Patrice Rushen should be a future Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee
The consummate composer and singer helped define a golden era of smooth R&B
This week, Berry Gordy, Jay Z, and James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. They will join immortals such as Little Richard, Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, Dolly Parton, Nile Rodgers, Jerry Garcia, Marvin Gaye, Cyndi Lauper and more. This week The Undefeated celebrates future Songwriters Hall of Famers — the ones who make the whole world sing and bop, and even milly rock.
They remind me / I’m lucky I’m falling / In love with you darling
— Patrice Rushen, from her 1982 hit “Remind Me”
Long before I knew anything about Patrice Rushen being an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, respected songwriter or the current chairwoman of USC’s Popular Music Program at the Thornton School of Music, the pint-sized pianist shepherded me through the summer of 1982. Her superb seventh album, Straight From the Heart, was the background soundtrack playing on Howard University’s FM radio station, WHUR, in my stepfather’s light blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, or during Jack Daniel’s-and-Coke-fueled card games next to the water sprinklers in auntie’s backyard.
I stared for hours at the Straight From the Heart cover — back before music videos and digital streaming deprived folks of other visual privileges. Miss Patrice in front of the nondescript Olan Mills backdrop was pretty in a completely approachable way, thank God; she was every black girl in seventh grade during that era named Michelle, Sabrina or Crystal. I traced the soft bird feathers in Rushen’s perfect hair and stared longingly at her neat cornrows exploding into a riot of shiny glass beads.
“Forget Me Nots” was the biggest single on Straight From the Heart, the one that earned Rushen a Grammy nomination (she has three) for best female R&B vocal performance and her sole Top 40 pop hit. It’s still a monster jam, with the cleverest one-two finger-pop opening in R&B music history. The killer bass groove and melody has also been sampled to death by the likes of Will Smith, George Michael and MC Solaar, thereby ensuring it has had a long life in mainstream pop culture and serving as a reminder that Rushen should be enshrined in the hall.
But “Remind Me” (written by Rushen and Karen Evans) was, and still is, my all-time favorite song, a perfect 5-minute, 18-second tonic that has soothed my fears and given me hope for 35 years.
The warm opening organ arrangement lays down a groove that never lets go as the story of innocent love and appreciation unfolds. I still can’t wait for the “yeah, yeah” chorus — it’s the opioid earworm that has you strung out like an addict.
The best thing about “Remind Me” is that Rushen isn’t a Hall of Fame singer. She’s not Aretha, Patti LaBelle or Whitney. But who is? Who can actually sing a Chaka Khan song out loud and in front of other people, without hurting your own feelings? Sometimes you just want to luxuriate in your jam and sound just like the artist. Rushen’s normal-girl voice, a smooth soprano, allowed you to feel the song without all the effort.
Of course, 1982 was a killer year for R&B album releases. Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s 1999 and Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love were all released that year, as were Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium, What Time Is It? by The Time, and Gap Band IV. The incredible list goes on and on: Luther Vandross’ Forever, For Always, For Love and Get Loose by Evelyn “Champagne” King and Living My Life by Grace Jones.
Soul and R&B music was changing in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Rushen explained to Soul Train host Don Cornelius that year. Her approach to music:
“… more or less illustrates the change that black music is going through every so many years. We’re getting back to the groove again, to the way things really, really feel. Kind of blending the complexities with the simplicity, and putting it together for another thing. It’s very, very exciting.”
Rushen is here for me and my kids. The only other singer/songwriter who even comes close is Michael Jackson, and that’s complicated in a bunch of different ways. That’s also another story. I now play the song at least three times a week, hoping that it’ll be that song for my two boys.