One good listen to bass singer supreme Los Angeles native Phillip Brandon’s impressive just-released CD, “The Story Begins,” reveals influences from a range of artists stretching from Sammy Davis Jr. and Stevie Wonder to Luther Vandross and Gregory Porter. However, the singer who has been the most consistent inspiration for Phillip all along is his mother Brenda Davis: “Ms. B.” to most! The one-time backup vocalist for “Genius of Soul” Ray Charles as a member of his world renowned Raelettes even guests on a jazzy highlight of her son’s debut album. The love and respect flowing freely between them is a revelation to behold.
“Before I really tuned into the musical aspect of my mother, I was fascinated by the whole experience of her being on the road and on the go,” Phillip shares. “She toured around the nation with a Top 40 band. Her trips to Japan really spoke to me because she’d be there for six months. Hearing those stories and seeing photos always fascinated me.” Gazing upon her son with the beaming eyes of one very proud mama, Mrs. Davis relays, “When we moved into our first house, we would have talent shows in the backyard. My other boys, Jonathan Thomas and Sean Paul, would always do wrestling and acrobatics. Phillip was the one who would sing or lip-sync – to a tee.”
Far removed from lip-syncing today, Phillip Brandon has toured the world for the last 8 years straight as the singing “Narrator” with platinum selling rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra and had a feature role in the staged life story of Gospel legend BeBe Winans “Born For This: The Musical.” When crafting his crucial 10-song debut CD, The Story Begins, primarily produced by the prolific Preston Glass (Aretha Franklin, George Benson), one of the songs Phillip and Preston co-wrote, “Stay in the Moment,” cried out for a second voice. Phillip knew just where to go. “Anytime I do something in the studio, I love to have my Mom come in. Our voices are almost identical – hers is just up a couple of octaves! The blend is heavenly. We sang in the studio together, so we could feed off each other.” Ms. B. adds, “It’s always exciting and a pleasure to work with Phillip. He’s such a perfectionist! I want to do my very-very best for him.”
Perfection is something Ms. B. knows all about. Born Brenda Johnson in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she grew up watching her mother, Georgia Lee Blair, rehearse her gospel groups right there at home. Brenda marveled over the harmonies. One day when Brenda was 9, her mother called her up to sing at a church in Oklahoma City. “I could hardly wait for them to get through my introduction before I started singing `Joy, Joy, Joy’.’” Brenda laughs. “When I saw all the people applauding and crying over me, I loved the feeling.” By the time she got to Manual High School in Denver, Brenda participated in many battles of the bands and talent shows. Among her peers were future jazz singer Dianne Reeves and future Earth Wind & Fire falsetto star Philip Bailey. “My groups either won or came in no lower than second place. That’s when I knew I had something special. I didn’t know how to go any further in Denver, so I went away to college.”
Home on her first spring break, Brenda was helping around the house, dusting, while a woman from Avon cosmetics was signing her mother up to become a representative. “The lady heard me chirping something by Chaka, stopped her presentation and said, ‘Young lady, have you ever thought of singing professionally?’ She told my mom that her niece sang with Ray Charles and that he was looking for another girl. Mom told her for me, ‘Yes, she’d be interested!’
“So, they flew me out to Los Angeles – first class – had a car pick me up and take me to Ray’s RPM Studio on Washington & Westmoreland. General Manager, Don Adams, introduced me to everyone including a man called ‘Bags’ (not vibraphonist Milt Jackson) who auditioned me with the other Raelettes: Susaye Greene (the Avon lady’s niece), Vernita Moss and Mable John. My audition was pretty easy actually. I did everything they asked me to do…but when I was finished, I was sitting there like a deer in headlights! They told me they would be calling. Just before I left, they introduced me to Ray who had been sitting in the back, quietly listening. I flew back home. A week-and-a-half later, I got a call to join them in Jacksonville, Florida. When I got there, standing by the door, Ray said, ‘Come on over here. I’m not gonna bite!’ He took my hand, squeezed my wrist and upper arm. He said, ‘You know what I’m gonna call you? Stallion!’ I was in.”
