Here is my inaugural posting under the title of ‘Hello to…‘, an occasional series which will always commence with introducing a favoured tune I often play, followed by me delving in a little deeper into that particular artist’s work. I have included posts to youtube for the tracks mentioned at the end of each relevant paragraph. Also, if you enjoy this piece, please be as so kind to leave a comment in the box at the very bottom of the page. Thank you.
My first tune then is the jazz-tinged soul-funk uplift that is ‘In the Thick of It’, and the artist – of course – is Brenda Russell. It is by no means the only track from this great lady that I regularly listen to, but I had to start somewhere.
If you’re not that acquainted with her original, but find it is still ringing clear in your head when you listen, that may well be because, as with many of her compositions, the song has been covered, in this case done relatively recently and to some considerable acclaim by the sublime Joey Negro & The Sunburst Band, featuring Angela Johnson charging forth on the vocals. I guess this also explains why I chose this track out of the several of hers I listen to quite frequently, because that version is also in high ranking on my “Onwards & Upwards” playlist.
Brenda Russell (née Gordon) was born in Brooklyn, New York, and spent her teenage years in Canada. If it could be said of anyone it surely could be said here hers was a pedigree set in stone, given that both her father Gus Gordon and Cinnamon Sharpe were singers.
It was evident at a very early age that she could sing, as the story goes: There she was, eyes closed, no older than three, standing at the radio crooning note for note to a popular jazz tune.“My mother just froze,” Russell said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB).“She couldn’t believe it.” (1)
It was there her musical career took off, when aged 18, she released her first (and their only) single as part of the Toronto-based girl The Tiaras ‘Where Does All The Time Go’ (which was released on Barry Records in 1968).
Following this she went on to join the Toronto production of ‘Hair’, and it was also around this time she began to play the piano. She had a brief period after this with a musical group called Dr. Music, touring throughout Canada in 1972, but the 1970’s really took off when she moved to Los Angeles with her then-husband Bryan Russell. Working as backing singers for Neil Sedaka, the pair were seen one night by Elton John, subsequently leading to them releasing two albums through his Rocket label, first with ‘Word Called Love’ in 1976 (featuring tracks such as ‘Gonna Do My Best To Love You’ which in my opinion, though much less known, has the same power as an Ashford & Simpson gem – and I’ve placed both the original and the Tom Moulton mix just below). followed just one year later with ‘Supersonic Lover’ (containing diamonds such as ‘Don’t Let Love Go’, which either stands as wise advice or the wish of a broken heart, depending where one is in life). Both of these albums are most worthy of discovering if not yet done so – true underrated classic works as they stand.
This album was followed just one year later with ‘Supersonic Lover’ (containing diamonds such as ‘Don’t Let Love Go’, which either stands as wise advice or the wish of a broken heart, depending where one is in life). Both collections are most worthy of discovering if not yet done so – true underrated classic works as they stand.
Time marches on, and so it came for Brenda Russell, both in her private life and her career, to now go solo, which brings us back to ‘In the Thick of It’, taken from her first album release ‘Brenda Russell’ in 1978 (A&M Records). It was not one of the two tracks that were released as singles in America (those being ‘So Good, So Right’ and ‘Way Back When’), though it was the A-side with ‘So Good, So Right’ here in the UK and throughout much of Europe.
“I wrote that (So Good, So Right) while I was washing dishes at a dinner party I was having.” Brenda says.
“This little song came in my head, and all I had in those days – this was 1978 – all I had was a piano in the living room where all the dinner guests were. And so I knew that I had to get it down, put it on the tape recorder or I was going to forget it, and I knew it was good. I’m a very shy writer, I don’t like writing in front of people. So for me to go in that living room, sit down at the piano, and write that song while they were all sitting there was really, really hard for me. I did it because I knew this song in my head was too good to just keep going along with the dinner conversation. You know, it’s like, I gotta get this down. And luckily I did that, because it became my first hit record.” (2)
A notable fact, especially given the body of work she has created over the last few decades, is that Brenda neither reads or writes music:
“I never actually learned. I play by ear, as some people say. I just kind of hear it in my head, and then pick it out on the piano.”(3)
Another notable track from that debut album is ‘If Only for One Night’, which was later covered by both Roberta Flack with Peabo Bryson and by Luther Vandross. The album was re-released in 2000, a clear pointer to her continuing and ever-growing popularity.
Of all her accomplishments, probably her best known hit is the 1998 double Grammy-nominated ‘Piano in the Dark’ (again with A&M Records).
As already established, her work as a songwriter has been the source for many other artists, such as Oleta Adams, who garnered herself a huge international hit in 1991 with the Grammy-nominated cover of ‘Get Here’. An interesting fact about this track is that Brenda Russell wrote it whilst she was in Stockholm, Sweden in 1984, and Oleta Adams first heard it some years later in a record store… in Stockholm, Sweden; talk about synchronicity!
Other artists who have covered her songs include Patti LaBelle, Johnny Mathis, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Herb Alpert, Roberta Flack, Lalah Hathaway, Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan… an almost inexhaustible list so here is to name but a few. One can then add to this her writing talents specifically for others, such as ‘I’ve Had Enough’ in 1982 for the band Earth, Wind & Fire. Of the multitude, this I single out firstly because I love it, and secondly because it later got sampled to fine use on two other tracks I’m fond of, namely ‘Fly Away’, again with Joey Negro & The Sunburst Band featuring Peter Simpson in 2004, and 2012’s ‘Free Your Mind’ (Richard Earnshaw Classic Vocal Mix) by A.M Dusk and Allistair Whitehead. I digress.
As a solo artist she has released nine albums in all (not including anthologies or collaborations), and my personal favourite (if I had to pick) is the inspiring ‘Paris Rain’ (Epic/Hidden Beach Recordings) in 2000, featuring amongst others the utterly transcendent prayer that is ‘Ideal World’ and the up-beat ‘Walking In New York’ – which makes me long to do so again.
She followed this in 2004 with the release of ‘Between The Sun And Moon’ (Dome Records), which saw her wings spread further still on such tracks as the elevatory afro-rhythmic title track (Patti Austin joining her here on vocals), the holiday-feel ‘Make You Smile’ with its conga drums and horns accompanying joyful scat (a singing style only the best can master), and the silken song of a languid panther ‘Too Cool For The Room’.
Her breadth of accomplishment is remarkable. As well as her solo work, she co-wrote the score for ‘The Colour Purple’ musical, and other notable works include her collaboration with Stevie Wonder on the beautiful song ‘Justice of the Heart’ for the Denzel Washington 2002 movie ‘John Q’, and her co-composition with Brazilian artist Ivan Lins ‘She Walks This Earth’, which was subsequently recorded by Sting, seeing him win a Grammy Award in 2001 for Best Pop Male Vocal Performance.
She walks this Earth indeed, and it is a better place for it. Brenda Russell’s work, as I have merely touched upon here, is prolific, fusing over musical genres and breaking the boundaries that lock down many. In this there is something cohesive, a unity.
In her own words: “I am a citizen of the world and believe in peace and love to all people. That is what I write about and what I sing about. It’s the motivating force behind everything I do and the way I live. I want my music to bring people together.”
1. A great in-depth article. http://biography.jrank.org/pages/2768/Russell-Brenda.html
2 & 3. Taken from an interview with Brenda Russell (well worth checking it out in full) on April 24, 2007. http://www.songfacts.com/blog/interviews/brenda_russell/