(September 15, 2019). Few musical nuggets come along that are so sublime, so elegant in their artistry that words can’t do them justice.
Even fewer are so obscure or as underrated as the song and the artist this article commemorates.
But then there aren’t many artists like Brenda Russell, the extremely talented pop songstress who always knew her way around a great melody and who has a catalog full of song masterpieces that, decades later, can still charm listeners into a multiple-listening frenzy like few other artists can.
Allow me to (re-)introduce you to one of those sonic treasures: “Way Back When” an underrated single from Russell’s 1979 self-titled debut album, one which evokes pleasant memories for those who’ve heard it before – and a song that got caught up in a genre backlash that likely prevented it from reaching its fullest potential 40 years ago.
As a singer/songwriter/keyboardist, Russell is best known for her big 1988 top-ten pop hit, the piano-driven “Piano In The Dark,” and for having written “Get Here,” the ballad she also recorded in 1988 but that talented singer Oleta Adams covered two years later to get her own signature hit with it.
But it’s “Way Back When,” the best song on an amazing debut effort, that gets props on the occasion of the album’s 40th anniversary – an album that entered Billboard’s charts during the third week in September 1979.
The album Brenda Russell was an outstanding solo debut from a pop stylist who’d already been in the industry for several years as part of a duo with former husband Brian Russell. It was after divorcing him that Brenda set out on a course that would team her with former Rufus (and Chaka Khan) drummer André Fischer, who produced and performed drums on Russell’s debut LP.
The album yielded just two official singles – “So Good, So Right,” the sweet pop and soul crossover ballad that had top-30 success on both charts in November of ‘79; and “Way Back When,” its superior-sounding, yet less successful follow-up that only managed to reach No. 42 on the soul chart in early 1980, while failing to make the Hot 100 altogether.
As a whole, the album’s eight tracks were a collective masterstroke for Russell, with the kind of panache that, for years, had fans wondering how this artist didn’t blow up to be a bigger star (and even sooner) than she did.
For an album full of gems, it’s interesting that it wasn’t mined for more hit singles, like her original “If Only For One Night” – the ballad that Luther Vandross later remade into his own classic six years later; or the stellar mid-tempo track “A Little Bit Of Love,” the melody of which hip-hop fans will recognize for its sample in Big Pun’s “Still Not A Player” from 2003.
Even Russell’s slow, plodding version of “Think It Over,” which she wrote but singer/actress/model Cheryl Ladd (of “Charlie’s Angels” fame) made into a Top-40 pop hit a year earlier, deserved attention, particularly for its clever use of key modulation as the song ends.
But it’s the album’s lone dance track, the soft-disco classic “Way Back When,” that sparks the most wonder and is easily the LP’s standout.
Played as an album cut in late 1979 and released as a single in early ‘80, when disco was suffering a backlash (before its complete banishment from pop radio less than a year later), “Way Back When” lacked the proper label promotion that could have given it a home in discos and at radio (the song didn’t even make Billboard’s disco chart).
In fact, ten years later (during the late 1980s/ early ‘90s as a man of now-legal age), I would hear the song as a retro favorite in the more progressive dance clubs – particularly in the nation’s capital and in Chicago. As I came to understand it then, club DJs back in 1979 had no problem adding it to their playlists, despite its lack of radio or chart success.
Even ten years later “Way Back When” never failed to get the older set onto the dance floors as I stood in awe of the euphoria it created with fellow club goers, leaving me to wonder what it must have been like to be lost in the song’s aura in discos a decade earlier.
“Way Back When” is not so much about its disco beat, though. It’s a glorious musical composition, with a melody so endearing that the beat (and similarly the lyrics) are almost incidental to the proceedings (the beat does, however, take on more prominence nearly three minutes in when the open hi-hats kick in and carry the tune to its end fade).
Of course, the song’s lyrical theme – about an old friendship and remembrance of days gone by – worked very well (and today could easily be read as a metaphorical eulogy to disco itself). But then Russell could have easily written a lyric about the delights of hot buttered popcorn and it wouldn’t have mattered – the music of “Way Back When” was just that great.
Part of that greatness was in the song’s structure. A complex chord progression takes the track from beginning to end, with no discernible chorus to speak of (and none being needed; you knew from the 13 or so times she repeated it what the song’s title was, and like an ear-worm it seeped into your brain – achieving its intended purpose).
But the pure perfection of “Way Back When” was perhaps contained in its greatest virtue: the string arrangement.
The fact that it had strings was nothing unusual as most disco tunes in the ‘70s did. But the strings on many other disco cuts sounded generic in nature – mere accessories that were dominated by other elements and which rarely added integral beauty to the songs.
For “Way Back When,” though, conductor Jerry Peters (best known for writing the late 1960s group Friends of Distinction’s two biggest hits, “Love Or Let Me Be Lonely” and “Going In Circles”) came up with a masterpiece string arrangement. It was like a manna from heaven, with violin flourishes swirling through and around each note like autumn leaves caught in a small wind vortex.
With Peters’ previous credentials, it was no wonder that his contribution to “Way Back When” would be just as grand. Additionally, Assa Drori served as concertmaster on the tune (and no song with a credited “concertmaster” is gonna chinch on instrumentation).
Brenda Russell herself played the Wurlitzer electric piano while Ron Stockert played the Fender Rhodes and acoustic pianos. Musicians Ian Underwood and Clare Fischer were on synthesizer and organ, respectively. Victor Feldman added percussion, which – coupled with Fischer’s drumming – gave the song its understated rhythm that never tries to overtake the music.
Altogether, they put together Russell’s magnum opus, a restrained beauty of a song that even for those hearing it for the first time feels like an old friend coming back to visit, and letting you know how far you’ve come in life. It’s 4:25 of musical paradise, a song that an article like this can’t possibly do justice, and one you just have to hear for yourself…again.
When you do listen, especially if you’re part of the old-head club generation that actually experienced it back in the day, close your eyes and picture that dance floor and all those long lost “sophisticated friends” from way back when.
And get lost in it all over again.
P.S. In a sad footnote to this tribute, it was reported this June by the New York Times that Brenda Russell was among the hundreds of artists whose original song and album master tapes were destroyed in the famous 2008 fire at Universal Studios in Los Angeles…a claim that Universal has denied for some of the artists whose material was reportedly involved. It’s not clear if Russell’s masters were part of the company’s rebuttal.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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