Catherine Russell: singing the test of time

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday February 21, 2023
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Catherine Russell
Catherine Russell

"About three quarters of the songs I did last night I hadn't done for an audience before," said singer Catherine Russell, who had just played the first night of her annual Valentine's week engagement at New York's Birdland jazz club when she spoke to the Bay Area Reporter by phone.

"Before I ever record something," explained Russell, who plays the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room February 26 as part of the Bay Area Cabaret Series, "I always test them out with live audiences, just to see if they work. Luckily, they usually do."

Part of why they work is that, while new to Russell's ever-expanding concert repertoire, which she estimates at two to three hundred numbers, hers are songs that have already stood the test of time.

"It's always a mixture of jazz, blues and the Great American songbook," said the Grammy-winning Russell, 66, whose father was Louis Armstrong's longtime musical director and whose mother performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Catherine Russell  

While she's built her solo career around 20th-century standards, few of which were originally recorded later than 1950, Russell made her living for many years singing in the studio and on the road with pop and rock artists.

She's toured extensively with David Bowie, Jackson Browne and Steely Dan and been featured on over 200 albums by artists including Paul Simon and even Madonna ("Rescue Me").

"I learned so much working with those artists," said Russell. "You know it's not like [the documentary film] 'Twenty Feet from Stardom,' where you're this background singer just waiting for your chance to get up front in the spotlight. I think of my voice as an instrument, as part of the band. It doesn't matter if I'm singing background or lead. My voice is part of the overall fabric of the tune."

Keeping great songs alive
Still, when it came time to record her own first album, "Cat," in 2006, Russell looked back to the music she grew up with and continues to savor today.

"I'm attracted to songs that are uplifting and that have universal themes," said Russell, "And the great American songbook songs have them."

"I also have to feel comfortable singing every lyric. So, for instance, I don't sing 'The Lady Is A Tramp.' I just can't relate to it."

As anyone who's seen Russell's live performances knows, that's a matter of feminism, not prudishness; virtually every Russell set features one or more swinging blues tunes, chockful of saucy double entendres.

While she's a great admirer and interpreter of great American songbook composers like Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern, Russell is intent on keeping a torch burning for jazz and blues songs written by sometimes unknown Black composers and sung by Black performers like Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington, Alberta Hunter and Carrie Smith.

"All of those women are dead now. And I'm afraid that their music won't live on," said Russell, pointing out that songs originated by Black composers and artists are generally not among the songbook tunes compiled on albums by the likes of Michael Bublé, Rod Stewart or Harry Connick, Jr.

"Have people ever heard of Irene Kitchings?" Russell asked, referring to the Black female songwriter who wrote songs including "Some Other Spring" and "The Ghost of Yesterday," both recorded by Billie Holiday. "Those should absolutely be considered part of the great American songbook. In my teaching career, I do come across a lot of young people who want to sing standards and classic material."

She was delighted to see Samara Joy, who sings from that repertoire, win the Grammy for Best New Artist a few weeks back.

"Hopefully that will bring some attention from younger people and younger singers. But the music business is a behemoth maze," Russell acknowledged, offering no quick solution to keeping classic pop songs from becoming museum pieces, listened to only by niche audiences.

"There's always the issue of marketing. Something has to be put in front of you over and over in order to stick, for people to know it. You don't have to own music by Lizzo or Taylor Swift to know them."

If you do know and appreciate 20th-century classics — or are ready to be schooled by an expert — Russell hopes you'll catch her with her combo this Sunday.

"Its always fun," she said. "I only do songs that are fun to perform for me and the other musicians I play with."

Catherine Russell, Bay Area Cabaret at the Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St. February 26. $30-$70. (415) 927-4636

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