Happy Birthday, Patrice Rushen! The incredibly talented singer/songwriter/producer turns 66 today. Best known for her string of R&B and dance hits in the late 70s and 80s, Rushen broke down barriers as one of the first women to write, arrange, produce and perform her own work. Although she is technically a one-hit wonder, as “Forget Me Nots” was her sole Top 40 entry in the Billboard Hot 100, she should absolutely not be dismissed as such. Her catalog is rich and varied with loads of great songs that should have been hits.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Rushen began taking music classes at the University of Southern California and playing piano at age 3. Many probably don’t realize that before her run of R&B hits, Rushen was an accomplished jazz pianist. In 1972, she won a competition at the Monterey Jazz Festival, which led to a three-album deal with Prestige. This run of albums had Rushen collaborating with such jazz giants as Joe Henderson, Lee Ritenour, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and others.
“When we were coming up, the prize was to be as versatile as you could be — to play with anybody,” Rushen told The New York Times in 2019. “You wanted to be able to play jazz with the greats, but you also wanted to know the nuances that allowed you to play dance music, and create music that people wanted to move to. The challenge became getting enough vocabulary to have that balance.”
Standing at a petite 4-foot-10, the four-time Grammy nominee got the nickname “Baby Fingers” for her small, dexterous piano-playing hands. Baby Fingers, Inc. became the name of her publishing company. In addition to her jazz and R&B recordings, Rushen has composed numerous scores for films and TV shows. She has been the head composer of the Emmy Awards, and she served as musical director of Janet Jackson’s massive janet. world tour in the 90s. Rushen is currently chair of the popular music program at USC.
I highly recommend the 2019 CD/vinyl compilation Remind Me: The Classic Elektra Recordings 1978-1984. Released by the UK label Strut Records, the compilation includes 15 12-inch versions and album cuts remastered from the original master tapes. The detailed liner notes include quotes from Rushen and rare photos.
I’ve selected eight of my favorite singles from Rushen’s pop and R&B days, listed below in chronological order with chart info and videos. Enjoy!
“Hang It Up”
Release date: 1979
US charts: #16 R&B
“Hang It Up” was the only single to chart from Rushen’s fourth album and Elektra debut, 1978’s Patrice. As her first album of R&B and pop music, the album was unfairly lambasted by the die-hard jazz crowd. “Hang It Up” is super funky and fun. While I love jazz, I think the jazz critics need to lighten up and hit the dance floor.
“Haven’t You Heard”
Release date: 1980
US charts: #42 pop, #7 R&B, #5 dance
“Haven’t You Heard” was Rushen’s first international hit and a highlight from the excellent 1979 album Pizzazz, the first LP to have Rushen rocking her trademark beaded braids on the cover. “Haven’t You Heard” was sampled in 2005 for Kirk Franklin’s gospel crossover hit “Looking For You.”
“Don’t Blame Me”
Release date: 1980
US charts: Did not chart.
This single from the 1980 Posh album, co-written by jazz pianist Clarence Bell, scoots along with Nile Rodgers-esque syncopated guitar licks and well-placed handclaps. Make sure you peep Rushen’s keyboard solo at the 2:40 mark.
“Never Gonna Give You Up”
Release date: 1981
US charts: #2 dance
I challenge you to listen to this and not move! The funky slap bass, sweet disco strings and harmonies on the “never gonna give you up!” hook meld seamlessly on this dance-floor scorcher. This one also has a terrific keyboard solo, at the 2:30 mark.
“Forget Me Nots”
Release date: 1982
US charts: #23 pop, #4 R&B, #2 dance
Rushen’s best-known song, “Forget Me Nots” is powered by an unstoppable groove and a catchy, memorable hook: “Sending you forget me nots/To help me to remember/Baby please forget me not/I want you to remember.”
The real standout is the bass line laid down by session ace “Ready” Freddie Washington, who co-wrote this and a number of other songs with Rushen.
“Freddie’s bass line doesn’t require a lot; the keys are tasteful but simple and the whole track is driven by the bass and the groove of the rest of the rhythm section,” Rushen said in the Remind Me liner notes. “So many tracks I have recorded have come from just playing, with no agenda. It was just about recognizing that moment when it came up.”
After Rushen completed the Straight from the Heart album, the label said they didn’t think it had any hits. Rushen knew she would have to take matters into her own hands, so she hired an independent promoter to push “Forget Me Nots” to radio stations. The effort paid off as it went on to become Rushen’s most successful song.
“Feels So Real (Won’t Let Go)”
Release date: 1984
US charts: #78 pop, #2 R&B, #10 dance
This song from the Now album may be my favorite groove of all of Rushen’s work, which is saying a lot. I love the use of the synth and Roland TR-808 drum machine.
“Get Off (You Fascinate Me)”
Release date: 1984
US charts: #26 R&B, #40 dance
“Get Off” is another funky dance track from Now. With the grooves and breakbeats contained in this tune, it’s easy to see why Rushen has been sampled by hundreds of hip-hop artists over the years.
Release date: 1987
US charts: #9 R&B, #22 dance
This was the opening track and biggest hit from Rushen’s 1987 album of the same name. Watch Out! was Rushen’s first and only album on Arista Records. The music video is a joy to watch. Rushen, wearing a leather beret and looking stunning, dances with dock workers.
I hope these singles will help you to remember Patrice Rushen. Like her contemporary Evelyn “Champagne” King, who we wrote about several months back, Rushen doesn’t seem to get the credit she deserves. Rushen’s blending of jazz, pop and funk created sounds that are still fresh four decades later. A musical giant and trailblazer, here’s hoping Rushen has a wonderful birthday.