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Herbie wins the heart of Detroit by collecting money and giving to the homeless.
Singing is about more than just a beautiful voice. It’s about life, experiences, and how those experiences connect the singer to the song in order to make the words and music come alive.
That’s what makes Herbie Russ special. When he sings with a voice that sounds like honey and gravel, a lifetime of joy and sadness informs every song — and he’s had quite a lifetime, a journey that has taken him from homelessness to a national television audience on “America’s Got Talent.”
A Detroit native, Russ has been a professional musician since he was a teenager. Now 57, his career has led him to commercial work for AT&T, The Ford Motor Company, General Motors and the Fox Network. He’s also the voice behind the Detroit Tigers theme song "Home Again,” a staple at Comerica Park.
A versatile and crowd-pleasing performer, Russ is a passionate singer and saxophonist who has also made his mark as keyboardist, producer and songwriter. Just as impressively, he has also raised thousands of dollars for the homeless in Detroit and beyond.
He comes by his compassion honestly. A high school drop-out, he was kicked out of his parents’ house for drugs and became an itinerant musician. He did gigs for drugs or drug money while living in his car or couch surfing. Whenever possible, he scored gigs with touring bands because he knew he’d at least have a hotel room.
Russ drifted along like this for years until he had a moment of clarity in 1991.
“When I was at my lowest I started reading the Bible and remembered going to church, and the songs like ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ John 3:16,” Russ said. “Those things came back. It just opened up my eyes and I said, ‘God, you gave me this gift of music and I want to use it for you, I want to do something good out there.’”
Since that revelation, music has been Herbie’s job but helping others has been his mission.
He began by donating tip money from gigs to shelters around Detroit, a sum that now totals well into five figures. In 2016 he began working with noted comedian and video prankster Tom Mabe on a series of videos starring Russ as Homeless Herbie. In them, Russ poses as a beggar who then shocks people with his powerful singing.
The first video, in which they raised $640 and bought food and supplies for Detroit street people, went viral and was seen by a production assistant for “America’s Got Talent.” That led Russ to the 2017 season of “AGT,” where he made it to the judges round before getting cut. Facebook views of the Homeless Herbie videos are nearing 100 million, and one featuring him singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” went uber-viral with 78 million views.
“I had never thought about doing something like ‘America’s Got Talent’ and didn’t have the desire to be in a contest,” Russ said. “I didn’t like contests, but Tom encouraged me and I struggled with it at first, I really did.
“And then I woke up one day and I was crying, just tears and sadness. What am I gonna do? What song am I gonna sing? I was so self-absorbed and then I had a peace come over me and in my heart I heard a voice that said, ‘You’re not gonna do the show for you, you gonna do it to inspire other people.’”
With the increased exposure from “America’s Got Talent” and the continuing success of the Homeless Herbie videos, Russ performs around the country and is able to do more good than ever. He takes nothing for granted because he still remembers the dark days when his life had lost direction and music had lost its meaning.
“When I didn’t think about myself and I thought about others the joy of the Lord came back and the joy of playing music came back,” Russ recalled. “It didn’t matter if there was two people out there or 50 people out there I had a smile on my face.
“I stay thankful and play music for folks. That is the joy, and that’s the joy that still keeps me going.”