Born in 1952 in Oskaloosa, IA; died on April 4, 1992, in New York, NY, of AIDS-related causes. Education: Attended Ali Akbar Khan School of Music, San Francisco; attended Manhattan School of Music, New York City. Addresses: Record company--Soul Jazz Records, 7 Broadwick St., London, UK, W1F 0DA, phone: +144 (020) 7734 3341, fax: +144 (020) 7494 1035, website: http://www.souljazzrecords.co.uk, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arthur Russell was one of New York's most prominent figures on the 1970s avant-garde, disco, and new wave scenes, but at the time of his death in 1992 his music was all but forgotten. Although Russell never took center stage in any of these genres, his work nevertheless provided the springboard that vaulted numerous musicians of the time to successful careers, and his own works enjoyed renewed popularity in the early 2000s with the posthumous release of several of his works.
Russell was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1952. Throughout high school, along with interests in astronomy and aquariums, he honed his training on the cello, an instrument that his mother also played. At age 18 he moved to San Francisco to further his studies in Eastern music at a school organized by famed India musician Ali Akbar Khan. During his time in San Francisco Russell joined a Buddhist commune, where he practiced cello endlessly. He enjoyed the shared atmosphere of his living situation until it was decided that the residents would pool their resources, and he chose to leave the commune because he could not part with his cello. In San Francisco he made countless musical acquaintances, befriending musician Alice Coltrane and legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. In performance, Russell often accompanied Ginsberg on cello while the poet recited his work.
In 1973 Russell moved to New York City---a city where he would remain until his death---to continue his studies at the Manhattan School of Music. There, the downtown music scene was overflowing with creative artists working in many musical genres, and Russell felt very much at home. He began playing at clubs such as the Manhattan Ocean Club and the Kitchen, and started collaborating with many of the city's musicians, most notably with minimalist composer Philip Glass.
Soon Russell formed an avant-rock group called the Flying Hearts with friends Ernie Brooks, Larry Saltzman, and David Van Tiegham. The band's recording sessions, most of which took place in the late 1970s under the direction of John Hammond, included guest work by the Talking Heads' David Byrne and Jerry Harrison. Russell would later continue his involvement with the Talking Heads, providing horn arrangements on some of their records and nearly joining the band as an official member.
The late 1970s in New York City was an explosive time for music, as numerous scenes---hip-hop, disco, punk, new wave---all mingled with one another. Russell couldn't have been more pleased to witness such a merger. He turned much of his attention to disco, a style of music rarely recognized for its thoughtful musicianship and usually written off as a hedonistic soundtrack to drug-fueled mayhem. Russell's compositions and his collaborations with the city's top DJs of the time---Francois Kevorkian, Larry Levan, David Mancuso---transformed his disco sound into an organic instrumental style that relied heavily on jazz and Eastern influences.
Russell's first major release, "Kiss Me Again," was recorded under the name Dinosaur L in 1979. The track was co-produced by Nicky Siano, a local scenester who owned a performance space known as the Gallery. In the liner notes to Russell's posthumously released collection World of Arthur Russell, Russell's friend Steve D'Acquisto recalled an early version of the song: "Arthur [gave] me tapes, pieces of 'Kiss Me Again.' I went to [disco club] Studio 54 and it was like 10:30 in the evening, there were just a few people in the place. I said to the DJ, a friend, 'Would you play this, I think it's just fabulous' and they played this 12-minute tape of 'Kiss Me Again' and the place flipped and danced for the entire bit."
"Kiss Me Again" was Sire Records' first disco single and was quickly followed up by Russell's "Is It All Over My Face," recorded as Loose Joints with D'Acquisto, whom he had met in 1977 at Siano's space. The song went on to be a club hit on the New York party scene, especially at Mancuso's Loft, a place known for fostering disco and house music in its infancy. In the liner notes to The Loft, Mancuso's mix CD released in 1999, D'Acquisto recounted the song's synthesis: "I had this idea about love dancing," he commented about the track's verse. "It was about being on the dancefloor and digging another dancer. Did it show on my face? Did you catch me cruising you?.... 'Is It All Over My Face' would never have happened without the Loft."
