence of Brenda Russell into just a few sentences. Her songs tell stories of our lives. I’ve recorded and performed her songs many times. She and I have collaborated on songs and performed together. She’s my friend on top of being one of the greatest songwriters of our time.

To put it in her words: honoring her ongoing contributions to music is ‘so good, so right’!!!”

Terri Lyne Carrington

“Brenda Russell has the ability to channel the essence of humanity through her voice and her songs. She is distinct and original with bellowing characteristic compositional traits. I’ve borrowed from her mastery.

I remember first meeting Brenda at a Joni Mitchell concert in Los Angeles where she sang background, in place of Chaka Khan, that evening. I was so excited to meet her because like so many others, I had my own special experience with the ultimate seduction song—“If Only for One Night”. We talked about the song and hung out all day backstage. I remember feeling that her energy was that of a big sister. She was easygoing with no pretense. She later sang some background parts on an album of mine that was never released and remained encouraging in regard to my songwriting and singing.

Thank you, Brenda, for the many years of dedication, integrity, and blatant honesty with your work, which is not separate from who you are. Love you madly.”

Harvey Mason (Fourplay)

“Brenda Russell is a uniquely talented writer and singer with an unmistakable sound. I’ve been and continue to be a huge fan of her songs and her artistry. I consider Brenda a friend and wish her continued success, happiness, and love.”

Don Grusin

“Brenda—an insider’s heroine to of all us players and singers, regardless of commercial successes and all that. We players sometimes say things like, ‘well, this singer or that is very good’, but our description of them stops short of giving them musician props. Brenda is the consummate musician, and although we experience her mostly through her voice, the depth of her writing and voice interpretation is profound. Profound. So much fun we had in the studio with Harvey Mason, Gerald Albright, etc. on ‘Baby’s Coming Home Tonight’, a song Brenda and I wrote for my last GRP album Bananafish (1994).

She once reached out to now-departed Leon Ware and me after we released an album Candlelight (2001) with such love and respect, but above all, she understood.”

Cynthia Erivo

“Brenda is a genius! Her music is the soundtrack to my youth, so it was a complete honor to get the opportunity to sing her music in The Color Purple. It is full of heart, soul, and funk, which is always a delectable combination to hear and to sing.”

Lalah Hathaway

“Brenda Russell is the quintessential singer-songwriter. Her gift for marrying perfect melodies with thoughtful and evocative lyrics is unmatched.”

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