Q&A: Ruth Brown

"R&B became rock & roll when the white kids danced to it"

Ruth Brown in 1990. Credit: David Redfern/Redferns

If popular music handed out comeback awards, R&B singer Ruth Brown would have one more trophy for her mantelpiece.

After decades of obscurity, Brown –who racked up so many hits in the early Fifties for a fledgling Atlantic Records that the label was tagged the House That Ruth Built – rebounded in the Eighties. She has stared in Allen Toussaint's off Broadway musical Staggerlee, appeared as the jive-talking disc jockey Motormouth Mabel in John Waters's film Hairspray and hosted the National Public Radio series Harlem Hit Parade and BluesStage. Her current role in the Broadway play Black and Blue won her a Tony in 1989, and Brown's latest album, Blues on Broadway, earned her a Grammy Award. Her quest to recover back royalties from Atlantic led to the formation of the nonprofit Rhythm & Blues Foundation.

Born Ruth Weston in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1928 (she became Ruth Brown after a teenage marriage to trumpeter Jimmy Brown), she was an aspiring jazz singer when she came to the attention of Atlantic Records in the late Forties.

After a serious car accident sidelined her for a year, Brown recorded in 1949 the ballad "So Long," backed by a traditional jazz band led by guitarist Eddie Condon. The song hit the R&B Top Ten, the first of more than twenty of Brown's singles to make the R&B charts during the next decade. But it was "Teardrops From My Eyes," in 1950, that set the course for her career. The uptempo million-selling single – to be followed by such monster hits as "5-10-15 Hours" and "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" – established Ruth Brown as a hard-rocking R&B belter, one of the most successful and influential singers of the Fifties.

Miss Rhythm, as she was nicknamed, finally crossed over to the pop charts in 1957 with Leiber and Stoller's "Lucky Lips." That record, and its follow-up, Bobby Darin and Mann Curtis's "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'," moved her from the black tour circuit to Alan Freed's early rock & roll package shows.

Brown's career tapered off in the late Fifties, and she and Atlantic Records parted ways in 1962.

When did you notice black music starting to solidify into rhythm & blues?
I guess in '51 or '52. You started hearing it from a radio show called Randy's Record Shop, in Gallatin, Tennessee. In the East and North, the Top 100 stations weren't playing it –— it was "race music." But it was coming out of Gallatin, Tennessee, on Randy's Record Shop. What people didn't know was that Randy was a white man. [WLAC's Randy's Record Shop Show, sponsored by a local record store, was hosted by Gene Nobles.] He was the person who really started that whole thing when the turnabout came for rhythm & blues. The station was strong: You could pick it up in California and in Virginia. You could pick it up practically everywhere.

Did you notice other stations jumping on the format?
Yeah. See, at that time in every major city there was a black-oriented radio station. That was necessary. We didn't get the coverage, but in every local city there was always your favorite black DJ. I grew up listening to Jack Holmes; he was the DJ who turned my ear. He had a program called The Mail Bag. He played Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lucky Millinder, Buddy Johnson, the Charioteers, the Ink Spots. I could hardly wait for my daddy to get out of the house in the morning, so I could flip over to this station.

You began singing with Lucky Millinder's big band. How did you end up meeting Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson of Atlantic Records?
I had been fired by Lucky Millinder, and I was stranded in Washington, D.C., without the price of a ticket to get back to Virginia. But because I was in a business that my daddy didn't want me in, I couldn't call home.

So I was introduced to Blanche Calloway, Cab's sister, who was running a club in Washington called the Crystal Caverns. She gave me a job there singing, and I was supposed to work long enough to earn enough money to go back home.

One night Duke Ellington was working at the Howard Theater, and he came with Willis Conover, from the Voice of America, and Sonny Til of the Orioles. I was singing Vaughn Monroe stuff, Andrews Sisters stuff, Bing Crosby.... This is the kind of junk I was singing.

Now, Sonny Til and the Orioles had this record called "It's Too Soon to Know." And when I realized that that was Sonny Til –— ohhhh! I told the bandleader I wanted to sing "It's Too Soon to Know," and I dedicated it to him. I saw Duke Ellington's expression, and without his saying a word, I knew that he was pleased with what he was hearing.

Willis Conover was kind of fidgeting in his seat, and I thought he was being disrespectful to me. When he got up from the table and went to a pay phone, I was insulted. I thought, "That's how bad I am." But what he was doing was calling Ahmet Ertegun. Ahmet sent Herb Abramson [an original partner in Atlantic] and a fellow named Blackie Sales, who worked for him; they were the ones that heard me. By then Blanche Calloway had taught me some Ethel Waters things, and I was doing Billie Holiday's "Gloomy Sunday." I think they saw my versatility. I wasn't doing any real swinging, grooving things –— I had a taste for torch ballads. I was doing everything except what I would end up doing.

You made a verbal agreement with Abramson to record for Atlantic and were on your way to New York City to sign the contract and perform at the Apollo Theater when you were in a serious car accident.
Yes, in Chester, Pennsylvania. Atlantic Records actually signed me to a contract in the hospital bed.

Had you met Ahmet Ertegun before this?
No.

