Catherine Russell: Grateful Dead Homage | Grateful Dead Homage from a Soulful Singer

Catherine Russell will perform in two concerts in early December, both sponsored by Hancher. (photo by Stefan Falke)

You’ve probably heard Catherine Russell’s voice, even if you do not recognize her name. She has performed and recorded as a background singer with a number of famous musicians, including Madonna, Al Green, Paul Simon, Rosanne Cash, Cyndi Lauper, Steely Dan, Dolly Parton, and Isaac Hayes. Her voice has also been featured on TV and radio commercials for Bud Light, Oil of Olay, J.C. Penney, and Dairy Queen. Most recently, she sang Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire soundtrack.

The New York City native comes from a musical family. Her father Luis was Louis Armstrong’s musical director as well as an important pianist and bandleader. Her mother Carline Ray played bass in a number of jazz combos and holds advanced degrees from Julliard and Manhattan School of Music. But Russell is a star in her own right, with three magnificent albums under her belt and a fourth one scheduled for a Valentine’s Day 2012 release. 

Russell will present two completely different programs when she comes to Iowa. On December 8, she plays at the Mill in Iowa City with a jazz trio (Nat Munisteri, piano; Mark Shane, guitar; Lee Hudson acoustic bass). December 9, Russell performs at the Riverside Casino as part of the American Beauty Project with the group Olabelle, country music star Jim Lauderdale, and multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield. The two shows, presented by the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium, are completely different.

“We will do a mix of stuff from my first three albums, plus a sneak preview of some of the songs on my forthcoming record, for the first show,” Russell said over the phone from her Manhattan home. “I pick songs that speak to me lyrically and harmonically. The music primarily comes from the ’30s and ’40s, although it can include some tunes from the ’20s or R&B music from the ’50s. I learn it, do it live, and then decide whether to record it.”

Russell explained, “I am constantly researching music from America’s past. I hunt for material by lesser-known artists, or less familiar songs by well-known artists, to make people aware of our rich heritage. I worry more about doing a song that is too popular rather than too obscure. I know myself and my voice well enough to understand what will work.“ She takes a trial-and-error approach and is not afraid to try out wilder styles. However, there are two artists she will not cover.

“I can’t scat sing like Ella Fitzgerald, so I won’t even try,” Russell said. “That would be insulting to her memory.” And then there is Frank Sinatra. “Sinatra’s the master in my book, not just because of his voice, but also because of his abilities as an actor and performer. I once considered doing ‘Serenade in Blue,’ but Sinatra killed that song so beautifully that I could not compete.”

Without naming names, Russell poked fun at those contemporary rockers who have gone about recording the Great American Songbook. “I still love their voices, but they do sound silly in comparison to the past masters. I understand the music business is tough, and one has to do what one has to do to make a living.” She sighed and muttered, “Sometimes a nod is as good as a wink,” alluding to Rod Stewart, whose classic work with the Faces has been usurped by his most recent success as a crooner.

The American Beauty Project that she will be a part of on the next day consists of a completely different type of material—Grateful Dead songs, mostly from the two albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Both records were released in 1970. These are the two most country-rock releases in the Dead’s discography.

“I grew up listening to the Grateful Dead and have seen more than 100 Dead shows between 1971 and 1995,” Russell said. “Promoter David Spellman recruited me for this project, and I immediately signed on. It’s really fun. Everybody sings harmonies, and the audience sometimes sings louder than those of us on stage. They know the words to all of the songs and are not shy about dancing along. It’s a real interactive experience, just like Dead shows!”

Russell carefully explained that the American Beauty Project is not a cover band. “We do not copy the Dead, we pay homage to them,” she said. “And just like the Dead never played a song the same way twice, we do not try to replicate what’s on the record as much as get into the spirit with a smile on our faces, and put smiles on the faces in the crowd.”

Russell lamented that she never got to jam with the Dead, although she has played with some of the band members at other gigs. She took pains to celebrate the achievements of the other performers on the American Beauty Project, and indeed they are highly regarded by others (e.g., Jim Lauderdale has won a Grammy, David Mansfield has been nominated for Emmy and Golden Globe awards). Russell emphasized the collaborative nature of the Riverside show.

The New York City resident expressed a bit of confusion about the two different sites for Hancher Auditorium, and I had to explain about the flood. Russell had performed solo in Iowa once, about five years ago, at CSPS in Cedar Rapids. “That was a jewel of a place,” she said, “did it suffer in the flood?” When told that the place was heavily damaged but had recently reopened in a renovated venue, she sighed and said, “Maybe in the future Iowa City will ask me back, to a new and improved Hancher Auditorium, but in the meantime it sounds like audience still want music and will make a place for it. That’s the important thing!”                                     

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