Interview with Jensina Russell Shepard on her Father Henry Russell and his Amazing Career
Today we’ve had an amazing opportunity to talk to Jensina Russell Shepard, the daughter of Henry Russel. Henry Russel had an amazing musical career working with orchestra, theatre, movies, TV shows, commercials and much more.
In 1931, Henry Russell, fresh from school, joined the Ted Fiorito orchestra as a singer, pianist and arranger. In 1933 Russell moved up to the Ted Weems’ orchestra as a featured vocalist and arranger. In 1934 he joined the George Olsen’s great musical organization where he arranged, played and featured piano and appeared as the singing partner of Ethel Shutta and members of the Four Bachelors Quartet. For the next five years he toured with Olsen, from the Coconut Grave in California to the International Casino in Manhattan. He left the Olsen organization to go with Horace Heidt, where he was the chief arranger for such side men as Bobby Hackett, Frankie Carle, Joe “Fingers” Carr, Frank DeVol and Art Carney. When Heidt and his organization went to Hollywood to make the picture “Pot of Gold”, Russell wrote his first picture score. Since then he has written many, including the award winning score for Arch Olber’s tremendously successful suspensor, “FIVE”.
While in Hollywood Russell built the choir and was the musical director for the Goodyear radio shows, first starring Andy Devine, then Roy Rogers. When Dick Powell went on radio with the FITCH BAND WAGON, Russell was his choir master and musical director.
When Powell switched to the dramatic show, ROGUE’S GALLERY, Russell went along to direct the 28 piece orchestra which played the theme and bridges. Cass Daily took over THE FITCH BAND WAGON, and Russell was also her musical director. In 1946 Russell was the musical director for NBC’s Western Division, a position held with distinction for five years. In this position, Russell worked with every major star in the business during the salad days of radio. He composed the themes and conducted the music for the “FRONT AND CENTER” show for the DIRECTOR’S PLAYHOUSE which featured every major star in the motion picture business, for the PABST BLUE RIBBON THEATRE, and HOT POINT THEATRE, and the multiple award winning “HALLS OF IVY”, starring the late Ronald Colman. Although “HALLS OF IVY” was originally composed by Mr. Russell as a “musicommercial” for Schlitz Beer, it became the theme of the radio and television shows, and is currently the most popular Alma Mater song in the world. It serves as the school song for over 2,200 schools and colleges, including the Glendale Chiropractic, and is the theme song of the First Marine Wing.
In 1957 Russell entered the field of “musicommercials” on a much extended basis and is one of the largest and most honored in the country. The winner of dozens of national awards for the excellence of his product, Russell’s firm developed commercials and complete campaigns for many of the country’s most prominent firms and advertising agencies. Russell also built his own recording studio, HR Studios, as his personal demo studio. But, in time, word got out and the studio was used by advertising agencies, voice over work and rock n roll stars of Hollywood. Later the studio was sold to Motown…and that’s how Motown came from Detroit to Hollywood. Russell also wrote scores of musical cues for Capital Cue Library which are still embedded in such classics as “Leave It to Beaver”, “Father Knows Best”, “Ozzie and Harriet”. He wrote the theme song for “Yancy Derringer” TV show. He has a catalogue of songs, music, musical cues and commercials that are now what one would call “vintage” and being catalogued for availability. Read more here
Lisa: Hello Jensina, it is an honor doing this interview with you. You father Henry Russel had a remarkable musical career. What do you remember about him, what was he like?
Jensina: I must say many in Hollywood probably cannot relate to having such a devoted father and mother as I was fortunate to have. He was a dynamic, intelligent man who was also very down to earth. He was a self-made man. His hobby was organic gardening. He was a student of the Bible and Prevention magazine. I must say when he entered a room, people looked and felt his presence…in a good way. He was a man of integrity and charm.
Lisa: How did he manage being a father with so many projects going on?
Jensina: He loved his career but he never put it before his family. People today have “bring your child to work” day. I went to work with my father since I was a small child either at our own studio or at Capitol Records. Some of my favorite memories were being with him in Studio A at Capitol in Hollywood. When the session was very large he would use Capitol. I would sit in the booth and keep my own log for each take…thus training my ear. When he went away to Europe for weeks at a time either recording or with Howard Keel as his musical director at the Palladium, we would join him for much of the time and then vacation through Europe when he was done.
