Obituary: Ruby Johnson

LONG BEFORE lending his deep, smooth tones to South Park's Chef and creating the Oscar-nominated soundtrack for the Blaxploitation classic film Shaft (1971), Isaac Hayes was keyboard player and staff musician at the legendary Stax studios in Memphis, Tennessee.

From backing singer, Hayes soon graduated to composing with David Porter. Under their direction, the vocalist Ruby Johnson cut several timeless sides. Released on the Volt label, a subsidiary of Stax, "I'll Run Your Hurt Away", "Come To Me My Darling" and "If I Ever Needed Love (I Sure Do Need It Now)" attracted a cult following in various parts of the United States. In 1991, UK soul aficionados rediscovered them with the issue of the Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968. So strong was the interest in Ruby Johnson from collectors that these tracks and various Stax session out-takes were issued on CD by Ace Records in 1993.

Born in 1936 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Ruby Johnson had a rather unusual childhood for an African-American. She was raised in the Jewish faith her great-great-grandparents had adopted. "It wasn't very well known among black people at that time but that was my teaching," she told the archivist Lee Hildebrand. "We observe the Passover and all the other High Holy Days. We try to be as conservative in our dress as we possibly can. We have a special uniform that all our members wear into the temple. It's something to behold." Surrounded by her parents and eight brothers and sisters, Johnson sang a cappella in the Temple Beth-El choir. "I always aspired to be a professional singer, even as a child," she recalled.

Having finished her high-school studies, Johnson moved to Virginia Beach, a popular resort, where she worked as a waitress. She worked up the courage to get up on stage and sing rhythm 'n' blues standards with the house band. This secured her a gig with Samuel Latham and the Rhythm Makers. After two years with the group, she relocated to Washington DC and joined Ambrose and the Showstoppers, the house band at the Spa nightclub. "I was sorta like an extra, a starter, a show opener," she said.

Amazed by her contralto vocal style, the local entrepreneur Never Duncan Jnr became Johnson's manager and hooked her up with Dicky Williams, a musician and producer she knew from her days at Virginia Beach. In 1960, Ruby Johnson cut her debut single, "Calling All Boys", for the Philadelphia-based V-Tone label. Subsequently, her manager launched NEBS Records and issued a succession of Johnson 45s ("Here I Go Again", "Worried Mind", "Nobody Cares") which the disc-jockey Al Bell turned into regional hits on the Washington DC station WLOK.

When Bell got a job at Stax in 1965, he made sure Ruby Johnson got a chance to record for the Memphis label. "I was very excited, very nervous, because that was my first attempt to record on that level," she said. The budget was certainly bigger, as Johnson found herself backed not only by Isaac Hayes but also by the guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Duck Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jnr (the MGs without the organist Booker T. Jones). Material ran the gamut from covers of the rhythm 'n' blues hits of the day to new Hayes-Porter compositions. "They would give me those songs on a piece of paper and say: here's the lyric. We would sort of run over them to let me get familiar with the words, and then we'd say: let's do a take. We were in there for hours sometimes," Johnson said.

Considering her relative inexperience in a major studio, Ruby Johnson really put her emotions into the songs, and sometimes let it rip to scream and send shivers down the spine of any self-respecting Southern soul fan. "I think a lot of that came from actually being on the hoarse side at that particular time. I didn't get to go to Stax often, and when I did get down there to record, we worked hard. We were in the studio all day and half the night," she remembered. "Sometimes the change of climate had an effect on me. I'd get a post-nasal drip or something like that and it would cause me to have a little scratchiness in my voice. It became my trademark."

Unfortunately, although the torch ballad "I'll Run Your Hurt Away" made the R&B charts in late 1966, Hayes and Porter never quite wrote the hit song to match Johnson's supreme, tearful delivery and propel her into the limelight. Indeed, a lot of Johnson's Stax sessions remained in the vaults until 1993. Never Duncan Jnr organised a few more recordings ("I Can't Do It" was issued by the Capacity label in 1968) but, after a few more years singing in nightclubs, Ruby Johnson quit the music business in 1974.

She got a government job and eventually became the director of Foster Grandparents, a federal programme helping handicapped children relate to older generations. Ruby Johnson still worshipped and sang at Temple Beth-El near her home in Lanham, Maryland, twice a week. Her new-found cult status in the Nineties puzzled her slightly but she did admit to missing the old days at Stax and on stage. "Every time I see some of those big shows, I long for it sometimes, I really do. I enjoyed what I was doing."

Ruby Johnson, singer and civil servant: born Elizabeth City, North Carolina 19 April 1936; died Lanham, Maryland 4 July 1999.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions