Russell wrote pulp fiction in the 1930s and worked as a reporter, at one point writing on Luis Russell while on tour. He was a marine in World War II, then set up his own record store, the Tempo Music Shop, in Los Angeles. In 1946 he founded Dial Records in order to record Charlie Parker, who was in Los Angeles at the time. He also recorded Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner, Howard McGhee, Dodo Marmarosa, Dexter Gordon, and Earl Coleman. Russell saved all of the alternate takes he did, which made vault releases of his material particularly rich for jazz aficionados. He shut Dial down in 1949 and spent several years away from jazz music.
Russell next published on jazz in 1961, but in fiction. His novel The Sound came out that year, a book inspired by Parker's life. In 1971, he published a nonfiction book, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest, and two years later his biography Bird Lives! was published. Bird Lives! was criticized for its factual inaccuracies; some of the details Russell relates were shown to be fictional. Russell also wrote articles for jazz magazines and taught at the University of California and Palomar College. He sold his collection of records, interviews, and other materials to the University of Texas at Austin in 1981. He retired to Escondido, and was writing another book on bebop at the time of his death in 2000.