The following article appeared in the December 11, 2006 issue of Jet Magazine


R& B's Tireless Voice

Ruth Brown Made Hits And Made Sure Artists Got The Money They Deserved

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer

She'll always be Miss Rhythm, the powerhouse belter of those 1950s blues hits that made Atlantic Records.

Ruth Brown could swagger on "Teardrops From My Eyes" and turn imperious on "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean," its very first word rising like a squealed exclamation point. There was a world of hurt in those songs and an insistence on some justice, a boldness of voice that Miss Rhythm reached for as Miss Righteous, the crusader who forced the record industry to pay her fellow artists the royalties they had never received.

Brown, who died yesterday at 78 after having been in a coma in a Las Vegas hospital for almost three weeks, was a pioneer of rhythm and blues. Even her initials bore testimony to that. Blessed with jubilance, sass and high spirits, and wonderfully expressive features that simply broadened over time, she influenced such greats as Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Aretha Franklin and Bonnie Raitt.

In the mid-'80s, Brown came often to Washington, as engaging a lobbyist as you could ever find, determined to persuade Capitol Hill lawmakers and music writers at influential newspapers to shine a light on suspect practices. Whether you were a politician or a reporter, Brown didn't just buttonhole you. She'd lean into you, working at close quarters, poking important points one at a time into your arm or chest, as if her truths would only become self-evident through tactile confirmation. In hearings, she would shake in indignation, that voice rising and falling, and congressmen were mesmerized. Reps. Mickey Leland and John Conyers professed their complete infatuation; even Sen. Jesse Helms voiced his support, saying, "The record for me was '5-10-15 Hours.' "

She gave the best hugs in the business, even in print. In her 1999 autobiography, she credited my extensive Post coverage with pressuring Atlantic to readdress royalties, then continued to bend my ear about the plight of her fellow hitmakers of the '40s, '50s and '60s. For Ruth Brown, it was unfinished business as long as every label wasn't onboard the royalty reform train.

Raitt, who inducted Brown into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, yesterday praised "her genuine caring about trying to get [veteran artists] justice, not charity." A close friend and frequent duet partner, Raitt called Brown "the preeminent R&B queen and diva we all appreciated and looked to -- in that world, there's only one Ruth Brown."

Little Richard said much the same at one of Brown's last performances, at the end of September at the San Francisco Blues Festival. Bringing her back onstage for a duet, he credited Brown's squeals, records and style with being a major influence.

By the time Brown was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- on her 65th birthday! -- the singer was a decade into her crusade for royalty reform, centering on royalties from her Atlantic tenure as well as earnings from CD reissues, best-ofs and anthologies, all of which made money for the label but none for Brown. Howell Begle, a communications and entertainment lawyer and ardent R&B fan, made Brown's cause a personal crusade, working pro bono on her behalf and signing up several other former Atlantic artists, including the Coasters, the Drifters and Big Joe Turner.

In 1988, as part of its much-covered 40th-anniversary celebration, the label announced it had wiped out past "debts" and made lump-sum payments of retroactive royalties for 35 acts; Brown's $30,000 check was her first from Atlantic in more than 20 years. Atlantic also ponied up $2 million to launch then-Washington-based Rhythm and Blues Foundation, where Brown remained a trustee, fighting the fight with as much determination as when she'd begun it.

Sam Moore, of Sam & Dave, a beneficiary of her royalty battles, said Brown "would never bite her tongue when it came to sticking up for the rights she believed we were all due. She was a loyal friend.

"And if you ever saw her on a stage, she owned it," Moore said from Japan, where he was touring. "Even with numerous health issues, if you saw her perform, you'd never ever sense there was anything wrong."

A few years ago, Brown had a devastating stroke and couldn't walk or talk. After more than a year of physical and vocal therapy, she was back onstage, her only concession being that she performed sitting down. A gifted interpreter able to deliver gorgeous ballads as well as her trademark bawdy blues, Brown could also tell jokes about friends like Ray Charles, whose very first band was actually Brown's touring band. Still, he apparently scoffed at Brown's suggestion that Halle Berry play her in the film "Ray." According to Brown, Charles said, "I may be blind, Ruth, but I'm not that blind!"

