GOING SOLO - Profile by Lee Hildebrand in The San Francisco Chronicle

Lee Hildebrand
San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, July 20, 2008

During her more than two decades as one of the most in-demand backup singers in the pop music business, Catherine Russell has on occasion been afforded the opportunity to "step out," a term that refers to a harmony vocalist being given a brief solo, usually at the end of a tune. Donald Fagan asked her do it on his second CD. Cyndi Lauper and David Bowie not only allowed her to step out during tours but also had her play piano, guitar and mandolin with their bands.

"There's a misconception that backup singers are chomping at the bit to be out front, but really it's two different skills," Russell says by phone from Boston. "There are many of my peers who are very happy having backup singing as a career. It's not like we are in the background saying, 'God, just let me sing that tune and I'll show 'em.' "

Russell, the daughter of onetime Louis Armstrong orchestra leader Luis Russell and bassist-singer Carline Ray, had no intention of stepping out on her own as a solo artist until booking agent Paul Kahn, her husband of four years, talked her into it. She has released two CDs, "Cat" in 2006 and "Sentimental Streak" earlier this year, both on the World Village label, that skirt the jazz, blues and cabaret genres. Her repertoire draws heavily on old, little-known songs associated with such singers as Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Alberta Hunter, Nellie Lutcher and Bessie Smith. Both discs include tunes written by her late father and utilize mandolin, guitar, violin, accordion and other acoustic instruments. The CD booklet for "Sentimental Streak" contains four color snapshots of Russell, at age 4, being held in Armstrong's arms.

"I found 50 zillion reasons not to do that, but Paul said, 'Let's do it,' " the Manhattan singer says of making her own CD. "I was turning 49 at the time, and I said, 'Well, it's really the only thing I haven't done. Let's try this.' "

The variety of things Russell has done during her 51 years is mind-boggling, and that's something of an understatement.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, she joined chorographer Katherine Dunham's company at age 7 and spent four seasons dancing in a Metropolitan Opera production of "Aida," starring Leontyne Price, before giving up dance at 11.

"Dance was a very cutthroat, competitive art form," Russell says. "I was much happier in choral singing and ensemble-type work."

As a child, Russell learned to accompany herself on her grandfather's mandolin while singing the ragtime tune "Hello, Ma Baby." She studied violin in elementary school and tuba in junior high. "I tried everything - trumpet, saxophone, and I went on to drums in high school," Russell says.

She made her recording debut at 9, singing several solos and in the chorus on two children's albums issued by Holt, Rinehart & Winston. "Hee Haw" and "Grand Ole Opry" were two of her favorite television shows, and she became fond of such singers as Buck Owens, George Jones, Johnny Cash and Porter Wagoner.

"I really just dug the sound of that, with the fiddles and mandolins and everything," she recalls. "I thought, 'Wow, that's a cool sound!' "

At 15, she left home and moved into a hippie commune in Sonoma County. The idea of coming to California had struck her much earlier, when she saw a Stanford University student demonstration against the Vietnam War on the evening news.

"They were singing songs and having a sit-in," she says. "And then I heard about the Haight-Ashbury and what was going on out there. That stuck in my mind - Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the rock 'n' roll bands at that time - and I thought, 'I'm going to California.' "

She considers herself a Deadhead, having gone to 200 Grateful Dead concerts over the course of 25 years, and she still attends Phil Lesh and RatDog shows when time permits.

During her days at the commune, Russell studied at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State, played mandolin in a string band and sang with a choir led by future gospel star Daryl Coley.

After graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in 1980, Russell spent a year in Paris, where she started her career as a backup singer with Taj Mahal's singer, Carole Fredericks, and also recorded as a lead singer with the popular French disco group New Paradise. Back in New York, she appeared on and off Broadway in both musical theater and straight dramatic roles before landing her first big-time American backup singing gig, with comedian Robert Klein. Her other backup credits, in recording studios and on the road, include Samantha Fox, Steely Dan, Paul Simon, the J. Geils Band, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash and Diana Ross. Russell, who also has taught at the Berklee College of Music, cut back on backup assignments after the release of her first CD, although in recent months she has answered calls to sing behind Rickie Lee Jones and Al Green on "Late Show With David Letterman" and Bette Midler on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."

Since releasing "Cat," Russell has been performing at jazz clubs and blues festivals and has twice appeared at the Mabel Mercer Foundation's New York Cabaret Convention (where last year she shared the Jazz at Lincoln Center stage with San Francisco favorite Paula West). Russell is developing a special cabaret show of "lost early African American tunes," not unlike those she performs in her current shows.

"The storytelling aspect of the tunes puts it into the cabaret context," she says. "I like the history of the tunes, so I like to talk a little bit about that in the show."

Russell selects her repertoire with care.

"I'll say, 'OK, Bessie Smith,' for instance, and then I'll listen to a variety of Bessie Smith material and find ones that aren't being done," she says. "I research who may have recorded it recently or how many times it's been recorded or the treatment of the last time it was recorded. And I have to like every word in a tune. Then I look at melodic content. Do I like where the tune is going, and how I might be able to express myself through the melody? After that, I'll look at harmonic content. If it's a blues tune, is it funny, does it tell a story, does it reveal something personal about the performer, is it a little bit risque, does it have double entendre in the lyric? Generally, there's got to be something fun about the song so that I can play with my voice. And it's got to be fun for the musicians to play."