Ruth Brown

The 'original queen of rhythm'n'blues' who made a surprise comeback and campaigned for royalty reform


Ruth Alston Weston, singer and actress: born Portsmouth, Virginia 12 January 1928; married first Jimmy Brown (marriage disallowed; one son with Clyde McPhatter), second Earl Swanson (one son; marriage dissolved), third Bill Blunt (marriage dissolved); died Henderson, Nevada 17 November 2006.

The highs and lows of the American singer Ruth Brown's life merit a biopic. Dubbed the "original queen of rhythm'n'blues", she recorded hit songs like "Teardrops from My Eyes", "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean", "Lucky Lips" and "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin' ", and became the first big-selling artist on Atlantic Records in the 1950s.

Indeed, for a while, such was her success in the rhythm'n'blues charts that the label, which had been founded in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson and would eventually sign Ray Charles, the Drifters, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, became known as "the house that Ruth built".

When white rock'n'rollers began eclipsing black rhythm'n'blues performers and took a watered-down version of their gutsy, gritty blend of gospel, jazz and blues into the mainstream, Brown disappeared from view; throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, she did odd jobs to make ends meet and raised two sons on her own. She came back in the mid-Seventies, appearing on television and on Broadway, memorably portraying Motormouth Mabel in Hairspray, the John Waters teen-movie satire and won a Tony for her appearances in the musical Black and Blue and a Grammy for the album Blues on Broadway.

Brown was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and three years later published her autobiography, Miss Rhythm, after the nickname given to her by Frankie Laine. In the Eighties, she campaigned tirelessly for better accounting from record companies and eventually secured retroactive royalty payments for herself and a host of other artists. Given the influence she had had on everyone from Little Richard to Bonnie Raitt via Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, it was only fitting she should finally get her dues.

Born Ruth Weston in 1928, she was the eldest of seven children and first sang under the tutelage of her father, who worked on the docks but was also choir director in their local church in Portsmouth, Virginia. "I was always singing. That's all I ever done. It's my gift," she said:

I never thought that music would be my livelihood. I used to dump music class and I never learned to read music . . . I was a little rebel. When my daddy didn't know, I would sneak out and sing the so-called devil's music at the army bases. Then I fell in love, got married and ran away.

She later discovered that her "husband" the trumpeter Jimmy Brown wasn't exactly divorced but the name Ruth Brown stuck anyway.

In 1947, she had a short stint with the bandleader Lucky Millinder's orchestra until she was fired in Washington, DC, because she had taken a round of drinks to her bandmates on stage. Brown was rescued by Cab Calloway's sister Blanche, who hired her to perform at the Crystal Caverns night-club. When the Voice of America presenter Willis Conover accompanied Duke Ellington to the club, they were both impressed by Brown's performance and Conover called Ertegun to sing her praises, comparing her to Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.

Abramson came to check her out and offered her a contract. Brown was all set to appear at the Apollo in Harlem and sign with Atlantic when she was involved in a serious car crash. She spent nine months in hospital with both legs in traction and was visited by Ertegun on several occasions, with presents and a contract.

Atlantic paid her medical bills, kept their word and, in May 1949, she made her recording début on crutches with Eddie Cotton's NBC Television Orchestra backing her on the ballad "So Long". Next year, she topped the rhythm'n'blues chart with "Teardrops from My Eyes" and repeated the feat again with the million-selling "5-10-15 Hours" in 1952 and "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" in 1953.

Even then, she later admitted, Brown wasn't sure the material was right for her: "I was singing torch songs, country, standards, Bing Crosby songs, everything. "Teardrops" was the one that turned it around. Ahmet brought me the demo of "Mama". For some reason, I just wasn't impressed with it. "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" felt kind of crude. It was one of those times where Ahmet insisted that this tune was for me."

Ertegun's hunch was proved right when the single crossed over and made No 23 in the US pop charts, further establishing Brown as Atlantic's best-selling artist in the Fifties era. She topped the R& B charts again with both "Oh What a Dream" and "Mambo Baby" in 1954, had an affair and a son with Clyde McPhatter and duetted with the Drifters singer on "Love Has Joined Us Together" in 1955, and took "Lucky Lips", a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller composition (later covered by Cliff Richard), and "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin' " - written by Bobby Darin and Mann Curtis - into the Top Thirty in 1957 and 1958 respectively.

Though she paved the way for the black artists LaVern Baker and Etta James, like them Brown soon realised that white singers such as Georgia Gibbs and Patti Page could all too easily cover her repertoire for mainstream appearance. "Rhythm'n'blues was getting ready to be called rock'n'roll. It had become interesting enough; white kids were starting to pay attention to it," she explained:

And then on the scene came [the disc-jockey] Alan Freed, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis. But we already had Jackie Wilson, Bo Diddley, B.B. King. We had it all in place but it was not feasible for us as black artists to be the innovators or to be the performing acts that did this in person. Once you got rock'n'roll creeping in, the cover records got to be tremendous and we didn't get the media exposure. I never got to do The Ed Sullivan Show and I had never, ever, been on The Tonight Show, until September 1990!

Before that unlikely comeback, Brown struggled for over a decade. Having left Atlantic in 1961, she eventually stopped performing altogether. She drove a school bus, she washed dishes, she worked as a domestic, a cleaner, a cook and a teacher's assistant and she suffered at the hands of her third husband, a policeman. "I could pick a good song but I sure couldn't pick a man," she said.

Brown returned to show business in the mid-Seventies when the comedian Redd Foxx asked her to play Mahalia Jackson in the civil rights musical Selma. She went on to roles in the Hello, Larry sitcom and Little House on the Prairie. In the mid-Eighties, she began working with the New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint on a musical called Staggerlee and appeared in another show called Black and Blue, taking the production to Paris. She became a broadcaster too, presenting Harlem Hit Parade and Blues Stage on National Public Radio.

The cult director John Waters asked her in 1988 to portray Motormouth Mabel, the DJ and owner of a record store, in Hairspray, a satire on the teen movies of the early Sixties. However, she was unsure about the more outrageous side of the character. "I didn't want to wear a blonde wig and the crazy costumes that Motormouth Mabel wore," she recalled: " I felt kind of stereotyped. John had to convince me. He and Divine sat me down and said: "That's not Ruth Brown out there, that's Motormouth Mabel." That role was very possibly one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me because I really got a whole new audience of young people."

In 1989, she triumphed in Black and Blue when the musical transferred to Broadway and she won a Tony as well as a Grammy for the Blues on Broadway album.

However, she won her most personal battle after questioning the way royalties from her Fifties recordings for Atlantic had been accounted for. With the help of a lawyer, Howell Begle, Brown eventually recovered some of the royalties she was entitled to and also convinced Ahmet Ertegun to give $2m to help her set up the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in the late Eighties.

"We have paid a price to sing this music," said Brown: "As a young woman, I didn't sense what the lyrics really meant. I sing now because I know what I'm talking about. I was a singer in the beginning, but I'm a soul singer now. Meaning I sing from the soul."

Pierre Perrone

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