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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Catherine Russell

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're listening back to some of our favorite live concerts from the past decade. Next, we have a performance by a singer who I consider one of the best jazz and blues singers around, Catherine Russell. A lot of the material she does dates back to the 1930s and '40s. Her father, Luis Russell, was a pianist, composer and arranger and worked as Louis Armstrong's music director in the mid-'40s. Her mother, Carline Ray, performed with the all-woman's band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Catherine Russell came to our studio in 2012, when she released her album "Strictly Romancin'." She was accompanied by guitarist Matt Munisteri. They started with the song "Under The Spell Of The Blues," which was an early hit for Ella Fitzgerald when she was with the Chick Webb orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CATHERINE RUSSELL: (Singing) I turn my head to the sky when you pass by, but I want to cry because my heart is under the spell of the blues. For I go around acting gay, say it's OK, pretending each day. But I'm alone and under the spell of the blues. Since we're apart, the dawn brings only heartache to me. You're gone. I'm like a lost ship at sea. In my misery, I'd say that I'm satisfied. No use to hide what goes on inside. It's true. My heart is under the spell of the blues. Since we're apart, the dawn brings only heartache to me. You're gone. I'm like a lost ship at sea. In my misery, I'd say that I'm satisfied. No use to hide what goes on inside. It's true. My heart is under the spell of the blues.

GROSS: That's 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 (laughter).

RUSSELL: Thank you very much (laughter).

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.

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSSELL: 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 (laughter).

GROSS: Now, I grew up with that radio station, too, because my parents listened to it, and I hated it then.

RUSSELL: Aw.

GROSS: I hated it because I wanted to hear rock 'n' roll.

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: But you grew up with parents who were jazz performers.

RUSSELL: Yes.

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...

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: ...Which was an all-woman 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 for 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. They - you know, Mom played a lot of different things. So she's happy that I did, but she also let me listen to 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUSSELL: She let me, 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: Well, I'm going to ask you to perform another song, and this song is called "Wake Up And Live." And I love this song. I was not familiar with it until you sang it. Tell us why you chose it.

RUSSELL: This is another song that I actually heard when I was growing up. I remember this - it's written by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel. And I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. I remember that from the radio as well. So I think that William B. Williams played that one also. And on the Chick Webb - that's also from this Chick Webb collection. It's a vocal trio on that collection. And I remember that recording very faintly when I was little. And Cab Calloway also recorded it, so I loved his version, too. And it just reminds me that I have to really do something with my life. You know, I like to sleep late and everything, so this is a good song for me.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I should mention that Mack Gordon, the lyricist for this song, also wrote the lyrics for "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "I Had The Craziest Dream," "The More I See You" and "There Will Never Be Another You."

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: And Harry Revel wrote "There's A Lull In My Life," which is a great song.

RUSSELL: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSSELL: Beautiful.

GROSS: So let's hear it.

RUSSELL: Let's do it.

GROSS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUSSELL: (Singing) Wake up and live, don't mind the rainy patter, and you will find it's mind over matter. Dark clouds will break up if you just wake up and live. Yeah, wake up and live, show the stuff you're made of. Just follow through. What are you afraid of? You'll try it, won't you? Why don't you wake up and live? Come out of your shell. Hey, fella, find your place in the sun. Come out of your shell. Say, fella, just be a go-getting son of a gun. Wake up and live, if lady luck is yawning. Up on your toes, a better day is dawning. Don't let up, get up and give. Just give yourself a shake-up just to wake up and live. Come out of your shell. Hey, fella, find your place in the sun. Come out of your shell. Say, fella, just be a go-getting son of a gun. Yeah, wake up and live if lady luck is yawning. Up on your toes, a better day is dawning. Don't let up, get up and give. Just give yourself a shake-up just to wake up and live.

GROSS: Yeah, that was great. (Laughter) Thank you both so much. That's Catherine Russell singing with Matt Munisteri featured on guitar. So let's talk about your first regular gig in New York. I should mention, you were a backup singer before you became a soloist.

RUSSELL: For many years, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: But one of one of your first regular jobs - maybe your first regular job - was at Catch a Rising Star, a comedy club in New York, where you sang when the checks were being given out...

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: ...When it was really noisy and when there was, like, a famous comedian testing out a new routine. Nobody - none of the other comics would want to follow them.

RUSSELL: Wanted to follow him, yes.

GROSS: So you would kind of sing right in between to break it up a bit.

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: So it wasn't necessarily going to be your crowd because they're a crowd who came to see comedy, not music. What songs won over for that crowd?

RUSSELL: It was a 15-minute slot for everybody. So comedians, singers - there were a few of us that sang. And so I chose soul and blues. So I would sing three songs, and the first song would be a kind of an up-tempo soul tune. The second one would be blues or some kind of a ballad, like, you know, Aretha Franklin. And then the third one would be an up-tempo tune, and they would - so I wouldn't finish the tune. So the band would kind of keep playing, and I'd say, goodnight, everybody, you know, and leave the stage.

And so really, after whatever comedian was on, the singer - they'd announced the singer, and the people would go, uh - you could hear it. (laughter) You could heart it in the crowd. So not only weren't they my audience, but, you know, it would take a tune or two to kind of have them say, oh, all right, she can sing, you know, it's OK. And then they would go back to tallying up their checks, you know (laughter).

GROSS: Catherine Russell and Matt Munisteri, recorded in 2012. Russell released a new album in 2019 called "Alone Together" on which Munisteri also plays guitar and serves as music director. Coming up, we feature our performance and interview with pianist Jon Batiste, the bandleader for "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." But before we get to that, let's get in one more song from Russell and Munisteri's FRESH AIR performance. This is "Everything's Been Done Before." Louis Armstrong recorded this when Catherine Russell's father, Luis Russell, was Armstrong's music director.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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's been done before. The birds that sing the song of spring always singing above me, yet with you, their singing is something that's new to me. 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's Catherine Russell and Matt Munisteri. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.