Fresh Air Interviews: Jazz Singer Catherine Russell Jazz singer Catherine Russell spent years singing backup for performers like Paul Simon and David Bowie before starting a solo career. She's just released her third album, Inside This Heart of Mine.
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'Inside' A Backup Singer's Journey To Center Stage

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'Inside' A Backup Singer's Journey To Center Stage

'Inside' A Backup Singer's Journey To Center Stage

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

There aren't many jazz singers who really have a feel for songs from the '20s, '30s and '40s. Catherine Russell does, and maybe that has something to do with being the daughter of Luis Russell, a pianist and composer who worked as Louis Armstrong's musical director in most of the 1930s and early '40s.

Although Catherine Russell is now in her 50s, it's only recently that she started recording early jazz and pop songs, songs associated with such singers as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra.

For a long time, she was a back-up singer for such performers as Paul Simon, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper and the band Steely Dan. We're going to hear the interview I recorded with her in 2008, after the release of her album "Sentimental Streak." Let's start with a track from her new CD, "Inside This Heart of Mine." This is "As Long As I Live," written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler.

(Soundbite of song, "As Long As I Live")

Ms. CATHERINE RUSSELL (Singer): (Singing) Maybe I can't live to love you as long as I want to. Life isn't long enough, baby, but I can love you as long as I live.

Yeah, maybe I can't give you diamonds and things like I want to, but I can promise you, baby, I'm gonna want to as long as I live.

Well, I never cared, but now I'm scared I won't live long enough. That's why I wear my rubbers when it rains and eat an apple every day then see the doctor anyway.

What if I can't live to love you as long as I want to. Long as I promise you, baby, I'm gonna love you as long I live.

GROSS: Music from Catherine Russell's new CD, "Inside This Heart of Mine." I asked her what it was like growing up with a father who had been Louis Armstrong's music director.

I know your father died when you were seven.


GROSS: So you didn't know him as you matured. But did you grow up with a lot of early jazz recordings? Because you certainly have a feel for early jazz on your own recordings.

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, his recordings were some of the first recordings I remember hearing in my life, you know. So that element of swing and fun, you know, was some of the earliest music that I absorbed. You know, and I thought wow, that sounds like fun.

And "The New Call of the Freaks," one of his hits, you know, for Luis Russell Orchestra, was one of the first things I remember hearing. And I thought that's funny, and every time I heard it, I would laugh, you know.

So I just love the swing of music and when people went out to socialize and dance to swing music. So that's really why I'm drawn to that period of jazz.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you mentioned "Call of the Freaks" because that's one of your father's better-known tunes.


GROSS: And your father did two songs. There was - that are similar. There's "Call of the Freaks," and then there's "New Call of the Freaks."

Ms. RUSSELL: Right, right.

GROSS: Let's play one of them. Which would you like us to play?

Ms. RUSSELL: I would say "New Call of the Freaks" because that one has the vocal trio arrangement and the lyrics: Take out the can, here comes the garbage man, which I thought was so funny when I was a kid.

GROSS: Okay, so this is Luis Russell, Catherine Russell's father, and his band.

(Soundbite of song, "The New Call of the Freaks")

LUIS RUSSELL AND HIS ORCHESTRA: (Singing) Take out your can, here comes the garbage man. In the morning, take out your can, here comes the garbage man. In the evening, take out your can, here comes the garbage man.

GROSS: That's "New Call of the Freaks," featuring my guest, Catherine Russell's, father, Luis Russell, who had his own band in the '20s and '30s and then became music director for Louis Armstrong.

And while we're giving a shout out to your father and his musical influence on you, we should also mention that your mother, Carline Ray, is a musician and singer. Is it guitar or bass or both?

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, it's both, actually. She was a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm in the mid-'40s during the Second World War, when a lot of female musicians came to the forefront as a result of the men, you know, going to war.

So a lot of female musicians emerged at that time, and she joined the Sweethearts, I think, right after she graduated from Juilliard School of Music in 1946. And she was the band guitarist and then featured vocalist at some points.

GROSS: And International Sweethearts of Rhythm was an all-women's band.

Ms. RUSSELL: All-female orchestra, yes, all-female jazz orchestra.

GROSS: And here's another question about your mother.


GROSS: Did she tell you interesting things about what it was like in the '40s to be a female jazz musician?

Ms. RUSSELL: Yeah, there were a lot of stories, you know, which formed who she is. And just, you know, she was playing guitar in the '40s and then switched to bass mainly in the '50s. And you know how people would just laugh when she'd walk in, you know, saying oh, little girl, you know, what are you doing with that big instrument, you know, type of thing.

