Ruth Brown Biography

12 January 1928, Portsmouth, Virginia, USA, d. 17 November 2006, Henderson, Nevada, USA. Brown started her musical career singing gospel at an early age in the church choir led by her father. In 1948 she was singing with a band led by her husband Jimmy in Washington, DC, when Willis Conover (from the radio show Voice Of America) recommended her to Ahmet Ertegun of the newly formed Atlantic Records. Ertegun signed her, despite competition from Capitol Records, but on the way up to New York for an appearance at the Apollo Theatre, she was involved in a car crash. Hospitalized for nine months, her medical bills were paid by Atlantic and she rewarded them handsomely with her first R&B number 1 hit, ‘Teardrops From My Eyes’, in 1950.

Brown became a major figure in 50s R&B, forming a strong link between that music and early rock ‘n’ roll. Her records were characterized by her rich and expressive singing voice (not unlike that of Dinah Washington) and accompaniment by breathy saxophone solos (initially by Budd Johnson, later by Willis Jackson). Between 1949 and 1955 her songs were on the US charts for 129 weeks, with hits including ‘I’ll Wait For You’, ‘I Know’, ‘5-10-15 Hours’ (her second R&B number 1), ‘Daddy Daddy’, ‘Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean’ (her third R&B number 1), and ‘Wild Wild Young Men’/‘Mend Your Ways’. In 1954, she topped the R&B charts twice with ‘Oh What A Dream’ and ‘Mambo Baby’. She became Atlantic’s first real star, and indeed the label was known as ‘the house that Ruth built’ early on.

Brown’s concentration upon R&B did not keep her from associations within the jazz world; very early in her career she sang briefly with the Lucky Millinder band, and recorded with Jerome Richardson and the Thad Jones - Mel Lewis big band. She also brought a distinctively soulful treatment to varied material such as ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’, ‘Sonny Boy’, ‘Black Coffee’ and ‘I Can Dream, Can’t I?’. Her run of hits ended in 1960 with ‘Don’t Deceive Me’, and thereafter she concentrated on raising her family. She returned to music in the mid-70s, balancing live and studio work and releasing a string of excellent albums for the Fantasy Records label in the late 80s and early 90s. She also established a minor acting career, working in television and Hollywood, including a notable role in the 1988 movie Hairspray. In 1989 she won a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway show Black And Blue.

Brown received enthusiastic reviews for her nightclub act in New York, at Michael’s Pub and The Blue Note, into the 90s and 00s. She was also to be heard broadcasting as host of National Public Radio’s Harlem Hit Parade, and was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993. The following year she undertook a European tour, much to the delight of her small but loyal group of fans. On that tour she was recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s club for an album that appeared on their own Jazzhouse label. Towards the end of the decade she also recorded two excellent albums for the Bullseye Blues label. She died in Las Vegas in November 2006, from complications following a heart attack and stroke.

Rightly fêted as a post-war pioneer of R&B music, Brown was also recognised as a leading advocate of performer rights. Her own struggle to recoup royalties from her Atlantic material led to the formation of the non-profit Rhythm & Blues Foundation. This organisation helps other artists who find themselves in the same situation as Brown did, who was forced into menial labour to earn a living after her run of hits ended at the start of the 60s. Although not as widely appreciated today as the likes of Aretha Franklin or Etta James, she was a magnificent singer and a hugely important figure in the development of rhythm and blues through the first golden age of the genre.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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