Albert “Diz” Russell, a baritone lead singer with two influential doo-wop groups, the Regals and the Orioles, died Nov. 16 at a hospital in Cheverly, Maryland. He was 83.
Russell gave his last public performance in February at Mr. Henry’s in Washington after being diagnosed with dementia. His wife, Millie Russell, said the immediate cause of death was congestive heart failure.
The Regals recorded the rollicking “Got the Water Boiling” — with its memorable couplet, “I’ve got your water boiling, baby/I’m gonna cook your goose” — for Atlantic Records in 1954.
The record was a strong seller in regional markets, including Washington. But its melody and catchy rhythms became the basis for a more popular recording the following year, “Speedoo,” by a rival vocal group, the Cadillacs. Millie Russell said that in later decades, she was able to claim royalties from “Speedoo,” a signature doo-wop hit and oldies radio staple, on Russell’s behalf.
Baltimore doo-wop singer Sonny Til hired the Regals in 1955 to replace his original backup group, the Orioles, which had quit in a financial dispute. Russell left Til in 1960 to focus on other employment — he owned book and record stores as well as optometry shops in Washington — but rejoined the Orioles in 1978.
After Til died in 1981, Russell took over as lead singer and frequently rearranged Til’s best-known repertoire — including “It’s Too Soon to Know” and “Crying in the Chapel” — to suit his baritone over Til’s tenor range. The group also was rebranded as the Legendary Orioles and appeared on the oldies circuit.
“People said to me, ‘Why let it die?’” Russell told The Washington Post in 2002. “So I didn’t let it. We’re like General Motors. The car doesn’t stop because all the executives are dead.”
Russell was born in Nashville on Nov. 3, 1933, and he grew up in Cleveland. He played trumpet in high school, and he was nicknamed after his horn-playing musical idol, Dizzy Gillespie.
Russell also sang in a vocal group that rehearsed at the local YMCA. Jazz saxophonist James Moody overheard them and encouraged them to take their act on the road.
After several personnel and name changes, the group went to New York. “We drove there in a 1946 Buick convertible with the top all torn, and right as we drove into New York City, that car just collapsed,” Russell told The Post.
In Russell’s telling, they walked into Duke Ellington’s office in the Brill Building and auditioned with the bandleader himself. Ellington got the 4 Jays — as they were then called — a job at a nightclub. When the group took on a fifth singer, the members rechristened themselves the Regals.
In 1954, Bobby Schiffman, whose family owned the Apollo and several other theaters in black neighborhoods, signed on as their manager, and they recorded for Aladdin and Atlantic Records.
Schiffman loved their sound, but, feeling that they lacked stage presence, hired Cholly Atkins of the dance team Coles and Atkins to choreograph them. (Atkins later created stage routines for the Temptations.)
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Millie Chambliss Russell, and their son, Christopher Russell, both of Washington; two sisters; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
“We play 40 years of music in 40 minutes in our show,” Russell once said.
He added, “That’s what we’re about — we try to satisfy everybody.”