by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)
Ruth Alston Brown (born Ruth Weston), singer-songwriter and actress known for hit songs such as “So Long,” “Teardrops from My Eyes,” “5-10-15 Hours,” “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and “Oh What A Dream” which earned her the nicknames “Miss Rhythm” and “Queen of R&B,” was born January 12, 1928 in Portsmouth, VA. She would have been 91 years old today.
In 1945 when she was just 17, Brown ran away from her home in Portsmouth along with trumpeter Jimmy Brown, whom she married, to sing in bars and clubs. According to biography.com, Brown would later discover that Jimmy was already married and their marriage was legally void.
By the time Brown learned of Jimmy Brown’s bigamy, she had already developed a reputation under his surname, so she kept the name Ruth Brown as a stage name for the rest of her life.
Brown soon spent a month with singing with Lucky Millinder‘s orchestra. Famous bandleader Cab Calloway‘s sister Blanche Calloway, owner of the Crystal Caverns nightclub in Washington D.C., became Brown’s manager and offered Brown a regular gig performing at her club. Willis Conover, the future Voice of America disc jockey, caught Brown’s act and recommended her to Atlantic Records bosses Ahmet Ertegün and Herb Abramson.
Brown was unable to audition for Atlantic as planned because of a car crash, which resulted in an almost year-long stay in the hospital. Regardless, she signed with Atlantic Records and Brown’s series of hits for Atlantic Records in the 1950s had many referring to the record label as “the house that Ruth built.”
Nevertheless, Brown’s popularity and R&B charts success did not translate into personal financial wealth. Due to a practice known as “whitewashing,” in which white singers covered black artists’ songs without permission, Brown’s records never sold nearly their full potential. Furthermore, Atlantic Records made Brown pay her recording and touring expenses out of pocket—costs that nearly equaled her cut of the sales.
According to wikipedia.org, during the 1960s, Brown faded from public view, moved to Long Island, New York, where she worked various part-time jobs as a teacher’s aide, school bus driver and maid just to make ends meet.
Brown returned to music in 1975 with the help of comedian Redd Foxx, and a series of comedic acting jobs followed. These included roles in the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray, and the Broadway productions of Amen Corner and Black and Blue. The latter earned her a Tony Award in 1989 as Best Actress in a Musical. She also won a Grammy Award for her album Blues on Broadway that same year.
Brown’s fight for musicians’ rights and royalties in 1987 led to the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation to help emerging as well as aging R&B musicians. The nonprofit was financed by a settlement with Atlantic Records. Brown, who is also aunt to legendary Hip-Hop artist Rakim, was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Brown died in a Las Vegas–area hospital on November 17, 2006, from complications following a heart attack and stroke she suffered after surgery the previous month. She was 78 years old. Brown is buried at Roosevelt Memorial Park in Chesapeake City, Virginia.
One of the first great divas of modern American popular music, Brown’s songs provided a blueprint for much of the rock ‘n’ roll that soon came after her. In addition to the musical legacy she left, Brown also left future artists a more artist-friendly environment, thanks to her tireless work to reform the royalty system. To get a glimpse of Brown, and hear her legendary voice and style, click below: