Charles Arthur Russell, Jr.
(May 21, 1951 – April 4, 1992) was an American cellist, composer, singer,
and disco artist.
While he found the
most success in dance music, Russell's career bridged New York's
, rock, and dance music
scenes; his collaborators ranged from Philip Glass
to David Byrne
to Nicky Siano
. Relatively unknown during his
lifetime, a series of reissues and compilations have raised his
profile in the 2000s.
Life and career
was born and raised in Oskaloosa, Iowa; his father was a former naval officer who
eventually served as mayor of the town.
As a child and
adolescent, he studied the cello
and began to compose his own music. When he was 18 he moved to San Francisco,
where he lived in a Buddhist commune and studied North Indian music
at the Ali Akbar
College of Music and Western composition part-time at the San Francisco Conservatory
He met Allen
, with whom he began to work, accompanying him on the
cello as a soloist or in groups while Ginsberg sang or read his
Russell moved to New York and enrolled at the Manhattan School
of Music, cross-registering in electronic music and
linguistics classes at Columbia
While studying at the conservatory, Russell
repeatedly clashed with acclaimed serialist composer and instructor
, who disparaged
the composition "City Park" (a minimalist, non-narrative suite
incorporating readings from the works of Ezra
and Gertrude Stein
) as "the
most unattractive thing I've ever heard". Embittered by his
experience, Russell briefly considered transferring to Dartmouth
College at the behest of experimental composer Christian Wolff, whom he had sought out and
befriended upon arriving in the Northeast.
But after a
chance meeting at a Wolff concert in Manhattan, he became close
with Rhys Chatham
, who arranged for
Russell to succeed him as music director of The Kitchen
, a downtown avant-garde performance
space. As a result, he abandoned his studies and remained in New
York. Russell and Chatham later briefly roomed together in a
sixth-story walkup apartment at 437 East 12th Street in the
; Ginsberg (who maintained
his primary residence in the building from 1975 to 1996 and helped
Russell secure the apartment) supplied electricity to the
impoverished composers through an extension cord. Russell would
reside in the apartment for the rest of his life.
During his tenure as director of The Kitchen (from the autumn of
1974 to the summer of 1975), he greatly expanded the breadth and
purview of the venue's offerings, crafting a program that
"support[ed] other local and relatively low profile composers
rather than... accentuat[ing] the work of composers who were
beginning to acquire an international reputation." This approach
elicited controversy when Russell booked Boston-based proto-punk
for an engagement at the venue, widely regarded
as a leading bastion of minimalism
Russell's booking of Fluxus stalwart Henry
's "punkabilly" ensemble Nova'billy, concluding his season
as director, was likewise unsettling to the avant-garde
establishment. According to biographer Tim Lawrence, "the decision
to program the Modern Lovers and Talking
was Russell’s way of demonstrating that minimalism could
be found outside of compositional music, as well as his belief that
pop music could be arty, energetic and fun at the same time."
From 1975 to 1979, Russell was a member of The Flying Hearts,
recorded by John Hammond
consisted of Russell (keyboards/vocals), ex-Modern Lovers
member Ernie Brooks
(bass/vocals), Larry Saltzman (guitar), and David Van Tieghem
(drums, vocals); a later incarnation in the 1980s included Joyce
Bowden (vocals) and Jesse Chamberlain (drums). This ensemble was
frequently augmented in live and studio performances by the likes
of Chatham, David Byrne
Gibson, Peter Gordon
, Jerry Harrison
, Garret List, Andy Paley
, Lenny Pickett and Peter Zummo
. During the same period, various
permutations of this ensemble, together with Glenn Iamaro, Bill
Ruyle and Jon Sholle, performed & recorded excerpts from
, a 48-hour long orchestral piece. Selections
from the Instrumentals
sessions were eventually collected
on an eponymously-titled album, released by Belgian label Disques
du Crepescule in 1984. The collaboration between Russell (once
again as a keyboardist), Brooks, and Chamberlin would extend into
The Necessaries, a power pop
fronted by guitarist Ed Tomney. Their lone 1981 album on Sire Records (initially released as Big
Sky before being tweaked and re-released as Event
Horizon) featured minimal songwriting contributions from
Russell, who abruptly left the band at the approach to the Holland Tunnel before an important concert in Washington,
1976, Russell became a habitue of New York's nascent underground
disco scene, namely Nicky Siano's
Gallery on Houston Street in SoHo.
