PORTSMOUTH – Ten years ago, Ruth Weston Brown was the star on the Willett Hall stage, belting out her rhythm and blues songs for an audience that claimed her as its own.
On Monday and Tuesday, a steady stream of those fans and friends made the pilgrimage back to the local concert hall to pay their final respects.
Brown, 78, died Nov. 17 in Henderson, Nev., after suffering a heart attack and stroke.
Her viewing and funeral were a final homecoming for the much-loved Portsmouth native.
By the end of the two-day period, hundreds of people had come to Willett Hall to say goodbye.
Those who mourned her at Tuesday’s service included the Original Drifters, who sat at the front of the auditorium-turned-church, and soul artist Maxine Brown, who sang.
Ruth Brown’s son Ronald David McPhatter also sang, with her other son, Earl Swanson Jr., by his side.
Nine-time Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt spoke on behalf of other musicians, including Etta James and B.B. King.
“We are all representing the generations that have been walking across the bridge that Ruth Brown and the other pioneers of rhythm and blues provided for us,” Raitt said.
The singer, guitarist and song writer related how she met Brown 20 years ago, and she praised the older woman as a mentor who had taught her about performance and resilience.
Raitt described Brown as a mixture of strength and vulnerability.
It was as if every heartache and problem that Brown had encountered in her life “was there in every note she sang,” she said.
On Monday, City Clerk Debra White sat in the back of the auditorium, watching as people came and went.
White, who had helped organize the viewing, said Brown had been adamant “that the public be able to do this.”
Three women who had gone to school with Brown walked toward the foot of the stage where the singer lay in an open casket.
Earlene B. Green recalled going to New York City to see Brown in her award-winning performance of “Black and Blue.”
On this day, the Portsmouth friends noted how regal she looked.
“This is a royal funeral in the rhythm and blues world,” said Robbie Todd, who had served as Brown’s assistant for 15 years.
She had been pegged the “Queen of the Jukebox” and “Miss Rhythm” in the 1950s. Her comeback in the 1980s won her a Tony and Grammy.
Todd said he and Brown had talked about her wishes for her funeral – down to what she would wear.
She was dressed in the same formal outfit with dark metallic lace that she had worn to the 40th annual Grammy awards.
She had looked regal that day, too, Todd recalled, as she walked down the red carpet.
But Brown seemed equally happy when the carpet was rolled out in her own hometown.
And she was always eager to tell people where she was from.
Mayor James Holley described her as “our greatest ambassador” as he stopped to talk to a man and woman who had traveled from Charlotte, N.C.
The man, Jerry Novick, was a photographer and co-producer of a yet- unfinished documentary of Brown’s life.
He had been working on it for 2-1/2 years.
He said he considered Brown a friend.
He marveled at how she had set aside health problems to continue performing.
“And when she got on the stage, it was just like all that stuff went away, ” he said.
That spirit was another reason that, to folks back home, she was more than a star who happened to come from Portsmouth.
The city had just last spring honored her as its keynote speaker for a banquet celebrating Portsmouth Notables.
During a ceremony to name yet another street after her, she told those gathered:
“I hope you’ve been proud of me. I’ve done my best.”
She had talked to the younger generation, too, a group of students at her alma mater, I.C. Norcom High School.
She joked about her age but assured them the “one wonderful thing is that my music… is still alive.”