Ruth Alston Brown (née Weston, January 12, 1928 – November 17, 2006) was an American singer-songwriter and actress, sometimes known as the "Queen of R&B". She was noted for bringing a pop music style to R&B music in a series of hit songs for Atlantic Records in the 1950s, such as "So Long", "Teardrops from My Eyes" and "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean". For these contributions, Atlantic became known as "the house that Ruth built" (alluding to the popular nickname for the old Yankee Stadium). Brown was a 1993 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Brown in 1996
|Birth name||Ruth Alston Weston|
|Born||January 12, 1928|
Portsmouth, Virginia, U.S.
|Died||November 17, 2006 (aged 78)|
Henderson, Nevada, U.S.
|Genres||R&B, soul, jazz, blues, doo-wop, gospel, funk|
|Instruments||Vocals, piano, keyboards|
|Labels||Atlantic, Philips, Fantasy|
Following a resurgence that began in the mid-1970s and peaked in the 1980s, Brown used her influence to press for musicians' rights regarding royalties and contracts; these efforts led to the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Her performances in the Broadway musical Black and Blue earned Brown a Tony Award, and the original cast recording won a Grammy Award. Brown was a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. In 2017, Brown was inducted into National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. She is also the aunt to legendary hip hop MC Rakim.
Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Brown was the eldest of seven siblings. She attended I. C. Norcom High School, which was then legally segregated. Brown's father was a dockhand. He also directed the local church choir at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, but the young Ruth showed more interest in singing at USO shows and nightclubs, rebelling against her father. She was inspired by Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington.
In 1945, aged 17, Brown ran away from her home in Portsmouth along with the trumpeter Jimmy Brown, whom she soon married, to sing in bars and clubs. She then spent a month with Lucky Millinder's orchestra.
Blanche Calloway, Cab Calloway's sister, also a bandleader, arranged a gig for Brown at the Crystal Caverns, a nightclub in Washington, D.C., and soon became her manager. Willis Conover, the future Voice of America disc jockey, caught her act with Duke Ellington and recommended her to Atlantic Records bosses Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson. Brown was unable to audition as planned because of a car crash, which resulted in a nine-month stay in the hospital. She signed with Atlantic Records from her hospital bed.
In her first audition, in 1949, she sang "So Long", which became a hit. This was followed by "Teardrops from My Eyes" in 1950. Written by Rudy Toombs, it was the first upbeat major hit for Brown. Recorded for Atlantic Records in New York City in September 1950 and released in October, it was Billboard's R&B number one for 11 weeks. The hit earned her the nickname "Miss Rhythm", and within a few months, she became the acknowledged queen of R&B.
She followed up this hit with "I'll Wait for You" (1951), "I Know" (1951), "5-10-15 Hours" (1953), "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" (1953), "Oh What a Dream" (1954), "Mambo Baby" (1954), and "Don't Deceive Me" (1960), some of which were credited to Ruth Brown and the Rhythm Makers. Between 1949 and 1955, her records stayed on the R&B chart for a total of 149 weeks; she would go on to score 21 Top 10 hits altogether, including five that landed at number one. Brown ranked No. 1 on The Billboard 1954 Disk Jockey Poll for Favorite R&B Artists.
Brown played many racially segregated dances in the southern states, where she toured extensively and was immensely popular. She claimed that a writer had once summed up her popularity by saying, "In the South Ruth Brown is better known than Coca-Cola."
Brown performed at the famed tenth Cavalcade of Jazz concert held at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles which was produced by Leon Hefflin, Sr. on June 20, 1954. She performed along with The Flairs, Count Basie and his Orchestra, Lamp Lighters, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, Christine Kittrell, and Perez Prado and his Orchestra.
Her first pop hit came with "Lucky Lips", a song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and recorded in 1957. The single reached number 6 on the R&B chart and number 25 on the U.S. pop chart. The 1958 follow-up was "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'", written by Bobby Darin and Mann Curtis. It reached number 7 on the R&B chart and number 24 on the pop chart.
She had further hits with "I Don't Know" in 1959 and "Don't Deceive Me" in 1960, which were more successful on the R&B chart than on the pop chart. During the 1960s, Brown faded from public view and lived as a housewife and mother.
