Being ahead of the curve defined as “…ahead of current thinking and trends.” Musically, it’s where many wish to be…leading the way. Blazing a trail. The downside is you’re apt to not be recognized for it, being that far in front. Positively influencing those coming up behind you. However like in the Vietnam War, “taking point” more than likely made one a casualty. In many ways, one of my favorite artist’s career exhibited this. The multi-talented singer, composer, and keyboardist Brenda Russell.
As highlighted in her website’s bio she was an artist from the get-go and born to make a mark:
“Born to musical parents in Brooklyn, New York, Brenda grew up there and in the Canadian town of Hamilton, Ontario. She encountered her first piano while singing as a teenager in the Canadian company of the rock musical Hair in Toronto. Without formal musical education, Brenda says she worried that she would never be able to write another song after her first composition. “Then I had a revelation: ‘You’re not doing this alone. You are just a channel for this,’ Brenda recalls. “Once I realized that, I was sort of fearless about songwriting. I thought: ‘If that’s the way it is, I can write anything.’ And that’s the premise I’ve based my whole writing career on.””
As it happened, I’d glom onto Brenda Russell during my Jazz Fusion days. A period I clearly thirsted for new artists and music, whether by friendly recommendations or what emanated from my FM dial. And 1979’s self-titled LP for A&M, Brenda Russell, would be the vehicle to give chase to her incredible song writing ability, light touch on the ivory, and the soulful renditions care of. Between Angela Bofill, Phyllis Hyman, and Brenda during this period, had some keen female voices in my head.
While you had the likes of Carole King1 — who’d Brenda would later colloborate with — as the standard-bearer for up-and-coming female composer-singer-songwriters making dents in the pop charts during the ’70s, there were fewer being showcased in the years that followed, seemingly.
Brenda without a doubt got noticed by us Jazz Rock-R&B listeners during her stints with Herb Alpert’s A&M label, as well as Warner Bros. Records, as the tumultutous Seventies clocked over to the Reagan-era Eighties. For us who enjoyed her lyrics, piano, and voice, just nowhere near as broadly as she should have, we thought. Compare Alicia Keyes later impact writing, performing, and earning acclaim and we Brenda Russell fans can only ponder what could have been. “Riding point”, indeed.
Little wonder many didn’t get exposed to some sublime material in a more than worthy career care of this truly under-appreciated artist. People would do well to tune into her Greatest Hits CD, which featured ten classics, to begin this discovery. Note Andrew Hamilton’s succinct Allmusic take, if you need more convincing:
“Brenda Russell‘s angelic voice is so engaging and pleasing that she could sing the ingredients in a Bon Appetit recipe and still get off a good take. Her voice is perfect for contemporary pop, not too light or too heavy, and while appreciated by her peers, she’s far from being a household name despite a strong cult legacy. Greatest Hits summarizes Russell‘s best, featuring only ten songs, while showcasing her other skills: producing, musicianship, arranging, and drum programming.”
Thankfully, the less plaudits than what she deserved didn’t stifle her creativity. She continued to write, produce and collaborate with other artists in the decades that followed. The craft she mastered came over to other album projects for the likes of Diana Ross, Tina Turner, and Patti LaBelle. Hell, she even worked with the late composer Michel Colombier for the “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” score. Wrote and performed two songs in the “Liberty Heights” film for director Barry Levinson, too.
We’re not even mentioning the artists who’ve covered her songs from then to now, including Luther Vandross, Roberta Flack, even Oleta Adams’ 1991 rendition of the album in question’s title cut.
Still, if I’m going to showcase this woman’s talent for a Friday Song piece, might as well anchor it to the one tune that did ultimately succeed in distilling enthusiastic acclaim2 she long had coming, for once. The hauntingly stellar number, Piano in the Dark. Naturally, written and performed by Brenda, with Scott Cutler and Jeff Hull (who also co-produced), it contains all the elements that made a song by this woman deserving of attention and respect3. And we have Mr. Alpert to thank for that4.
For a song that earned Russell two Grammy Award nominations in 1989, including one for Song of the Year, the title is not without some irony for her following.
As with any ballad mourning love’s loss, it lives or dies with the songwriter’s words and their delivery. Brenda’s lilting touches on the keyboard at the start key the mood before her vocals set the recognition in place. Between her distinctly silky cadence and the intonations she pulls from her piano, the lover’s lament over a long-gone man playing his instrument captured that essence. Piano in the Dark remains heartfelt, even all these years later.
Its evocative beauty, like satiny tears, transmitted through a singular voice and talent veiled as a piano construct is one that’ll never get old…at least by me.
When I find myself watching the time I never think about all the funny things you said I feel like it's dead Where is it leading me now I turn around in the still of the room Knowing this is when I'm gonna make my move Can't wait any longer And I'm feeling stronger but, oh Just as I walk through the door I can feel your emotion, yeah It's pullin' me back Back to love you I know, caught up in the middle I cry just a little, when I think of letting go Oh no, gave up on the riddle I cry just a little when he plays piano in the dark He holds me close like a thief of the heart He plays a melody, born to tear me all apart The silence is broken And no words are spoken but, oh Just as I walk through the door I can feel your emotion, yeah It's pullin' me back Back to love you I know, caught up in the middle I cry just a little when I think of letting go Oh, no, gave up on the riddle I cry just a little when he plays piano in the dark In the dark Oh, the silence is broken And no words are spoken but, oh Just as I walk through the door I can feel your emotion Oh, baby, pull me back Back to love you I know, I'm caught up in the middle I cry just a little when I think of letting go Oh, no, gave up on the riddle I cry just a little, I cry, I cry, I And I know, I'm caught up in the middle I cry just a little when I think of letting go Oh, no, gave up on the riddle I cry just a little when he plays piano in the dark In the dark
- Carole and composer-saxophonist Tom Scott would showcase one of the most rousing Pop/Jazz numbers of the ’70s with Jazzman. ↩
- “The song gained heavy airplay and became Russell’s biggest hit, peaking at number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, number 8 on the R&B Chart and number 3 on the Adult Contemporary Chart. The song was also a moderate hit in the UK, peaking at 23.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- Piano in the Dark also featured Joe Esposito as the backing vocal. ↩
- “Initially “Gravity” was planned to be released as the first single, however Herb Albert pushed to have “Piano” released instead feeling that it better represented her as an artist. ” ~ Wikipedia ↩