Lisa: I especially love “Coffee-Break” It has amazing vibe, and those breaks are right on spot. Do you remember writing it? Did he ever talked on what inspired him to write it?
Jensina: I am not sure specifically what inspired him to write that. He had a huge range of genres. At the time of writing “Coffee Break” he had his own musical commercial house and studio to produce what became award-winning jingles for TV and radio. So his highlighting a product like coffee could have been a fun vision for an ad. I am really not sure. It could have been just a great song very representative of a fun style of that time too.
Lisa: What is your favorite song your father wrote, and why?
Jensina: That’s a really tough question. Since I inherited his musical library and have been digitizing it (everything is on tape as he died in 1968), vetting his works and making them available for streaming, TV, use in ads and movies, I have had a lot of time to contemplate this question.
He had so many genres. I even loved some of his commercials. For instance, when John Glenn the first American entered earth’s orbit in 1962, my father did the Tidewater commercial that sponsored the special program. It was as full orchestra and sounded like a magnificent anthem. I also love “Coffee Break” as it’s sassy and makes me laugh. I love “Rock Roma Rocket” sung by Scatman Crothers too as it has a smoky, wonderful vibe. But then there is some great jazz played by Frank Horrox (British jazz pianist) and Don Rendell (British jazz saxophonist) that I really love. And the genres go on and on. So in short, I give up and say…”not sure”.
Lisa: The first picture he worked on was “Pot of Gold”. Did he ever talked about that, and what this meant for his career?
Jensina: That’s an interesting question. I am sure it opened doors for him and gave him greater exposure. He had a great deal of talent to do a variety of music in different medias from composing, conducting, singing, play piano and other instruments. He was musical director at NBC on the west coast. He was musical director for Dorothy Lamour as well as Howard Keel. So he hit all the bells and whistles. In other words I think one door opens to another.
Lisa: Can you share some interesting story about your father?
Jensina: A really funny story is that he looked a lot like Clark Gable or Prince Rainier. So when he was in Europe recording or conducting, people would come up to him and ask for his autograph. He would ask, “Who do you think I am?” If they said “Clark Gable”, he would sign his autograph Clark Gable. If they said “Prince Rainier”, he would sign it that way. He had a great sense of humor.
Lisa: What artists did he enjoyed listening the most?
Jensina: I remember we had tapes we listened to at home with George Shearing and Earl Garner. Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle had been his arrangers at NBC and their music was played. We always had season tickets to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and I often went to the Hollywood Bowl along with other venues. I guess you could say he loved MUSIC and was very open minded.
Lisa: Do you remember his HR Studios, what was it like there?
Jensina: I can tell you a lot about that. The studio was located in Hollywood at Melrose Place and Lacienga Blvd. It was a boutique of a studio. Originally, he had built it for his own use for his advertising demos for his clients. It had a medium-sized recording studio, a room for cutting master records and duplicating tapes that would go out to radio stations. He had an office there as well. It was 8 track tape of course. We are talking the 1960’s. It ended up to be a great little studio and ALL kinds of people came to record their demos there. Some of the notables were Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin, The Beach Boys, Fifth Dimension, Pat Boone, Glen Campbell, Frankie Laine, Bill Cosby, Hanna Barbara and many ad agencies…the list goes on. I ended up working there during the summers while going to high school and continued working there through Business College as well. He died at the age of 54 of cancer. As his illness progressed the creative part of the ad company (Henry Russell and Associates) lessened and I ended up running the studio till his death supporting our family. In fact, I sold the studio to Motown. That’s how Motown came from Detroit to Hollywood was by buying HR Studios. Many great engineers came out of there too like Dave Diller who went on to engineer at Capitol Records and John Stronach who did Three Dog Night.
Lisa: Is there anything you’d like to add about your father?
Jensina: He was a wonderful man and I feel sad that his life was cut so short. He loved his family and music with all his heart. He was 54 when he died. He entrusted my mother with the music. After she died I was entrusted to care for his music which is a huge honor and privilege. I hope to do it justice. My husband and I built a little studio of our own to digitize the tapes. I hope the music continues out to the world. It is on SoundCloud, Amazon, Spotify among others and we have our own website which is HenryRussellMusic. Com. I want the legacy to carry on. I know he would be very pleased.
Listen Henry Russell’s music: