By Mike Greenblatt
For generations, Yankee Stadium has been known as “The House That Ruth Built,” a nod to the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth [1895-1948]. In the 1950s, Atlantic Records was also known as “The House That Ruth Built,” but they weren’t talkin’ ‘bout The Babe. They were celebrating the legacy of Ruth Brown, who, at one time, sold more records than anyone else on that storied label.
Before Ray Charles, before Aretha Franklin, it was Ruth Brown who wore the crown. When she used to hold court at the Lone Star Café in Manhattan on 13th and Fifth, she’d ride that rhythm out for 10 minutes or more, building a slow burn into the rampaging fire of “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” No one who ever witnessed her incendiary Lone Star Café performances will ever forget them. When Ruth Brown took the stage, she was an actress as well as a singer, and she lived every song. She could scat along with a sax riff like Ella Fitzgerald, yet turn on a dime into unparalleled, ballsy, gutsy rock ’n’ roll. She also won the Bessie Smith Award as “Best Blues Singer.” As featured vocalist for the Count Basie Orchestra and the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, her ballads and jazz singing never failed to send audiences into total swoon mode.
When she won a 1989 Tony Award for her Broadway role in “Black And Blue,” she said, “It took me 42 years to climb those eight steps.”
The legendary Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun [1923-2006] first heard Brown sing at The Crystal Cavern in Washington, D.C. Her run at the label lasted from 1949 to 1961, where she charted 24 times. The only reason many of her R&B hits failed to cross over into the pop market is that many pop radio stations back then refused to play what was considered “race music,” made by and for blacks. True talent will always win out in the end, though, and by the time she recorded the song that Bobby Darin wrote specifically for her (“This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’”), she was impossible to ignore, since everybody who heard her loved her.
In the mid-’60s, with music changing, Brown fell from view, opting to remain at home with her husband and children. It was at the urging of her friend, comedian Redd Foxx, that she re-entered show business in 1975. During 1979 and 1980, she had a recurring role in the sitcom “Hello, Larry.” In 1988, she acted in the feature film “Hairspray.” Her 1989 Grammy Award (“Best Female Jazz Artist”) was for her “Blues On Broadway” album.
It was Ruth Brown who bravely fought for the rights of singers everywhere to recoup their rightful royalties. The pervasive practice of record executives cheating musicians out of money was (and is) common practice. Brown’s efforts culminated in 1987 in the formation of The Rhythm & Blues Foundation. In 1993, she was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. Her autobiography, “Miss Rhythm,” was published in 1995.
Ruth Brown died Nov. 17, 2006, at the age of 78. She had continued to tour and appear in movies in the months before her death in Las Vegas from a heart attack and a stroke that she suffered after surgery. She had yet to complete work on another film, “Honeydripper,” when she died. The song she recorded for that film, “Things About Comin’ My Way,” was released posthumously.
Out of the stack of Ruth Brown CDs one could possibly find, the two-disc “Miss Rhythm: Greatest Hits And More” (Atlantic) not only has every hit from her meteoric early rise, but it also features key tracks that should have been hits — 40 songs in all. GM