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Russell Drago

Bringing Some ‘Old School Love’ Back Home

Story by Karen Tinsley / Photography by Kevin Thom

From singing “Chim-Chim-Cheree” on the Cleary Auditorium stage as a 9-year-old Cub Scout, to his recent stellar performance at Kingston’s Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, baritone jazz singer Russell Drago has come a long way. And for one night only, he’s bringing his world-class jazz combo—and his ‘Old School Love’—back home.

When Motown tunes on CKLW wafted out of transistor radios and Prince Charles Public School still stood on Edward Street, young Russell Drago was winning medals for piano playing, singing in the St. Aidan’s Anglican Church choir and “putting on shows” for family and friends in his basement on Isabelle Place.

When Russell was in Grade 10 at Riverside Secondary School, his family moved to Toronto. It was tough to leave Windsor behind, but Russell was excited about continuing his studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music and University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music.

Fast forward a few decades.

When asked why he decided to become a performer, Russell says, “I can’t really explain that. In so many ways, performing is an irrational pursuit. It doesn’t really make sense. It’s not like studying to become a doctor or perfecting a trade. I do it because I feel compelled to. I can tell you for sure there’s no how-to guide. Believe me, I’ve looked!”

Knowing how challenging it is for most Canadian performers to make a living, Russell says, “I’ve just kept working at it. I’ve had singing lessons and vocal coaching from some of Canada’s best, spent truckloads of money and have lost track of how many days and nights of practice I’ve put in. But in the end, you teach yourself—you sift through everything and discover what works for you. You’re the one putting yourself out there.”

So, we just had to ask Russell about “Chim-Chim-Cheree”!

“I guess I really wanted to have my solo moment. They were talking about needing someone to sing a verse from the Mary Poppins movie song. I piped up, saying, ‘I know that song!’ and it was a go! The only thing was, I had no clue. What nerve for a 9-year-old! I guess I did okay because I sang it a few more times in smaller venues. I even got my picture in the Windsor Star!”

Performance anxiety is very real, even for seasoned celebrities like Diana Krall. But Russell says he never worries. “I do feel butterflies, but I’m calm before I walk on stage. That being said, I probably know ten ways out of a song that’s in trouble. That’s the blessing of jazz. You’re in the moment.”

However, there have been some hairy incidents. “Like the time I had a sneezing attack right in the middle of a song. I turned slightly away from the audience toward my band mates, signaling them to play another chorus while I stifled every sneeze. Or the time a pianist I’d never worked with before confessed she could only play three keys—none of which worked for my set list. I don’t know how it happened, but our audience had no idea that anything was amiss. Then the pianist said we should do it again sometime. No thanks!”

Which prompts Russell to tell us about his world class jazz combo.

“They’re some of the best musicians anywhere: Kevin Barrett—my Guitar God—is a multi-faceted studio musician, band leader (and also my Musical Director). Louis Simão on keyboards has been composing and recording in a variety of genres for two decades and was named 2017 Solo Artist of the Year by the Canadian Folk Music Awards, Clark Johnston on bass has played with Peter Appleyard. He’s released three CD’s of original recordings. Then there’s Rakesh Tewari on drums, who’s shared the stage with Alicia Keys, Rufus Wainwright, K’Naan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, kd lang and Nelly Furtado—to name a few!”

Russell is very excited about The Homecoming Concert. “The Olde Walkerville Theatre felt ‘right’ as soon as I walked in. I still have family and friends here; I can’t wait to bring my Old School Love back to them… my hometown…and you!”

Tickets: $35 each at The Olde Walkerville Theatre Box Office (1564 Wyandotte Street East, 519 253 2929) or visit www.oldewalkervilletheatre.com/russelldrago

Doors open at 7 pm, show begins at 8 pm on Thursday, October 17, 2019.

There’ll be a Meet ‘n’ Greet with Russell and his band immediately following the show. Their newly released CD “Live at the Isabel” will be available for purchase.

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