Reba Russell

Memphis has always had its share of outsiders. Reba Russell could represent the 21st century renegade bandleader. Her production company, Blue-Eyed Bitches, with Dawn Hopkins says it all. Responsible for the production of Russell's eight recordings, B.E.B., "is basically our outward way to let people who buy our records know, we ain't like everybody else!"

Russell says, "When I met Dawn, I knew I had come across a very special person. I had never seen a female studio engineer. When I approached her about helping me make a record, she jumped right in. Dawn got me. She knows my voice better than anyone and understands my song writing. Because she can relate in ways a man can't, she understood who I was and how to get the best out of me. She gave me freedom to try things and never ditched me when I failed. She is without a doubt one of the best studio engineers on planet earth, and I owe her more than I can ever repay."

Russell was born in West Virginia and moved to Memphis in 1973 where she got a big dose of music from the vibrant Memphis scene. She started singing and playing guitar when she was sixteen and met her bass playing husband Wayne in 1980. Wayne Russell assembled a band, Reba sang, and they have been playing together since.

As a seasoned member of Memphis' music, Russell can speak to today's Memphis music scene. "Life as a Memphis musician is like a tale of two cities," says Russell. "There is no better place to learn to be a musician. There are tons of studios, tons of talented seasoned musicians, engineers, and producers to watch and find inspiration in. And there are lots of clubs to hone your craft in.

"However, if you want to make a living solely as a musician in Memphis it is a very difficult proposition. You have to wear more than one hat to do that here. You'll need to be a studio musician as well as a live musician, and it doesn't hurt to know a great deal about the business side of music too. Otherwise, no matter how talented you are, you can end up starving to death. Most musicians here in Memphis have to have day jobs to supplement their income."

The fiery and well-spoken Russell has never been contractually obligated to anyone or any label, except working under contract for producer Chips Moman, and she's proud to point out that her band is one hundred percent independent. So no management, no label, no publicist, occasional booking agents but none is currently contracted.

"You're asking me to buy my records from you, pay for the promotional copies, the studio time, the producer, I have to let you pick and choose the songs, tell me what budget I have to follow as well as hooking me up with an agent who is going to take another cut and tell me where and when to play? That just isn't my idea of a good deal. If you are looking for fame and fortune perhaps that is what you have to do. I am not interested in fame; I am interested in making a decent living writing and playing my own music.

"If my music is good enough, it will find its place in the world without the assistance of a record label. The whole point is to be an outsider, an outlaw, or underground. I have a deep-seeded loathing for the status quo as well as authority figures. One great thing about growing up as a Memphis musician is examples like Sam Phillips and Jim Dickinson. Talk about wildcatters and independent souls. That's my model."

Russell sang on several of the late Jim Dickinson's albums, and calls him a great friend and mentor. "I cannot say enough about how Jim inspired me. Sometimes in ways that had nothing to do with music. He was a force of nature. He fed and encouraged my independent and defiant spirit. He assured me that it was my duty to be exactly who I am and not to buy into mainstream belief systems. He taught me the very important lesson that less is more. Jim's friendship is one of the things I am most grateful for in my life. I miss him terribly."

Russell's also worked with Tracy Nelson, one of her all time favorite singers, on four or five albums. "I was an enormous fan and had studied her quite a bit. When I did finally meet her at a show, within ten minutes she had me on stage with her singing background. The fact that she believed in my talent and asked me to work with her on her albums and shows is an endorsement for my abilities. I learned a great deal of my skills as a backing vocalist on some of her sessions. Tracy is old school; she'll put together a five or six person-backing group and have everybody singing on one mic. I sure did learn so much from those sessions."

To survive in the business, Russell also has been singing on jingles and has graced several recordings with her background vocals as well. "All my studio experience has made me a fast study. As we know, in the studio time is money. Doing backing vocals and jingles for years allows me to quickly get in the head of the people I am singing for. I can pick up styles and blend well, and, since I make records, I know what most producers are looking for when they call me for sessions."

Russell's favorite sessions includes working with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, John Fogerty, June Carter, Dan Penn, Dave Edmunds, Rick Nelson, and the Judds, on the 2000 Mercury record titled, Class of '55: Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming, produced by Chips Moman.

"At the time, I sang on the Homecoming record with all those fabulous artists, Chips literally just stuck me in the room with everyone and told me to go for it. No one, and I mean no one, knew who the hell I was. It was a very stressful moment in my career but somehow I held it together singing with June Carter Cash, the Judds, all the Thomas Street Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and John Fogerty. The studio was so full that Johnny Cash and I rubbed butts! I could not believe when I got the album and my name was on it!"

And then when Ringo Starr and U2 came to town, she was again asked to be the vocalist on those sessions. "Ringo came to make a record with Chips during the time I was signed, so I was able to hang out with them at the studio and around town. Ringo is as funny a person as you would imagine and he shared some fantastic stories from the Beatles days." Because that album was never released, Russell only has photos and memories of that session.

She is, however, the Rebecca Russell listed on U2's "When Love Comes To Town," recorded at Sun Studios in 1989. "I was at another session at Ardent Studio when I was called to the office and told to go to Sun for a session. No one would say for who or why but when I got there and saw that it was U2, I was floored. It was an awesome experience to see them so reverent about the studio and Memphis."

She said working with Bono and company live in the studio was an amazing experience, that they were first class to work with and a very caring band, but also points out that B.B. was not present in the studio when they recorded that tune. Other highlights in Russell's career include singing backup vocals on albums by Jimmy Thackery, Debra Coleman, Bernard Allison, Earl Thomas, the Cate Brothers, Johnny Rawls, Walter Trout, the North Mississippi All-Stars, Lucero, Delta Joe Sanders, William Lee Ellis, Sid Selvidge, Eden Brent, and most recently with Huey Lewis and the Hill Country Revue.

Russell has won three premier vocalist awards, which were awarded by the Memphis Chapter of NARAS. The Memphis Shelby Country Music Commission also named her the "Emissary of Memphis Music." Her early days in the city put her in the middle of the Beale Street revitalization in the early 1990s.

"At that time, I was in awe of the history of the street and thrilled to be a part of the revitalization. I was exposed to, and made friends with, some of the greatest talent in town. People like Rufus Thomas would stop in to your gig, listen, and give you props and pointers. I was also able to see so many great touring blues acts and could learn from those folks.

"At the very same time, I learned the down side to music and musicians. How to overcome any fear of negotiations with club owners and how to handle musicians who wanted my gig. I learned how to be tough as nails and how to have a thick skin. There were many instances where 'cutting heads' was a very necessary talent to have. I learned how to make myself stand out from the crowd so to speak."

This lady has one fine set of soulful pipes, and her band, Josh Roberts (guitar), Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms (keys and harp), Doug McMinn (drums), and Wayne Russell (bass), hum like a very well tuned Ferrari as well. She has traveled the world performing at many major festival including the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, Jacksonville's Springin' in the Blues Festival, the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, Memphis in May, the Beale Street Music Festival, Mile High Blues Festival, the Edmonton Blues Festival, and the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise with Jimmy Thackery. Russell's also toured the globe and has performed in Belgium, Germany, Holland, Austria, and Norway in October of 2010.

Despite all of her successes and blushes with stardom, Russell somehow (and unfortunately) still remains somewhat under the radar screen. But Russell also sets an impressive model for musicians and bands who, in this day and age, want to be 100% in control of their destiny and product.

Bob Putignano: