Catherine Russell: The Fresh Air In-Studio Concert The standards singer's solo album, Strictly Romancin', explores the ups and downs of love. Russell sings several tracks from the record during this interview and performance.
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Catherine Russell: The Fresh Air In-Studio Concert

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Catherine Russell: The Fresh Air In-Studio Concert

Catherine Russell: The Fresh Air In-Studio Concert

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One of the music highpoints of the year on our show was Catherine Russell's performance. I consider her one of the best jazz and blues singers around, which isn't to say she's well-know - she's not. She worked for years as a backup singer for Paul Simon, Steely Dan, David Bowie and others.

But for the past few years, she's been performing and recording under her own name. A lot of the material she does is jazz, blues and pop dating back to the 1930s and '40s. Her father, Luis Russell, was a pianist, composer and arranger, worked as Louis Armstrong's music director in the mid-1940s.

Her mother, Carline Ray, performed with the all-women's band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Catherine Russell came to our studio after the release of her album "Strictly Romancin." Accompanying her was Matt Munisteri, who plays on the album and served as its music director.


CATHERINE RUSSELL: (Singing) Everything's been done before. To share a kiss, a moment's bliss, and hear you whisper you love me, sweetheart, it's thrills as old as the hills but it's new to me. Oh, everything has been done before. The birds that sing the song of spring always sing above me yet with you their singing is something that's new to me.

(Singing) Life is strange. We hate to change from what is tried and true. Although I know I'm only doing what the others do, yet it all seems new. Oh, everything's been done before. To fall in love with stars above began with Adam and Eve but when I'm with you I just want to do what's been done before.

GROSS: That was fabulous. Thank you so much for performing that. That's Catherine Russell singing in our studio accompanied by Matt Munisteri on guitar. Thank you so much. That's so - I love your voice so much. I love a lot of early jazz and pop, and one of the things I love about your work is that you love that music, and you bring it to life in such a beautiful and committed way.

RUSSELL: Thank you very much.

GROSS: And you know the language of it. I mean, I think a lot of singers don't have the right rhythm when they sing old songs because they grew up with rock, and they just don't feel a jazz rhythm. But you grew up with jazz.

RUSSELL: I grew up with jazz, but I grew up with rock, too. I grew up with blues. I grew up with classical. My mother had an old radio in the kitchen when I was growing up and we used to listen to William B. Williams Make Believe Ballroom.

GROSS: On WNEW in New York. Yes.

RUSSELL: On WNEW, yeah, AM. Every morning, I was listening to Ella, the Mills Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Judy Garland, whatever. Peggy Lee, everything that was popular of the day, which - and before that. So that was late '50s, early '60s now.

So that really kind of formed my appreciation of phrasing, of how the people sang these tunes in those days. So I always, you know, was in the mirror with a toothbrush when I was a little girl, trying to sing these songs and everything.


GROSS: Now, I grew up with that radio station, too, because my parents listened to it. And I hated it then. I really hated it because I wanted to hear rock 'n' roll.


GROSS: But you grew up with parents who were jazz performers.


GROSS: You know, your father, the late Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's music director for a while. Your mother sang with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm during World War II.


GROSS: Which is an all-women jazz band. And so did the fact that they loved the music bring the music alive for you?

RUSSELL: Yes. My dad's music was some of the first music I ever heard in the house growing up, and my mother was so happy that I kind of took to it, you know, when I was very little because I liked to dance and I loved swing. And so, yes, I would say that their appreciation of traditional and different types of jazz kind of formed my young ears with that.

GROSS: Were they determined to get you to love the music? Did they play you things and hope that you would love it?

RUSSELL: No. You know, mom played a lot of different things. So she's happy that I did, but she also let me listen to a lot of things that she didn't particularly like. I grew up on "American Bandstand," so if there were groups on there - she never told me, oh, turn that stuff off, I hate it. Never. She always let me listen to my Led Zeppelin records loud.


RUSSELL: You know. So she, you know, got me a little stereo, and I had it, you know, the kind that you pick up, and I had that in my room when I was growing up. And she never said turn that down, I hate it, this is terrible. She always let me listen to everything I wanted to listen to.

GROSS: We're listening back to an excerpt of Catherine Russell's interview and performance. There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to an excerpt of the Catherine Russell concert and interview recorded last February in our studio after the release of her album "Strictly Romancin'." Matt Munisteri was with her to accompany her on guitar. So I'd like you to do another song that's featured on the new album. And this one is called "Romance in the Dark." And I have to say it's a very sexy song, especially the way you sing it.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

GROSS: So tell us why you chose the song.

RUSSELL: It's just such a - I love the blues. And I just love the pictures that the song creates with the lyric.

(Singing) In the dark, it's just you and I. Not a sound, baby, not one sigh. Just the beat of my poor heart in the dark. In the dark, I get such a thrill when he places his fingertips upon my lips, and he begs me please be still, in the dark.

(Singing) Oh, soon this dance will be ending, and I know, baby, you are gonna be missed. Gee, you know I'm not pretending 'cause you know it's fun, fun to be kissed in the dark. I know we will find what the rest, what the rest, what the rest have left behind. So just let them dance while we find romance in the dark. Yeah.

(Singing) Oh, soon this dance will be ending, and I know, pretty baby, you are gonna be missed. Ah, honey, but gee, I'm not pretending when I tell you it's fun, fun to be kissed in the dark. I know that we will find what the rest, what the rest, what the rest have left behind. So let them dance while we find romance, oh baby, in the dark.

GROSS: Whoa. Catherine Russell, it has been really very special to have you here performing today. Thank you so very much.

RUSSELL: Well, thank you. You have no idea. It's been so special for me and I just want to say dreams can come true.


GROSS: And Matt Munisteri, thank you so much for being here today. Catherine Russell with Matt Munisteri on guitar recorded in our studio last February after the release of Russell's album "Strictly Romancin'." We'll close with a track from it.


RUSSELL: Hello? Hello? Is this Harlem 7-7-7-11? Hello, John? Is this you? (singing) I tried to phone you. I hope you ain't sick but I'm checking out, goom'bye. Nice to have known you. You were my big kick. But I'm checking out, goom'bye. You tried no trick. You found a new chick. But I was too slick. I'm in the no, you've got to go, the gig is all done.

(singing) It's too bad our bliss had to miss out like this. I'm checking out, goom'bye. (speaking) And John? Huh? Oh, no, no, no. You breaking up, baby.

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

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