And, you know, people really did not take women seriously and particularly, you know, African-American women, and, you know. She would tell me stories about how there was one night where, you know, the black and whites started to mix. They were playing some kind of a dance function, and they created a bomb scare because they didn't want the races to be mixing on the dance floor.

They'd have ropes down the middle of the dance floor so that black and white couldn't mix, you know, all kinds of different things like that.

So, you know, I really feel that the women that came up in that period of jazz were strong beyond our imagination. They really were.

GROSS: So, you know, you sing a lot of jazz and blues. We talked about the influence of your father, Luis Russell, who started leading his band in the 1920s. What was the music of your contemporaries, your friends when you were growing up?

Ms. RUSSELL: Mostly I'd say the first - you know, I started collecting 45 recordings when I was, I don't know, seven or eight years old. So the first 45 I think I bought was by The Supremes, and I was really into Motown because that's what was, you know, playing on popular radio at that time. And then later on, rock 'n' roll, you know, all of the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, you know, variety of classic rock. And then actually soul music so Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, all of those artists.

GROSS: Now, you had said that one of your influences when you were coming of age was soul music and Sam Cooke. So I thought we'd go to your first CD.

Ms. RUSSELL: Okay.

GROSS: And listen to you doing a Sam Cooke song...

Ms. RUSSELL: Okay. Excellent.

GROSS: And we're going to hear "Put Me Down Easy" from your first CD, which is called "Cat," which is short for Catherine, and my guest is Catherine Russell.


GROSS: Do you want to say anything about this selection before we hear it?

Ms. RUSSELL: Sam Cooke also produced so many artists, and those productions, those tunes are great, too, you know, the ones that he's not singing. So this is one sung his brother, L.C. Cooke, and it just struck me when I heard it, and I said: I just have to sing this song.

GROSS: Okay, and here's Catherine Russell, from her first CD, which is called "Cat."

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) I don't know why it should be, but lately I can plainly see you're cool to me. Do what you wanna do, but darling all I ask of you, put me down easy, put me down easy baby. Yeah, don't you make it rougher, and don't make me suffer just put me down easy.

If you found somebody new, there is nothing I can do but ask it to...

GROSS: That's Catherine Russell from her first CD, "Cat," singing a song written by Sam Cooke. Let's talk a little bit more about how - what life was like for you as a back-up singer. I mean, among the people who you sang with were Al Green, David Bowie, Isaac Hayes, yes?

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes, yes. Al Green and Isaac Hayes were TV shows. So I've also gotten to do a lot of shows with, you know, late-night shows with those artists. So I got to sing with Al Green twice, and...

GROSS: Tell me something about singing with Al Green.

Ms. RUSSELL: I was in a section of three women, and we sang "I'm Still in Love with You." So...

GROSS: And what was the part like? What's the part that you were doing?

Ms. RUSSELL: Uh, let's see...

(Soundbite of singing)

Ms. RUSSELL: You know, some oohs and aahs and...

(Singing) Don't you know I'm still in, sure enough in love with you.

You know, and so the three of us were harmonizing behind him, and you know, in the clip that I taped from the show, I'm just grinning from ear to ear. I'm just so happy, and I'm laughing, you know, and so - you know, you just see me on camera laughing, basically, between phrases.

GROSS: Okay, let's try another. Touring with David Bowie, what did you have to do?

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, I got that gig because David was looking for someone that could sing backup parts, you know, backup vocals and play keyboard parts, which I can do. I did that with Cyndi Lauper.

And so it turned out, though, that David let me do everything that I can do, which is play mandolin, I played guitars, I played percussion, and I was really integrated. It's a real band situation with him. So, you know, he's a member of the band. He just happens to be the front person who wrote all these amazing songs, you know, but it's a very integrated situation.

So it was a fabulously busy gig for me. So on every song, I was doing something else: string arrangements, you know, that I'd learned. And it was just the most incredible musical experience for me, you know, to be singing "Ziggy Stardust" with him and playing, you know, power chords on an electric guitar. That was fantastic.

GROSS: What were your lines?

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, it was kind of...

(Singing) So where were the spiders, while the fly tried to...

You know, and so it's all of those parts of the song. And also...

(Singing) Come on, come on. We've really got a good thing going. Come on, come on, if you want to, dah-dah-dah, better get on with yourself.

You know, and that was another song from "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust" that I just love.

GROSS: So what do you do onstage when you're a backup singer during the parts when you're not singing?

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, if you're not - if I'm not playing an instrument, I'm either in a section with other women moving together, so we make sure that, you know, we're moving right, and then we're moving left so the section looks coordinated. And if I'm playing an instrument, I'm just doing that and being animated.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. RUSSELL: You know, you can't really - yeah, you have to be animated. You can't really stand still and look bored and all that type of thing. You really must reflect that you're happy to be there, you know, so - which is, I think, something that horn players could do more of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Instead of walking out and having a smoke while somebody else solos or something.

