The venerable Lamb’s Club, 140 years old and counting, is a copacetic membership of professionals in the arts and entertainment industries. Instrumental in founding ASCAP, Screen Actors Guild, and Actors’ Equity, The Lambs normally offers play readings, luncheons with special guests, movie screenings, recitals, book signings, cocktail parties, educational panels, guest rooms and a pub/restaurant. Virtual Conversations is a free online series.
Catherine Russell is arguably one of the best, most authentic vocalists specializing in early twentieth century swing, jazz and blues. She conjures there and then. Interviewer Sandy Durrell is a veteran critic, author and founder of the online site Theater Pizzazz featuring theater and music news, reviews and interviews.
The Lambs’ Marc Baron begins tonight by sharing video of a studio session with Russell and her band performing Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz’s 1932 song “Alone Together,” title of the artist’s most recent compilation. Here rendition is cozy swing, musicians muted in symbiosis with the vocalist’s creamy, persuasive interpretation. The impressive band has been intact for six out of seven recordings. It shows. MD Matt Munisteri and arrangers Mark Lopeman and Andy Farber admirably contribute to Russell’s terrific sound.
“Do you choose all your own tunes for a recording? Is there a theme?” Durrell asks.
“I find a tune, learn it, and bring it to the guys. We try it in front of an audience. If successful, it goes on a master list I might want to record. I perform songs I like without regard to a motif. That would be cart before the horse.”
Born to jazz, Catherine Russell’s mother was Carlene Ray, who played guitar with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm in the 1940s, then excelled at electric and acoustic bass. She was also a classical contralto exposing her young daughter to that genre of music for which Catherine developed great appreciation. Father, Luis Russell, was an accomplished pianist/composer/ bandleader, and Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director.
“Did you know when you were a kid you were going to do this with your life?” Durrell queries.
“No, when you grow up with highly achieving parents, it’s intimidating. I started as a dancer with Katherine Dunham at age five and just sang in school choirs.” Russell went to The High School of Music and Art, then The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “Acting school was fantastic. It changed my life.” Her professional career began as a studio back-up singer. When asked if a path to opera was considered, the vocalist wryly responds her choice had a great deal to do with making a living at what she loves, adding leads for black women in opera are extremely limited.
The artist toured extensively as a back-up singer with, in part, Donald Fagin, Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Cash, Paul Simon, Michael Feinstein, and David Bowie. “What and who stands out the most?” Durrell asks. “Everyone differently,” the subject responds. “All of these great artists are lifers. They need to create the music. I learned you get out there and give the audience 200 percent every time.”
“Did you feel there was something inside you similar to any of these artists, something you wanted to bring out?” Durrell inquires. “My two greatest influences in that regard were Alberta Hunter and Ruth Brown. Hunter always made her audiences laugh, Brown too, despite singing legitimate blues. There was an energy between those ladies and the audience.”
The vocalist is extremely aware of a room’s vibes/connectivity. “I like to have a good time together.” You have only to watch several live performances to observe the way she adjusts to response/mood like a barometer. When Durrell asks whether she prefers the intimacy of a small club, Russell remarks that a large hall offers the challenge to create that intimacy. “I sing to the people in front and everybody gets it.”
A second signature is immersion. “I was about a foot away from Liza Minnelli when she performed with Michael Feinstein at one point. (Russell continues to work with Feinstein.) “I thought – that’s what I want. I want my whole being to be in the tune, to express conviction and passion.”
“You recorded your first album in 2006. It seems your career catapulted after that. It’s like the world opened up,” Durrell comments.
“After the last Bowie tour, my husband-to-be suggested I make a recording. He brought a couple of record people to hear me at St. Peter’s Church in New York. We sat down and negotiated. I thought, I want to do early swing and blues and let’s see what happens. The album release was at Joe’s Pub. I’m on stage asking myself Why did I DO this?! It took time to get comfortable, to learn what to say between songs, to get used to leading my own band. I’m very grateful to have had support all those years.”
