Born Ruth Weston on January 30, 1928, in Portsmouth, VA; daughter of a choir director and a restaurant employee; married Jimmy Brown (marriage annulled); married Willis Jackson (divorced); married Earl Swanson (divorced); married Bill Blunt (divorced); children: (second marriage) Ronnie, (third marriage) Earl. Addresses: Record company--Bullseye Blues & Jazz Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 354-0700.
Ruth Brown's career has spanned more than five decades, but in the 1980s she made a storybook comeback. Beset by such trials as a debilitating car accident that kept her in the hospital the year she signed her first contract with Atlantic Records, and, more devastating, the world's shift of interest from rhythm and blues to rock and roll, Brown's progress has been marked by hills and valleys. The 1980s and early 1990s found her atop a significant peak. Her album Blues on Broadway won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance by a Female in 1990. Her performance in Broadway's Black and Blue won her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, and a Keeping the Blues Alive Award in 1989. On her 65th birthday in 1993 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
However, these accolades came on the heels of years of financial hardship. Brown lived on Long Island, New York, where she worked as a bus driver, a teacher for the mentally retarded, and a house cleaner, struggling to raise her two sons, Ronnie and Earl, alone. By this time each of her four marriages had failed. Indeed, as she told Steve Dougherty and Victoria Balfour of People, "If I ever write a book, Tina Turner's [life] would look like a fairy tale." Throughout these years she spent far too much of her hard-earned money trying to win back royalties from Atlantic Records. Eventually, with the help of her longtime fan and lawyer, Howell Begles, she not only got herself some paychecks but helped to establish the Rhythm and Blues Foundation for other ill-served rhythm and blues stars.
Born Ruth Weston in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1928, Ruth grew up the oldest of seven children in a strict church-going household. Her father was a choir director with little patience or appreciation for "the devil's music," as he called the blues. She sang at church functions throughout her childhood, and was first paid to sing at a wedding when she was about seven years old. From then on, she told Living Blues' Chip Deffaa, she wanted to be a professional singer.
Won Amateur Night at the Apollo
Ostensibly visiting relatives in New York City, she seized the opportunity to compete in Harlem at the Apollo Theater's famed amateur night, where she won first prize for singing "It Could Happen to You." Afraid to tell her parents, she kept her success to herself while she struggled to overcome her own learned prejudice against the blues. But Brown found a way to embrace her calling. She told Deffaa, "Because I have become a woman and experienced life, I know that at one time or the other, the best Christian in the world has had the blues, about something. And it's not until you get the blues that you go to Christ for help."
Brown listened attentively to many types of music throughout her career, and various influences can be heard in her music. Most obviously, Brown owes a debt to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, but pop music also had its effect. With the rest of the country, Brown listened to Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller, and Vaughan Monroe, and she sang their songs effectively, though in later years she voiced a little contempt for pop music.
Though she broke into the industry with the success of "Lucky Lips," by pop songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller, she admitted to Lee Jeske of Rolling Stone that she "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," she announced succinctly. And when Patti Page, Tony Bennett, Georgia Gibbs, and Kay Starr---all white performers---covered her songs, she told Jeske, "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."
Brown first heard black singers on a radio show called The Mail Bag, which introduced her to the Ink Spots, the Charioteers, and Sonny Til and the Orioles. She has hosted her own radio shows, Blues Stages and Harlem Hit Parade, which spotlighted black rhythm and blues musicians. Racial issues have been with her from the start. She told Billboard's Nelson George that in the 1940s and 1950s, "it was a major decision for a sharecropper whether or not they were going to save that money or go to the show."
Sang Through Many Obstacles
Back in the early days of her professional life, Brown explained to Jeske, "The concerts would be---downstairs where the dancers were---jampacked black. Upstairs balcony, all the way around, white spectators ... [Sometimes] they had a dividing line on the floor ... sometimes just a clothesline ... Or there would be some big, burly white cops." Brown sang her way through these obstacles, eventually finding wider and wider audiences through an acting career. Actor Redd Foxx showed off her dramatic talents both on Sanford and Son and by giving her the part of Mahalia Jackson in Selma. She headlined in two other short-lived sitcoms, Hello Larry and Checking In, and finally achieved stardom in the musical theater revue, Black and Blue.
Black and Blue played first in Paris, where, nightly, Brown proudly related to George, "we received 12-13 curtain calls." The show was particularly important for its realistic depiction of blacks, according to Brown. She did not need to look like a lithe starlet to play her role; to the contrary, she needed only to look like herself. After the show, she boasted to Stephanie Stein of Down Beat, black people would come up and say, "'I am so proud.' That is my paycheck. ... I'm really singing my life out here."
The days of sneaking out to clubs in Portsmouth, Virginia; of being discovered first by Lucky Milliner, Blanche Calloway (Cab's sister), and finally by Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun of the just-born Atlantic label; of singing "Mambo Baby" during the 1954 mambo craze; and of thrilling her listeners with "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," made Brown savvy and wise. Many critics find her work of the 1980s and 1990s her strongest, however. She remarked to Deffaa, "It took all those years to get to this point."
