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Rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown signed with Atlantic Records at a young age and recorded a number of hit songs throughout the 1950s.
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Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on January 12, 1928, singer Ruth Brown signed with Atlantic Records at a young age and recorded a number of hit R&B songs throughout the 1950s, including "I'll Wait for You," "I Know," "5-10-15 Hours," and "Mambo Baby." She went on to have a successful theater career later in life.
"I didn't want to learn to read no note. I knew I could sing it. I woke up one morning and I could sing."
"I could pick a good song, but I sure couldn't pick a man."
The singer known as "Miss Rhythm," Ruth Brown, was born Ruth Weston on January 12, 1928, in Portsmouth, Virginia. The oldest of seven children, her father was the choir director at the local Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Brown made her debut in the church choir at the age of 4.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that her father was a choral instructor, Brown rebelled against church music and all formal musical training. She preferred the pop songs she heard on the radio to the music she sang at church, and stubbornly refused to learn to read music. "In school we had music classes, but I ducked them," Brown later recalled. "They were just a little too slow. I didn't want to learn to read no note. I knew I could sing it. I woke up one morning and I could sing."
During her childhood, Brown and her siblings spent their summers at their grandmother's farm in North Carolina, where they worked all summer picking cotton in the fields. "That made me the strong woman I am," she said. Brown was a mischievous teenager, telling her parents she was going to choir practice but actually sneaking out to sing for soldiers at USO clubs. It was through her clandestine singing career that she met and fell in love with a sailor and trumpeter named Jimmy Brown. Knowing that her parents would disapprove of their relationship, not to mention her secret USO performances, Brown (just 17) and her new boyfriend ran away to Detroit, Michigan, in 1945 with hopes of making it together as performers. They married shortly thereafter, but Brown would later discover that Jimmy was already married. Their marriage was legally void. (By the time Brown learned of her husband's previous marriage, she had already developed a reputation under his surname, so she kept the name Ruth Brown as a stage name for the rest of her life.)
In Detroit, Brown landed a gig singing at the Frolic Bar and it was there that she was spotted by the famous bandleader and talent scout Lucky Millinder, who recruited her as a vocalist for his orchestra. "I could hardly believe my luck," Brown remembered. "I was joining a group with a bunch of hit records to its name. I really felt the big time was beckoning." However, after a performance one night at a Washington, D.C. nightclub, Millinder spotted Brown carrying a tray of Cokes to her fellow band members. Furious that his star singer would degrade herself—and by association, him—by acting like a waitress, Millinder fired her on the spot and refused to give her a ride back to Detroit.
Stranded in D.C., Brown had a chance encounter with Blanche Calloway, the sister of the famous bandleader Cab Calloway and the owner of Crystal Caverns nightclub.
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In the 1920s, women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the first—and for a while, the only—artists to record the blues. American women of this era made great strides toward gaining equality and basic human rights for themselves and others in society, including attaining the right to vote and working toward social justice. The 20th century was a wide-open opportunity for women to embrace the modern world, outside of the traditional bounds of the home.
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