She returned to music in 1975 at the urging of the comedian Redd Foxx, followed by a series of comedic acting jobs. This launched her career in TV, film, and stage. She had a recurring role during the second season of the sitcom Hello, Larry as the neighbor, Leona Wilson. She starred as Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs, a friendly and strong-willed record promoter and mother of Seaweed and L'il Inez, in the John Waters cult classic film Hairspray. On Broadway, she starred in productions of Amen Corner and Black and Blue. The latter earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 1989. The New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote, "Ruth Brown, the rhythm-and-blues chanteuse, applies sarcastic varnish and two-a-day burlesque timing to the ribald Andy Razaf lyrics of 'If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' on It.'"
Brown's fight for musicians' rights and royalties in 1987 led to the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1988. She was one of the first recipients of the Pioneer Award in 1989. In 1989, she released an album, "Blues and Broadway," which won a Grammy for best jazz vocal performance, female. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Brown recorded and sang with the rhythm-and-blues singer Charles Brown. She also toured with Bonnie Raitt in the late 1990s. Her 1995 autobiography, Miss Rhythm, won the Gleason Award for music journalism. She also appeared on Bonnie Raitt's 1995 live DVD Road Tested, singing "Never Make Your Move Too Soon". She was nominated for another Grammy in the Traditional Blues category for her 1997 album, R + B = Ruth Brown. In the 2000 television miniseries Little Richard, she was portrayed by singer Tressa Thomas.
Brown was still touring at the age of 78. She had completed preproduction work on the Danny Glover film, Honeydripper, which she did not live to finish, but her recording of "Things About Comin' My Way" was released posthumously on the soundtrack CD. Her last interview was in August 2006.
Brown died in a Las Vegas–area hospital on November 17, 2006, from complications following a heart attack and stroke she suffered after surgery in the previous month. She was 78 years old. A memorial concert for her was held on January 22, 2007, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York.
She also received the following honors:
- 1989: Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
- 1989: Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award
- 1992: Inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame
- 1993: Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
- 1996: Ralph Gleason Award for Music Journalism
- 2016: Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2017: Inducted into National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame
- Rock & Roll (Atlantic, 1957)
- Miss Rhythm (Atlantic, 1959)
- Late Date with Ruth Brown (Atlantic, 1959)
- Along Comes Ruth (Philips, 1962)
- Gospel Time (Philips, 1962)
- Ruth Brown '65 (Mainstream, 1965)
- Black Is Brown and Brown Is Beautiful (Skye, 1969)
- The Real Ruth Brown (Cobblestone/Buddah, 1972)
- Sugar Babe (President, 1976)
- You Don't Know Me (Dobre, 1978)
- The Soul Survives (Flair, 1982)
- Takin' Care of Business (Stockholm, 1983)
- Brown Sugar (Topline, 1985)
- Have a Good Time (Fantasy, 1988)
- Blues on Broadway (Fantasy, 1989)
- Brown, Black & Beautiful (Ichiban, 1990)
- Fine and Mellow (Fantasy, 1991)
- The Songs of My Life (Victor, 1993)
- Live in London (Jazz House, 1995)
- R+B=Ruth Brown (Bullseye Blues, 1997)
- A Good Day for the Blues (Bullseye Blues & Jazz, 1999)
- Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, The Big Band Sound of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Featuring Miss Ruth Brown (Solid State, 1968)
|Year||Titles (A-side, B-side)