And you hadn't even recorded a demo?
Never.

And Atlantic paid for your hospitalization?
Yes. I was in the hospital for a year. I'll never forget that: On my twenty-first birthday, Ahmet came down to Chester to see me in that hospital. And he brought me a book on how to sightread, a pitch pipe and a big tablet to write on, because I had a knack for writing lyrics.

So you hadn't even recorded a note for them, and here they were treating you pretty nicely.
I loved them. I didn't know anything different to do except to love them. I felt like I was part of the family. After I got out of the hospital, Ahmet, Herb Abramson and Miriam Bienstock [Bienstock was Abramson's former wife, as well as a partner in and the comptroller for Atlantic], when they would go somewhere to eat, they would come and take me. We were like family. They took care of me.

Who else was on the label?
Stick McGhee, Tiny Grimes and Ivory Joe Hunter. Ivory Joe used to sit at the piano –— in the same room where Miriam had her desk, and cartons were stacked on one wall –— and play his material.

The kind of material you were singing in Washington was not exactly the kind of material you became known for on Atlantic.
They really didn't know what I was going to do, what kind of singer I was going to become. They knew I was a good singer, but they didn't know what to do with me. I was recording with the Delta Rhythm Boys, I was recording ballads, they even had me singing some Yiddish songs in English. They really didn't know what to do with me, and my problem was I could sing any of it.

But eventually Rudy Toombs came in with "Teardrops From My Eyes." That was the first one that really turned Ruth Brown in the direction of being an R&B singer.

In 1950, when you recorded it, did you have any idea that this was a change in direction?
I had no idea which way it was going to go, it was just one of the songs. I had come to New York, and I had been playing theaters and working with the big bands. I was working with Count Basie, Charlie Ventura –— they didn't know where the hell to put me. I opened for Oscar Peterson, I worked with Charlie Parker, I was down at the Earle Theater with Frankie Laine on his show.

"Teardrops" turned it all around.
"Teardrops" went to the top of the charts and stayed some twenty weeks up there. That song moved Atlantic up as a record company. And with that song, I started to be boxed over there, in R&B. You had Roy Brown, Charles Brown, Larry Darnell, the Dominoes, the Drifters – all of these people were sort of in that.

Rhythm & blues was becoming popular.
Rhythm & blues was a hot item, and that's when I started headlining a lot of package shows. We worked in barns and warehouses in the South.

You had three huge R&B hits in the early Fifties: "Teardrops," "5-10-15 Hours" and "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean." But I gather that it was still black radio playing them for a predominantly black audience.
Well, it couldn't basically be an all-black audience, because by that time the concerts were integrated, but separately. You had white spectators who had to be listening to the black radio stations. That's why eventually you had to get rock & roll.

Did each tour seem to attract more whites?
Yeah, yeah. And there would be promoters who had sense enough to work together; one would be white and one would be black. And the concerts would be – downstairs where the dancers were – jampacked black. Upstairs balcony, all the way around, white spectators. Then a lot of times when the building didn't allow for that —– if you had a warehouse or something like that, where there wasn't two layers – they had a dividing line on the floor. That was the rope; sometimes it was just a clothesline with a sign hung on one side to separate them. Or there would be some big, burly white cops standing on one side to make sure that the rope stayed in position, which a lot of times it didn't, because people got to go dancing, and they didn't give a damn about the rope.

Were you making a lot of money at this point?
On my one-nighters, no. But we thought we were.

How about from the records?
I wasn't getting any royalties at the time. You would go in and record singles, either two sides or four, and you'd get $69 or $70 a side, so you're talking maybe $150 for the session. I think the highest was when you got up to about $250.

And there were no royalties at all?
At that time they were charging you for everything. You paid for the studio, you paid for the musicians, you paid for the charts, you paid for all the records that were given out for PR purposes, you paid for the manuscript paper, you paid for everything. If you needed something, you could always go to the record company and get a couple of hundred bucks.

But you were making money on the road. What you thought was money. Like if I made $750 a night, that's a lot of money. Out of that $750, you had to pay for your hotel bill and everything, but my father made $35 a week on his job, with eight children. That was the danger point for many of us: to have come from an existence where you learned to live on a man's salary of $35 a week. That's a big shift.

At what point did rhythm & blues start becoming rock & roll?
When the white kids started to dance to it. It was the same music, just different people doing it, that's all it was. We went to Cleveland a couple of times and met this guy called Moondog, who later became Alan Freed. But by this time the white kids had took to this music. They loved it. They had bought it, they didn't give a damn who played it –— if your face was green. And Alan Freed was smart enough to see that.

Was Alan Freed unique among white DJs?
There started to be quite a few of them; all the cities had somebody in a little corner doing something. He just got the prominence because he was smart enough to start putting shows together. He out-extravaganza'd the extravaganzas. He was smart enough to mix the acts.

And cover versions of black tunes done by white artists started to proliferate. Do you remember some Ruth Brown covers?
Patti Page covered me. Tony Bennett covered me. Georgia Gibbs covered me. Kay Starr covered me.

