Interviews

Counting the Stars: Treasured Singer-Songwriter Brenda Russell Shares Her Story

Love Life cover (A&M Records)

A composer of the Tony-winning musical The Color Purple, Brenda Russell revisits her rare solo album Love Life (1981), while legends like Roberta Flack, David Foster, and Valerie Simpson join PopMatters for an exclusive tribute to her career.

There's one particular conversation that Brenda Russell will always remember. By the early '70s, the Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter had spent a few years performing throughout Canada, from the cast of Hair to her tenure in Dr. Music, and was ready to explore LA's fertile musical landscape. A fellow singer asked Russell, "Why are you moving to Los Angeles when there are already so many good people there?" Her incredulous tone implied a statement more than a question.

Recalling the conversation, Russell chuckles in disbelief. "It's funny now, but it wasn't so funny at the time," she says. "Why would she say something so mean? Not everybody has the faith that you're going to be alright. I always had that faith. I believe that it's not just me but the laws of the universe that are working with me. If you put the love in, something good's going to come of it."

Love is the guiding force in Russell's career. It fuels her writing and shades each melody she sings. It's there in her first solo hit "So Good, So Right" and woven throughout the score she authored with Allee Willis and Stephen Bray for the Tony Award-winning musical The Color Purple. It's what the late, legendary producer Tommy LiPuma heard when he signed Russell to A&M-distributed Horizon Records in 1979. "I thought that Brenda was about as close to a Carole King kind of writer as I had heard up until that point," LiPuma shared in December 2015 (Wikane). "The thing that I loved about her voice was the emotion that she put into every lyric."

Love is also the heart of Love Life (1981), Russell's second solo album. Years before she earned a trio of Grammy nominations, and icons like Ray Charles, Donna Summer, and Luther Vandross immortalized her songs, Russell recorded eight tunes on Love Life that reflected the uniqueness of her singing and songwriting talents. Produced by Stewart Levine, the album also underscored Russell's stylistic range and natural inclination to eschew trends and categories.

In the years since its release, Love Life has remained something of an undiscovered gem, though Russell's audience is intimately acquainted with the exquisite "Rainbow" and "If You Love" as well as more rock-infused material like "Love Life" and "Sensitive Man". Russell revisits the album in her exclusive interview with PopMatters, while more than 20 of her friends and contemporaries, including Roberta Flack, David Foster, Valerie Simpson, and Tony-winning actress Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple), honor Russell in a special postscript that celebrates her remarkable career.

A New Horizon

Los Angeles was ready for Brenda Russell. During the summer of 1975, Rufus & Chaka Khan added some extra sizzle to the R&B Top Ten with "Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me of a Friend)", a song that Russell wrote with her husband at the time, Brian Russell. Previously recorded by Skylark, a Canadian group that featured David Foster, "Please Pardon Me" gave Brian and Brenda Russell their first major hit in the US after moving from Canada. Their vocals also graced Neil Sedaka's "Laughter in the Rain", which topped the Hot 100 in February 1975 and secured the duo's recording contract with Elton John's Rocket Records. They released Word Called Love (1976) and Supersonic Lover (1977) on Rocket before dissolving their marriage and creative partnership, though Russell later recorded a version of "Think It Over" on her solo debut.

Russell resumed her work as a prolific session vocalist in Los Angeles while she searched for a record deal. Industry executives were quick to categorize her. "I felt like they wanted to restrict me to a certain style and I didn't want to be restricted," she says. "I went for an interview at ABC/Dunhill. There was this brother interviewing me. The first thing I said to him was, 'I'm not an R&B artist.' He said, 'Honey, if you're black, you're R&B.' I was a child of the '60s and I came up with all kinds of music. I didn't want to just do something that I wasn't that good at. This is what I try to tell young writers: Stay with who you are. You've got to express your own voice. You've got to believe you have one."

LiPuma heard both honesty and hit potential in Russell's songwriting. Since January 1978, the renowned producer had presided at Horizon Records after successfully shepherding George Benson from jazz to pop during his previous post as a staff producer for Warner Bros. Upon the recommendation of producer / engineer Al Schmitt, he met with Russell and her manager, Brenda Dash. Her demo of "So Good, So Right" was all LiPuma needed to hear. He signed Russell to Horizon's roster, which also included Dr. John, Seawind, Neil Larsen, and Yellow Magic Orchestra, not to mention a full-length set between A&M co-founder Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela.

