The release by Volt Records of Brenda Holloway’s It’s a Woman’s World is cause for celebration. Other than a gospel album made in 1980, the disc is the first new U.S. recording by the much-adored Sixties Motown diva in nearly 33 years.
Described by author Nelson George as “the most beautiful woman ever signed to Motown,” Holloway is remembered not only for her stunning looks but also for a sweetly soulful singing style that gave the world such hits as “Every Little Bit Hurts,” “I’ll Always Love You,” “When I’m Gone,” “Operator,” and “Just Look What You’ve Done.” But in 1968, shortly after writing and recording the original version of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” a tune Blood, Sweat & Tears turned into a smash the following year, she abruptly quit show business, married a minister, and spent the next two decades raising three daughters. She resumed recording in England in 1987 with a series of faux Motown sides and returned to live performing in 1995.
It’s a Woman’s World is, however, no throwback to the sounds of yesteryear. Produced by Fred Pittman and Preston Glass, the album is a thoroughly contemporary R&B statement by a gifted artist who refuses to be locked into a time warp. All of the songs were written specially for Holloway, excepting the Everly Brothers’ classic “Walk Right Back,” which she delivers with a delicious new twist.
“It’s a woman’s world/in the the 21st century/I’m that kind of girl/I can be what I want to be/It’s a woman’s world/and every day I feel brand-new//There’s no turning back/’cause a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do,” Holloway sings on the album’s title track, summing up her current artistic state of mind.
“I was really free to express the Brenda Holloway that exists now, not the one from the Sixties,” she says of the new album. “This session was one where I said, ‘I’m not going to try to sing like Mary Wells to get a deal. I’m not going to sing like the old Brenda Holloway to keep an image.’ It’s not the brand-new Brenda Holloway. It’s not the revised Brenda Holloway. It’s not the old-school Brenda Holloway. It’s the real me.”
Holloway was born on June 21, 1946 in Atascadero, California and moved with her family to the Watts section of Los Angeles at age two. “We were very, very poor, but my mother always had a home,” recalls the singer, a 1999 winner of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s prestigious Pioneer Award. “We lived by the projects, but we were in a house. I was in the ghetto studying violin in my backyard. The dogs were howling and I was playing.” Young Brenda also developed the diamond diction that would become a hallmark of her vocal style.
After singing in junior high school with an early edition of the Whispers, Holloway made her recording debut backing her sister Patrice on a tune titled “Do the Del Viking.” Patrice was 12, and Brenda was 14. Brenda was soon cutting records of her own for such local labels as Del-Fi, Donna, Catch, and Minasa. Brenda and Patrice also became much in demand as background singers, doing sessions with Johnny Rivers and Tina Turner, among others.
In 1964, singing along to a Mary Wells record while wearing a form-fitting dress that highlighted her fashion-model figure, 18-year-old Brenda caught the eyes and ears of Berry Gordy, Jr. at a disc jockey convention in Southern California. She became the first West Coast artist signed by Gordy’s Detroit-based Motown empire. Her first record for Motown’s Tamla label, the heart-tugging ballad “Every Little Bit Hurts,” was recorded in L.A. with Hal Davis and Marc Gordon producing. It was her biggest hit, peaking at No. 12 on Billboard’s pop chart and helping her land a coveted opening slot on the Beatles’ 1965 U.S. tour.
Holloway was soon traveling to Detroit to record. Although she worked with some of the company’s top producers, including Smokey Robinson (“When I’m Gone,” “Operator”) and Gordy himself (“You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”), she felt that as an out-of-town artist she was not always given the best material. And stardom wasn’t coming as quickly as she’d anticipated. “I was young,” she admits. “I didn’t understand. Didn’t have any patience. Berry was working with me. When he got me ready for Vegas, that scared me.”
Concerns about lifestyles associated with the entertainment industry also contributed to Holloway’s early retirement–in 1968 at age 22. “There was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes in the music business,” she says. “Tammi Terrell died, and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. There were so many drugs and stuff, and I did not want to get into that scene.”
A public silence of nearly two decades followed, broken only by a gospel album for Birthright Records in 1980. “I stayed in church for 18 years,” she explains. “I was just religious, but I wasn’t really knowing about God. Had I really known God, I would have never stopped singing. I would have pursued my gift. There’s a passage in the Bible that says that when God gives you something, you’re to invest in that and make that bring more. For 18 years, I sat in a church. I did everything that they told me to do. And I was miserable. Now I understand that as a Christian you’ve got to be using what you have. You can’t be afraid. I was afraid to use my talent. I was so afraid I was going to sin that I didn’t do anything.”
Holloway, long a favorite of oldies aficionados on England’s Northern Soul scene, returned to recording in 1987 with British producer Ian Levine. “Those people never forgot Brenda Holloway,” she says of her fans in the U.K. And in 1995, she resumed performing publicly, on bills with veteran R&B singer Brenton Wood at California shows catering to Mexican-American low-rider audiences. It was at one of those performances that she met producer-songwriter Fred Pittman, who took her to Fantasy Records in Berkeley to record It’s a Woman’s World for the reactivated Volt label.
“I’m not young, but I’m still youthful,” says Holloway, who as a member of former Motown artist Blinky Williams’s Hollywood Mass Choir recently backed country superstar Garth Brooks on a Donny and Marie Osmond Christmas special. “I’ve been an old-school legend. This album is opening a lot of new doors for me. This was the easiest and the best and the most relaxed session I’ve ever done. Fantasy gave me a chance to be the real Brenda Holloway.”