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.
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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.
“I’ve Got Light Years on My Mind”
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.
“You Can Reach Me With Your Mind”: A Tribute to Brenda Russell
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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!”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Brenda Russell is the quintessential singer-songwriter. Her gift for marrying perfect melodies with thoughtful and evocative lyrics is unmatched.”