Born Ruth Alton Weston, 12 January 1928, Portsmouth,Virginia
Nicknamed Miss Rhythm, Ruth Brown was one of the most important and influential R&B artists of the 1950s, with a rich, expressive singing voice and a personality to match. She started her musical career singing gospel at an early age in the church choir led by her father. Ruth Weston became Ruth Brown when she ran away from her Portsmouth home and married singer/trumpeter Jimmy Earle Brown in 1945. (The first of four marriages ; the next two were both with tenor saxophonists, Willis 'Gator Tail' Jackson and Earl Swanson).
After being fired from Lucky Millinder's band, she was taken in hand by Blanche Calloway (Cab's sister), who became her manager. Both women were seriously hurt in a car crash en route from Washington D.C. to New York City in October 1948. Ruth was hospitalized for seven months. In her hospital bed she signed a contract with Atlantic Records on January 12, 1949 ; the company, then still struggling to keep its head above water, paid her medical bills. Still on crutches, she did her first session on May 25, 1949. This resulted in her first hit (and Atlantic's second), "So Long" (# 6 R&B), but her next five singles went nowhere. Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic's owners/producers, didn't know what to do with her versatility. Ruth herself preferred to sing torch ballads and had her own thoughts about the material that Abramson and Ertegun selected for her. Arranger Jesse Stone : "She was kind of temperamental - not as difficult as Joe Turner, but some songs she didn't like and didn't want to do". It was songwriter Rudolph Toombs who broke her dry spell by writing "Teardrops From My Eyes" just for her. This splendid record topped the R&B charts for eleven weeks in late 1950/early 1951 and this success convinced Brown to change her style in favour of what disc jockeys and the public wanted to hear. Over the following years Ruth would score four more number ones : "5-10-15 Hours" (1952), "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" (1953), "Oh What A Dream" and "Mambo Baby" (both 1954). These last two were covered by Patti Page and Georgia Gibbs respectively for the white market. Radio airplay was still strictly segregated then ; until 1955 it was virtually impossible for Atlantic, with its roster of black artists, to get their records played on white stations, though the label was run by Caucasians.
Brown's first crossover hit was "Lucky Lips" in 1957 (written by Leiber and Stoller and in 1963 a # 4 UK hit for Cliff Richard), which peaked at # 25 pop and # 6 R&B. During her 12-year stay with Atlantic, she notched up a total of 24 R&B hits (only three of them not going Top 10) and five pop hits, the biggest being the Bobby Darin-penned "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'" (# 24, 1958). She was Atlantic's first real star and the company is sometimes referred to as "the house that Ruth built". Along with several others, she bridged the gap between early R&B and rock 'n' roll. None other than Little Richard has acknowledged her as an influence. "This thing you hear me do - 'Lucille-uh', I got that from Ruth Brown. I liked the way she'd sing 'Mama-uh, he treats your daughter mean".
Her switch to the Philips label in 1961 resulted in at least one good LP, "Along Comes Ruth" (1962). The years from 1962 to circa 1975 were a lean period for Ruth, both musically and financially. Living on Long Island, she spent most of the 1960s raising her two sons (Ronnie and Earl) alone and earning a living as a house cleaner, a school bus driver and a teacher for the mentally retarded. Fortunately, she was rediscovered in the mid-seventies. She started recording again, broadening her range as an artist by recording songs that were more jazz- and blues-oriented. She also resurfaced as a successful actress, appearing in various TV series (Sanford and Son, Hello Larry, Checking In) and in John Waters's 1950s styled spoof movie "Hairspray" (1988), where Ruth played the part of Motormouth Maybelle, a feisty deejay, complete with blonde wig. In 1989 she won a prestigeous Tony Award for her Broadway role in "Black and Blue", an all-black musical revue of Cotton Club days, soon followed by a Grammy for her album "Blues On Broadway" in 1990. Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took place in 1993. The next year she undertook a tour of Europe, taking time out to record an album called "Live In London" at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, issued on Scott's own Jazz House label.
Rightly hailed as a post-war pioneer of R&B music, Brown is also recognized as a leading advocate of performer rights. With the help of lawyer Howell Begle and others, she fought a 22-year legal battle (1966-88) with Atlantic Records over backward royalties, which she won in the end, resulting in the formation of the non-profit Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Not only Ruth herself benefited from this action, also The Coasters, The Drifters, The Clovers and the estates of Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Willis and Ivory Joe Hunter. Unfortunately, Atlantic's final settlement came too late for Big Joe Turner, who had to keep working till the end of his life (1985).
Ruth Brown died in November 2006 after a stroke and a heart attack, aged 78.
More info : http://www.rockabilly.nl/artists/ruthbrown.htm
Discography (singles only) : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/rbrown.htm
CD recommendations :
Book : Ruth Brown with Andrew Yule, Miss Rhythm : the autobiography of Ruth Brown, rhythm and blues legend. New York : Dutton, 1996 (hardcover).
Acknowledgements : The main source for this piece was Ruth's autobiography. Further thanks to Chip Deffaa, Stuart Colman (NDT 286) and Bill Dahl (All Music Guide).
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