The Dial Records catalogue of Charlie Parker recordings is probably the best selection of his work for any one label. The recordings have been distributed over the years in many formats and only in the 60's were they finally consolidated into a collective work. In any biography of Charlie Parker, Ross Russell deserves a place because he not only owned a label that recorded Parker, but he authored two books, a 'biography' of Parker, Bird Lives, and a novel, The Sound, that was drew its inspiration from Parker's life.
Russell has been painted as an exploiter of Parker, but it must be remembered that whatever Russell did to exploit him, Parker, at the time, was an addict without a source and without funds. Parker was desperate and Russell may have offered a solution. Although Russell manoeuvred Parker into an exclusive contract with Dial, contracts were not something that Parker paid too much attention, and, in actuality, he was already under contract with another label.
Throughout his life, Russell was a big fan of jazz and in the thirties collected rare jazz records. Ultimately, he was looking for a way to make a living from his hobby. At the end of the last war, he spotted a business opportunity, and having saved every penny of his navy pay, he realised that the AMF ban on recording "…had created an unprecedented seller's market". Shortly afterwards he opened the Tempo record shop and later launched Dial Records. He hesitatingly bought a box of Parker 78's and was surprised that he sold them all in an afternoon. Tempo became the only source in Los Angeles at the time for records of the new Be-Bop music that was appearing on the East Coast.
His relationship with Parker did not begin until Parker and Gillespie came to Hollywood for a residency at Billy Bergs. Russell became Parker's personal manager, and the early attempts to record him only produced a handful of songs. The Parker that played on them was close to a mental and physical collapse. In one famous session, whilst undergoing involuntary heroin withdrawal and battling the symptoms with quarts of cheap whiskey, Parker was barely able to stand, let alone produce a performance of his usual ability. The track 'Loverman' is a harrowing, yet haunting document of a desperate person unknowingly bearing their soul. After this session, a series of well-documented events found Parker arrested and institutionalised. (These events have been described many times and in many conflicting ways, that it is doubtful we will ever really know the truth of what happened). Tempo Record Store 1945?
Apparently, Russell visited Parker in Camarillo where he was hospitalised and became scared when Parker talked about escaping: "Russell starts digging through the California mental hygiene code. He finds the solution - with the approval of a special judicial commission, a committed patient may be released into the custody of an approved state resident. Russell will be this person, enabling him to get the musician discharged in exchange for a few contractual guarantees: the renewal of Parker's completely exclusive contract with Dial. Russell has cleverly taken advantage of the situation. Parker's hands are tied....". *
It is rumoured that when Russell finally managed to release Parker from the hospital, he drove him straight to a gig expecting Parker to perform! It is safe to assume that although appearing to be a mercenary act by his manager, after six months in a hospital, Parker would want to get straight back to playing.
Later, against Parker's wishes, Russell released the 'Loverman' track. Parker never forgave Russell and was been quoted as saying the 'Loverman' should be stomped into the ground. There is a voice recording by Arnold Schoenberg (who was also contracted to Russell), where Russell is once again accused of releasing a recording of a performance against the artist's wishes. Schoenberg says: "You are not only a man who disregards an artist's wishes, his artistic beliefs, you are also a man who does not care to keep a contract". This is relevant if only to show that if Russell did exploit Charlie Parker, his exploitation of artists was not confined to Afro-Americans or jazz musicians.
After Parker's release from hospital, he recorded sessions for Dial on the East and West Coasts producing many classic Parker tracks. These tracks were recorded for release on 78 discs, but when the long-playing record (the 'LP') took over as the preferred format, multiple versions of the different 'takes' were then released, seemingly at random. Many 'master' takes were actually alternate takes so by the time Tony Williams at Spotlite Records began assembling the whole catalogue in the 60's, only Russell knew which track were the masters or not. It might be speculated that Russell granted rights to use the tracks based on some unknown variable, but the issue of both master and alternate takes would maximise the financial return.
By 1950, Russell's contract with Parker was over but he always championed Parker's music until the end of his life. Russell kept up the interest in recording and in 1953 spends several months in Trinidad recording calypso music and carnival bands. The inspiration for this latest foray into the music business was due to the craze in New York for rum and cokes! Not much is know about his movements in the following years.
In 1961, he publishes The Sound, to good reviews, and then ten years later publishes Jazz Style in Kansas City and the South-West, to similarly favourable reviews.
Tempo Record Store
In 1973 he publishes his 'biography' of Parker and unfortunately, this book Bird Lives, the High Life and Hard Times of Charlie Parker, has become the most popular book about Parker. (REVIEWS)
It is even a standard text in several colleges and Universities. It is a sensationalist account of Bird's life. Little of it is ever used to support commentators' arguments, and whenever it is used, the author invariably mentions that Russell's book is questionable in its accuracy. The book itself was published nearly 25 years after the Dial recordings were made, so this may account for the artistic licence?
In 1981, Russell sold the 'Ross Russell Papers', (a massive collection of records amassed throughout his life, a small library of jazz-related books, articles, photographs, etc) to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. In 1990, he sold the rights to the Dial Recording to Spotlite Records in the UK and he was in London for the auction of the Chan Parker collection in 1994.
Russell tried to get Clint Eastwood to use his script for the movie Bird, but Eastwood chose Chan Parker and her book, My Life in E-Flat as it's predominant influence.
He taught Afro-American music at university level and continued contributing jazz related articles to various magazines. He also spent some time in Massachusetts where he ran a golf club and lived at various times in South Africa, England, Germany, and Austria.
Russell died on the 31 January 2000. He had been married four times, and is survived by either a son, or twins, depending on which obituary you read.
* Black Music, White Business by Frank Kofsky. Pathfinder 1998.