Brenda Holloway was a California teen who recorded for the legendary Motown label in the 1960s. A noted beauty, she joined the Detroit label and released her first single in 1964, just before the explosive success of label-mates Diana Ross and the Supremes. Though she later faded into obscurity, Holloway actually wrote some of her own songs—a rarity for a female rhythm and blues (R&B) performer at the time—and is also noteworthy as the first West Coast act that Motown ever signed. Less than a decade later, the company abandoned its Detroit roots and moved its headquarters to Southern California.
Holloway was born in 1946 in Atascadero, a town in San Luis Obispo county, and moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was still a toddler. The Holloways, which would soon grow to include her younger brother and sister, settled in the Watts neighborhood in South Los Angeles—by this point a predominantly African-American community—in a house on Bandera Street near Ninety-second. Demonstrating an early aptitude for music, Holloway began taking violin lessons at the age of seven and learned several other instruments, including the piano, cello, and flute. She also began composing melodies at a young age, and though she was thoroughly immersed in the classical genre as part of her musical training, she gravitated toward pop music in her teens. In middle school, she sang in an early version of the Whispers, an enduring R&B act that had hits until the 1980s, but she soon teamed with her younger sister, Patrice, to sing together. Holloway was fourteen years old and Patrice was twelve when they recorded their first single, "Do the Del Viking." Over the next three years, a solo Holloway recorded a number of songs that were released on local Los Angeles labels and were minor radio hits in Southern California.
Holloway was a senior at David Starr Jordan High School in Watts in 1964 when Hal Davis, her manager/producer, booked her for an appearance at a national convention of radio disc jockeys held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Davis knew that Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, was likely to turn up at the convention at some point and hoped that he could engineer a meeting between the vivacious and talented Holloway and the Detroit record mogul who was rapidly changing both the sound and the look of African-American music in the United States. Holloway's gig at the convention involved singing "My Guy," which was Motown's newest hit for its top female soloist, Mary Wells, over a six-hour period. "Later I was talking to this gentleman. I said, ‘You know, I'm getting tired, because I'm supposed to be singing for Berry Gordy. I wish he would hurry up and come,’" Holloway recounted in a lengthy interview with Kimasi Browne for the book California Soul: Music of African Americans in the West. "He left. After about forty minutes, he came back and said, ‘I like the way you sing.’ I said, ‘I'm glad that you like the way I sing, but I'm supposed to be here to sing for Berry Gordy.’ He said, ‘I am Berry Gordy.’" The Motown chief told Holloway he wanted to sign her, to which she replied, "‘Call my mom. Tell her to come, to put on the best clothes she has and let's sign this contract.’"
Became Motown's Newest Star
Holloway was the first West Coast artist ever signed by Motown, and her first Motown single was recorded in a Los Angeles-area studio and released in May of 1964. The song was the ballad "Every Little Bit Hurts," written by Ed Cobb, and peaked at number thirteen, making it the first Motown hit produced outside of its legendary Hitsville, U.S.A. studio in Detroit. Even though the hit would be a career chart high for Holloway, she was unhappy with the song choice. After dropping out of Compton Community College's music program, she began traveling to Detroit to record at the Motown studios. The process proved difficult, and she was dismayed to learn that her ideas and suggestions were unwelcome by Motown's team of songwriters and producers.
Holloway was briefly the newest Motown sensation in the period just before the Supremes, a female trio, had their first number-one hit with "Where Did Our Love Go?" later in 1964. The Supremes would go on to have a string of hits, and they became the label's most lucrative act for the rest of the decade. Holloway felt shunted aside, though she did open for the Temptations, Motown's other hugely successful act, and even played her violin to a standing ovation. But she was warned by one Temptations member not to return for an encore, despite the crowd's cheers. "It seemed like I was a threat to them because I was a different type of act," she said in the California Soul chapter. "I think that they saw my potential even more than I saw my potential." She also noted that among the rough-and-tumble teens and young adults who had grown up in Detroit, her Los Angeles background and classical musical training set her apart from the others, who wrongly perceived her as coming from a more middle-class background than their own. Her diction was also flawless, and Gordy reportedly had Diana Ross listen to tapes of Holloway to hone her own pronunciation.
Holloway's next hits, 1965's "When I'm Gone" and "Operator," were written and produced by Smokey Robinson and made respectable showings on Billboard's R&B chart. She was home with her family in Watts in August of 1965 when the infamous Watts riots erupted, and she recalled that the family literally barricaded themselves inside the house. She told Browne in the California Soul interview that those days "seemed like the end of the world. Tanks were driving down our streets, no cars—just National Guards with guns. We were so afraid that the National Guardsmen would kill us. I didn't feel like a star. I felt like dead meat." She finally phoned Gordy and told him she could not live there any longer, and he gave her the down payment for a house in Los Angeles's quieter Westside neighborhood. Three days after the riots, she joined that year's biggest tour as an opening act for the Beatles and earned a spot in music history as the only solo female act ever to open for the British band on tour.
