Catherine Russell revisits her roots

Remember the Lou Reed classic, “Walk on the Wild Side,” with the unforgettable refrain about the girls singing “doop da doop da doop?” One of those girls was Catherine Russell.

“When I was growing up,” says Russell, who sings at Yoshi’s tonight, “I would go to the record store and spend two or three hours reading the credits on backs of albums. I used to see the names of Cissy Houston, Valerie Simpson and all these famous back-up singers who did everybody’s records, including Quincy Jones. I used to think, ‘Wow, how did those people get their jobs singing with Steely Dan and Annie Lennox and all these artists?’”

“Then, I became one of those people. I found myself working with all the singers who worked with Luther Vandross, who were some of the best back-up singers in the business. I never thought I would get featured on people’s albums singing all those doop da doop parts behind people like David Bowie. It’s incredible. I just love it.”

Now, at 51, Russell has released her second solo CD, “Sentimental Streak.” One minute it’s pure Dixieland, the next classic blues. But sentimental it is not. Russell is far too alive to the spirit, nuance and vitality of her songs — and too invested in the words — to indulge in sentimentality.

The CD revisits some of the marvelous songs that Cat’s Panamanian-born father, pianist and bandleader Luis Russell, performed with Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael and other greats. Mixed in are classic tunes immortalized by Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ella Fitzgerald, Nellie Lutcher, Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey and even Frank Sinatra. There’s also a song by Russell herself, “Luci,” that plays with that devilish character some call Lucifer.

If you think Mae West’s famous line, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” is suggestive, wait until you hear Russell’s fabulous take on “Kitchen Man,” sung with irresistible verve and wit. Be prepared to run to a 12-step meeting and confess that you want a Kitchen Man all for yourself.

Russell’s artistic legacy is awe-inspiring. The New York City native began dancing in theKatherine Dunham Dance Company at age 6. After singing gospel in the Bay Area as a teenager, she performed on and off-Broadway theater in the ‘80s. Soon she was touring with Steely Dan, and singing backup with Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Cash, Jackson Browne and Bowie.

“I just love the sound of all that honky-tonk, storytelling type of stuff,” says Russell. “I miss it. I also find that people really enjoy the stories. And I’m having a ball.


Catherine Russell

Where: Yoshi’s, 1330 Fillmore St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. today

Tickets: $16

Contact: (415) 655-5600 or