Brown didn't get much airplay anymore, except on oldies stations. Yet a 50-year-old hit was all over television this year when "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'," written especially for her by Bobby Darin, popped up in a Hummer H3 commercial and seemed as fresh as any modern hit.

But the song that defined her life and stayed in her repertoire 60 years was the one that helped her win first prize at 15 at the Apollo Theatre's fabled Amateur Night: "It Could Happen to You," a Johnny Burke/Jimmy Van Heusen standard. The song's interpretation would change for her over the decades, particularly the lovelorn ballad's counsel to "Hide your heart from sight / Lock your dreams at night / It could happen to you / Don't count stars, or you might stumble / Someone drops a sigh, and down you'll tumble."

Tumbles there would be, many of them cruel and capricious, yet Brown survived, standing up for herself, her music, and the rights, royalties and dignity of her peers

Ruth Brown, R&B Singer and Actress, Dies at 78

The New York Times

Ruth Brown, the gutsy rhythm-and-blues singer whose career extended to acting and crusading for musicians’ rights, died on Friday in Las Vegas. She was 78 and lived in Las Vegas.

The cause was complications following a heart attack and stroke she suffered after surgery, and Ms. Brown had been on life support since Oct. 29, said her friend, lawyer and executor, Howell Begle.

“She was one of the original divas,” said the singer Bonnie Raitt, who worked with Ms. Brown and Mr. Begle to improve royalties for rhythm-and-blues performers. “I can’t really say that I’ve heard anyone that sounds like Ruth, before or after. She was a combination of sass and innocence, and she was extremely funky. She could really put it right on the beat, and the tone of her voice was just mighty. And she had a great heart.

“What I loved about her,” Ms. Raitt added, “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.”

Ms. Brown sustained a career for six decades: first as a bright, bluesy singer who was called “the girl with a tear in her voice” and then, after some lean years, as the embodiment of an earthy, indomitable black woman. She had a life of hard work, hard luck, determination, audacity and style. Sometimes it was said that R & B stood for Ruth Brown as much as for rhythm-and-blues.

As the 1950s began, Ms. Brown’s singles for the fledgling Atlantic Records — like “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and “5-10-15 Hours” — became both the label’s bankroll and templates for rock ‘n’ roll. She could sound as if she were hurting, or joyfully lusty, or both at once. Her voice was forthright, feisty and ready for anything.

After Ms. Brown’s string of hits ended, she kept singing but also went on to a career in television, radio and movies — including a memorable role as the disc jockey Motormouth Maybelle in John Waters’s “Hairspray” — and on Broadway, where she won a Tony Award for her part in “Black and Blue.” She worked clubs, concerts and festivals into the 21st century. “Whatever I have to say, I get it said,” she told an interviewer in 1995. “Like the old spirituals say, ‘I’ve gone too far to turn me ‘round now.’ "

Ms. Brown was born Ruth Weston on Jan. 12, 1928, in Portsmouth, Va., the oldest of seven children. She made her vocal debut when she was 4, and her father, the choir director at the local Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, lifted her onto the church piano. In summers, she and her siblings picked cotton at her grandmother’s farm in North Carolina. “That made me the strong woman I am,” she said in 1995.

As a teenager, she would tell her family she was going to choir practice and perform instead at U.S.O. clubs at nearby naval stations. She ran away from home at 17, working with a trumpeter named Jimmy Brown and using his last name onstage. She married him, or thought she did; he was already married. But she was making a reputation as Ruth Brown, and the name stuck.

The big-band leader Lucky Millinder heard her in Detroit late in 1946, hired her for his band and fired her in Washington. Stranded, she managed to find a club engagement at the Crystal Caverns. There, the disc jockey Willis Conover, who broadcast jazz internationally on Voice of America radio, heard Ms. Brown and recommended her to friends at Atlantic Records.

