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.
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. 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.
Then in 1975, with the help of her friend Redd Foxx, a prominent comedian, Brown moved to Los Angeles to star in the musical Selma. The role proved the beginning of a miraculous comeback. From 1979-80, Brown starred in Norman Lear's sitcom Hello, Larry, before returning to New York in the early 1980s to enjoy a successful run in several off-Broadway musicals. The peak of Brown's comeback came in 1989 when she won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in the Broadway production of Black and Blue as well as a Grammy Award for her album Blues on Broadway.
In addition to her renewed success as a performer, during the 1980s Brown waged a relentless and ultimately successful campaign to reform the music industry's royalty system. Her efforts resulted in the creation of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in Philadelphia in 1988 to help emerging as well as aging R&B musicians. The nonprofit was financed by a settlement with Atlantic Records.
In 1993, Brown was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She spent the rest of her life giving occasional tribute concerts and working with the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. On November 17, 2006, Brown died due to complications from a heart condition. She was 78 years old.
During the 1950s, Brown was one of America's leading R&B singers. Her name was so synonymous with the genre that many commentators quipped that R&B actually stood for Ruth and Brown. One of the first great divas of modern American popular music, her songs provided a blueprint for much of the rock 'n' roll that followed in her wake. In addition to the musical legacy she left to the artists who came after her, Brown also left future artists a more artist-friendly environment, thanks to her tireless work to reform the royalty system.
Brown's friend Bonnie Raitt summarized the traits that underpinned Brown's success: "What I loved about her was her combination of vulnerability and resilience, and fighting spirit. It was not arrogance, but she was just really not going to lay down and roll over for anyone."
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