On Feb. 28, 2019, just two weeks before the opening night of his musical show, the “Georgia Senior Follies,” renowned musician and Forsyth County resident Bob Russell passed away at the age of 90.
Friends and family alike say that up until his death, Russell lived for music, spending decades perfecting his craft and performing all over the United States.
A memorial written after his death states that among Russell’s many accomplishments were leading marching bands in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day and Washington, D.C., Bicentennial parades, performing with vocal groups at Carnegie Hall and the New York City Jazz Festival, and establishing the Bob Russell Singers, the Bob Russell Swing Band, the Mood Swingers and the Sounds of Sawnee Band.
Over his career, Russell conducted more than 150 musical productions, according to the memorial, working with musicians and artists like Neil Sedaka, Bob Newhart, the Smother Brothers and Alan Thicke.
"He was just a remarkable conductor, arranger and pianist. That was his life," said Kathy Russell, his wife and longtime musical partner. "He touched so many people: students, colleagues ... He's just missed by so many people."
Bob Russell showed an incredible fondness for music from a young age, Kathy said, that was nurtured to life by his parents and teachers.
"He picked up the piano by ear as a 6-year-old child, and his parents recognized his talent and sent him to a conservancy in San Francisco," Kathy Russell said.
Bob Russell graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and eventually earned a master’s degree in music conducting and arranging from San Jose State University, where he taught music for over 47 years, she said.
When Bob and Kathy moved to Forsyth County from California in 2004, they immediately found a home in the local theater community, attending shows at the School Street Playhouse (formerly the Cumming Playhouse) and performing there as the Mood Swingers for many years.
Linda Heard, former executive director of the Cumming Playhouse, said that Bob Russell’s relocation to the Forsyth County area was possibly one of the most influential forces to affect the local theatrical community.
"The playhouse was begun in 2004, and we knew that we wanted live entertainment for the community [but] we truly did not know a lot about how to make that happen except to ask other more experienced people to come in and do things for us," Heard said. "But when Bob and Kathy moved here from California and they began to attend some of the shows, we came to know them, and it was very apparent they had been a part of things we wanted to do, how we wanted to be."
Under Bob and Kathy Russell’s leadership, the playhouse hosted productions of award-winning shows like “42nd Street,” “White Christmas,” “Gypsy,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and the “Georgia Senior Follies,” according to the memorial.
Bob and Kathy Russell’s impact went beyond the productions they headed, Heard said.
"They led by example … They taught us how to be better entertainers,” Heard said. “They taught us about advertisement and sponsorships and how to reach people. Because they had been in California, they had seen how it truly should be, so we welcomed that."
The first time Heard met Bob Russell, though, she was unsure of how well a Californian would mesh with the Forsyth County community.
But Bob Russell quickly won her over, Heard said. She realized he was the type of person who would do anything to spread joy.
"There was a sense of joy when he would step up to the podium,” she said. “As if something exciting was truly about to happen. He just absolutely had the talent for leading people.”