2007 interview with Wax Poetics
magazine, Siano downplayed
the popular myth that Russell's interest in the genre solidified
over the course of a single night, noting that "Louis [Aquilone,
Siano's best friend and Russell's then-lover] was at the Gallery
every single Saturday night. After spending a few Saturday nights
without Louis, Arthur decided to come. After the third or fourth
time there, he started to come without Louis". Though an eager
dancer, Siano has described Russell's style as "strange...
outrageous, weird... he was definitely a 'white-boy' dancer". By
the time Russell was involved with Tom Lee in the 1980s, his
nightlife activities had subsided to a large extent; "it wasn't
like Arthur and I were in some gay disco world, getting dressed to
go out to the club and dancing the night away," Lee has said.
to CBGB, we'd go to Max's Kansas City, we'd go to Tier 3 but we'd listen to the group and
then go home.
For him it was about the daily grind of
actually playing music."
In 1977, trenchantly attracted to the minimalist rhythms of disco
and funded by Siano's "Gallery war chest", Russell wrote and
co-produced "Kiss Me Again" in collaboration with a diverse array
of musicians - longtime collaborator Peter
, Byrne (on rhythm guitar), Gloria Gaynor
veterans Wilbur Bascomb
(bass) and Alan Schwartzberg
(drums), and Henry Flynt - under the moniker of Dinosaur. The first
disco single to be released by Sire Records, it was a fairly large
club hit, reportedly selling "some ungodly amount, like two hundred
thousand copies". Despite the modicum of commercial success and
"ecstatic reaction" elicited by the record in the New York
underground, according to Siano, "Ray Caviano [head of
Warner/Sire's disco division] never really pushed it" Although the
duo was signed to Sire to produce a followup single featuring Gerri
Griffin of the Voices of East
, the sessions stalled because of Siano's burgeoning drug
habit (leading him to take temporary refuge in California) and
Russell's myopic approach to recording.
In 1980, Loose Joints (initially known as the Little All-Stars) was
formed out of Russell, onetime DJ Steve
, three singers found on The
's dancefloor, miscellaneous other musicians, and the
Ingram Brothers rhythm section (best known for later backing
). With a stated ambition
to create "the disco White
", the group recorded hours of music but only
released three songs, "Is It All Over My Face", "Pop Your Funk" (in
two disparate arrangements, including a no
-influenced single edit), and "Tell You Today". D'Aquisto,
a non-musician who favored such extemporaneous touches as off-key
singing and the input of street buskers
repeatedly clashed with the perfectionist Russell throughout the
sessions. Despite the acrimony, Russell confederate Steven Hall
felt that "[D'Aquisto] allowed shy Arthur to come out of his shell
in the gayest sense. He also taught him how to let go in terms of
slavishly and clairvoyantly searching for and then locking in the
groove." Bemused by the experimental recordings, Mel Cheren of West
End Records (who financed the sessions along with entrepreneur
) commissioned leading DJ
to remix "Is It All Over My
Face" for club play; the ensuing track, based around a female vocal
wiped from the original mix (and famously recorded on stolen studio
time) was an enduring staple of Levan's sets at the Paradise Garage
and a formative influence on
, in addition to becoming
a bona fide commercial hit in the New York area via airplay on
In 1981, Russell and entrepreneur Socolov founded Sleeping Bag Records
; their first
release was a recording of 24-24 Music
, a controversial
disco-influenced composition (with rhythmic shifts every 24 bars,
hence the title) that had been commissioned by and first performed
at The Kitchen in 1979. The first limited pressing of this record
had an hand made silk-screened cover. Steven Hall later described
its debut as "the best performance of Arthur's work that I ever
attended... it was like really hot dance music and no one got it.
The idea that Arthur would turn around and bring that [dance] music
into their venue and present it as serious music was really very
challenging to them, and very threatening to them." "Go Bang,"
originally released on this album but recorded three years earlier
by an ensemble that included Zummo, Peter Laurence Gordon,
academic/composer Julius Eastman
Bascomb, and John and Jimmy Ingram was remixed as a 12" single by
remix of "Go Bang" and Levan's remix of "In the Cornbelt" (another
track from the 24-24
suite) were frequently played at the
In 1983, the album Tower of Meaning (Chatham Square)
released in a limited pressing on Phillip
's private label. The recording was made up of incidental
music intended to accompany director Robert Wilson
's staging of Medea
partnership arranged by Glass. Although widely perceived as an
important breakthrough for Russell in the compositional world,
creative squabbling between the downtown luminaries culminated in
Wilson barring the composer from attending rehearsals and
eventually ousting Russell from the project altogether in favor of
British composer Gavin Bryars
"compelling and meditative recording", conducted by Julius Eastman,
represents just a fragment of Russell's score, which includes
voices along with its instrumentation.While Russell would remain
tangentially affiliated with the new music sphere in New York until
his death, continuing to perform in solo and group configurations
at The Kitchen and Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Tower of
was his final orchestral effort.
