[JPL] Ruth Brown - R.I.P.

JazzCorner at aol.com JazzCorner at aol.com
Sat Nov 18 01:14:28 EST 2006

Ruth Brown, R&B Singer and Actress, Dies at 78 


Ruth Brown, the gutsy rhythm-and-blues singer whose career extended to acting 
and crusading for musicians’ rights, died on Friday in Las Vegas. She was 78 
and lived in Las Vegas.

The cause was complications following a heart attack and stroke she suffered 
after surgery, and Ms. Brown had been on life support since Oct. 29, said her 
friend, lawyer and executor, Howell Begle.

“She was one of the original divas,” said the singer Bonnie Raitt, who 
worked with Ms. Brown and Mr. Begle to improve royalties for rhythm-and-blues 
performers. “I can’t really say that I’ve heard anyone that sounds like Ruth, 
before or after. She was a combination of sass and innocence, and she was 
extremely funky. She could really put it right on the beat, and the tone of her voice 
was just mighty. And she had a great heart.

“What I loved about her,” Ms. Raitt added, “was her combination of 
vulnerability and resilience and fighting spirit. It was not arrogance, but she was 
just really not going to lay down and roll over for anyone.”

Ms. Brown sustained a career for six decades: first as a bright, bluesy 
singer who was called “the girl with a tear in her voice” and then, after some 
lean years, as the embodiment of an earthy, indomitable black woman. She had a 
life of hard work, hard luck, determination, audacity and style. Sometimes it 
was said that R & B stood for Ruth Brown as much as for rhythm-and-blues.

As the 1950s began, Ms. Brown’s singles for the fledgling Atlantic Records — 
like “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and “5-10-15 Hours” — became 
both the label’s bankroll and templates for rock ‘n’ roll. She could sound as if 
she were hurting, or joyfully lusty, or both at once. Her voice was 
forthright, feisty and ready for anything.

After Ms. Brown’s string of hits ended, she kept singing but also went on to 
a career in television, radio and movies — including a memorable role as the 
disc jockey Motormouth Maybelle in John Waters’s “Hairspray” — and on 
Broadway, where she won a Tony Award for her part in “Black and Blue.” She worked 
clubs, concerts and festivals into the 21st century. “Whatever I have to say, I 
get it said,” she told an interviewer in 1995. “Like the old spirituals say, ‘
I’ve gone too far to turn me ‘round now.’ "

Ms. Brown was born Ruth Weston on Jan. 12, 1928, in Portsmouth, Va., the 
oldest of seven children. She made her vocal debut when she was 4, and her father, 
the choir director at the local Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 
lifted her onto the church piano. In summers, she and her siblings picked 
cotton at her grandmother’s farm in North Carolina. “That made me the strong 
woman I am,” she said in 1995.

As a teenager, she would tell her family she was going to choir practice and 
perform instead at U.S.O. clubs at nearby naval stations. She ran away from 
home at 17, working with a trumpeter named Jimmy Brown and using his last name 
onstage. She married him, or thought she did; he was already married. But she 
was making a reputation as Ruth Brown, and the name stuck.

The big-band leader Lucky Millinder heard her in Detroit late in 1946, hired 
her for his band and fired her in Washington. Stranded, she managed to find a 
club engagement at the Crystal Caverns. There, the disc jockey Willis Conover, 
who broadcast jazz internationally on Voice of America radio, heard Ms. Brown 
and recommended her to friends at Atlantic Records. 
On the way to New York City, however, she was seriously injured in an 
automobile accident and hospitalized for most of a year; her smashed legs would be 
painful for the rest of her life. She stood on crutches in 1949 to record her 
first session for Atlantic, and the bluesy ballad “So Long” became a hit.

