By John Smith
Windy City Word
Posted: February 09, 2012 at 11:29 pm
As a kid on the Westside of Chicago learning bass guitar in church, Tony Russell wasn’t focused on growing up to work with some of the biggest artists in popular music. ‘When I was coming up, I just wanted to play. I wasn’t thinking about having a career, I just wanted to be good enough to play in church’, he explained. Tony grew up in neighborhoods at Cicero and Polk, Avers and Lake, and Augusta and Lake. Despite seeing negativity around him, Tony dreamed of becoming a successful musician.
A graduate of Chicago Public schools, he attended Laura Ward elementary school, and Marshall and Orr high schools. Son of one of Chicago’s favorite Gospel singers, Angie Spivey, Tony was exposed at an early age to a rich community of musicians and artists that call the Windy City home, such as Rev. Milton Brunson’s Thompson Community Singers. As a young player, he practiced for hours every day to learn to play the songs he heard on his favorite records on the radio. Two years after picking up the bass at age 12, Tony played on the first of what would become many recording sessions for artists’ albums. By the time he was 17 (while still in high school), he was on the road with gospel megastar Marvin Sapp and later joined the band of Rev. John P. Kee, a gig he still plays from time to time.
The last 10 years have been a whirlwind for Tony. One look at his resume will provide a staggering account of the major artists he’s worked with including R. Kelly, Dave Hollister, Smokie Norful, P. Diddy, and for the last several years, hip-hop icon Jay-Z.
Earning the kind of gigs Tony has is no small achievement. It takes the favor of God, hard work, and very importantly, good relationships. Tony’s working relationship with producer/drummer Nisan Stewart helped him land his gigs with Diddy and his present employer, Jay-Z. “I was working with Nisan doing the Jamie Foxx gig, and we were doing Puff at the same time. Puff hand picks his musicians himself. When Puff was working on the American Gangster album, I got the call’ and has been working with Jay-Z ever since.”
When asked about what life is like as a touring musician and being on the road, Tony explained that it’s not all just fun and games. ‘“Some people don’t understand that even though it’s the entertainment business, we’re not there to be entertained. We’re there working to entertain you the audience. It’s a real job. Rehearsal can be eight to ten hours a day for 3 or 4 weeks before we go on the road. We might have lobby call (when everyone has to be in the lobby ready for the bus) at 5am, go to the venue, soundcheck, and then we might have to be there all day. Don’t get me wrong, there’s glamorous things too like parties and stuff like that. But that’s not happening every night, or even if it is, it doesn’t mean we have time to go. A lot of times we have to take off so we can get to the next city.”
According to Tony, working with major artists keeps musicians at the top of their game. “An artist might come in the day before the show after we’ve been rehearsing for weeks, and want to change something. You have to be quick and able to remember the whole show, plus whatever new changes we have to make at the last minute. There’s a lot that goes into playing and you have to be professional at all times.”
In addition to working as a touring bass player, Tony is also an accomplished producer and bandleader. In fact, over the Christmas holidays, he produced ‘Run This Town’, a live concert featuring several of Chicago’s best and brightest musicians and singers, many of whom are also touring and recording performers. The show was sold-out and things are in the works to produce the show on an even bigger stage, namely the House of Blues. “I did the Christmas show to show a different side of things. There’s so many people who are talented from Chicago and it was great to bring everybody together to play feel good music and have a good time. We’re working right now to bring the show back again and provide entertainment to people looking for real musicianship and feel-good music.”
As a world-traveling musician and producer, Tony says at the end of the day, he’s blessed to be living his dream, and hopes others can learn to go after theirs. “Unfortunately, some people don’t dream anymore. If you look at all the things I’ve been blessed to do, it’s no question that God is the one who put me here. It’s almost impossible for me to be where I am without him. I probably would have ended up hustling or something, but God had another path for me. One day it really hit me how far I’ve come and how blessed I am. It was almost like it was hard to believe. I’m a straight forward, honest guy and I’ve been through some stuff. I’ve survived criticism, jail, and I’m still a dreamer. I want people to know that if I could make it in life, anybody can’.
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