Q&A: Ruth Brown
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.