Patrice Rushen’s Unforgettable ‘Straight From The Heart’

Read An Excerpt From The Liner Notes To This Month’s Classics Album

On February 24th 2020 » By Oliver Wang

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In the early months of 1982, Patrice Rushen was readying Straight From the Heart, her seventh studio album in eight years, and the fourth she had recorded for Elektra Records. Up until then, the label had taken a hands-off approach: “They so rarely came by the studio or asked any questions,” Rushen recalled. “It wasn’t until Straight From the Heart that I had received any kind of hesitation on their part.” According to Rushen’s frequent collaborator, arranger Charles Mims Jr., the promotions staff found the album “kind of light.” Even the lead single, “Forget Me Nots,” didn’t resonate for them. The news was, “Not exactly what we wanted to hear, but at least we know where they stood,” Rushen said. It meant that if the album had any hope of success, she and her team would need to handle things.

They pooled their resources and hired an independent promoter to work “Forget Me Nots.” The gambit paid off almost immediately: “Within three weeks, we had about 54 stations playing the record,” Mims remembered. For a song and album that underwhelmed Elektra at the start, the label must have liked how it ended: both “Forget Me Nots” and Straight From the Heart became the biggest hits in Rushen’s storied career.

Patrice Rushen has always cut a unique figure, one of the few women in R&B who was a quintuple threat as a singer-writer-arranger-producer and musician. Vocally, she might have been compared to Deniece Williams or Evelyn “Champagne” King but as a multi-hyphenate artist, she had far more in common with Stevie Wonder. Like Wonder, Rushen had been a wunderkind, a piano prodigy since pre-school who played her first Monterey Jazz Festival set when she was barely a senior at Los Angeles’s Locke High School.

By the time she arrived at Elektra Records in 1978, she was still in her mid 20s, yet had already recorded three fusion-flavored jazz albums for Prestige Records. Elektra added Rushen to their vanguard of pop-jazz acts that also included Donald Byrd and Grover Washington Jr. As disco neared its commercial zenith, club hits with lush, orchestral accompaniments were all the rage, and with Rushen’s chops as an arranger and composer, the label felt she could produce “sophisticated dance music.” “I had played a lot of dance music in college, little bands, things like that,” Rushen said, adding, “And I loved to dance.”

From early in her career, Rushen joined a network of world-class session players in Los Angeles, many of whom she called upon to record with her. Among the dozens of veteran musicians on Straight From the Heart were drummer James Gadson of both Bill Withers and Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band fame, in-demand Brazilian percussionist Paulinho Da Costa and the prolific studio guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., whose professional career began when Rushen hired him to play on her 1978 Elektra debut, Patrice.

As with her previous albums, the two most important partners on Straight From the Heart were arranger Mims and bassist Washington. She and Mims had been friends since the days they were the two main pianists in Locke High’s jazz band and as her career took off, Rushen frequently turned to Mims as a sounding board. “She knew that when she was in the studio and I was in the control room, I wasn’t gonna let anything go by that was subpar,” Mims said.

As for Washington, they had met in the Bay Area and a chance gig led them to play together. Rushen instantly knew she had found a kindred spirit: “Sometimes you’ll play with people and immediately there’s a certain magic, a certain kind of sensibility, a groove.” When Washington relocated to L.A. to pursue studio work, Rushen’s family literally opened their home to him: “He needed a place and my parents allowed him to stay at our house until he could get on his feet.” As a result, the two would play together daily in Rushen’s basement practice room and those sessions often kickstarted the songwriting process. “Sometimes it would start with the bass line. Sometimes it would start with a chord. Sometimes, I’d be sitting at the drums, sometimes he’d be at the drums and I played bass,” she recalled.

This is exactly how the album’s lead song, “Forget Me Nots,” came about. Washington was improvising a bass line and Rushen took notice: “I just said, ‘What is that?!’ It was so complete: It was funky, it was linear, it had a beautiful melodic line about it, the harmony was definitely implied, all the stuff was there.” If Washington had the bones of the track, it was veteran Motown songwriter Teri McFadden who came with the hook about giving a lover a bouquet of forget-me-nots. Long-time Rushen collaborator, Gerald “Wonderfunk” Albright, came with the signature sax solo; he and his trio, the Madagascar Horns, provided an Earth, Wind & Fire-inspired vigor to much of the LP.

Rushen didn’t think she had an instant hit, but the song felt right: “I’m probably my worst critic so if a song is something that feels good — and that’s the criteria, that it feels great — that’s a big deal.” Her intuition was spot-on as Rushen and her crew saw the single blow up nationally. “It broke out in Washington, D.C., it broke out in the Bay Area, it broke out in New York and ultimately in L.A. It happened very fast,” she recalled. The single eventually leapt up three different charts, hitting No. 2 on Dance, No. 4 on R&B, and No. 23 on Pop, her best performing song ever.

