Anyone who knows anything about the delta blues knows about the King Biscuit Blues Festival, and anyone who knows anything about the King Biscuit Blues Festival knows that it’s not complete until Heaven Came to Helena is performed. Enter Reba Russell: blue eyes dancing with mischief, she flashes an irresistible pirate smile, clutches the microphone, and launches into a set that assures her audience, in no uncertain terms, that this is a woman born to sing the blues.
“October came and so did the rain…” The crowd is on its feet. “Came down with the blues on the Arkansas plain.” Some people sing along, some people sway, and some raise their hands like they’re in church. Bubba Sullivan, one of the festival’s founders, observes, “When that Reba’s on stage, she makes things happen.”
Russell’s first time on the King Biscuit Blues Festival stage was in the late ’90s, when she sat in with Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers. She’d appeared on his last two albums and was delighted to be part of Thackery’s King Biscuit set. She recalls the time as “a spiritual experience,” being part of a lineup that included B.B. King, Robert Lockhart, Jr., James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, and Frank Frost. Sadly, it would be Frost’s final festival. He passed away a few days later.
Russell was inspired to write about her King Biscuit experience and the loss of a legend, and the next year, when she returned – in her own main stage slot – she would share it with the crowd. “I saw Sonny Boy’s spirit on Frank’s face when the waters long prayed for covered the place.” Eyes grew misty, the town went quiet, and a legend was born. Reba Russell might be a Memphis artist, but folks in Helena, Arkansas claim her for their own.
To discover how Russell made it to the main stage of a male-dominated music festival, we should rewind a bit. Born in West Virginia, she moved with her family to Memphis when she was only thirteen years old. “In Memphis,” Russell recalls, “music was everywhere. It was abundant and brilliant, and people in the industry were so encouraging.” Russell found her calling. “Memphis made me a musician,” she confides.
Reba Russell knew, early on, that she wanted to front her own band. Fiercely independent, she also wanted to represent herself. She has always felt the need to follow her own path, to move at her own pace, to make her own decisions regarding her career. To make ends meet, she turned to session work, but never signed with a specific studio. “I’ve worked at every studio in Memphis,” she smiles, “made a lot of friends.”
In 1985, award-winning producer, Chip Moman oversaw the Class of 55 project, a reunion of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. When they were preparing to record Big Train from Memphis, Moman insisted that Reba Russell participate. Moman, a gifted songwriter, musician, and sound engineer, knew talent when he heard it. “He just shoved me into the studio with these HUGE artists!” Russell remarks with wide-eyed wonder. Looking around that room, she saw, in addition to the featured quartet, John Fogerty (who wrote the song), Marty Stuart, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Rick Nelson, and Sun Studio founder, Sam Phillips. She remembers standing at a microphone, next to June Carter Cash, in a studio space so crowded with performers that Russell inadvertently “bumped butts” with Johnny Cash.
A few years later, Russell was finishing a session at Ardent when the studio manager asked if she was free for a backup gig that evening. As it turned out, she was, and she followed the manager’s directions by driving to Sun Studio and telling them, “Carol sent me.” It was incredibly secretive and Russell had no idea for whom she would be singing, but when she arrived, she knew, judging from the cars and the cameras, that whoever it was must be big deal. Once inside, she discovered Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. U2. was in Memphis.
Knowing that the band had platinum albums and a huge following, Russell says she was struck by how young and polite they were. The group, Russell reports, treated the studio with reverence. They knew its history and the iconic music that had been produced there. They seemed honored to be part of it. “It was burning hot in that small studio,” Russell recalls. “So many people and cameras and lights!” She and the Duncan sisters – Phyllis and Helen – sang background vocals on When Love Comes to Town in an unusual, seemingly undisciplined, recording session she describes as “commando”. “We did everything live, on the studio floor. No headphones!” Russell shakes her head and laughs. “But we got paid good money.” It would be almost a year before she heard the final product on Rattle and Hum and Russell admits to being surprised at how good it was. She was stunned to see that B.B. King had been incorporated into the session; he hadn’t been there. She was even more surprised that, after B.B.’s guitar and vocals were added, “we were still in the mix! It blew my mind. It still blows my mind.” Rattle and Hum reached the number one slot in multiple countries and sold about 14 million copies.
Reba Russell has provided rockin’, rich, and soulful background vocals for a myriad of artists, including Tracy Nelson, Huey Lewis and the News, and Carla Thomas. Victor Wainwright and the Train were nominated for the Best Contemporary Blues Grammy of 2018. Don Bryant is currently nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album. Guess what they have in common. Yep. Reba Russell background vocals.
I’m not claiming that convincing Reba Russell to sing with you will guarantee a Grammy nomination; I will say, however, that it clearly doesn’t hurt. Al Green (I cannot, for the life of me, hear his name without cueing Marc Cohn to sing in my head) released his first single in a decade, Freddy Fender’s Before the Next Teardrop Falls. It is stunning. Reba Russell and her friend, Susan Marshall, deliver the background vocals because only the best will do for the Rev. Al Green.
How good is she? Russell’s cover of Jimmy Thackery’s Levee Prayer is a religious experience in and of itself, and her version of James Luther Dickinson’s classic, Asshole, maybe all the post-break-up therapy you’ll ever need. Her own Hard to Live is destined to become a blues classic. Russell’s voice has been described as powerful, husky, soothing, soulful, soft, and raucous. Save your stacks of clever and conflicting adjectives. The truth is, her voice is whatever it needs to be. She was blessed with a gorgeous instrument to begin with, but Russell has trained and taken care of it. It does what she tells it to do.
When asked who is still on her bucket list, Reba Russell’s eyes light up. “If you could share a stage with anyone, whom would you choose?” Her answer is quick. “Mavis Staples would top the list.” Good choice, Reba Russell. Mavis Staples was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017. In 2016, President Barack Obama celebrated the incomparable singer and Civil Rights activist at the Kennedy Center Honors. Russell ponders a bit longer. There are so many great choices that it’s hard to commit, but she’s sure that Irma Thomas and Ruthie Foster would make the top five.
The bucket list question leads us to a discussion about community, the importance of support and encouragement, and mentors who have guided Russell along the way. Memphis legend, Joyce Cobb was an influential figure in Russell’s life. Cobb was a singer/songwriter who specialized in traditional jazz and blues. When Joyce Cobb’s on Beale opened its doors in 1992, it was the first club on that historic street to be named for a woman. “She was always encouraging,” Russell remembers. “She really helped me.” Blues and country soul artist, Tracy Nelson, was another person who was supportive of Russell from the start. “I learned a lot just from seeing how she handled herself. She didn’t take shit off of anybody.” Russell definitely learned that lesson. Finally, she can’t talk about encouragement without acknowledging her husband, Wayne Russell, who has been her bass player for forty years. He wrote Red Mississippi Clay, a perennial favorite wherever the Reba Russell Band performs. Russell expresses the hope that she herself is a mentor for young musicians. She tries to offer the same support and guidance that she was given. Recently, she produced and supplied background vocals for Sister Lucille’s single, Alive, which was released to rave reviews. The young band won a 2020 Blues Blast Music Award for New Artist Debut Album.
So, what’s next for Reba Russell? She’s putting the finishing touches on a new single, It’s Time for Women to Rule the World, and eagerly anticipating the time when we’re all vaccinated and able to return to music festivals, particularly King Biscuit. That’s what she misses most: the comradery, the community, the chance to share what she does best with the people who appreciate it the most. Hopefully, that day is coming soon. And when it does, I know what we’ll hear: “Heaven came to Helena and the devil, he let go.”