At the same time, Russell continued to release dance singles such
as "Tell You Today" (4th and Broadway, 1983), an upbeat dance
groove and Loose Joints holdover featuring the vocals of Joyce
Bowden. Additional dance tunes included "Wax the Van" (Jump Street,
1987), a collaboration between Russell and erstwhile James Brown
foil Lola Blank (and wife of Bob
Blank, Russell's preferred studio engineer); the Peter Zummo
collaboration "Treehouse/Schoolbell" (Sleeping Bag, 1986); and
'Let's Go Swimming' (Upside/Rough
, 1986). The latter two records were remixed by legendary
70s-era DJ Walter Gibbons
having fallen upon hard times after renouncing his career for
evangelical Christianity, was employed as a buyer at the
now-defunct Rock and Soul Records in Midtown
. Despite Gibbons's religious predilections,
the two forged a dependable (if occasionally tempestuous working
relationship; further Gibbons/Russell collaborations include the
unreleased "C-Thru" (a dance version of "See Through" on
World of Echo
) and a remix of
Russell's "Calling All Kids" (eventually released on the 2004
compilation Calling out of Context
The rejection of Russell's Corn
album (a suite of hip-hop
, much of which later saw release on
Calling out of Context
) by Socolov in 1985, coupled with
creative disagreements between the two over "Wax The Van", resulted
in Russell divesting himself from Sleeping Bag Records shortly
after the release of "Schoolbell/Treehouse" in 1986. According to
Bob Blank in a followup to an Internet reposting of the
(purportedly fallacious) 1986 article that detailed the subterfuge,
Socolov "wanted to take the label to 'another level'" and
"essentially screwed [Arthur] out of his part of the
During the mid 1980s, Russell gave many performances, either
accompanying himself on cello with a myriad of effects, or working
with a small ensemble consisting of percussionist Mustafa Ahmed,
Steven Hall, Ernie Brooks, composer Elodie
and Peter Zummo.
September 1986 saw the release of World of Echo
(Upside/Rough Trade, 1986).
Critically heralded as "a magnum opus of sorts" by contemporary
critics , it incorporated many of his ideas for pop, dance and
classical music for both solo and cello format. The album was
well-reviewed in Britain and included in Melody Maker
's "Top Thirty Releases of
Russell also collaborated with a number of choreographers,
including John Bernd, Diane Madden
Alison Salzinger and Stephanie Woodard.
As a young adult, Russell led a conventional heterosexual
life; at least two of these
relationships have been substantiated. Although he briefly dated
Allen Ginsberg in 1973, Russell did not identify as a gay
man until becoming involved with hairdresser Louis
Aquilone in 1976. After the relationship with Aquilone dissolved,
Russell dated Donald Murk (who subsequently became Russell's
manager) for several years; according to Steven Hall, the
relationship was tempestuous, "with lots of threesomes
and fighting and very dramatic
emotional scenes". As this relationship drew to a close, Russell —
whose musical sensibilities were informed by his sexual affinity
for African-American and Puerto Rican men — became acquainted with
silkscreen operator Tom Lee; their friendship rapidly evolved into
a domestic partnership. Although Russell continued to dally with
other men and women, the union endured until his death. Lee -- who
became a schoolteacher and still resides in the couple's
rent-controlled East Village
-- is the executor of Russell's estate. Their relationship is
detailed at length in Matt Wolf's Wild Combination: A Portrait
of Arthur Russell
Shortly after the release of World of Echo
, Russell was
diagnosed as HIV-positive. As the virus yielded to the more
deleterious side effects of full-blown AIDS
(including throat cancer
forcing Russell to undergo chemotherapy), he remained prolific,
working on voice-and-cello songs for an album to be released by
Philip Glass's Point Music (some of which surfaced on the
posthumous Another Thought
in 1994) and an electronic pop
suite influenced by the likes of 808 State
and William Orbit
) for Rough Trade Records. Much of
the material intended for this project was included on 2004's
Calling Out of Context
Russell died of AIDS
on April 4, 1992, at the
age of 40. In an April 28th column, Kyle
of The Village
wrote: "His recent performances had been so
infrequent due to illness, his songs were so personal, that it
seems as though he simply vanished into his music."