"I Just Walked Out"
Holloway had a few more minor hits for Motown, including "You've Made Me So Very Happy" in 1967, which she cowrote with her sister Patrice. Two years later, it was covered by the rock act Blood Sweat & Tears and reached number two for them. She and her sister also sang backup on the famous Joe Cocker hit "With a Little Help from My Friends," a cover of a Beatles tune, in 1968. That same year, her second album, The Artistry of Brenda Holloway, was finally released after a long delay by Motown executives. Holloway felt pushed aside as Diana Ross and the Supremes racked up hit after hit for the label, but then Gordy told Holloway that he wanted to ready her for a regular gig in Las Vegas. "I had a lot of fears about Vegas, because that was an area and a territory that no one at Motown had been into," she told Browne. "I didn't know who Brenda was or the potential that I had in me. It could be because I came from Watts, and I didn't put enough value on me."
At a Glance …
Born on June 21, 1946, in Atascadero, CA; daughter of Wade and Johnnie Mae Holloway; married, 1968; children: three daughters. Education: Attended Compton Community College, c. 1964-65.
Career: Recorded first single, "Do the Del Viking," c. 1960; cut other singles that were issued on Los Angeles labels, 1961-64; signed to Motown imprint Tamla, 1963; first Motown single, "Every Little Bit Hurts," peaked at number thirteen on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, 1964; opening act for the Beatles on their 1965 U.S. tour; retired from performing, c. 1968-80; returned in 1980 with the gospel album, Brand New; began performing again, 1995—.
Addresses: Agent—Richard de la Font Agency, 4845 S. Sheridan Rd., Ste. 505, Tulsa, OK 74145.
In 1968 Holloway finally decided to leave Motown. The decision was made one day when she was in Detroit, following a telephone call to her mother back in Los Angeles, during which she fumed once again about her treatment by label executives. "I just walked out," she told Browne. She married a minister and had three daughters, and Holloway returned to the music business briefly in 1980 with a gospel album on Birthright Records. Later that decade, she made some recordings in Britain and finally began performing again in the mid-1990s. She released her fifth album, My Love Is Your Love, in 2004. Other artists later covered her hits as well as the songs she wrote, beginning with "Every Little Bit Hurts"—her first single and the ballad she loathed—which has been recorded by George Clinton's Funkadelic, the Clash, the Jam, and Alicia Keys.
Every Little Bit Hurts, Motown, 1964.
The Artistry of Brenda Holloway, Motown, 1968.
Brand New, Birthright Records, 1980.
It's a Woman's World, Volt Records, 1999.
My Love Is Your Love, Bestway Records, 2004.
"Hey Fool," 1962.
"Game of Love," 1962.
"I'll Give My Life," 1962.
"Every Little Bit Hurts," 1964.
"I'll Always Love You," 1964.
"When I'm Gone," 1965.
"You Can Cry on My Shoulder," 1965.
"Together 'til the End of Time," 1966.
"Hurt a Little Everyday," 1966.
"Just Look What You've Done," 1967.
"You've Made Me So Very Happy," 1967.
"Give Me A Little Inspiration," 1987.
Browne, Kimasi, "Brenda Holloway: Los Angeles's Contribution to Motown," in California Soul: Music of African Americans in the West, edited by Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje and Eddie S. Meadows, University of California Press, 1998.
"Brenda Holloway," Richard De La Font Agency,http://www.delafont.com/music_acts/Brenda-Holloway.htm (accessed December 26, 2007).
Sixties R&B diva Brenda Holloway is "the most beautiful woman ever signed to Motown," according to author George Nelson, who wrote Holloway's biography on the Fantasy Jazz website. Signed in 1964, during the label's heyday, Holloway recorded such Motown hits as "Every Little Bit Hurts," "I'll Always Love You," "When I'm Gone," "Operator," and "Just Look What You've Done." This was all before 1968, when she quit show business for the next 20 years to raise her family.
Born in Atascadero, California, in 1946 and raised in Los Angeles, Holloway had musical talent even as a child. She played violin and sang in the church choir in her Watts neighborhood. "We were very, very poor, but my mother always had a home," Holloway remembered in her Fantasy Jazz biography. She even sang for a while during junior high school with a vocal group that later became the Whispers. Her first recorded performance was at age 14, when she sang backup for her younger sister, Patrice, then 12, who cut a single called "Do the Del Viking" for a local independent record label. The two sisters dabbled in recording and became popular session singers around Los Angeles for Johnny Rivers and Tina Turner, among others.
Holloway was just 18 when she got her big break. In 1964, she sang a version of Mary Wells's Motown hit "My Guy" at a Los Angeles disc jockey convention. Motown scout Hal Davis spotted her and immediately introduced her to the label's founder, legendary producer Berry Gordy, who was so taken with Holloway's vocal skills that he wasted no time in signing her to Tamla, a Motown imprint. The singer's beauty only helped her cause.
