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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.