Brenda Russell Biography
Found Lucky Breaks in Canada, Learned to Write a Good Song
Vocalist, composer, keyboardist, producer
Singer, songwriter Brenda Russell's talent has earned her new fans and the respect of industry peers since she sang her way through the Age of Aquarius in the rock musical Hair. During this time of the Beatles, hippies, campus unrest, love-ins, and the Vietnam War, youth culture took its music seriously, and Russell began to make a name for herself. Russell sang smooth R&B and pop sounds with sensitive and timeless lyrics that are still being covered by artists today. Through the years Russell composed many hits that have earned her and other industry greats the industry's top awards. Her projects have taken her to the movies, writing lyrics with Stevie Wonder for Denzel Washington's movie John Q. In 2004 she co-wrote the score for the stage version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. New fans have discovered a gem and fans who came of age with Russell understand her staying power. Her voice remains strong and her beauty endures.
Brenda Gordon (Russell) was born in the 1940s (some sources say April 8, 1944) in Brooklyn, New York. 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." That's how they knew Russell had talent. How could she not? It was all around her. As a kid, Russell would listen at the window as doo-woppers sang on the street corners. "I was thrilled," Russell said. "It was just riveting to see that music could travel so far and touch someone." Talent also runs in the family. Her father, Gus Gordon, was one of the Ink Spots, a popular singing group from the 1930s and 1940s. He later became a member of the Bill Johnson Quartet. Russell's mother, Cinnamon Sharpe, sang and wrote songs, occasionally calling on young Russell for help singing harmony as she rehearsed.
Found Lucky Breaks in Canada
When Russell was twelve, she moved to the little town of Hamilton, Ontario, south of Toronto where her father had settled. It was culture shock moving from a black neighborhood in Brooklyn to a predominantly white area in Canada, but Russell made the adjustment. Although she later "felt ostracized by the whole dating thing" because of the shortage of black boys at school, Russell made a plan for herself. "I decided if I couldn't get a date for the dances, I'll be the band," Russell told CBB. And she's been the band, the singer, and the songwriter ever since.
Two days after graduation, Russell and some friends hung around back stage at a local event in Burlington, Ontario, hoping to get free tickets when they were approached by the manager of the Tiaras, the group performing that night. He wanted to know if Russell was a singer; they needed one. That night they all got in free and Russell became a member of the group; it was her first professional gig. Russell's dreams were coming true. "I knew I wanted to make my income doing music," Russell said to CBB. "I used to pray that I would never have to work a nine-to-five job."
In 1969 Hair—The American Tribal Love/Rock Musical opened its Canadian run in Toronto with Russell as a cast member. The show, with its themes of love, peace, war and hippies, along with a catchy score and a little bit of nudity, would become a symbol of the times, and ran in the city until 1971. "Those were liberating, heady days," Russell told CBB. "It was a training ground for me although I didn't realize it at the time. I learned everything developing as an artist in Toronto. There were so many hippies walking around. We would stop traffic and they would let us perform to the crowds. There was all this different music in a one block area, jazz, country, everything." Hair helped kick start the careers of many besides Russell: Ben Vereen, Donna Summer, Melba Moore, Nell Carter, and Meat-loaf were just a few.
Learned to Write a Good Song
After the rock musical's run ended, Russell, with several Hair cast members, joined a musical group called Dr. Music in 1972. "It was the hippest group around at the time and we toured the country," said Russell. But Russell had learned more than how to be a part of a group in Hair. She left Dr. Music within a year and began her own career. "I planted my roots, learning how to write a good song and we did a lot of covers and commercials," she said. Russell had discovered her songwriting talent while teaching herself to play the piano during the Hair run. "I used to practice in the lobby of the theater but the owner heard about it and locked the piano." Not to be deterred, Russell soon found another piano—with the help of the musical director—and she continued to develop her own songs. Talking about her desire to learn more about music, Russell revealed a powerful inner drive. "I knew I wanted to be big," Russell remembered to CBB about her early ambitions. But her talents surprised her. She knew she could sing, but "It was the writing thing that I didn't know would be so powerful," Russell told CBB.
In the early 1970s Russell married Brian Russell and the two moved to Los Angeles where they found work as session singers and sang background for several Neil Sedaka performances. Elton John happened to be watching and liked what he heard; the couple joined John's Rocket label in 1976 and recorded two albums. Their songs were now being recorded by Jermaine Jackson, Tata Vega, Paulette McWilliams, and Rufus. In 1978 the couple separated, but it didn't slow Russell down. She released her debut album Brenda Russell the following year, which peaked at 26 on the Black Albums chart. In 1981 Russell released Love Life and in 1983 the album Two Eyes. Next Russell did a guest solo singing lead for Herb Alpert's Wild Romance album in 1985. She then spent some time in Stockholm, Sweden, where she wrote and recorded the song "Get Here."
