Ruth Brown was the top-selling black female artist in America between 1951-1954. She was the oldest of 7 children born to a baritone father who was a Virginia dockhand by trade and a choir director for an AME church. Like so many other great artists, her earliest inspiration and musical training was gospel singing.
As a teenager, Ruth became interested in a different style of music than the church music she grew up with. Inspired by Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan, she longed for the blues. At the age of 18 she upped and left with trumpeter Jimmy Brown, whom she later married, and began singing in bars and USO clubs.
Noticed by Lucky Millander in a Detroit club he hired her as a vocalist and pink-slip’d her a month later. She secured a D.C. gig in a club operated by Blanche, the sister of Cab Calloway. Stranded, all she wanted was enough cash to get home to Portsmouth. She developed a following and stayed. Blanche became her manager.
Sitting in on her act in a local nightclub, were Duke Ellington and disc jockey Willis Conover. So wow’d with her talent and gutsy style, they shared their “discovery” with Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, who were launching Atlantic Records. On the way to her first Apollo theater performance she was badly injured in an accident and hospitalized for almost a year. The story goes Ahmet signed her in a hospital bed and paid her medical bills until she recovered.
Atlantic took Ruth Brown the torchy, bluesy ballad singer and created one of the decade’s top blues rockers. Her association with Atlantic Records marked the true beginning of her stellar career. Ruth’s first Atlantic song, recorded on crutches, was So Long in 1949. An instant success, it became Atlantic’s 2nd hit after Stick McGhee’s Wine-Spo-Dee-O-Dee.
Ertegun remembers the session. “Ruth sang So Long, it knocked me out. She had an unbelievable sound.” Their next release, the more uptempo, Teardrops From My Eyes (1950), written by the great Rudy (One Mint Julep) Toombs, became a #1 hit on Billboard’s chart and #2 on the Hot Chart right behind Sixty Minute Man. This song firmly established Ruth’s credibility as an R&B artist.
Hard to believe, but Ruth Brown didn’t think she was capable of uptempo music. “Up until Teardrops, I was considered just a ballad singer. Rhythm tunes were not my favorites. I thought Teardrops would be the last thing to break for me. I fought that song tooth and nail.” She fought tooth and nail, but Teardrops became Atlantic’s 1st major hit and established her star.
A blizzard of R&B hits followed: I’ll Wait For You (1951), I Know (1951), 5-10-15 Hours #1 (1953), Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean (1953), Wild, Wild young Men (1953), Oh What A Dream #1 (1954), Mambo Baby #1 (1954), I Wanna Do More (1955), and Don’t Deceive Me in 1960.
From 1949 to 1955, Ruth Brown’s name appeared on Billboard charts for 149 weeks including 16 Top Ten records and 5 number ones! Lucky Lips, a Lieber and Stoller composition crossed over to the Billboard charts along with This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin. (written by Bobby Darin). That crossover success earned Atlantic the moniker, “The House that Ruth Built.”
That title, first used for Yankee Stadium and Babe Ruth was now used for Ruth Brown after her string of hits on Atlantic Records. Ruth was now all over the jukeboxes and playbills sharing equal billing with the greatest black entertainers of the day: Big Joe Turner, Amos Milburn, Fats Domino, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, The Clovers, the Orioles and the Ravens, etc. She had arrived.
After a 15-year hiatus from recording while performing at jazz clubs and raising her two sons, Redd Foxx coaxed her out of retirement to play the role of Mahalia Jackson on the Broadway musical, “Selma”. She subsequently won a Tony Award for her work in “Black and Blue” and a Grammy as “Best Female Jazz Artist” for her album Blues On Broadway. She was cast in the “Hello Larry” sitcom, appeared in “Under the Rainbow” and “Hairspray”. Her 1992 album Fine And Mellow is a testament to her tenacity, class and enduring style.
Perhaps as much as her musical accomplishments, Ruth Brown was known for her dogmatic fight for musicians’ rights and royalties. Her efforts resulted in the formation of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1989, dedicated to assisting struggling artists who had been cheated by scurrilous managers and labels. In 1993 she was inducted into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ruth Brown died in 2006, but carried with her the torch of being considered “Queen Mother of the Blues”. It’s been said R&B could have stood for Ruth Brown! We honor ourselves by inducting Little Miss Rhythm into the 2010 Beach Music Hall of Fame.