Following his departure from Rufus, André Fischer co-produced Táta Vega's Try My Love (1978) for Motown. He helmed Russell's solo debut, helping her songs take flight and inspiring her to harness the newfound power in her voice. "Tommy LiPuma just let us do our thing, and we did," says Russell. Fischer also spoke up in her defense when sexist attitudes surfaced during sessions. "In those days, it was not that easy for women to get much respect in the studio, which was very male-dominated," she recalls. "Making records was a boys' club for the most part, pop music, particularly. You had to fight for yourself.

"I'll never forget one musician came in and said to André, 'What does she want on this? What does she want on that?' The musician would never talk to me. One great thing about André is he would always deflect that. He would say, 'This is her song. She wrote it. She arranged it. Ask her the question.' I had much more to offer than they all realized. Even though I wasn't technically trained enough to say 'I want an F-sharp here', I knew what I felt. I could sing it to them, but not everyone would give me the respect."

However, Brenda Russell (1979) commanded respect from critics, musicians, and listeners alike when it arrived in record stores during July 1979. Billboard noted how Russell's self-penned debut detoured from fashionable disco "in favor of mostly mellow, well-orchestrated numbers" (28 July 1979). Indeed, the melodies and chord progressions on songs like "In the Thick of It" and "You're Free" signaled a sophisticated yet emotionally vibrant musicality.

"So Good, So Right", the album's first single, bowed on the Hot 100 the week ending 18 August 1979, peaking at #30 exactly three months later. It climbed to #15 R&B and made the Top Ten on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart. "It blew my mind how much people loved that song," says Russell. "I had one promotion guy named Freddie Mancuso who was responsible, almost singlehandedly, for all these stations who started to play this record. They didn't even know I was black. He didn't tell them either! He just took it out to these pop stations and they loved the song. It became a pretty big hit. You don't realize how difficult it is to have that happen to you, especially your first time out, but I was still grateful."

The album itself won praise from industry royalty, even prompting Quincy Jones to call Russell at home and applaud her second single "Way Back When". "The response was fantastic," she says. "Still, to this day, people talk about that first album. People went absolutely nuts over it. It couldn't have been more exciting. It introduced me and my music to the planet." Over the years, the album would furnish source material for a range of artists, including Joe Cocker ("So Good, So Right"), Sarah Dash ("God Bless You"), Patti Austin ("A Little Bit of Love"), and Luther Vandross, who'd follow Roberta Flack's rendition of "If Only For One Night" with his own classic interpretation of the song.

Please don't ad block PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.

Thank you.

As Russell ascended the charts, Billboard reported a bombshell: "A&M Ponders Fate of Defunct Horizon Acts" (1 September 1979). Any momentum that Brenda Russell gathered suddenly fizzled when Horizon folded and LiPuma returned to Warner Bros. The album stalled at #65 on the Billboard 200 and "Way Back When" missed the Hot 100, only peaking at a modest #42 R&B. Fortunately, A&M transferred Russell to the parent company's roster where she re-teamed with Fischer for her sophomore set.

The singer had a disturbing premonition. "André and I finished the album," she says. "I had a nightmare that I got shot. When I woke up, I realized it had something to do with the music. I knew something terrible was going to happen. I was shot in my dream and that's how I felt when the label shelved the album. They said, We don't want this. We want 'So Good, So Right'. I thought that I had free reign to do what I felt in my heart. I didn't realize I was supposed to repeat myself. That's not the kind of artist I really am."

In the meantime, Russell found a golden outlet for her songwriting when longtime friend David Foster recommend her to Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White. As the group prepared Faces (1980) at AIR Studios in Montserrat, White called Russell and asked her to contribute lyrics to a trio of songs for the album, "And Love Goes On", "You", and "Song In My Heart". Russell's association with Earth, Wind & Fire continued on Raise! (1981), which featured "I've Had Enough", her collaboration with Philip Bailey and Greg Phillinganes.

Herb Alpert had a recommendation of his own: get Stewart Levine to produce Brenda Russell. In addition to producing more than a dozen albums for Hugh Masekela, Levine had worked with B.B. King, the Crusaders, and Lamont Dozier, and produced Minnie Riperton's Adventures in Paradise (1975), as well as Randy Crawford's debut for Warner Bros., Everything Must Change (1976). "I met Stewart and I loved him," says Russell. "He was the kind of person that I totally related to. We were sympathetic to each other in our musical sense." Russell composed a whole new batch of songs and commenced recording with Levine and engineer Al Schmitt at Sound Labs in Hollywood.

Next Page
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.