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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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Calloway offered Brown a regular gig performing at her nightclub, where in 1948 the famous DJ Willis Conover saw Brown perform and recommended her to his friends at Atlantic Records. Brown signed a recording deal with Atlantic shortly after in October 1948, and the record label booked her a debut concert at the famous Apollo Theater in New York City.
However, making the drive from Washington to New York City on the morning of her big show at the Apollo,
Brown was involved in a terrible car crash in which she broke both her legs. Brown spent the next 11 months recovering at a hospital in Chester, Pennsylvania, during which time her supposed husband, Jimmy, left her because he thought she'd never walk again. In the end, Brown made a full recovery; in the spring of 1949 she finally recorded her first song for Atlantic, a blues ballad called "So Long" that proved an instant hit and cracked the Top 10 on the R&B charts. Her next hit single, 1950's "Teardrops From My Eyes," reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and stayed there for three months. This song also earned Brown her two most enduring nicknames. The first was "The Girl With a Tear in Her Voice," after the passionate squeal-like sound she produced when singing "Teardrops." Her most famous moniker, "Miss Rhythm," was given to her by the pop star Frankie Laine after he heard the track.
Throughout the 1950s, Ruth Brown offered up a slew of hit R&B songs that boosted her career (and along with it Atlantic Records and the still relatively new genre of rhythm and blues). Her greatest hits included "I'll Wait for You," "I Know," "5-10-15 Hours," "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean," "Oh What a Dream," "Mambo Baby" and "Don't Deceive Me." In particular, "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and "5-10-15 Hours" achieved enormous popularity with black and white audiences alike, providing a template for much of the rock 'n' roll music that followed in their wake.
Brown's records were so consistently popular that Atlantic Records was sometimes referred to as "The House That Ruth Built." Nevertheless, Brown's enormous popularity and the success of her records did not translate into personal financial wealth. Due to a practice known as "whitewashing," in which white singers covered black artists' songs without permission, Brown's records never sold nearly their full potential. Furthermore, Atlantic Records forced Brown to pay recording and touring expenses out of pocket—costs that nearly equaled her cut of the sales.
As a result of whitewashing and the predatory financial policies of Atlantic Records, by the early 1960s—when her popularity waned and the record company let her go—Brown had almost no savings. She moved to Long Island, New York, where she resorted to working various part-time jobs as a teacher's aide, school bus driver and maid just to make ends meet. It was a precipitous fall for a woman who had been one of the nation's most popular singers just a few years earlier. Brown had been briefly married to a saxophonist named Earl Swanson during the mid-1950s, and in 1963, she married a police officer named Bill Blunt, but they too divorced in 1966. "I could pick a good song, but I sure couldn't pick a man," Brown wrote in her autobiography.
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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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