Brown has concerned herself with quality, and warns against the dangers of too many electronic studios, engineers, and producers. "I'm listening to singers closer than I ever did before," she told Deffaa in 1990. "Because the lyrics are becoming very important. And I think that's the saving grace right now. Otherwise we're going to look up and not have no singers left. ... [Unless] we get some people who are sensitive enough to look inside the lyric, we ain't going to have no more [Dinah Shores] and no more [Billie Holidays] and no more [Ella Fitzgeralds] to interpret that lyric."
A Lesson from Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday, Brown told People, was smart enough to whip Brown into shape: "If you copy my music, no one will ever copy yours," she berated Brown. So Brown stopped imitating and became the woman who made Blues on Broadway, which Ron Weinstock of Living Blues called "simply great stuff and one of the best recordings I've heard in 1989." A writer for Stereo Review recounted the experience of listening to Fine and Mellow: "Listening to this ... Ruth Brown album is like taking a stroll down memory lane and on into the kind of crowded, smoke-filled club where countless organ-and-vocal combos delighted weekend crowds. ... Nobody sings [rhythm and blues] better today."
In the 1990s Brown continued to perform and record, despite health issues. She released Live in London in 1996, R+B=Ruth Brown in 1997, and Good Day for the Blues in 1999. Nearly crippled from the persistent pain from her automobile accident in the 1940s, she continued to perform while seated, or standing with the help of a cane. She battled back from pneumonia, colon cancer, and congestive heart failure. In 2000 she suffered a massive stroke. The stroke rendered her speechless for several days, and required months of speech therapy. Her short-term memory was nearly erased, forcing her to use lyric sheets onstage for her subsequent performances after she returned to the stage in 2004.
Her ailments caused Brown some trepidation about performing. "I didn't know how they would receive me, anywhere," she told New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson. "Because the memories they have of me. I used to walk that stage back and forth and dance through the whole thing." Her health problems and age have also changed her voice. According to David Finkle of Jet, "That torn voice of Brown's is marked now by a rasp. Often the powerful rasp comes at the end of sustained notes that often weren't pretty in any conventional way. But they and everything about her now lend character to her performing.... 'I'm old, but I'm not cold,' Brown says in a comic aside, and she couldn't be righter." In 2005 Brown received another honor when the New School University's Jazz and Contemporary Music Program bestowed upon her its 2005 Beacons in Jazz Award, along with Jimmy Heath and Hank Jones, in New York City.
Rhythm and blues has remained Ruth Brown's cause. She told Deffaa, "If I were ever to really get lucky, really what I would like to do is to take some of that vast farmland back [in Portsmouth] and build a little community for the ... senior citizens from the rhythm and blues business like myself ... who just need a place to pick up their dignity."
by Diane Moroff and Bruce Walker
Ruth Brown's Career
Began singing career at local Emmanuel AME church; sang in nightclubs in Norfolk, at Langley Field Air Force Base, and Camp Lejeune; won first prize at amateur night at Harlem's Apollo Theater; worked briefly for Lucky Milliner; sang in Blanche Calloway's club, Washington, DC; signed contract with Atlantic and released So Long, 1949; worked variously as a singer, bus driver, teacher, and house cleaner, 1960s-70s; appeared on television in Sanford and Son, 1974, Hello Larry, 1979-81, and Checking In, 1981; appeared onstage as Mahalia Jackson in Selma and Off-Broadway in Amen Corner, Champeen, and Stagger Lee, 1983-87; subject of PBS documentary That Rhythm, Those Blues, 1988; appeared in film Hairspray, 1988; played leading role in Broadway production Black and Blue, 1989; hosted National Public Radio series BlueStage, 1989; suffered stroke, 2000; staged comeback performances in New York, 2004.
Ruth Brown's Awards
Pittsburgh Courier, Bessie Smith Award, 1953; Grammy Award, Best Female Jazz Vocal Performance, for Blues on Broadway, 1989; Tony Award, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, 1989, Blues Alive Award, 1989, and Outer Critics Circle Award, 1990, all for Black and Blue; Image Award from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Trailblazer Award from One Hundred Black Women; city of Philadelphia established a Ruth Brown Achievement Award; Portsmouth, VA, established a Ruth Brown Scholarship fund for students in the performing arts; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1993; received New School University Jazz & Contemporary Music Program Beacons in Jazz Award, 2005.
- Selected discography
- So Long Atlantic, 1949.
- Gospel Time Lection, 1963, reissued, 1989.
- Have a Good Time Fantasy, 1988.
- Blues on Broadway Fantasy, 1989.
- Ruth Brown: Miss Rhythm Atlantic, 1989.
- (Contributor) Black and Blue DRG, 1990.
- Fine and Mellow Fantasy, 1992.
- The Songs of My Life Fantasy, 1993.
- Live in London Jazz House, 1996.
- R+B=Ruth Brown Bullseye Blues, 1997.
- Good Day for the Blues Bullseye Blues, 1999.
- Miss Rhythm Atlantic, 1999.
- Back Stage, July 30, 2004.
- Billboard, April 8, 1989; January 25, 1992; August 28, 1993.
- Down Beat, March 1990; August 1990; December 1993.
- Essence, April 1988.
- Jet, February 1, 1993; March 14, 2005.
- Living Blues, May/June 1990; July/August 1990.
- New York Times, July 20, 2004.
- People, March 6, 1989.
- Rolling Stone, April 19, 1990; February 4, 1993.
- Stereo Review, April 1990; July 1992.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Fantasy Inc. publicity materials, 1993.