Ruth Brown - Biography
Ruth Brown was signed to Atlantic Records when they were a new independent label. Her run of R&B hits, from “So Long” in 1949 to “Don’t Deceive Me” in 1960, cemented the reputation of both Brown and Atlantic. In fact, in the 1950s, many people called Atlantic “the house that Ruth built.” Like many early African American R&B artists, she was never paid fairly for her work and by the mid-1960s, she was broke and working as a housekeeper. In the late ‘70s, she began a comeback that culminated in a Tony for her role in the musical Black and Blue and a Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy for her album Blues On Broadway (1989 Fantasy). Brown was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Ruth Alston Weston was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. She started singing as soon as she could talk and participated in the church choir at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the summer, she worked in the cotton fields and attended Lovely Hill Baptist Church where she learned to sing a cappella harmonies with other church members. Her first paying gig was singing for a neighbor’s wedding party when she was eight, with her father backing her on piano.
Brown’s family was religious, so her early singing was confined to hymns and spirituals. As a teen, she was a cheerleader at the all-black Norcum High School and discovered Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Betty Roche (who sang with Duke Ellington), as well as the country music she heard on the mostly white radio stations of the time. In the summer of 1944, when she was 16, she ventured to New York to appear at amateur night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She sang “'It Could Happen to You” and got a standing ovation, an encore, and first prize. She was afraid of what her parents might say if she accepted the prize, a weeklong engagement as an opening act for Apollo headliners, and returned to Portsmouth.
Brown began sneaking out on weekends to play USO shows and small jazz clubs. She met Jimmy Brown, a jazz trumpet player at the Big Track Diner in Norfolk, and married him. Although they were only married for a brief time, she kept his last name for the rest of her career. She played more jazz clubs and developed her phrasing and a powerful, gritty delivery. When she graduated from high school, she hit the road and eventually landed a job as a vocalist for Lucky Millender’s proto-R&B band. After a few months on the road, Brown asked Millender to pay her. He said she was already getting free travel and room and board, and he fired her on the spot. Blanche Calloway, Cab Calloway’s sister, came to the rescue and gave her a job at a nightclub called Crystal Caverns, an important black venue in Washington, DC. One night, Willis Conover of the Voice of America radio show, Duke Ellington, and Sonny Till and The Orioles caught her act. Conover called Ahment Ertegun, who was just starting Atlantic Records, and told him to come down and hear Brown. When other labels heard that Atlantic was interested in Brown, they started negotiating with Blanche Calloway (who had become Brown’s manager), but Atlantic won out. Calloway got Brown a week-long opening slot for Dizzy Gillespie at the Apollo so she could have some money while she was in New York making her first records. On the way to New York, Brown was in an automobile accident. Ahment Ertegun came to the hospital and signed her to Atlantic.
Brown was on crutches when she recorded her first single, “So Long.” The song hit number four on the R&B charts and was Atlantic's second hit. Brown immediately became a headliner and, between 1949 and 1961, she cut almost 100 songs for Atlantic including the number one R&B hits “Teardrops From My Eyes” in 1950, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” in 1953, and “Mambo Baby” in 1954. Her albums for the label include 1949’s So Long, 1953’s Sweet Baby of Mine, 1955’s Rockin’ with Ruth, 1956’s Ruth Brown, and 1959’s jazzy, late night R&B session Late Date with Ruth Brown and Miss Rhythm. She got $69.00, an advance against royalties, for every song she cut, but after musician’s wages and studio time were deducted, Atlantic claimed her records didn’t make and money (even through they gave her a Gold Record Award for selling five million singles between 1949 and 1955).
When Atlantic started putting their promotional muscle behind Ray Charles, Brown left the label. She made a few albums including Along Comes Ruth (1962 Philips), Ruth Brown '65 (1964 Mainstream), and performed occasional dates but mostly stayed home to raise her sons. During this time, she worked as a housecleaner and sang jazz standards at high schools and colleges with a band called the International Art of Jazz.
In 1973 she met organ player Bobby Forrester, who became her musical director. They rehearsed in the studio George Benson had built in his Bronx basement. In 1975, she went to a Redd Foxx / Billy Eckstine concert. Foxx promised her work and called her a few weeks later. Foxx was appearing in Selma, a musical based on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and he had the role of Mahalia Jackson written into the script for Brown. She moved to Los Angeles to take the part, then continued on to Las Vegas to play General Cartwright in an all-black production of Guys and Dolls. She played the casinos on her nights off.
By the late ‘70s, Brown was playing clubs again to rave reviews but couldn’t find a record label. She appeared in a dramatic role in a 1983 production of James Baldwin's The Amen Comer, and a singing role in John Waters’ film Hairspray in 1988. She also hosted the NPR show Harlem Hit Parade for which she played records and interviewed early R&B pioneers. She later joined a class action suit against Atlantic for back royalties. Without admitting any wrongdoing, Atlantic finally starting sending her checks, the first for $21,000. That Rhythm, Those Blues, a PBS documentary featuring Brown, helped her regain headline billing at the country’s top clubs. She signed on to star in Black and Blue on Broadway, and Fantasy Records produced her next album, Have a Good Time (1988), which is a smoking set recorded live at the Hollywood Roosevelt. The 1988 album got rave reviews and many claimed her voice had become more powerful than it had been in her youth. During rehearsals for Black and Blue, Brown suffered a heart attack; but when the show opened in January of 1989, she put on a showstopping performance with her rendition of “If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' on It.” She won a Tony for Best Performance as a Leading Actress.
Her Grammy-winning 1989 album Blues on Broadway (1989 Fantasy), a set of blues hits from the 1920s including “Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out,” was a critical triumph, as was her turn on the Black and Blue Original Cast Album (1989 DRG). NPR signed her to host Blues Stage, which was taped live at clubs all over America. Although she was still suffering from the effects of her heart attack, she maintained an impressive touring schedule and a weekly Monday gig at the Lonestar Roadhouse in New York City.
In the ‘90s, Brown toured with Bonnie Raitt and recorded Brown, Black & Beautiful (1990 Ichiban), a collection of tunes from the ‘40s and ‘50s called Fine and Mellow (1991 Fantasy), and the vocal tour de force Songs of My Life (1993 Fantasy). She also wrote her autobiography, Miss Rhythm, which won the Gleason Award for music journalism in 1996.
Rounder’s Bullseye Blues logo released R+B = Ruth Brown in 1997, which pairs Brown with a band of New Orleans heavies as well as Bonnie Raitt who duets on “Outskirts of Town.” In 1999, Bullseye released Good Day for the Blues, another powerful collection of torchy blues tunes. Brown had never fully recovered from her 1989 heart attack and spent much of her later life in a wheelchair, only standing when she performed. In 2006, she had another stroke- and died. Rockin' in Rhythm: The Best of Ruth Brown (1996 Atlantic) and the two-disc, 30 track set Definitive Soul (2007 Rhino) give you the best of her early R&B recordings.