Nicknamed “Babyfingers,” pianist/keyboardist Patrice Rushen was a fixture on the jazz, R&B and dance charts between the mid-‘70s and 1997, thanks to albums such as Before the Dawn and Pizzazz. Not to mention also singing on a string of hits including “Haven’t You Heard,” “Look Up,” “Never Gonna Give You Up (Won’t Let You Be),” “Feels So Real (Won’t Let Go)” and “Forget Me Nots.” The latter, a top 25 pop hit as well, provided the cornerstone for Will Smith’s global No. 1 “Men in Black” and George Michael’s “Fastlove.”
Stepping back from recording so she “wouldn’t feel stifled but open and free,” Rushen set her sights on other creative pursuits. Besides working as musical director for the Grammy Awards (2004-2006) and in-demand session musician/arranger, the diminutive dynamo produced the Sheena Easton album No Strings and served as musical consultant for TV miniseries The Women of Brewster Place. An alumna of the University of Southern California (USC), Rushen presently chairs the popular music program at her alma mater’s Thornton School of Music.
Fresh off recent performances at the Long Beach (Calif.) Jazz Festival, the Playboy Jazz Festival (saluting late famed drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler) and on fellow jazz musician Christian McBride’s European tour, Rushen is now the focus of a new retrospective. Remind Me: The Classic Elektra Recordings 1978-1984 features all of Rushen’s chart singles, 12-inch versions and popular sample sources on one album for the first time. Both the three-album vinyl set and one CD were remastered from the original tapes. Each package is complemented by an exclusive interview with Rushen and rare photos: https://strut.lnk.to/YouRemindMe
Taking a break before heading out for dates at New York’s Blue Note (Sept. 17-22) and the Monterey Jazz Festival (Sept. 27), Rushen reflects on her legacy, the industry then and now and the blessing of never having “to do anything else in my life except music.”
How did this retrospective come together?
Warner [Music Group] was selling my catalog and this little company [Strut] said to me, “We want to buy yours.” And I’m like, “Really? Good luck with that” without really knowing what the price tag was or what kind of obstacle course they were going to run into dealing with this conglomerate. They fought and fought and got it. Once they had it, I said, “So now what?” It’s been a nice surprise to see what they have done and are doing. They have a game plan that runs longer than just this initial package. This music has always been viable; its relevance was never in question. I still receive a lot of airplay and support worldwide with people using the music for samples and films.
What memories has the package evoked?
Every time I hear the music, I remember certain things about writing or recording it. Each album was sort of a snapshot of where I might have been at that particular time and the kind of work that we [saxophonist Gerald Albright, drummer Chancler and others] put into the details. I don’t know if the details were appreciated as much then as they are now. That’s part of what makes the music relevant now: song-wise, feel-wise, groove-wise and sonically. We spent a lot of time and energy trying to do things at a high level of excellence and mastery. We took some heat then, but it has paid off over time.
What kind of heat?
The first heat I got was because of the initial recordings that I’d done for jazz label Prestige. I was finding ways to do things differently than before. But people thought I’d abandoned one genre to do another. That’s how records were marketed then: you were this or that. You couldn’t be both. When I turned in Straight from the Heart with “Forget Me Nots,” the record company was like, “We don’t hear anything on this.” By this time, my production team and I had figured out that we couldn’t leave it up to them. We pooled our resources for independent promotion to make sure all the radio stations had it. But people aren’t worried so much now about what you call the music. It’s about whether they like the music.
How else does the music industry you came up in differ from today’s?
The industry that I came up in wasn’t necessarily completely transparent and fair. But at least there were mechanisms in place for you to be able to share in the success of the music through the mechanisms of royalties. The current digital situation—with people looking at music as being practically free—was not a part of the conversation then. Now artists, particularly songwriters, composers and publishing, are suffering because people are eating the bread but not paying the baker. That issue now is being readdressed in terms of the sustainability of writers and their music. Fortunately, the one thing I did do was secure publishing for the music that I was writing. That has served me well.
In the wake of this retrospective, are you considering a new studio album?
I’d like to do another studio album at some point. But I’m not in a super hurry because I haven’t had a chance to perform the music that I do have. I’m looking forward actually to performing under my own name as this material hasn’t had that much exposure from the standpoint of my presentation of it. I’m also chair at the Thornton School of Music. And I could receive a call tomorrow to music direct a television show. That’s what’s been interesting about the last few years: celebrating a skill set where I’ve never had to do anything else in my life except music. That’s a blessing.