Following up, Durrell asks, “Did you script the shows?”
“From 1986-1990, I sang between comedians at Catch a Rising Star. Several writers offered to come up with patter for me. Despite acting training, however, I found I was stiff with a script, so I just spoke to the moment. I give an audience a little history, identify composers and lyricists… I find people appreciate that.”
Russell is asked to speak to her Grammy for the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack Volume #1. (Two more Grammy nominations were to follow.) “Did you get to hobnob with the cast?” seemed a natural question. Evidently Vince Giordano (Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks) called Catherine to a recording session even before the show began. “They were just compiling music. I was never on set.” The vicissitudes of filmmaking rose again when she recorded four songs for Kill Your Darlings, a film about the Beats. One of the numbers was lip-synced on screen by an actress who looked “more Billy Holidayesque.”
We then watch a further excerpt from the studio. Russell sings Bill Austin/Louis Jordan’s 1943 “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” Her voice slips like luxurious satin over a naked body. Enunciation is so perfect, one doesn’t notice. An ombre of octaves is almost palpable.
“Do you have a favorite song?” Durrell asks.
“I got to sing Cole Porter’s “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” with The Philly Pops last year, the whole symphony behind me. It was just a lotta fun.” She belts out a lyric. In 1987, Russell intermittently took a role in the Broadway production of Big River. (Book by William Hauptman; music and lyrics by Roger Miller.) “If I did it now I’d be much more at ease. I was in and out and just getting the blocking…I’ve actually passed auditions of two other shows because of my touring. Who knows…?”
“You’re not performing or in a studio now. Do you have any hobbies?” Durrell inquires.
“I haven’t been home like this since I was in my late twenties,” Russell replies. (Her touring schedule is exhausting just to read.) “My husband and I have a house full of books, mostly history and biographies. I do The New York Times crossword puzzles, watch TCM…and I teach. I have a 19 year-old I’ve been coaching for three years. I’ve participated in a few panels and done a Master Class with Alexis Cole’s Jazz Voice. It’s a web site for singers bringing together teachers and students. I’ll be adding more classes.”
“What do you have coming up?”
“Everything that was going to happen in 2020 has been pushed to 2021. If all goes well, I’ll be very busy. It’ll be my first Newport Jazz Festival and my second Chicago Blues Festival. I have a bunch of gigs with John Pizzarelli. “Billie and Blue Eyes” spotlights Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. Another will represent Nat King Cole and one of the first ladies of song. There’s also a 1920s/30s show I originally performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center featuring Briana Thomas and Charenee Wade.
“Is there anything you want to say to the Lambs?” Durrell asks in closing.
Russell thanks all concerned and hopes to see us live next year. “Also, I would say, anything you want to do in life…I’ve met middle aged singers who say it’s too late…If you’re doing something that brings you joy, keep doin’ it. Joy, peace, and love and all that corny stuff is how we heal.”
Cover photo is a portion of Russell’s most recent album cover – Photographer Sandrine Lee Courtesy of the performer
COMING UP: Monday. September 14th, 7 p.m. Amanda Vaill: On Jerome Robbins. New York Times bestselling and award-winning biographer Amanda Vaill will discuss Jerome Robbins, By Himself: Selections from His Letters, Journals, Drawings, Photographs, and an Unfinished Memoir with interviewer Foster Hirsch, film historian, author of 16 books on film, and professor of film at Brooklyn College. https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87012756211?pwd=NThTbjFRZVNXS05Lb3htcmtwQ0NDUT09
September 30th 7:00 PM: Award winning Broadway star, international concert artist and speaker James Barbour will be interviewed by New York-based theater critic, journalist, author Peter Felichia. https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81227915542?pwd=QzhDMEk2QUowaU5UQitFNlJlUFhRQT09
Archived Conversations in this series feature such as Constance Towers. Marion Ross, Michael Colby, Jim Brochu…