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Catherine Russell: An In-Studio Fresh Air Concert

Catherine Russell.
Stefan Falke
Catherine Russell.

This interview was originally broadcast on February 21, 2011.


Blues and jazz singer Catherine Russell says she frequently listens to the radio while washing dishes. One night, she was by the sink listening to a Chick Webb compilation when Ella Fitzgerald's "Under the Spell of the Blues" came on. The song struck her.

"The lyric came on, and it was just a beautiful story, and then I [was] compelled to learn the tune, and then I learned about everything surrounding it," she says.

The result is now one of 14 songs on Russell's fourth solo album, Strictly Romancin', and one of the tunes she sings during Tuesday's Fresh Air in-studio interview and concert. Other songs in the concert include "Everything's Been Done Before," "Wake Up and Live" and "Romance in the Dark." Russell grew up on these tunes, in addition to a mix of rock, blues and classical arrangements.

"My mother had a radio in the kitchen when I was growing up, and we used to listen to William B. Williams Make Believe Ballroom on WNEW-AM," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So every morning, I was listening to Ella, the Mills Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee. Everything that was popular of the day and before that. ... That really formed my appreciation of phrasing, of how the people sang these tunes in those days."

Russell's household was always filled with music. Her father, the late Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's musical director from 1935 to 1943. Her mother, Carline Ray, performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female orchestra, during WWII and has performed with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra.

"Their appreciation of traditional and different types of jazz kind of formed my young ears," she says. "Mom played a lot of different things. ... And she also let me listen to a lot of things that she didn't particularly like. ... She let me listen to my Led Zeppelin records loud. ... She never said, 'Turn that down. I hate it. This is terrible.' She always let me listen to everything I wanted to listen to."

Catch A Rising Star

As Russell grew older, she realized she wanted to be a singer. One of her first regular gigs was in between sets at a comedy club called Catch a Rising Star in New York. Russell was allowed to sing for 15 minutes and pick three tunes.

"The first song would be an uptempo soul tune, the second would be some kind of blues or a ballad and then the third would be an uptempo tune, and I wouldn't finish the tune. The band would keep playing and I'd say, 'Good night everybody!' and leave the stage," she says. "Not only weren't they my audience, but it would take a tune or two to have them say, 'Oh, okay, she can sing,' and then they would go back to tallying up their checks."

Russell says singing to a relatively indifferent audience was actually excellent training.

"You really have to work so hard to win them over," she says. "You only have 15 minutes, and you have to put all of yourself into every note. And I could sing whatever I wanted to sing. So it was a way for me to change up repertoire and add repertoire and know what was and wasn't going to work."

After that gig, Russell sang backup for people like Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Steely Dan, Paul Simon and David Bowie. She also backed Bette Midler, Al Green and Beth Orton on David Letterman's show. Rehearsals, she said, often took place on the same day as the show.

"Sometimes they'll send you the tune beforehand, but really, we're working out the parts that day," she says. "Those of us working out those parts are continually rehearsing that day until we're on camera. So we keep rehearsing the parts in the dressing room; as we're going down the stairs to the studio, we're rehearsing in the wings, in the green rooms, right up until the cameras roll."

Performing as a solo artist, Russell says, requires a different set of nerves.

"It was terrifying at first, really," she says. "I just thought, 'What have I done?' But then the more I did it, then the more comfortable I got, and then I thought I need to start enjoying my life."

After a sold-out performance at the Rochester Jazz Festival a few years ago, Russell says she needed to become more comfortable.

"I realized, 'You need to just start to own this,'" she says. "Because if people come to see you, you can't be cowering and looking nervous and being unsure of yourself. So I did a lot of talking to myself about that. ... I said, 'God meant for me to do this. My mother wants me to be proud. And I'm too old to be standing up too-nervous in front of an audience. And there's a reason why I have this opportunity, and I need to take it and own it.'"

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