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