Was this in any perverse way flattering?
Well, some people might have thought it was flattering. But for me, it didn't do a damn thing except stop me from getting on the top TV shows. I never got to do The Ed Sullivan Show. Patti Page did; Georgia Gibbs did.

Your first crossover hit didn't come until 1957, when "Lucky Lips," a pretty silly Leiber and Stoller song, made it to the pop Top Forty.
Leiber and Stoller were coming up with things for the Coasters, and they came up with this song for me. Atlantic was kind of fighting then to see what direction I was going to go in. This was the only song that got me on the Dick Clark show. So I did American Bandstand —– big deal! Because of "Lucky Lips." What about all the other ones I had? I felt kind of ridiculous singing, "When I was just a little girl, with long and silky curls." Never had no long and silky curls in all my life.

Did you notice any payola going on?
Uh-huh, uh-huh. Yeah, it was obvious that some record companies were taken care of better than others. And that was when you started to notice that the business itself was really a business. You know, there were people collecting tickets and not tearing up the tickets and taking them back to the people that were selling the tickets, and they would resell the tickets again. And you look up sometimes, and the valets and whatnot are looking better then you are.

Did the business begin to turn sour for you?
Well, with the packaging of the big shows it started to become sort of like a rat race. Performances ceased being experiences and started being like "Here's twenty-one people, each singing one song." I did the Alan Freed show and sang "Lucky Lips" seven times a day, every day. Fiasco is what it started to be. It became so huge, it was like circus time. We'd just meet each other running. I'd bump into the Platters, they'd run up there – [sings] "Only yo-o-o-ou" – and before they could get to the chorus, they were off, they're gone, and somebody else, Buddy Knox, is up and does "Party Doll," one song. Then Teddy Randazzo, one song; the Turbans, one song. "Hi, how are you, here we go again." There ceased to be fulfillment.

When did you notice things turning bad for you at Atlantic, the House That Ruth Built?
When I sat in the office one time for four hours before they paid any attention to me. I went over to see them, and by that time the secretaries had secretaries who had secretaries. And I had to stop at the desk and leave my name. "Oh, do they know what this is in reference to?" I said, "I'd like to speak to Mr. Ertegun if possible; if not, his secretary." And I was told to take a seat. And four hours after that, I'm still sitting there. I was hurt. The receptionist would look at me like I was something that she smelled. And I had gone there to ask for a loan. I was in a little difficulty. But I went rather than called, because I didn't want to be passed from one secretary to the other. And I went hoping to talk to Ahmet on a one-to-one basis.

You were with Atlantic until 1961. Did you have much contact with Ahmet Ertegun in those last couple of years?
No.

You had some difficult years after that.
I got myself a day job. A nine to five. Things were just not going well. I was trying to carry on a house out on Long Island with my children, so I became a domestic. And worked in schools —– in Head Start, day care, drove school buses. I did that up until 1976. By that time I had gotten both of my children in college, and I started to climb back up by my fingernails again.

Did you at any point think, "I made an awful lot of money for somebody once. Where's all my money"?
That came along in the Seventies. I started seeing records coming out of Europe and different places.

Reissues of your Atlantic albums.
Yeah, and I kept looking in the mailbox and wondering. So I got a lawyer on Long Island to contact Atlantic about my royalties. Three lawyers, in fact. And each time there would be a lapse of about a month or so, and then they'd write back and say it was a dead issue: "Well, we wrote to Atlantic, and here is a photostatic copy of the response we got." And each time it would say that Ruth Brown's account is so far in arrears that she owes us so many thousands of dollars. Each attorney would come back and say the same thing: "Don't bother with this."

At what point did you make peace with Atlantic?
Through an attorney named Howell Begle. He was a Ruth Brown fan; his mother had taken him to see an Alan Freed show. He came to see me perform, and he had about eight or nine albums for me to autograph. And I said, "Where did you get all these records?" And he said, "I paid dearly for them, but they're very precious to me." And I said, "Well, I don't know who got the money that you paid for these, but I didn't." And I went on to tell him that I hadn't gotten a royalty statement in over twenty-five years. He couldn't believe it. I said, "Well, not only me. There are a whole lot of us." He said, "Let's have lunch and talk."

When was that?
About ten years ago. He said, "I want to try and help you."

When did you know Howell Begle was getting some results?
When he called me to come to Washington in front of the Senate Investigative Committee. Then one day I got a statement from Atlantic. Whoa! I hadn't seen a statement since I don't know when. They said they didn't know how to find me, that they'd been sending statements to Portsmouth, Virginia, where I hadn't lived in 450 years.

I was doing a little off-Broadway show called Staggerlee. And the doorman came and said, "There's a man out here from a record company who wants to see you." I thought perhaps somebody was coming to talk about recording me, because indeed I could use it. And so I said, "Who is it? What record company?" And a voice said, "It's Ahmet from Atlantic." And there he was. He had seen the show, and he stood in the door – I just looked at him, he looked at me, and I think his eyes got watery, and I got watery. Before I knew it, the tears were running. And he just walked over to me, and I embraced him, and he said in my ear, "Let's don't talk now, but everything's going to be all right. I'd never let anything happen to you."

But he did turn and say, "You know, Ruth, you got a good lawyer."