Russell returned to the states, and in 1987 penned "Dinner with Gershwin" for her fellow cast member from Hair, Donna Summer. Russell released Get Here as an album in 1988, which included her very popular single "Piano in the Dark." The album peaked at 20 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. The title single from the album earned the 37th spot on the chart that same year. "Piano in the Dark" peaked in the top ten on the Adult Contemporary, the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks, and the Billboard Hot 100 charts. "Piano in the Dark" earned a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year and Best Pop Duo Performance; "Get Here" was nominated for best Pop Female Vocal. "Get Here" was later recorded by Oleta Adams placing the single in the top ten on several charts and becoming an anthem of sorts for soldiers returning from the Gulf War.
Gained Enduring Respect
from Her Industry
In 1990 Russell produced a track for a Marilyn Scott album and recorded duets with Gerald Alston and Cart Anderson. She also released Kiss Me With the Wind, her fifth album. Russell's next creation, Soul Talking, released in 1991; Paris Rain came along in 2000, which Russell also co-produced. Russell's album So Good So Right, a retrospective compilation, was released in 2003 featuring the single "It's a Jazz Day." In 2004 Dome Records released her ninth album, Between the Sun and the Moon.
Russell's talents were acknowledged by the number of top artists who covered her tunes: Luther Vandross sang "If Only For One Night;" Roberta Flack did "My Love For You;" Earth, Wind & Fire performed "I've Had Enough" and "You." Other of her compositions have been recorded by the likes of Peabo Bryson, Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Rita Coolidge, Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Ramsey Lewis, Johnny Mathis, Ann Murray, Phil Perry, Diana Ross, Patrice Rushen, Tavares, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, Nancy Wilson, and many others. Collaborating with Brazilian composer Ivan Lins, Russell penned "She Walks This Earth," which won Sting a Grammy award in 2001 for the Best Pop Vocal Performance category. When Russell partnered with Stevie Wonder for the film John Q, co-writing lyrics to Wonder's song—"Justice of the Heart," it was clear that he understood the value of collaboration with Russell. Russell told Dale Kawashima in an interview with Songwriters Universe Magazine that when she first heard about the project and contacted Wonder, he responded with a return call saying "Sure Brenda, I'll win an Oscar with you." In 2004 Russell joined with Steven Bray and Allee Willis to write the music, lyrics, and score for the stage production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple. The show opened in Atlanta to standing ovations and sold-out performances and will open on Broadway in 2005.
Inspired by the Beatles
Considering the talents of other songwriters, those who might be called "genius," and the artists who influenced her most, Russell confided to CBB that John Lennon and Paul McCartney and the music of the Beatles "heavily influenced" her early years, as did Motown music. "That's what helped me learn how to write songs," she said of her early influences. "But the Beatles were more interesting on one level because they explored territories outside the boundaries of basic song structure. They went over here and back here and you never knew what was coming. And that was exciting to me, that they broke the traditional song structure for pop music." She also found inspiration in other women, especially "the women who played their own songs like Carol King, Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell, who played piano and sang," she told CBB. Russell didn't limit herself to rock and roll and pop music. She relished the songs of the thirties and forties. "I'm a big Gershwin fan," she said. Still Russell listed McCartney, Lennon, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John "at the top of my list."
Though Russell could pinpoint several inspirations for her musical tastes, she found the inspiration for her compositions difficult to explain. "The only thing I can tell you is once I relaxed I was a channel for the music and it got a lot better. It wasn't all about me. I just had a desire and I put it out there until I learned how to play piano and how to write songs. I have this incredible desire to write songs and to do it with all my heart and my passion and my truth, and because of that, beautiful melodies come to me in exchange for that desire, that's how I see it."
Russell recognized that her success was nurtured by several fountains of inspiration. For new artists in the industry who hope for success and fame Russell offered the following advice: "Stay true to yourself; it's the most nurturing thing you can do. Learn from others but don't' lose yourself. If you've got a great gift that's what people understand, and sometimes people try to make you into something that you are not. That is what kills an artist. Remember you can always keep doing who you are." Certainly her long career is proof of her convictions.
Brenda Russell, A & M, 1979.
Love Life, A & M, 1981.
Two Eyes, Warners, 1983.
Get Here, A & M, 1988.
Kiss Me with the Wind, A & M, 1990.
Soul Talking, EMI, 1991.
Greatest Hits, A&M, 1992.
Paris Rain, Hidden Beach Recordings, 2000.
Ultimate Collection, Hip-O/Universal, 2001.
So Good, So Right, Dome Records, 2003.
Between the Sun and the Moon, Dome Records, 2004.
"So Good, So Right," 1979.
"Way Back When," 1980.
"Get Here," 1988.
"Piano in the Dark," 1988.
"Le Restaurant," 1989.
"Stop Running Away," 1990.
"Brenda Russell," DivaStation.com, www.divastation.com/brenda_russell/brussell_bio.html (April 15, 2005).
"Brenda Russell Returns with Her New Album, Paris Rain, and Top Writing Collaborations," Songwriter Universe Magazine, www.songwritersuniverse.com/russell.html, (April 12, 2005).
"Brenda Russell," VH1.com, www.vh1.com/artists/az/russell_brenda/bio.jhtml (April 12, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Brenda Russell on April 22, 2005, and through publicity material supplied by Seth Keller of SKM Artist Management.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher
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