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'Inside' A Backup Singer's Journey To Center Stage

Catherine Russell grew up with a distinguished musical pedigree: Her father, bandleader Luis Russell, served as Louis Armstrong's musical director -- and her mother, Carlene Ray, was a member of the iconic 1940s group International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Though Russell has had a decades-long career as a backup singer, her latest jazz CD, Inside This Heart of Mine, is just the third album she's released under her own name.

In a 2008 interview with Terry Gross, Russell explains why she got her solo career started relatively late in life.

"I just really wanted to have a career in the music business, and I just didn't, you know, know how to start," she says. "So I started with whatever blues I knew and sat in wherever I could in clubs around New York City. And that kind of turned into a career in backup singing and touring. So that basically, for a number of years, left me with no time to think about having a solo career."

Russell was busy during her backup career -- she sang with Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Paul Simon, Rosanne Cash and Steely Dan, among others -- but says touring with David Bowie was one of her favorite experiences.

"I got that gig because David was looking for someone that could sing backup parts, you know, backup vocals and play keyboard parts, which I can do," she says. "And so it turned out, though, that David let me do everything that I can do, which is play mandolin, I played guitars, I played percussion, and I was really integrated -- it's a real band situation with him. ... So on every song, I was doing something else -- string arrangements, you know, that I'd learned -- and it was just the most incredible musical experience for me, you know, to be singing 'Ziggy Stardust' with him and playing, you know, power chords on an electric guitar. That was fantastic."

Russell's other albums include Sentimental Streak and Cat, which New York Sun critic Will Friedwald called "the most exciting debut album I've heard in a long time." She's also performed at jazz festivals around the world, including the Chicago Blues Festival, The Kennedy Center and the Bern International Jazz Fest.

This interview was originally broadcast on June 11, 2008.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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