“Forget Me Nots” leads off an entire A-side of dance tracks, followed by “I Was Tired of Being Alone,” a smooth funk jam anchored by Paul Jackson Jr.’s angular guitar riffs and the tight pocket of Bloodstone drummer Melvin Webb. The song, about someone enthralled with a new relationship, was co-written by Mims, Washington, and another one of Rushen’s most frequent creative partners: her sister Angela Rushen Ehigiator. Angela happened to be in the family basement during one of Washington and Rushen’s jam sessions; Mims recalled that Washington was on bass and Rushen was on drums. When the skeleton of a song began to form, Rushen explains Angela stepped in: “She’s a writer, so she took a stab at it and it turned out to be OK!”

The next song, “All We Need,” is the album’s only duet, sung (and co-written) by Roy Galloway, who was also a member of the R&B group, L.A.X. The two had first met in their teens and Rushen always thought Galloway was a “great singer, had a lot of hidden talents, one of which was as a songwriter, but he didn’t have a platform back then.” In doing background vocal work together, Rushen realized that Galloway’s singing had “a really good blend and phrasing” that might pair well with her own voice. When she had the idea to record a duet for the album, she thought, “Roy would probably nail this, so I asked him if he would help with it.”

Side A ends with the album’s lone instrumental cut, “Number One,” so named because, “That’s the first thing that I worked on when I was starting to work on the collection for this album,” Rushen said. Including an instrumental had “become part of what I always did because that was the orientation that I had as a musician, to have something that I could just jam on.” Moreover, Elektra had pursued her precisely because she could bring together “jazz sensibilities and R&B. It was right up my alley.”

The album’s first ballad begins Side B, the soulful, groovy “Where Is the Love.” Co-writer Lynn Davis had turned in a similar, laid-back gem — “This Is All I Really Know” — on Rushen’s previous album, Posh. Earlier in the ’70s, Rushen explained, “We’re doing a lot of background vocals [together] and she worked with George Duke and that’s when I really got to hear her. After I called her to do some stuff, we find out we live around the corner from one another. We became good friends, aside from the professional side.”

“Where Is the Love” is also one of several songs off Straight From the Heart that became sample fodder for ’90s hip-hop acts, most prominently by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip for Mobb Deep’s 1995 song, “Temperature’s Rising.” While other artists may feel ambivalent about their work being sampled, Rushen took people’s interest in her music as a compliment, especially for a younger generation who grew up in an era of defunded school music programs: “[Maybe] they didn’t have music in schools but they can still appreciate good playing or a good progression. When they hear it, it sparks. That’s what I want. I want my music to convey something that speaks to people.”

The next song takes things back to the dance floor with a roller-skate jam — “Breakout!” — co-written by Brenda Russell, a rising R&B star in her own right during the early ’80s. “We were mutual fans of one another,” said Rushen and one day, Russell had casually suggested they “‘Do something, sometime.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s do it!’” Rushen started shaping “Breakout!” and invited Russell on board: “She took it and ran with it.”

“If Only” is the album’s most-certified slow jam, a devastating tear-jerker where Rushen has to explain to a crush that their interest would go forever unrequited: “Best of friends is as far as we go,” she sings. “If Only” was co-written with Mims and Syreeta Wright, the latter of whom had previously sang back-up on the albums Patrice and Pizzazz in addition to recording her own successful albums, but this was her first time helping write for Rushen. “I knew she was a great lyricist,” said Rushen. “I just had a feeling she’d be the right person to interpret this. You just give them the space and empower them to give you their best.”

The album’s penultimate song would become another classic: “Remind Me.” If “Forget Me Nots” boasts the LP’s most infectious opening, “Remind Me” has the most beguiling, draped in electric piano stabs, a heavy bass line, and, most prominently, Rushen’s torrent of notes played from an ARP Odyssey synthesizer. Mims opined “some pop music can be so trite that it just leaves me empty” but with “Remind Me,” he found that the players “injected enough interest in it — musically, harmonically, melodically — to make it more than just another light, pop bubblegum song.”

“Remind Me” also brought aboard songwriter Karen Evans, who had been one of Rushen’s closest friends since junior high. Evans would later write R&B songs in the ’90s for the likes of Diana King and R. Kelly, but “Remind Me” was her first official credit. “I came across a lot of talented people in my day who had all of these wonderful gifts,” Rushen said.

Upon release in April of ’82, Straight From the Heart made an immediate splash, eventually rising to No. 4 and No. 20 on the R&B and Pop charts respectively. The album also yielded Rushen’s first two Grammy nominations, with “Forget Me Nots” earning a nod for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance while “Number One” was nominated for Best R&B Instrumental Performance. However, more than those kinds of accolades at the time, Straight From the Heart became one of those classic albums that spark instant nostalgia, a marker for a time, place and style of music and culture that continues to resonate with listeners almost 40 years later. Rushen asked us to forget-her-not but she needn’t have worried.

For her and her team, Straight From the Heart’s success was also a validation of their belief in the album’s potential. “When you really feel a certain way, you have to be willing to stand up for it,” she said. “That’s the biggest lesson we gained… that belief in doing everything within your power to give [your music] an opportunity to be heard. That’s the whole point. Just because you’re different, doesn’t mean you’re wrong.”

Oliver Wang

Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He’s been both a DJ and music/culture writer since the mid 1990s for outlets such as NPR, Vibe, Wax Poetics, Scratch, The Village Voice, SF Bay Guardian, and LA Weekly, and created the audioblog Soul Sides. He co-hosts the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.

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