Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Wilbert 'Al' Russell, 90, R&B and jazz performer

AL RUSSELL JUST didn't want to quit. At age 90, he was still considering getting back to the piano and belting out his signature R&B and jazz vocals for a grateful audience.

AL RUSSELL JUST didn't want to quit.

At age 90, he was still considering getting back to the piano and belting out his signature R&B and jazz vocals for a grateful audience.

After all, he'd been doing it since the eighth grade. Why quit now?

But Wilbert "Al" Russell, founder of musical groups that performed all over the country and in England and Ireland at their height, a composer and self-taught piano player with a rich tenor voice, died of cancer on Christmas Eve. He was 90 and was living in a Wynnewood nursing home, but had lived in West Philadelphia since 1946.

Although most of his career was spent with two other guys in trios, in recent years he was a solo act. From 1986 to 2009, he was wowing the crowd at Vincent's Restaurant in West Chester. He quit only because the restaurant closed.

"He was talking about performing again," said his daughter Martina Russell. "He didn't want to stop."

Al founded the Do Ray Me Trio (sometimes spelled Do-Re-Mi), which made music, some written by Al himself, from the 1940s through the '70s. Al went solo after the other members of the trio died.

Although the trio was in demand performing in nightclubs, theaters, restaurants and other venues, it rarely electrified the musical world with a hit - except in 1948, when Al's song "Wrapped Up In A Dream" was No. 2 on the R&B charts for 19 weeks.

Al was born in Columbia, S.C., to Isaac and Emily Russell. In eighth grade at Booker T. Washington High School there, he began playing the piano and singing. He performed on radio shows on WCOS in Columbia.

Eventually, he met other musicians (all of whom sang tenor) and they formed the Al Russell Trio. They played across the country, eventually settling in Los Angeles.

The trio got into some trouble with the Ku Klux Klan in 1945, recording a song in L.A. called "Dig, Mister K. Kay Kay." Los Angeles disc jockeys refused to play it, fearing reprisals, and the song was lost to history.

The trio made numerous recordings around the country, and in 1947, members changed the name to the Do Ray Me Trio. It started as Do Ray and Me (Al being the Me), but various other spellings showed up as it went along.

The group performed frequently in the Philadelphia area and in Wildwood, N.J., often opening for entertainers with bigger names, including Harry James and Louis Armstrong. The family has a photo of Al with Nat King Cole.

In 1946, a man took his sister to hear Al perform at the Rossonian Hotel in Denver. Al took one look at Bessie Hawkins and said, "I'm going to marry you." He did, on June 9, 1946. Both were born in 1921 - she on Oct. 17 and he on Oct. 18.

The makeup of the Do Ray Me Trio changed over the years, and members began dying, leaving Al as the last man standing.

"He was lovable, humble, sweet as pie," his daughter said. "He had a great sense of humor. Everybody loved him."

Al was an outstanding cook and liked to tinker with cars. "He was the neighborhood Mr. Fix-It," Martina said.

Besides his wife and daughter, he is survived by two other daughters, Melanie Russell and Lisa Phillips; a sister, Mildred Fletcher; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Services: 11 a.m. tomorrow at Tabernacle Evangelical Lutheran Church, 59th and Spruce streets. Friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be at Fernwood Cemetery.