Ms. RUSSELL: Instead of waiting, yes, it would be, you know, nice to see some animation. But that's my personal opinion.

GROSS: My guest is singer Catherine Russell. We'll talk more and hear more of her music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with singer Catherine Russell, recorded after the release of her 2008 album "Sentimental Streak." She has a new one called "Inside This Heart of Mine."

One of the things you did, this is before you started recording under your own name, is you sang between acts at the comedy club Catch a Rising Star.


GROSS: That strikes me like it might have been a real thankless job. How was it?

Ms. RUSSELL: You know, it was my first kind of real steady gig in New York, and the drummer at that point, they had a trio there who used to play the comics on and off. And the drummer called me up because I had been doing a few other gigs with him, and he said, you know, why don't you come by? You know, I think they would like you here. Come by and sing some blues, you know.

So I was scared to death, went the first night and was there for four years, and actually, it was a great gig. And, you know, it really toughens up your character, because they put me in the spot which was called the check spot. Which meant that was the spot in the evening where they would be handing out the checks. So I could sing louder than the people haggling over what they were going to leave their wait staff and so forth, you know.

And they would also put me on after big names. Like if they had Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams or somebody else come in of note - Jerry Seinfeld, all these people, Rodney Dangerfield, all these people were coming there and try out their new acts and so forth.

And so they'd always put the singer on after the stars because other comedians, of course, didn't want to follow those people.

So it was really good. You know, it was good training. I did it six nights a week for four years.

GROSS: But to sum up, you got the two worst spots, the spot when the waiters were handing out the checks...

Ms. RUSSELL: That's right.

GROSS: And after an act that was too tough for anyone else to follow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So - and was this also the sexist comic era?

Ms. RUSSELL: No, it was - well, it's interesting. I'm not sure about that because, you know, also people like Joy Behar, Susie Essman...

GROSS: Oh, right, yeah.

Ms. RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah, so they were there, and they were emceeing just as much as - you know, everybody was really there every night. So we were all hanging out together. So it - I didn't feel that.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another song that was written by your father, Luis Russell.


GROSS: And this is "I've Got That Thing." It's really delightful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Say something about why you chose this song.

Ms. RUSSELL: I was looking through one of his early compilations, and I - you know, I think it was the 1929 to 1930 compilation of Luis Russell Orchestra, and I came upon this, and it just - it was kind of another "Call of the Freak" situation where I thought this is funny. This is hilarious, you know. And the track was funny, and I started laughing immediately.

And I thought wow, let's recreate this and have, you know, Howard Johnson, you know, come in on some tuba, and I - it just turned out so great because Steven, you know, came in and played like this Dixieland, you know, made this Dixieland arrangement of it. So...

GROSS: And this is Steven Bernstein who did the arrangements on the CD.

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes, yes.

GROSS: So this is Catherine Russell from "Sentimental Streak," a song written by her father called "I've Got That Thing."

(Soundbite of song, "I've Got That Thing")

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) I don't care if the sun don't shine because I've got that thing. No-one on earth will be right in line 'til they get that thing. Before, all the fellas wouldn't look at me. Now they all rave for my company. I knew someday they would fall for me 'cuz I got that thing.

No-one on Earth knows what it's all about 'til they get that thing. It seems as though all the world is out looking for that thing. It's a funny old thing, that's without a doubt, makes everyone on Earth want to scream and shout. Why I wouldn't whisper, I'd shout it out that I've got that thing.

GROSS: That's Catherine Russell from "Sentimental Streak," and her father Luis Russell co-wrote the song we just heard.

You taught voice for a few years. Was there any particular piece of advice you would give your students that really came from your experience that you think, like, not all teachers would impart?

Ms. RUSSELL: The way I teach, I mean, I really stress enjoyment of, you know, performance, also picking material that you can express yourself through. Don't pick something that, you know, just because we love Aretha Franklin - we all love Aretha Franklin - you know, but maybe that's not the person that you should be picking, you know what I'm saying?

So I love Chaka Khan. As a vocalist, she's fabulous, but this is not my particular style. So I would say it's very difficult for singers to find their own style. So you really need to find songs that you can express yourself through, you know, more so than hearing another artist and saying, oh, I want to sound like them.

GROSS: Catherine Russell, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. RUSSELL: Thank you so much, Terry. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Catherine Russell, recorded in 2008. She has a new CD called "Inside This Heart of Mine." You can hear three tracks from it on I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Struttin' With Some Barbecue")

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