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Catherine Russell gets into the swing of things

The jazz and blues singer, set to perform at the Catalina Bar & Grill, is happy whether in the spotlight or as backup.

September 16, 2012|By Andy Gilbert
  • Catherine Russell performs at the Prospect Park Bandshell on June 16, 2011, in Brooklyn, New York City.
Catherine Russell performs at the Prospect Park Bandshell on June 16, 2011,… (Al Pereira / Wire Image )

OAKLAND — As a young singer making her way on the New York scene in the mid-1980s, Catherine Russell saw herself walking in Tina Turner's thigh-high boots, belting out rock and soul.

Decades later, she hasn't exactly given up the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, but she's made a name for herself interpreting sassy, vintage pop and blues tunes from the era that ended with the advent of Elvis.

"I like anything that swings, generally the sound of music between the 1920s and '50s," says Russell, 55, while relaxing backstage before an Oakland performance with the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, a tour on which she's singing backup for Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald.


"I like good storytelling, and I like the blues. I like humor and unpredictable lyrics, a good melody and interesting harmonies. That's really what motivates me."

Now recognized as one of the most savvy and sophisticated interpreters of classic jazz and blues, Russell has found an avid audience with a series of albums, high-profile gigs and appearances on the public radio showcase "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross. Her biggest West Coast tour includes a gig Wednesday at the Catalina Bar & Grill followed by her Monterey Jazz Festival debut Saturday.

For more than two decades Russell largely supported herself as a first-call backup singer, touring with artists such as David Bowie, Paul Simon, Levon Helm, Rosanne Cash, Jackson Browne, and, more recently, Steely Dan. When she released her first album under her own name, 2006's critically hailed "Cat" (World Village), Russell wasn't so much making a midcareer swerve into vintage jazz as claiming her birthright.

The daughter of Luis Russell, the Panamanian-born pianist, composer and bandleader best remembered for his work with Louis Armstrong in the 1930s and '40s, she was raised by her mother, the bassist, guitarist and vocalist Carline Ray, a graduate of Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music who performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Mercer Ellington and Mary Lou Williams.

Still gigging at 87, Ray is thrilled that her prodigal daughter has returned to the jazz fold. Russell is working with Ray on her first album and considers her mother an essential sounding board for uncovering overlooked material, like the 1936 Ella Fitzgerald vehicle "Under the Spell of the Blues" that kicks off her latest album, "Strictly "Romancin'" (World Village).

"She's very excited about these songs," Russell says. "She loves that she can tell me stories about the music and musicians. When I'm home I see her every day, and lately we've been in the studio a lot. She's amazing. She's a one-take singer. I'm definitely not a one-take singer."

Though her jazz career is flourishing, Russell has no plans to give up her work as a backup singer, particularly when she gets a call for a tour with Steely Dan. Last year she also performed widely with the American Beauty Project, interpreting songs from the signature 1970 Grateful Dead albums "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty" with Ollabelle and Jim Lauderdale.

"Backup singing is a different thing altogether," Russell says. "I love vocal harmony and the skills that go into it, so I hope I never stop doing the backup thing."

With her long dreads piled on top of her head adding at least 6 inches to her diminutive stature, Russell doesn't seem suited for staying in the background. On stage, she looms in the spotlight as her mischievous, phosphorescent smile punctuates her double-entendre-laden repertoire. Some of her employers clearly felt she had more to offer.

"Catherine has music in her DNA," writes noted jazz fan Donald Fagen in an email. "You can hear that history and soul in every note she sings."

In making the transition from sidewoman to bandleader, Russell says the challenge wasn't taking on business responsibilities so much as getting used to being the center of attention.

"I had been encouraged to do my own thing for a long time," Russell says. "The first few gigs I did in 2005 I thought, 'What have I done? Now my name is on the ticket. They look at you when you sing. They look at you when you don't sing!' It was terrifying."

She cites the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 with setting her on her present musical path. An avid Deadhead, she was looking for a musical community after the Dead disbanded.

Sensing her need, her mother invited Russell to her Sunday brunch gig at the Greenwich Village jazz spot Sweet Basil, where she accompanied nonagenarian trumpeter Doc Cheatham. Russell never got a chance to perform with her father, who died when she was 7, and the relationship with Cheatham offered another avenue back to jazz's pre-World War II heyday.

"That became my refuge," Russell recalls. "You'd step in and it would be another world. The first time I sat in I sang 'Just In Time.' Then it turned into them asking me to sit in every week. Meeting Doc and singing with him was a turning point of my life."


Catherine Russell

Where: Catalina Bar & Grill, 6725 W. Sunset Blvd.

When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday

Tickets: $25

Information: (323) 466-2210,

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