In 1982 Russell and his friend Will Socolov founded their own record label, Sleeping Bag Records, and their first release was Dinosaur L's 24-24 Music, which included Russell's next club hit, "Go Bang." The following year Russell tempered the dance floor feel of 24-24 Music with Tower of Meaning, a return to his avant-garde roots. For this record Russell found himself in his studio for inordinate amounts of time, and he began to use the studio itself as a musical instrument rather than as a simple recording tool. This method enhanced his leftfield cello compositions, and his dance tracks such as "Wax the Van" and "Let's Go Swimming" also benefited from his new technological experiments. For every track that was actually released, he had numerous versions or mixes of the same song that never saw the light of day.
Russell continued to perform with members of Flying Hearts throughout the 1980s, although he generally opted to sing alone, accompanied only by his cello. Although this style of performance lent itself to avant-garde compositions, much of the music that he recorded during this era was of the experimental pop brand. In 1986 he released his first record of these new pop songs under the title World of Echo, and toured the record at such venues as Boston's ICA and the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. Its pop sensibility was felt so strongly that Britain's arbiter of pop music, Melody Maker, named it as one of their "Top Thirty Releases of 1986."
The rest of the 1980s and early 1990s saw Russell collaborating with a host of artists, and he began composing for dance and theater with choreographers Diane Madden and Stephanie Woodward. He also continued to record diligently, and although he did not release any more records prior to his death in 1992 of AIDS-related causes, some of the music that he made during this period later surfaced as the album Calling Out Of Context.
Russell left behind a wealth of recorded material, much of which was culled for a series of posthumous releases, the first being Another Thought in 1995 on Philip Glass's Point Music label. Glass commented that Russell "was a guy who could sit down with a cello and sing with it in a way that no one on this Earth has ever done before, or will do so again."
In 2004 Russell finally received the recognition he deserved with the release of the compilation The World of Arthur Russell, and with an album of heretofore unreleased music titled Calling Out Of Context. The records, both taken from Russell's massive tape stockpile, received wide critical acclaim and garnered Russell a new following with a new generation of avant-rock and dance fans.
by Ken Taylor
Arthur Russell's Career
Moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s, played cello with Allen Ginsberg and Alice Coltrane; moved to New York City, founded the Flying Hearts; collaborated with Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Talking Heads; attended dance parties at the Loft, Paradise Garage, and the Gallery; created disco music under the names Loose Joints and Dinosaur L; released "Kiss Me Again" as Dinosaur L., 1979; released "Is It All Over My Face" as Loose Joints, 1980; released first solo album, Tower of Meaning, 1983; released World of Echo, 1986; posthumously released Another Thought, 1995, and The World of Arthur Russell and Calling Out of Context, 2004.
- Selected discography
- With Dinosaur L
- "Kiss Me Again," Sire, 1979.
- "Go Bang," Warlock, 1982.
- 24-24 Music Sleeping Bag, 1982.
- As Loose Joints
- "Is It All Over My Face," West End, 1980.
- As Arthur Russell
- Tower of Meaning Chatham Square, 1983.
- Instrumentals Crepuscule, 1984.
- World of Echo Upside/Rough Trade, 1986.
- Another Thought Point, 1994.
- The World of Arthur Russell Soul Jazz, 2004.
- Calling Out of Context Audika, 2004.
- Melody Maker, 1986.
- San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 3, 2004.
- "Arthur Russell," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 29, 2004).
- "Calling Out of Context," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 29, 2004).
- Additional information was taken from the liner notes to David Mancuso, The Loft, Nuphonic, 1999, and The World of Arthur Russell, Soul Jazz, 2004.