Cultural significance and influence
Russell was prolific, but was also notorious for leaving songs
unfinished and continually revising his music. Ernie Brooks
said Russell "never arrived at a
completed version of anything." Peter
stated, "his quest wasn't really to do a finished
product but more to do with exploring his different ways of working
musically." He left behind more than 1,000 tapes when he died, 40
of them different mixes of one song.
In 2007, "This Is How We
Walk on the Moon
", a song on the 1994 album Another Thought
, was used in a UK
television commercial for T-Mobile
Johanna Billing exhibited a video of
the same title, which included a cover of the song, at Documenta 12 in Kassel and at a
gallery in Edinburgh in 2007.
A tribute EP, Four Songs by Arthur
curated by Jens Lekman
was also released in 2007, through Rough Trade Records.
Filmmaker Matt Wolf completed a feature-length documentary
on Russell called Wild
Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell.
It premiered at the
Berlin International Film Festival on February 13, 2008.
Lawrence, an author and academic at the University
of East London, is writing a biography of Russell, to be published
- Dinosaur: "Kiss Me Again" (1978). Sire
Records. Vocals by Myriam Valle. Produced by Arthur Russell
& Nicky Siano.
- Loose Joints: "Is It All Over My Face" / "Pop Your Funk"
(1980). West End Records. Produced
by Arthur Russell & Steve D'Aquisto.
- Loose Joints: "Is It All Over My Face (Female version)" (1980).
West End Records. Produced by Arthur Russell & Steve
- Dinosaur L: "Go Bang" (1982), from 24-24 Music.
Sleeping Bag Records. Vocals by
Lola Blank, Arthur Russell, and Julius Eastman.
- Loose Joints: "Tell You Today" (1983). 4th and Broadway. Vocals
by Joyce Bowden. Produced by Killer
Whale (Russell) & Steve D'Aquisto.
- Felix: "Tiger Stripes" (1984). Sleeping Bag Records. Vocals by
Maxine Bell. Produced by Killer Whale & Nicky Siano.
- Indian Ocean: "School Bell/Treehouse" (1986). Sleeping Bag
Records (US) / 4th and Broadway (UK). Produced by Arthur Russell
& Peter Zummo.
- Arthur Russell: "Let's Go Swimming" (1986). Logarythm (US) /
Rough Trade (UK). Produced by Arthur Russell & Mark Freedman.
Edited by Killer Whale.
- Lola (Lola Blank): "Wax the Van" (1987). Jump Street Records.
Vocals by Lola Blank. Produced by Bob and Lola Blank.
- Lola (Lola Blank): "I Need More" (1988). Vinylmania. Vocals by
Lola Blank. Produced by Bob and Lola Blank.
- Arthur Russell: "Springfield" (2006). Audika Records. Includes
a remix by The DFA.
- Sounds of JHS 126 Brooklyn: "Chill Pill" (1984). Sleeping Bag
Records. "Under Water Mix" by Killer Whale.
- Clandestine featuring Ned Sublette:
"Radio Rhythm (Signalsmart)" (1984). Sleeping Bag Records. "Extra
Cheese" and "Dub" mixes by Killer Whale & Nicky Siano.
- Bonzo Goes To Washington (Bootsy
Collins & Jerry Harrison): "5 Minutes" (1984). Sleeping Bag
Records. "R-R-R Radio" and "B-B-B Bombing" mixes "chopped and
channeled" by Arthur Russell.
- 24-24 Music (1982; recorded 1979-80). Sleeping Bag
- Tower of Meaning (Chatham Square) (1983). Chatham
Square (limited pressing).
- Instrumentals (1984). Crepsecule. Recorded with The
Flying Lizards and Glenn Lamaro,
Bill Ruyle, and Jon
- World of Echo (1986).
Upside Records (Mute Records) [US]/Rough Trade [UK]. Recorded and
produced by Phil Niblock. Re-issued in
2004 by Audika Records (US)/Rough Trade (UK).
- Another Thought (1994). Point
Music 438 891-2. Compiled with help from Mikel Rouse. Reissued in 2006 by Orange Mountain
- Calling Out of Context (2004). Audika Records.
Compiled by Steve Knutson.
- The World of Arthur
Russell (2004). Soul Jazz
- First Thought Best Thought (2006). Audika Records.
[Includes Instrumentals Volume 1 & 2, Reach
One, Tower of Meaning, and Sketch for the Face of
- Springfield EP (2006). Audika Records.
- Love is Overtaking Me (2008). Audika Records
(US)/Rough Trade (UK). Compiled by Ernie Brooks, Steve Knutson,
& Tom Lee. Recordings digitally restored by Chris Taylor of
- Arthur Russell: Cornfields & Disco |
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