She wanted to keep singing ballads, but Atlantic pushed her to try upbeat 
songs, and she tore into them. During the sessions for “Teardrops From My Eyes,” 
her voice cracked upward to a squeal. Herb Abramson of Atlantic Records liked 
it, called it a “tear,” and after ”Teardrops From My Eyes” reached No. 1 on 
the rhythm-and-blues chart, the sound became her trademark for a string of 

“If I was getting ready to go and record and I had a bad throat, they’d say, 
‘Good!’,” she once recalled.

Ms. Brown was the best-selling black female performer of the early 1950s, 
even though, in that segregated era, many of her songs were picked up and redone 
by white singers, like Patti Page and Georgia Gibbs, in tamer versions that 
became pop hits. The pop singer Frankie Laine gave her a lasting nickname: Miss 

Working the rhythm-and-blues circuit in the 1950s, when dozens of her singles 
reached the R and B Top 10, Ms. Brown drove a Cadillac and had romances with 
stars like the saxophonist Willis (Gator Tail) Jackson and the singer Clyde 
McPhatter of the Drifters. (Her first son, Ronald, was given the last name 
Jackson; decades later, she told him he was actually Mr. McPhatter’s son, and he 
now sings with a latter-day lineup of the Drifters.) 
In 1955, Ms. Brown married Earl Swanson, a saxophonist, and had a second son, 
Earl; the marriage ended in divorce. Her two sons survive her: Mr. Jackson in 
Los Angeles, who has three children, and Mr. Swanson in Las Vegas. She is 
also survived by four siblings: Delia Weston in Las Vegas, Leonard Weston in Long 
Island, and Alvin and Benjamin Weston in Portsmouth, Va.

Her streak of hits ended soon after the 1960s began. She lived on Long 
Island, raised her sons, worked as a teacher’s aide and a maid, and was married for 
three years to a police officer, Bill Blunt. On weekends, she sang club dates 
in the New York area, and she recorded an album in 1968 with the Thad 
Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. Although her hits had launched Atlantic Records — sometimes 
called the House that Ruth Built —she was unable at one point to afford a home 

The comedian Redd Foxx, whom she had once helped out of a financial jam, 
brought her to Los Angeles in 1976 to play Mahalia Jackson in “Selma,” a musical 
about civil rights he was producing. She moved on to sing in Las Vegas and 
continued a comeback that never ended. The television producer Norman Lear gave 
her a role in the sitcom “Hello, Larry.” She returned to New York City in 
1982, appearing in Off Broadway productions including “Stagger Lee,” and in 1985, 
she went to Paris to perform in the revue “Black and Blue,” rejoining it 
later for its Broadway run.

Ms. Brown began to speak out, onstage and in interviews, about the 
exploitative contracts musicians of her generation had signed. Many hit-making musicians 
had not recouped debts to their labels, according to record-company 
accounting, and so were not receiving royalties at all. Shortly before Atlantic Records 
held a 40th-birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1988, the label 
agreed to waive unrecouped debts for Ms. Brown and 35 other musicians of her era 
and to pay 20 years of retroactive royalties.

Atlantic also contributed nearly $2 million to start the Rhythm and Blues 
Foundation, which pushed other labels toward royalty reform and distributed 
millions of dollars directly to musicians in need, although it has struggled to 
sustain itself in recent years.

“Black and Blue” revitalized Ms. Brown’s recording career, on labels 
including Fantasy and Bullseye Blues. Her 1989 album “Blues on Broadway” won a 
Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female. She was a radio host on the 
public-radio shows “Harlem Hit Parade” and “BluesStage.” In 1995, she 
released her autobiography, “Miss Rhythm” (Dutton), written with Andrew Yule; it won 
the Gleason Award for music journalism. She was inducted into the Rock and 
Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

She toured steadily, working concert halls, festivals and cabarets. This 
year, she recorded songs for the coming movie by John Sayles, “Honeydripper,” and 
was about to fly to Alabama to act in it when she became ill.

She never learned to read music. “In school, we had music classes, but I 
ducked them,” she said in 1995. “They were just a little too slow. I didn’t want 
to learn to read no note. I knew I could sing it. I woke up one morning and I 
could sing.”


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