Holloway's first year with the label passed with little fanfare, but that changed when she got an offer from legendary American Bandstand host Dick Clark for Holloway to appear on his TV show Caravan of Stars. Clark's shows had the power to transform mid-level performers into stars, and Holloway's blues-styled ballad "Every Little Bit Hurts" became a smash hit.
She became a rising star very quickly; when Motown tried to get the Supremes a spot on Caravan of Stars, they were turned down. The Supremes weren't big enough; the show's producers were only interested in Holloway. "Every Little Bit Hurts" was her biggest single; the song peaked at number 12 on the Billboard pop chart. In 1965, the newly arrived Beatles chose Holloway as their opening act.
Before long, she traveled to Detroit, her label's home-town, to record, but there things began to sour: She felt like an outsider; she wasn't getting the best material, she was impatient, and stardom wasn't coming fast enough. Still, she worked with the label's best producers, including Smokey Robinson, with whom she recorded two successive hits, "When I'm Gone" and "Operator." Gordy himself also tutored her personally, preparing her to take the stage in Las Vegas.
But Holloway's sales decreased with each record. She began to hone her songwriting skills, and formed a writing partnership with sister Patrice and Frank Wilson, a Motown staff producer. The trio produced Holloway's 1968 release, "You've Made Me So Very Happy," which Gordy himself produced. The song did not become a hit until 1969, however, when it was covered by the white jazz-rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears.
The pressures of the music industry began to take its toll on the young singer. Her label mate, Tammi Terrell, had recently died. Drug use was becoming rampant, leading to the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Holloway made a life-changing decision: just 22, she called it quits. Some sources, who blame business differences with Gordy for her decision, report that her Motown contract had been terminated.
Holloway's life took a hairpin turn after her abrupt exit from show business. She married a minister and had three daughters. She immersed herself in the church, and sang only gospel, believing anything else would be in conflict with her religious beliefs. "I stayed in church for 18 years," Holloway is quoted as saying online at Fantasy Jazz. "Had I really known God, I would never have stopped singing. I would have pursued my gift. I was so afraid I was going to sin that I didn't do anything. " Her 20-year absence from recording was broken only once, when she released a gospel album, Brand New, for Birthright Records in 1980.
Long a favored star of England's Northern Soul scene, Holloway returned to the music business in 1987, recording with British producer Ian Levine. The songs she chose followed the Motown formula closely. She returned to the stage in 1995, and became popular performing in California at Mexican-American low-rider car meets, rallies, and conventions. It was at one of these shows that she got her second real break, meeting producer-songwriter Fred Pittman, who signed her to Fantasy Records, a jazz label located in Berkeley, California, where she recorded 1999's It's a Woman's World.
For the Record . . .
Born on June 21, 1946 in Atascadero, CA; married, 1968; children: three daughters.
Recorded with local Los Angeles record labels, 1960-64; signed to Motown imprint Tamla, 1964; released hit single, "Every Little Bit Hurts," 1964; chosen to perform with the Beatles on U.S. tour, 1965; released gospel album, Brand New, 1980; recorded in England, 1987; returned to the stage, 1995; released original album It's a Woman's World, 1999.
Addresses: Record company— Fantasy Records, Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710, website: http://www.fantasyjazz.com. Booking— De La Font Agency, web-site: http://www.delafont.com.
Aside from the gospel release, It's a Woman's World was Holloway's first album of original material in 33 years. Pittman and his producer-songwriter partner, Preston Glass, erased all traces of the Motown sound from Holloway's return release, and built the album on more contemporary sounds. "That's a shame," wrote Detroit Free Press critic Terry Lawson in a review located on the newspaper's website. The album "could have stood fewer programmed beats and more naturally created grooves." Holloway herself admits there's a difference in her sound, and she embraces it. "I'm not going to sing like the old Brenda Holloway to keep an image," she is quoted as saying on the Richard De La Font Agency website. "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."
Every Little Bit Hurts, Motown, 1964.
Artistry of Brenda Holloway, Motown, 1968.
Brand New, Birthright, 1980.
It's a Woman's World, Fantasy Jazz, 1999.
Together, Kev Roberts, 1999.
Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
Gregory, Hugh, Soul Music A-Z, Blandford, 1991.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Macmillan, 1998.
Nite, Norm N., editor, Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock 'n' Roll, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978.
"Brenda Holloway," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 14, 2003).
"Brenda Holloway," The Iceberg, http://www.theiceberg.com/artist/26553/brenda_holloway.html (September 22, 2003).
"Brenda Holloway," Richard De La Font Agency, http://www.delafont.com/music_acts/Brenda_Holloway.htm (September 22, 2003).
"Brenda Holloway Bio," Fantasy Records, http://www.fantasyjazz.com/html/hollowayb_bio.html (September 22, 2003).
"Brenda Holloway—Former Motown Vocalist: It's a Woman's World, " Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com/justgo/sj/2000/0521/2.htm (September 22, 2003).