[JPL] Ruth Brown, 78, a Queen of R&B, Dies...NYTimes 11/18/06
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Nov 20 12:52:25 EST 2006
November 18, 2006
Ruth Brown, 78, a Queen of R&B, Dies
By JON PARELES
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 a 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 cant really say that Ive 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
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 as much for Ruth Brown as it did
for rhythm and blues.
As the 1950s began, Ms. Browns singles for the
fledgling Atlantic Records like (Mama) He Treats
Your Daughter Mean and 5-10-15 Hours became both
the labels bankroll and templates for all of 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. Browns 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 Waterss
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 said in
an interview with The New York Times in 1995. Like
the old spirituals say, Ive gone too far to turn me
Ms. Brown was born Ruth Weston on Jan. 12, 1928, in
Portsmouth, Va., the oldest of seven children. She
made her 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
grandmothers 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, D.C. . 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
On the way to New York City, however, she was
seriously injured in an automobile accident and
hospitalized for most of a year; her legs, which were
smashed, 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 reached No. 1 on the
rhythm and blues chart, the sound became her trademark
for a string of hits.
If I was getting ready to go and record and I had a
bad throat, theyd 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&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. McPhatters
son, and he now sings with a latter-day lineup of the
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, who
has three children, of Los Angeles, and Mr. Swanson of
Las Vegas. She is also survived by four siblings:
Delia Weston of Las Vegas, Leonard Weston of Long
Island and Alvin and Benjamin Weston of Portsmouth.
Her streak of hits ended soon after the 1960s began.
She lived on Long Island, raised her sons, worked as a
teachers 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 supported Atlantic Records
sometimes called the House That Ruth Built she was
unable at one point to afford a home telephone.
The comedian Redd Foxx, whom she had once helped out
of a financial jam, invited her to Los Angeles in 1975
to play the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in Selma,
a musical about civil rights he was producing.
She went 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 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
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. Browns 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
Ms. Brown 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 didnt 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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