Tough as Nails
For Singer/Pianist Russell Deason, Surviving is a Cabaret
by Hank Trout
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Michael Kerner
When Russell Deason was growing up in Ft. Collins, Colorado, in the 1960s (he was born in 1963), there was no hint of the winding musical path his natural talents would lead him down.
It began with piano lessons when he was five years old. The lessons lasted only two years; after that, he was on his own and became an accomplished self-taught pianist. He began playing at his local church, accompanying the choir and his mother, well into his high school years. At one point he was playing the organ at the largest evangelical congregation of its kind in Colorado.
“I grew up playing gospel,” Russell told A&U, “but I also came to love jazz and R&B and pop songs. I grew up listening to singers like Sarah Vaughn and Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney—real singers.” In his early twenties, he began taking singing lessons. Unfortunately, whenever he tried out for a choir or chorus, although he is an excellent singer, they were more interested in his piano playing than his singing. “Everyone needed an accompanist more than they needed another tenor!”
But he continued playing and singing anyway. He turned to cabaret, playing clubs in Colorado. Unfortunately, his first venture into cabaret was cut short as the AIDS epidemic swept across the country.
“I don’t think people remember or ever realized just how severely the AIDS crisis gutted cabaret in this country in the eighties and nineties. Not only did we lose dozens of cabaret artists to the disease, we lost the venues for performing. Piano bars, especially the gay ones, were closing right and left. Other nightclubs were disappearing. I stopped performing because there was no place to perform—there was no choice.”
With the cabaret scene decimated, Russell put his career on hold. However, he quickly met and was taken under wing by assorted drag queens in Colorado—and for the first time, began performing in drag himself, as “Ms. Bette Forrestt.” (He created another outrageous, extremely politically incorrect drag persona who, although she was hysterically funny and a hugely popular sensation at the time, would get us both in trouble if I described her here!) At the time, just as they are now, drag queens were at the forefront of raising money for AIDS-related charities and service organizations, and Russell did his share of performing and fundraising. While that was satisfying in its way…it wasn’t cabaret!
To make matters even worse, Russell had tested positive for HIV in 1987 when he was twenty-four years old. The damage of that diagnosis and the loss of his cabaret career led to a twenty-year slump. “Like a lot of us, I settled into shitty jobs, I owned a not-very-successful flower shop for a short while, I did some temp work, and eventually ended up working at this architectural firm full-time.”
That job led to the offer of a different job in San Francisco. “A colleague of mine was moving to San Francisco for work, and I jokingly asked her if she had room in her suitcase for a stowaway! We laughed about it. Then about three weeks later, she called and asked, ‘Were you serious about going to San Francisco? Because I think I might have a job here for you.’ Well, I had wanted to live in California all my life! So, three weeks later I was here for an interview, and three weeks after that I moved here permanently, in 1996.”
After twenty years of not performing cabaret, he put his act back together and began performing again in 2014 in San Francisco’s rejuvenated nightclub scene. He also started taking voice lessons a couple of years ago, and continues those lessons today, with voice teacher Dr. Lee Strawn and with Bobby Weinapple who teaches an “Acting for Singers” course at Seydways Studios.
Our talk of singing lessons led me to ask him, “If you could take a Master Class from any cabaret singer you know of, whom would you want to study with?”
I love cabaret because the format reaches people in very personal ways, it touches people very directly and very deeply. Cabaret has the unique ability to incorporate stories and monologues into the performance in ways that other genres don’t.
With absolutely no hesitation he said, “Marilyn Maye! Hands-down the greatest cabaret singer around—and she’s in her nineties now! She wrote the book on communicating with an audience. I saw her earlier this year at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, and she blew me away. She didn’t sing a single ‘new’ song, only the old standards that she ‘owns.’ There’s no one better.”
I was intrigued by why, with such a diverse musical background, Russell was so strongly drawn back to the art of cabaret. So I asked him. He looked at me as if I had completely lost my mind and blurted out—
“Because I’m GAY!! Judy! Liza! Barbra! How could I not love cabaret?!” After we laughed away my silly question, he got more serious.
“I love cabaret because the format reaches people in very personal ways, it touches people very directly and very deeply. Cabaret has the unique ability to incorporate stories and monologues into the performance in ways that other genres don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I love jazz—and I still play jazz piano in clubs from time to time—and I love gospel and R&B and disco, but cabaret allows me to tell stories and move people in very intimate ways.”
And telling stories is at the heart of the new cabaret show that Russell is preparing for this fall, “Tough As Nails.” A long-term HIV survivor himself, he plans to incorporate a wide variety of songs—pop, Broadway, disco—to tell the story of the devastation wreaked by the AIDS crisis, and of those of us who survived. Starting with Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” through “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, and “Elegies for Punks and Raging Queens” by Bill Russell and Janice Hood, he plans to tell a tale of resilience, of surviving, of being “tough as nails.”
“I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly ‘tough,’” he said, “but when I look back over what I’ve been through, what I’ve accomplished, what I’ve survived, I realize that, yeah, I’m pretty damn tough, inadvertently tough—like all of us who survived those years. And continue to survive now. And it’s important to me to educate those who don’t know about those years, because they are too young, to make them know just how tough things were, what it was like to lose sixty of your friends before you stopped counting.” He said the show will also celebrate those of us who did live through those years. “I want to remind other survivors that they are tough as nails, too!”
A specialty of Russell’s is the “mash-up” of songs to make a statement even bigger than its parts. For example, he plans to combine “Friends,” made famous by Bette Midler, with Freddie Mercury’s and David Bowie’s Queen classic “Under Pressure”; he’s also planning to incorporate songs by Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman in dialogue with each other.
[I was thrilled recently when Russell debuted his mash-up of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” with a monologue I had written called “I Just Wanna Dance.” I’m very happy that he plans to incorporate that mash-up into “Tough As Nails.” (See “For the Long Run,” May 2018)]
In one portion of the show, Russell plans to invite members of the audience to speak the names of people whom they have lost to AIDS. When his show’s director, Larissa Kelloway, asked him why he wanted to include an audience-participation segment in the show, he explained, “Because it’s important that we remember those people, that we memorialize them, that we speak their names. We promised our friends who were dying that we would remember them. This is one way I can make sure they are remembered.”
When our interview concluded and I began to contemplate this article, it struck me that Russell is indeed an expert storyteller. In the short time we spent together, he took me on a very emotional journey, through the Plague Years, through the devastation that continued for far too long, through memories of friends and co-workers and bedmates I lost to the crisis—but also through more joyous times, such as remembering the night in the late 1990s when I sat front-and-center in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill and heard the incomparable Barbara Cook sing “When Sunny Gets Blue”—also a favorite song of Russell’s. And I realized that if he can move me that deeply in a short time, our story, the story of pain and loss, of toughness and resilience that we survivors have lived, is safe in Russell’s musical hands. I plan to be front and center on opening night for “Tough As Nails.”
Russell Deason’s “Tough As Nails” will premiere on October 13, 2018 at Martuni’s, San Francisco’s premier piano bar, located at 4 Valencia Street; check them out at their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/Martunis. You can contact Dr. Lee Strawn at www.sfsings.com; Bobby Weinapple can be reached at www.robertweinapple.com. You can follow Russell at: @SFRussell1963 and www.facebook.com/Russells.pianoandvocals/
For more information about photographer Michael Kerner, log on to: www.kernercreative.com.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.