Foolish Girl / Surprise - 7"
Op-Art - 1969
Brenda Russell was just 12 years old when her musical parents (her father Gus Gordon was once a member of the Ink Spots) left Brooklyn for the relatively colour-blind city of Hamilton, Ontario. And while the idea that Canada in the 1960s was a storybook world of peace and love to all would be laughable to any visible minority, it did have a weirdly encouraging effect on the young newcomer.
"I was the only black kid in the entire school, the only black kid anyone had ever met," she would tell the Globe and Mail in 2009. "They picked on me for being black, but it wasn't racism like we had in the States. They just had preconceived ideas of what blacks were. They assumed I could sing and dance, and, as it happened, I could. But my father loved it here. He had never felt so treated like a human being."
Russell's talents would soon catch the attention of Toronto producer Art Snider, who corralled the budding singer, along with Jackie Richardson, Colina Phillips and Arlene Trotman, to form a group called the Tiaras, ostensibly to sing back-up on some of his projects, like Pat Hervey's 1966 single 'Can't Get You Out of My Mind' and Grant Smith and the Power's blue-eyed soul corker 'Thinkin' 'Bout You' a couple of years later.
By 1968, the Tiaras were ready for the big time. Snider and little-known songwriter Al Rain (who incidentally composed the gorgeous 'Thinkin' 'Bout You') hustled the girls into Snider's Sound Canada recording studio in the newly built suburb of Don Mills to lay down tracks for their first record. The silky 'Where Does All the Time Go' was issued in the spring of that year on Barry. And though it troubled no charts at the time, it did manage a mention in the March 28th issue of Billboard ("the disk introduction of a Toronto femme group, the Tiaras").
The Tiaras followed up with a couple more Rain-penned tunes, 'Foolish Girl' and 'Surprise', this time on the hopelessly obscure Op-Art imprint. The lithe and carefree a-side is competent enough, but it is the pounding floor-filler 'Surprise' over on the back that fills up the blogs of northern soul collectors these days. A 2012 post on the Soul Source site reports that the record was essentially unknown prior to 2003, when deejay Andy Dyson turned up a copy and offered it for sale. Since then a few more copies have been unearthed by Toronto-based dealer Martin Koppel - perhaps from the murky corners of his Scarborough warehouse? - and, as the site dutifully explains, "No more copies have been located and the record's Canadian origins will surely ensure that it will remain very rare indeed."
Russell, by then in her late teens, took up the piano and joined the Toronto production of Hair. She would later issue a couple of albums with her husband for Elton John's Rocket Record Company sometime in the mid-seventies. But Russell's biggest fifteen minutes of fame would come to her as a solo artist...twice actually, with a top-30 hit, 'So Good, So Right', in 1979 and then again in 1988, when her 'Piano in the Dark' cracked the U.S. top ten and earned her three Grammy nominations.
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North Country / Vibration - 7"