Ruth Brown: Miss Rhythm
By Shola Adenekan
Ruth Brown who has died aged 78, after a stroke in Las Vegas, was not only of one of the earliest pioneers of Rhythm and Blues (R&B) but she also brought the genre's profile to greater heights.
Often referred to as “Miss Rhythm” or ‘the girl with tears in her voice,” Brown achieved fame early in her career in the early 1950s but lost everything a decade later to unscrupulous record deals, only to fought her way back to fame.
At the peak of her career, Brown was a regular chart-topper with strings of hits, which included Teardrops From My Eyes, 5-10-15 Hours, Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean, Oh What a Dream, So Long and Mambo Lips.
Signed to Atlantic Records in 1948, her gutsy, belting style was so captivating and profitable that the label became known as the “The House that Ruth Built.”
Brown also successfully experimented with Rock ‘n’ Roll with tunes like Lucky Lips and The Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’, a song she co-wrote with Bobby Darin.
Ruth Alton Brown was born on January 12, 1928 in Portsmouth, Virginia, USA. She was the oldest of seven children and like most R&B singers, began her career in the church at a very tender age.
Her father, a dock worker who was also a choir director at the local Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, introduced Brown to the piano at the age of four.
As a child, Brown’s world revolved around the church but as a teenager, she was captivated by Bee-Pop and Jazz music and wanted to carve a singing career outside choir. Her heroines were Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn.
She often had to lie to her parents that she was going to choir practice but instead was performing at the local naval base.
Determined to pursue a singing career, she ran away from home aged 17 and soon found work with the trumpeter Jimmy Brown who was her first husband. But the marriage was annulled as Jimmy Brown was already married but she retained his last name.
Brown later joined Lucky Millinder’s big band and while performing at a club in Washington DC, a local deejay noticed her striking voice and he linked her up with Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, the Atlantic Records founders, who were also responsible for giving Ray Charles his first big break.
At the peak of her earlier career, Brown lived a celebrity lifestyle, driving expensive cars and dating well known faces in African American showbiz world.
Like most of her black contemporaries at the time, Brown had signed record deals without checking the terms and conditions of these contracts. Record companies not only scrimped on their fees but also charged them dubious production cost, which were held against payments for their re-issued materials.
In the 1960s, the allure of R&B began to wane, finding herself out of contract and in penury, Brown became a bus driver and a cleaner in order to make ends meet, while her old label made a lot of money from her hits.
Brown’s career was rejuvenated in the mid-1970s when she started recording blues and jazz tunes for a string of labels. She also crossed over onto the stage and cinema. She was critically-acclaimed in the R&B musical, Stagger Lee and won a Tony in the Broadway hit, Black and Blue.
In 1976, the comedian Redd Foxx, whom she once helped out, gave her the role of Mahalia Jackson, in the civil rights musical Selma.
In 1988, she was cast as a feisty deejay in the movie Hairspray and won a Grammy a year later for best jazz vocal performance for the album Blues on Broadway.
As Brown began to regain foothold in her career, she took on the campaign to get back unpaid royalties for black musicians who have signed away most of the rights to their work. With Atlantic Records alleging that she owed them $30,000, Brown took her campaigns to several media outlets and was supported by famous black figures, which included the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
This finally paid off in 1989; she was “forgiven” the debt she owed to Atlantic and was also paid $20,000 in overdue royalties. The royalties payment system was reformed but record companies only made meagre contribution to these artistes when compared to the millions they have made out of the black artistes’ work.
Brown who hosted a jazz show on a national radio network won a Grammy for Blues on Broadway in 1989 and in 1996 her memoir was published. She is survived by two sons.
She died on November 17, 2006.
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