Ruth Brown: 01/30/1928 to 11/17/2006
“When Atlantic first recorded me, you know, I did ballads like ‘So Long’ and stuff from Broadway shows; Ethel Waters stuff, too. But one day I looked around and I had a tune with the tempo changed. And that they called rhythm & blues.”
So the woman dubbed “Miss Rhythm,” the singer whose smash hit records of the early 1950s kicked opened the door for rock ‘n’ roll, recalled in our conversation of February 2003.
Ruth Weston Brown had then been fighting the damaging effects of a stroke for three years, and had just, with the tenacity and gleeful gall she’d brought to lyrics and to life, regained her ability to speak at all, then to sing again. How well she could now belt it out is documented in the film version of the Radio City blues show she’d taken part in just days before, the Martin Scorsese-produced Lightning In A Bottle. Brown died of a heart attack and stroke on November 17; she was 78.
In memory, though, and in the history of American music, this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will always be that hot and feisty young woman who let loose “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean”, “Teardrops In My Eyes”, “5-50-15 Hours” and “Wild, Wild Young Men”, performances that transformed expectations of what women were able to say, how grittily they might be singing — and what they could take up the charts. When the Atlantic Records that would later give us Ray Charles and Aretha and even Led Zeppelin was in its infancy, Ruth Brown kept it afloat.
With her style out of favor in the late ’60s and memories too short, she could have been found, if anyone had been looking, working on Long Island as a housemaid. That personal affront and career dip no more set her back than had her starting point, as daughter of a Methodist choir director in Virginia, one of seven children who needed to spend their summers picking cotton.
A second generation of fans came to know Brown on her comeback go-round beginning in the late ’70s. She played the DJ “Motormouth Maybelle” in John Waters’ Hairspray, authoritatively hosted the National Public Radio music broadcasts “Harlem Hit Parade” and “Blues Stage”, and won a Tony for her role in the Broadway musical Black And Blue. Her colorful, detailed Gleason Award-winning autobiography, Miss Rhythm, was published in 1996 and remains in print.
Brown’s comeback led to a steady stream, once again, of concert and club dates — and her fight to make it better for the many R&B artists of the ’40s and ’50s who’d been exploited by record labels small and large. Atlantic would pay back royalties to almost 40 acts as a direct result of her efforts.
“This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin”, “I Wanna Do More”, “I’ll Get Along Somehow” and “I’ll Come Back Someday” were among her hit titles, and they tell a lot of the Ruth Brown story.
Let’s add one more now, from a hit of 1951: “Shine On”.