Russell wrote pulp fiction in the 1930s. His heroes were Dashiell Hammett and, especially, Raymond Chandler, on whom he wrote an unfinished study. He also worked as a reporter, at one point writing on Luis Russell while on tour. He was in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II. He served in the North Atlantic and was shipwrecked on Nova Zemlaya far above the Arctic Circle. His accounts of this episode appeared in Life Magazine and two other periodicals. Later, he had long duty in the South Pacific. After the War he set up his own record store, the Tempo Music Shop, in Hollywood. 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, Wardell Gray and Earl Coleman. Russell saved all of the alternate takes he did, which made vault releases of his material particularly rich for jazz aficionados. Dial also was the first record company in the US to record the music of Arnold Schoenberg and other modern European masters. He shut Dial down in 1949 and spent several years away from jazz music as owner of a golf course and other pursuits.
Russell's jazz novel The Sound, a book inspired by Parker's life' came out in 1961. 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. His large collection of records, books, periodicals, manuscripts, correspondence, interviews, and other materials was sold to the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin in 1981. After retirement he lived variously in the California desert, South Africa, Spain, and Niland, California, on the Salton Sea. He was writing another book on bebop at the time of his death in 2000. He was married five times and left four children.