Ruth Brown’s second meteoric rise to stardom got underway in the mid-1980s and as yet shows no signs of waning. The original queen of rhythm ‘n’ blues has been racking up a steady stream of accolades (including a Tony and a Grammy) for her work in film, television, and the Broadway stage as well as her more traditional bastion of records and nightclubs.
Born Ruth Weston on January 12, 1928 in Portsmouth, Virginia, the oldest of seven children, she began singing at the local Emmanuel AME church, where her father was the choir director. Initially inspired to sing jazz by Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington. and Sarah Vaughan, she ran away from home, much to her father’s dismay, in 1945 to go on the road with singer-trumpeter Jimmy Brown. They were soon married.
Brown was singing at the Frolic Show Bar in Detroit late in 1946 when she was spotted by big band leader Lucky Millinder. Although he already had two vocalists in his orchestra, Annisteen Allen and Bullmoose Jackson, he added Brown to his aggregation but fired her a month later for having fetched some drinks for musicians in the band during an engagement. As an afterthought, she recalls, he told her she couldn’t sing.
Stranded in D.C., she landed a gig at the Crystal Caverns, a club operated by Cab Calloway’s sister Blanche, in order to raise enough money for bus fare back to Portsmouth. Patrons, however, were taken with her unique blue note-dripping delivery of ballads, and she stayed on, Miss Calloway becoming her manager. One night, Duke Ellington and deejay Willis Conover came into the club. Impressed by what he heard, Conover called two friends in New York, Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun, who were in the process of launching a new label called Atlantic.
En route to New York for her Atlantic audition, as well as a debut at the Apollo Theater, Brown and Calloway were seriously injured in an auto accident. Her leg mangled (it still aches from time to time), Brown was hospitalized for nine months. Finally, on May 25, 1949, she stood on crutches to record "So Long,” an old Russ Morgan ballad, for Atlantic, backed by an all-star jazz band assembled by guitarist Eddie Condon. An immediate sensation, eventually going to number six on Billboard’s new r&b chart, "So Long” became the company’s second major hit, after Stick McGhee’s "Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” and established Brown as a national star.
More blues-tinged ballad hits followed, but it was 1950's "Teardrops from My Eyes,” an uptempo blues by Atlantic housewriter Rudy Toombs, that set Brown’s course for the remainder of the decade and the very course of the music that would soon be named rock ‘n’ roll. It was the first fast number that Brown recorded and, during the session, her voice cracked to produce a squeal-like sound. Co-producer Abramson liked what he heard, calling it a "tear,” and it became Brown’s trademark. "Teardrops” skyrocketed to number one, and later that year, pop song belter Frankie Laine, then known as "Mr. Rhythm,” dubbed her "Miss Rhythm” during an engagement in Philadelphia. More number ones followed—"5-10-15 Hours,” "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” "Oh What a Dream,” and "Mambo Baby”—making Brown the top-selling black female recording artist in between 1951 and 1954.
Brown’s success continued in the rock ‘n’ roll era with such hits as "Lucky Lips” in 1957 and "I Didn’t Know” in 1959, and she appeared on all-star package shows produced by deejay Alan Freed. During the Sixties, she maintained a lower profile, returning to ballads and jazz, performing on the Playboy Club circuit, and even retiring for a period to raise her two sons, Ronald and Earl.
Brown left New York for Los Angeles in 1976 to play the role of Mahalia Jackson in Selma, a civil rights musical produced by Redd Foxx. From there, she moved to Las Vegas, where she sang at Circus Circus and acted in local theater productions. Television producer Norman Lear spotted her in one of those and, impressed by her natural comedic timing, cast her as Leona in the popular sitcom Hello, Larry. More acting roles followed, including parts in the series Checkin’ In (with Marla Gibbs) and the motion picture Under the Rainbow (with Chevy Chase).
Since moving back to New York in 1982, Brown has continued singing and has acted in such off-Broadway productions as Amen Corner, Champeen, and Stagger Lee. In 1985, she appeared in Paris for eight months as part of the cast of Black and Blue, and played her first major role in a motion picture, as zany sock-hop emcee Motormouth Mabel, in Hairspray, John Waters’s rock ‘n’ roll comedy. She was featured on Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary television special as well as a documentary, That Rhythm, Those Blues, that aired on PBS after being screened at several major film festivals.
The 1988 release of Have a Good Time, Ruth’s first album for Fantasy, heralded her return to recording after a six-year hiatus. In January ‘89 she made her Broadway debut in Black and Blue, in an all-star cast that included vocalists Linda Hopkins and Carrie Smith. By June she had become the proud recipient of a Tony Award for "Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical” and an Outer Critics Circle Award in the same category. Her second Fantasy album, Blues on Broadway, was released in September of that year and earned her a Grammy for "Best Female Jazz Vocalist.”
On Fine and Mellow, Ruth delved into a repertoire ranging from early r&b hits and swing era standards to pop tunes and classic blues, while on her newest Fantasy release, The Songs of My Life, Ruth selected songs that, as producer Rodney Jones noted, represented "her life in music . . .”—a life that takes in "Stormy Weather” and "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” as well as Rodney Jones’s title composition and Eric Clapton’s "Tears in Heaven.”
Ruth is adamant about the preservation of her music and the recognition of its masters. "I don’t know what it is that makes us want to let this great music die, and that’s what’s gonna happen eventually, but not as long as I can holler and scream about it, anyway.” As long as Ruth Brown continues to make records like The Songs of My Life, the future of her music is secure.