[24 January 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Photos by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Imagine this. You’re a singer-songwriter who’s just scored her first solo hit. Over the past few years, your songs have been recorded by a few notable acts, including Rufus & Chaka Khan and a duet by Motown artists Jermaine Jackson and Táta Vega. Many artists and executives in the music industry are familiar with your compositions but it’s your solo debut that’s garnering praise and putting your name in the Top 40. While sitting in your Sherman Oaks apartment, the telephone rings. “Brenda, this is Quincy.” In disbelief you answer “Quincy who?”
It’s not every day that Quincy Jones calls direct but, on an unforgettable day in 1979, that’s exactly what happened to Brenda Russell. “Way Back When”, an album track from the singer’s self-titled debut, prompted the legendary producer to call and tell her how much he liked the song. 35 years later, Russell recounted this and many other stories before an adoring audience at Joe’s Pub.
“I’m a Brooklyn girl,” Russell said after her opening number. Indeed, the singer’s New York appearance was a long-awaited homecoming for an artist who’s lived in Los Angeles most of her career. “I have many loved ones in the audience,” she said. That love was reciprocated from the very beginning of her twelve-song set. When Russell took the stage during “In the Thick of It”, the crowd’s response could have powered the sound board at Joe’s Pub. Listeners gleefully sang and swayed to one of Russell’s most beloved tracks from Brenda Russell (1979). Holding the audience rapt with every note, the singer entwined the lyrics with her signature “oo-we-oo-we-oo”’s.
For her next pair of songs, Russell toured through Paris Rain (2000), an album she co-produced with keyboardist Stephan Oberhoff. “Walkin’ in New York” was a valentine to the singer’s home city. An anthem for the kind of blissful afternoons that actually do exist in the heart of Gotham, the song’s laid back groove morphed into a stirring Latin rhythm, like day yielding to night. The poignancy of “Expect a Miracle” shone in a live setting, especially when the singer invited the audience to sing along. “It heals me to do it,” Russell confided.
The band shifted to a funkier gear for the set’s next tune. “One of the great things about being a songwriter is you have all these singers who record your songs,” Russell said. “This one was recorded by the late great Donna Summer.” Anyone who knows Russell’s oeuvre knows “Dinner with Gershwin”. She’d originally co-produced the track with Richard Perry for Summer’s All Systems Go (1987) album before releasing it on her own Kiss Me with the Wind (1990). The song’s colorful wordplay traces Russell’s daydreams about private rendezvous with Picasso, Amelia Earhart, Rembrandt, Mahalia Jackson, and the object of her heart’s desire. Bassist and Musical Director Bill Sharpe stepped center stage and laid down a bass solo that fully manifested the hints of funk in both versions by Russell and Summer.
Russell nestled the crowd-pleasing “Way Back When” in between two numbers that exhibited her work on the silver screen and the Broadway stage. When offered the opportunity to write a song for Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights (1999), she explained to the crowd, she wrote two songs because she wanted the gig. Ultimately, Levinson used both songs, including “Baby Eyes”. Russell accompanied herself on keys as lines like “With every step I’m falling more into this destiny called love” fell sumptuously from her lips. The song’s jazz overtones illustrated the songwriter’s versatility, while “Way Back When” showed how effortlessly she weaves sophisticated chord progressions into pop songs. It’s no wonder Quincy Jones called her.
In Russell’s career, it was only a matter of time before her songwriting talents found a home on the Great White Way. “I spent five years of my life co-writing The Color Purple (2005) for Broadway with my good friends Allee Willis and Stephen Bray,” she continued before singing one of the musical’s many highlights, “Too Beautiful for Words”. Bathed in purple light, Russell’s heartfelt performance marked the first time she’d ever sung the song in front of a live audience.
From Broadway to Brazil, Brenda Russell helped New Yorkers forget about a cold winter’s night on “Please Felipe” (pronounced “fell-EEP”), a song she co-wrote with Ivan Lins on Paris Rain. Russell’s band members were at their best, from James Harrah’s guitar solo to Jody Cortez’s drum combinations to a piano solo by Oberhoff that left the audience breathless. “Oh-way-oh / yah-yah”, one of many examples of Russell’s unique musical dialect, echoed through Joe’s Pub as the crowd sang the refrain back to the singer.
Following the fireworks of “Please Felipe”, Oberhoff brought the sizzle to a cool simmer. Darkness shrouded him and his piano solo. It was the perfect gateway to a song that needed no introduction. More than 25 years after it hit the Top 10, Russell’s “Piano in the Dark” still stops hearts. She cast a spell on an audience that knew every turn of the song’s haunting melody. Her phrasing remained faithful to the studio recording and was embellished by nuances born through the spontaneity of live performance.
Three years before “Piano in the Dark” brought Brenda Russell to the pop charts, another one of her songs made it onto the airwaves. “I got a phone call one Christmas when I had no money,” she recounted. The news on the other end of the line? “Luther Vandross is gonna do your song—‘If Only For One Night.’” Previously, Russell had recorded it on her 1979 debut while Roberta Flack had cut the song with Peabo Bryson in 1980. The songwriter described Vandross’ version as a “Christmas gift”. It became a staple of the late vocalist’s concerts after he released it on The Night I Fell In Love (1985). Russell and her band took their time with the tune, extending the vamp and exploring the full shape of the song’s emotional arc. “That’s for Luther,” she said above the crowd’s ardent applause.
Russell continued to mine her solo debut with “So Good, So Right”, her very first hit as a singer and songwriter. The song had rather humble beginnings. “I wrote it while washing the dishes,” she said. In concert, Russell and her band deftly ushered “So Good, So Right” through several different moods, from the breezy stroll of the studio version to a Caribbean-inspired interlude, to a fervent, gospel-charged coda. Completely remodeled, “So Good, So Right” evidenced how Russell can create fresh musical ideas from her most well-known songs. The last note triggered a standing ovation that continued through Russell’s return for an encore.
If any composition in Brenda Russell’s songbook holds the distinction as a standard, it’s “Get Here”, the title track to her 1988 album that sparked a new era of commercial and critical renown for the singer. Years after Oleta Adams’ hit version introduced the song to even more record buyers, “Get Here” has lost none of its appeal. Its sentiment of longing and unconditional love remains timeless. “Get Here” also symbolizes the special admiration Russell shares with her listeners. Earlier in the evening, Russell said “I got to come back to New York”. If her triumphant appearance at Joe’s Pub is any indication, no “hills and mountains” will ever come between Brenda Russell and her New York audience.