As part of our year-end wrap up, we are sharing the best Fresh Air interviews of 2012. This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 21, 2012.
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.'"
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S BEEN DONE BEFORE")
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M CHECKING OUT")
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, freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.