On the way to New York City, however, she was seriously injured in an automobile accident and hospitalized for most of a year; her smashed legs would be painful for the rest of her life. She stood on crutches in 1949 to record her first session for Atlantic, and the bluesy ballad “So Long” became a hit.

She wanted to keep singing ballads, but Atlantic pushed her to try upbeat songs, and she tore into them. During the sessions for “Teardrops From My Eyes,” her voice cracked upward to a squeal. Herb Abramson of Atlantic Records liked it, called it a “tear,” and after ”Teardrops From My Eyes” reached No. 1 on the rhythm-and-blues chart, the sound became her trademark for a string of hits.

“If I was getting ready to go and record and I had a bad throat, they’d say, ‘Good!’,” she once recalled.

Ms. Brown was the best-selling black female performer of the early 1950s, even though, in that segregated era, many of her songs were picked up and redone by white singers, like Patti Page and Georgia Gibbs, in tamer versions that became pop hits. The pop singer Frankie Laine gave her a lasting nickname: Miss Rhythm.

Working the rhythm-and-blues circuit in the 1950s, when dozens of her singles reached the R and B Top 10, Ms. Brown drove a Cadillac and had romances with stars like the saxophonist Willis (Gator Tail) Jackson and the singer Clyde McPhatter of the Drifters. (Her first son, Ronald, was given the last name Jackson; decades later, she told him he was actually Mr. McPhatter’s son, and he now sings with a latter-day lineup of the Drifters.)

In 1955, Ms. Brown married Earl Swanson, a saxophonist, and had a second son, Earl; the marriage ended in divorce. Her two sons survive her: Mr. Jackson in Los Angeles, who has three children, and Mr. Swanson in Las Vegas. She is also survived by four siblings: Delia Weston in Las Vegas, Leonard Weston in Long Island, and Alvin and Benjamin Weston in Portsmouth, Va.

Her streak of hits ended soon after the 1960s began. She lived on Long Island, raised her sons, worked as a teacher’s aide and a maid, and was married for three years to a police officer, Bill Blunt. On weekends, she sang club dates in the New York area, and she recorded an album in 1968 with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. Although her hits had launched Atlantic Records — sometimes called the House that Ruth Built —she was unable at one point to afford a home telephone.

The comedian Redd Foxx, whom she had once helped out of a financial jam, brought her to Los Angeles in 1976 to play Mahalia Jackson in “Selma,” a musical about civil rights he was producing. She moved on to sing in Las Vegas and continued a comeback that never ended. The television producer Norman Lear gave her a role in the sitcom “Hello, Larry.” She returned to New York City in 1982, appearing in Off Broadway productions including “Stagger Lee,” and in 1985, she went to Paris to perform in the revue “Black and Blue,” rejoining it later for its Broadway run.

Ms. Brown began to speak out, onstage and in interviews, about the exploitative contracts musicians of her generation had signed. Many hit-making musicians had not recouped debts to their labels, according to record-company accounting, and so were not receiving royalties at all. Shortly before Atlantic Records held a 40th-birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1988, the label agreed to waive unrecouped debts for Ms. Brown and 35 other musicians of her era and to pay 20 years of retroactive royalties.

Atlantic also contributed nearly $2 million to start the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which pushed other labels toward royalty reform and distributed millions of dollars directly to musicians in need, although it has struggled to sustain itself in recent years.

“Black and Blue” revitalized Ms. Brown’s recording career, on labels including Fantasy and Bullseye Blues. Her 1989 album “Blues on Broadway” won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female. She was a radio host on the public-radio shows “Harlem Hit Parade” and “BluesStage.” In 1995, she released her autobiography, “Miss Rhythm” (Dutton), written with Andrew Yule; it won the Gleason Award for music journalism. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

She toured steadily, working concert halls, festivals and cabarets. This year, she recorded songs for the coming movie by John Sayles, “Honeydripper,” and was about to fly to Alabama to act in it when she became ill.

She never learned to read music. “In school, we had music classes, but I ducked them,” she said in 1995. “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.”