However, Brenda’s time with Brother Ray was brief. When some gigs popped up overseas, she did not have a passport. Though disappointed, Brenda had so much love for singing that she didn’t go back to college. Instead, when artists like Eddie Floyd, Tina Turner or Quincy Jones came to town, she put vocal groups or warm up acts together for them, eventually touring groups. She moved to L.A. fell in love, married Phillip Davis and had their first son, Phillip Brandon.
Raised in a household filled with love and music, young Phillip reveled in his father taking him to jazz concerts (his first was George Benson with Boney James opening) and the family record collection to which he gravitated toward the soulful strains of the O’Jays, the Whispers and Maze. Brenda kept her eye on his musical interests but never attempted to sway him.
“I wanted him to want to do it himself,” she insists. “I’d never push a kid into a dream of mine. But once Phillip turned 12, I decided I wanted to start singing again. I took my sons and husband to wherever I was performing. At one show, I asked Phillip if he would like to sing. He said, ‘Yes,’ and did Tevin Campbell’s ‘Tomorrow (Better You, Better Me).’ He stood singing with his arms outstretched but would not move an inch from behind the mic stand! When he finished, 250 people were standing, clapping and singing. That’s when he got `the bug.’”
Phillip Brandon only sang for the fun of it until he got to Morehouse College in Atlanta on a partial scholarship that required him to tour with their glee club. “We went on tour every spring singing classical repertoire and Negro Spirituals. I love travel, so a light bulb went off in my head!” Phillip earned a degree in marketing. However, after graduating, he took part in competitions, seeing more of the world singing bass in an a cappella group on cruise ships. “People asked if I would read lines for them which led me to theater. I did ‘The Lion King’ in Hong Kong then a national tour of ‘The Color Purple’ playing the roles of ‘Preacher’ and ‘Ol Mister.’” Capitalizing on his exposure in theater, Phillip is now pursuing recording and touring as a jazzy Soul-Pop artist. Ms. B. for one, is impressed.
“One thing I’ve learned from my son is discipline and business,” she shares. “With the little success I had, I was just having fun – showing up and showing out! My son is light years off the hinges from that. He goes from A to Z in this business. He knows how to deal with people – especially difficult people. He’s so patient and kind yet firm when there is a need.”
Phillip is forever grateful to his mother for all she has done for him, his brothers and 13-year-old sister, Curtise Dejae’. “I give her big props as a Supermom,” he states, “During this difficult time right now, she’s been my father’s caregiver as he is past stage 4 in metastatic liver cancer that has spread throughout his body. This year we went to the Hollywood Bowl to see Angelique Kidjo – our first time without Dad. He was always the one to spearhead those family outings. Yet with all he’s going through, he’s still one of my biggest supporters. There’s an overwhelming amount of love I wanted to publicly give to both my parents – particularly mom for carrying the weight on her shoulders.”
Brenda adds, “My main thing was to make sure that my sons loved each other as much as they loved us. Because when we’re gone, they’re going to have each other to stand on. We all believe in The Most High Creator and know that you have to have love among yourself.”
That lovely sentiment sends her mind back to one of her most precious memories of Phillip of all. “One year, Phillip was singing on a cruise ship. We had dinner with the captain. I had a pretty gold gown and they all had tuxes. After dinner, Phillip asked us to follow him to the top deck to this isolated beautiful glass-enclosed greenhouse oasis – most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. There was a white grand piano he sat us next to as my husband and I held hands. Phillip sat at that piano played and sang a song he wrote just for us. There wasn’t a dry eye in the garden. It was the most thoughtful thing that could ever happen to anyone in their life. First of all, we didn’t even know he could play the piano! Second, he cared and loved us so much that he wrote a song just for us. There are no words for how that made us feel.”
Inspired by the life she has shared with her husband, as well as guesting on her son, Phillip Brandon’s, The Story Begins CD, Brenda has been writing songs to finally record an album of her own. “His not going to be around with us much longer has given me songs in my mind and heart to sing.” When she does, it will be with the nickname, Ms. B. “Kids try to call you by your first name. But, see, I’m from the old school and I demand respect. I tell young ones, ‘You can call me Mrs. Davis or Ms. B. – but you will NOT call me Brenda.’ Ms. B. kinda stuck. Plus, Phillip’s always telling me about branding, so it’s good for that, too.”
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