SoulMusic.com Hall of Fame (Songwriter) Inductee Brenda Russell just completed a rare 3 day East Coast tour with performances at Joe’s Pub in New York City, Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, MD and The Birchmere in Arlington VA.
Monday night’s show at Rams Head found the legendary singer-songwriter in peak form and joyous spirit. From the opening pulse of “In The Thick of It,” the full house of long-time fans were enthralled with Ms Russell and the four piece band that supplied an incredibly full sound for the 12-song set covering her nearly 35 year recording career.
In keeping with her gift as a remarkable storyteller, each song was brought to life with an introduction involving its inspiration or evolution Her hometown (Brooklyn) gave her “Walking In New York.” A particular period of despair was the catalyst for her inspirational tune “Expect a Miracle” which has undoubtedly provided counsel for many others as well.
She spoke of the blessing of having great artists perform her songs, like “Dinner With Gershwin” which the late Donna Summer first recorded. And she performed one of the two songs she wrote for Barry Levinson’s film Lincoln Heights. “Baby Eyes” proves Russell has a way with a jazz intonation and feeling.
After the release of her first record in 1979, she received a call in her one bedroom apartment in Sherman Oaks, CA from Quincy. “Quincy who?” she said incredulously. Well, it really was Quincy Jones calling to tell her he really loved her song “Way Back When.” Thanks in large part to keyboardist Stephan Oberhoff, this song was delivered with all the glory of the original recording. This was definitely an audience favorite.
Along with collaborators Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, Russell spent 5 years writing the music for the Broadway musical The Color Purple. From this show, she intimately performed the moving ballad that Shug Avery sings to Celie, “Too Beautiful For Words.”
Besides Mr. Oberhoff, the musicians on stage were Joey Cortez on drums, James Harrah on guitar and Bill Sharpe on bass (who was also music director). They all got to shine on the “trip to Brasil” which Russell co-wrote with Ivan Lins, “Please Felipe,” bringing a samba flavor to this winter night.
The beauty of Stockholm provided the backdrop and inspiration for Russell’s biggest hit “Piano In The Dark.” At the opening strains there was an audible sigh from the capacity audience.
Russell spoke about one of her greatest gifts, which was Luther Vandross recording her song “If Only For One Night.” She then sang it with the intensity and desire that is so evident in the lyrics.
For her encore she returned to the stage with an up-tempo version of her first single “So Good, So Right” that had the crowd singing along and begging for more. She obliged with one final song, the everlasting “Get Here.”
With a song-writing career that has spanned 40 years (Rufus had a Top 10 R&B hit with her song Please Pardon Me in 1974), Brenda Russell is a bonafide Legend of R&B. She was inducted as SoulMusic.com Hall of Fame – Songwriter in 2013. This performance was evidence of how priceless her music has become over the years.