Both sides from same album except where indicated
|Peak chart positions||Album|
|US R&B||US Pop|
b/w "It's Raining" (non-album track)
|4||—||Rock & Roll|
|"I'll Get Along Somehow" (Part 1)
b/w Part 2
|1950||"Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe"
b/w "Love Me Baby"
b/w "(I'll Come Back) Someday"
b/w "I Can Dream Can't I" (from Late Date with Ruth Brown)
|—||—||Rock & Roll|
|The two preceding singles are with the Delta Rhythm Boys.|
|"Where Can I Go"
b/w "Dear Little Boy of Mine"
|"Teardrops from My Eyes"
b/w "Am I Making the Same Mistake Again" (non-album track)
|1||—||Rock & Roll|
|1951||"I'll Wait for You"
b/w "Standing on the Corner"
b/w "Don't Want Nobody (If I Can't Have You)"
|"Shine On (Big Bright Moon)"
b/w "Without My Love" (non-album track)
|—||—||The Best of Ruth Brown|
b/w "Be Anything (But Be Mine)" (non-album track)
|1||—||Rock & Roll|
b/w "Have a Good Time" (non-album track)
|"Good for Nothing Joe"
b/w "Three Letters"
|1953||"(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean"
b/w "R.B. Blues" (non-album track)
|1||23||Rock & Roll|
|"Wild, Wild Young Men" /||3||—|
|"Mend Your Ways"||7||—||Non-album tracks|
|"The Tears Keep Tumbling Down"
b/w "I Would If I Could"
b/w "If You Don't Want Me"
b/w "It's All in Your Mind"
(both sides with the Delta Rhythm Boys)
|"Hello Little Boy"
b/w "If I Had Any Sense"
|"Oh What a Dream"
b/w "Please Don't Freeze" (from The Best of Ruth Brown)
|1||—||Rock & Roll|
b/w "Somebody Touched Me" (from Miss Rhythm)
|1955||"As Long As I'm Moving" /||4||—|
|"I Can See Everybody's Baby"||7||—||Miss Rhythm|
|"Bye Bye Young Men"
b/w "Ever Since My Baby's Been Gone" (non-album track)
|13||—||The Best of Ruth Brown|
|The preceding five singles are with the Rhythmakers (the Drifters).|
|"It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)"
b/w "What'd I Say" (non-album track)
|4||—||Rock & Roll|
|"Love Has Joined Us Together"
b/w "I Gotta Have You"
(both sides with Clyde McPhatter)
|1956||"I Want to Do More"
b/w "Old Man River" (from Rock & Roll)
(both sides with the Rhythmakers [the Drifters])
|"Sweet Baby of Mine"
b/w "I'm Getting Right"
|"Mom Oh Mom"
b/w "I Want to Be Loved"
|"I Still Love You"
b/w "Smooth Operator"
b/w "My Heart Is Breaking Over You" (non-album track)
|6||25||Rock & Roll|
|"One More Time"
b/w "When I Get You Baby"
b/w "I Hope We Meet"
|"A New Love"
b/w "Look Me Up"
|1958||"Just Too Much
b/w "Book of Lies"
|"This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'" /||7||24|
|"(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean"
b/w "I'll Step Aside" (non-album track)
|—||—||Rock & Roll|
b/w "Itty Bitty Girl" (non-album track)
|1959||"I Don't Know"
b/w "Papa Daddy" (non-album track)
|5||64||The Best of Ruth Brown|
b/w "I Can't Hear a Word You Say"
|"Don't Deceive Me"
b/w "I Burned Your Letter"
|"What I Wouldn't Give"
b/w "The Door Is Still Open"
|1960||"Taking Care of Business"
b/w "Honey Boy" (non-album track)
|—||—||The Best of Ruth Brown|
b/w "Here He Comes"
|1961||"Anyone But You"
b/w "It Tears Me All to Pieces"
|"Walkin' and Talkin'"
(shown as by "Venus")
|1962||"Shake a Hand"
b/w "Say It Again" (non-album track)
|—||97||Along Comes Ruth|
|"Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean"
b/w "Hold My Hand" (non-album track)
|"He Tells Me with His Eyes"
b/w "If You Don't Tell Nobody"
b/w "Time After Time"
|1964||"What Happened to You"
b/w "Yes Sir That's My Baby"
|"I Love Him and I Know It"
b/w "Come a Little Closer"
|"Hurry On Down"
b/w "On the Good Ship Lollipop"
|1968||"You're a Stone Groovy Thing"
b/w "Someday (I Know, I Know)
b/w "Try Me and See"
|—||—||Black Is Brown and Brown Is Beautiful|
|1989||"If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' on It"
b/w "Good Morning Heartache"
|—||—||Blues on Broadway|
As guest vocalistEdit
With Benny Carter
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