One of the sexiest singers on the Motown label, Brenda Holloway was also one of its grittiest, with a strong gospel influence more typical of Southern soul than the company’s usual polish. Best known for her ballad hit “Every Little Bit Hurts,” Holloway also recorded (and co-wrote) the original version of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” which soon became a hit for jazz-rockers Blood Sweat & Tears.
Holloway was born in Atascadero, CA, in 1946 and grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles; as a child, she learned violin and began singing in church with her younger sister Patrice (who later became a prominent session singer and contributed vocals to Josie & the Pussycats). After singing with the group that later became the Whispers, Holloway’s first professional recording was made at age 14, backing 12-year-old Patrice on a locally released single. Brenda herself soon began cutting records on several different L.A. labels, and she and her sister also found work as session vocalists.
In 1964, Holloway performed a rendition of Mary Wells’ “My Guy” at a DJ convention in Los Angeles. Motown founder Berry Gordy happened to be there, and he was so struck by the power of her vocals (not to mention her physical form) that he made Holloway his first West Coast signing, placing her on the Tamla subsidiary. Her debut single, “Every Little Bit Hurts,” was an R&B smash that also reached number 12 on the pop charts, and was covered by British R&B aficionados like the Spencer Davis Group and the Small Faces; it became the title track of her first album, also released in 1964. Holloway also found fans in the Beatles, who gave her an opening slot on their 1965 American tour.
She scored several more R&B hits through 1965 — “I’ll Always Love You” and the Smokey Robinson-penned tracks “When I’m Gone” and “Operator.” However, Tamla scrapped a follow-up album, which would have been called Hurtin’ and Cryin’, and Holloway began to feel that she was getting the short end of the stick. She frequently traveled from her home in Los Angeles to record in Detroit, and began to feel that the material she was given wasn’t always up to snuff, perhaps because of her distance. She began to work more on her own writing, often in partnership with her sister, and with a bit of outside help they co-wrote “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” in 1968. Holloway’s version was a minor R&B hit, but Blood Sweat & Tears turned it into a major pop hit the following year.
Holloway’s second album, The Artistry of Brenda Holloway, was finally released in 1968, but that year she announced her retirement from the music business, citing her disillusionment with Motown and her fears of being drawn into the stereotypical hedonistic lifestyle (which conflicted with her still-deep religious convictions). She later married a minister and raised three daughters, returning to music in 1980 with the gospel album Brand New. Holloway’s records remained popular on England’s so-called “Northern soul” scene, and in 1987 she traveled to the U.K. to record several Motown-style singles for producer Ian Levine’s Motorcity label. In 1995, motivated by the death of Mary Wells, she returned to live performance around the L.A. area, often in tandem with fellow soul veteran Brenton Wood. She performed in the U.K. as well, and in 1999 she signed with the revived Volt label to record It’s a Woman’s World, which took a more contemporary urban approach.