by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Younger readers of this column might not be familiar with Brenda Russell’s name, but you’ve almost certainly heard at least one of the many recognizable tunes she’s written. Born in Brooklyn but raised in Canada, Brenda Gordon’s first big break in music came about after she met and married aspiring musician Brian Russell in the early Seventies, the two forming a duo simply called Brian & Brenda and landing a record deal with Elton John’s vanity label Rocket Records (then also home to Neil Sedaka, Kiki Dee, the Hudson Brothers, Cliff Richard, and a band called Longdancer featuring a young, pre-Eurythmics Dave Stewart.) The couple would release two albums on Rocket, 1976’s Word Called Love and 1977’s Supersonic Lover, also frequently working as backing vocalists for other artists, including Sedaka, Richie Havens, Bette Midler, Eric Carmen, and Robert Palmer. The Russells would finally land in the Top 40 as songwriters in 1978, after Charlie’s Angels star Cheryl Ladd recorded their composition “Think It Over” (with Brenda and Brian on backing vocals) and took it to #34, but the success may have also had its downside: Brenda and Brian would divorce just a few months later, simultaneously disbanding their songwriting partnership, and Brian would soon become romantically involved with the similarly-newly-divorced Ladd, eventually marrying her in 1981.
In the midst of this drama, Brenda would manage to find some good news in the form of a record deal of her own, signing in 1978 to the A&M jazz subsidiary Horizon and releasing her self-titled solo debut in February of the following year. For a performer who’d just lost her longtime singing and songwriting partner, it’s amazing just how strong and confident 1979’s Brenda Russell is; of the eight cuts, six are written solely by Brenda. [Andre Fischer, drummer for the ‘70s R&B band Rufus, had a hand in writing “You’re Free,” while, interestingly enough, the second of the two co-writes is actually Brenda’s own rendition of “Think It Over.”]
In the hands of Brenda, “Think It Over” packs both more soul and more menace, haunting in a way that Ladd’s version wasn’t, but while it may not necessarily be more commercial than the sunnier vibe of the original, Brenda sings the song in a more distinctly bitter manner than Ladd did, and the change in mood better fits the lyric of the song. But “Think It Over” isn’t the only familiar tune here, and the disc spawned a future R&B classic in the lovely ballad “If Only for One Night,” which would become one of Luther Vandross’ most beloved tunes after he included the cut on The Night I Fell in Love and would garner Russell additional songwriting royalties after it was prominently sampled in Bow Wow and Omarion’s “Let Me Hold You” in 2005.
“If Only for One Night” isn’t the only cut here that eventually reached the charts via a sample, and the heavily percussive “A Little Bit of Love” has been sampled on multiple hip-hop-oriented Top 40 hits, from Big Pun’s “Still Not a Player” to Thalia’s “I Want You” and Ariana Grande’s “The Way.”
The sunny, jazzy grooves of “In the Thick of It,” meanwhile, appealingly recall a harder-edged version of Roberta Flack’s “Feel like Makin’ Love,” while the relentless Philly-soul stomp of “Way Back When” would have fit quite well on any Thom Bell-produced Spinners affair.
The disc would also give Russell her first Top 40 hit as a performer in the appealing piano pop of the alternately mellow and bouncy “So Good, So Right,” even out-performing “Think It Over” and reaching #30. (It would be the only single released on the Horizon imprint to reach the Top 40.)
Strangely, Russell had a hard time building on her success, and her next two discs, 1981’s Love Life (on A&M) and 1983’s Two Eyes (on Warner Bros.), would fail to yield a follow-up hit to “So Good, So Right,” and Russell would garner far more attention as the writer and co-producer behind the 1987 Donna Summer single “Dinner with Gershwin” (which Brenda would later release her own version of on 1990’s Kiss Me with the Wind.)
The following year, Brenda would return to the A&M fold and release her fourth solo album, 1988’s Get Here, which would turn things back around for her.
It would be several years before the title track would become a massive hit (thanks to a cover by Oleta Adams), but the ballad “Piano in the Dark” would briefly make Russell a superstar. The single, which plays like a perfect cross between the sort of adult-contemporary ballads Natalie Cole was making around this time (“Miss You Like Crazy”) and the smooth sophisticated adult-R&B of up-tempo Roberta Flack cuts like “Uh Uh Ooh Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes)” and boasts a notable featured guest vocal from Joe Esposito of Brooklyn Dreams (who’d scored a big hit in 1978 with the Donna Summer duet “Heaven Knows”), rocketed into the Top Ten, peaking at #6, and even garnering a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year. While you seldom hear the song on the radio these days outside of smooth-jazz stations, its chorus would likely sound very familiar to younger listeners: Flo Rida would incorporate it as the hook in his Top Ten hit “I Cry.”
While Get Here is more synthesizer-oriented and less organic than the self-titled debut, it’s just as appealing and there is a greater focus on up-tempo cuts, the disc starting on a fantastic and playful note with the light funk of “Gravity” and the excellent first side closing with the toe-tapping pop of “This Time I Need You,” while the disc’s penultimate cut, “Midnight Eyes,” might be the most danceable cut in all of Russell’s catalog. But Russell’s always fared best both commercially and artistically with ballads, and besides the aforementioned title cut and “Piano in the Dark,” the album also contains another lovely ballad in “Le Restaurant,” which features a saxophone solo from jazz legend David Sanborn.
Russell would leave A&M after 1990’s Kiss Me with the Wind, releasing three more albums, each on a different label (2004’s Between the Sun and Moon found Brenda with Narada Jazz), but these later releases sold only modestly and Russell would find greater success – and a Tony nomination! – in 2005 by writing the score for the Broadway stage-musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.