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Bonnie Raitt leads Portsmouth mourners saluting Ruth Brown

on November 28, 2006 No comments
By JANIE BRYANT, The Virginian-Pilot

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 sings a tribute to his mother during her funeral Tuesday at Willett Hall in Portsmouth. His brother, Earl Swanson Jr., is at left.

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.

Bonnie Raitt is moved to tears as she talks about her longtime friend and mentor Ruth Brown during her funeral, held at Portsmouth’s Willett Hall on Tuesday – November 2006 © Vicki Cronis /The Virginian-Pilot

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.

Mourners pay their respects at the public viewing of Portsmouth native and R&B pioneer Ruth Brown on Monday at Willett Hall in Portsmouth. Brown, a Tony and Grammy winner who this spring was honored at a Portsmouth Notables celebration, died Nov. 17 at age 78. A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. today at Willett Hall. © Genevieve Ross /The Virginian-Pilot

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.”

Source: © Copyright The Virginian-Pilot

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R&B icon, Portsmouth native Ruth Brown dies at 78

on November 18, 2006 No comments

R&B icon, Portsmouth native Ruth Brown dies at 78

By Malcolm Venable and Steve Stone – The Virginian-Pilot

Ruth Brown, the Portsmouth native who became a pioneering singer known as “the mother of R&B,” died Friday. She was 78.

“We’ve lost another pearl,” her cousin, Mae Breckenridge-Haywood of Portsmouth, said late Friday. “I do feel such a loss.”

Brown had been on life support since Oct. 29 after suffering a heart attack and stroke, said her longtime friend and lawyer Howell Begle. She died at a hospital in Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas, where she lived with family.

”She was just a beautiful person with a very warm spirit, especially for her hometown, her school and also her family,” Breckenridge-Haywood said. “She was just so bubbly and down-to-earth.”

Brown last visited Portsmouth this past spring, her cousin said. “She looked so very well. She was in good spirits.”

At a local event, Brown even took to the dance floor with Portsmouth Mayor James Holley. “Their picture was in the paper of them dancing. He twirled her around once or twice,” Breckenridge-Haywood said. That fresh memory of vibrance made Friday’s news of her passing “really a shock,” she said.

“We are going to miss her immensely…. I’m extremely depressed,” Holley said Friday night. “The contributions that she made over the years were outstanding.” He said she lived “a beautiful life.”

” She was probably one of our top notables,” Holley said. “And she has been a great inspiration to our young people.” Youths could look to her as an example of self-reliance and perseverance who “with her limited resources was able to take herself to the top.”

She always served her community, Holley said.

“Ruth is the kind of person that, if you asked her to do something and she thought well of what you were suggesting, you could count on her to give her best,” he said.

“We want to say to her family that they have our sympathies and condolences,” Holley said, “and our thanks for letting us enjoy her as much as she was enjoyed around the world.”

She is survived by her two sons, Earl Swanson and Ron Jackson, both of Las Vegas, and siblings Benjamin Weston and Alvin Weston, both of Portsmouth, Leonard Weston of Long Island, N.Y., and Delia Weston of Las Vegas.

Born Ruth Weston on Jan. 30, 1928, Brown won a Tony and a Grammy and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was a leading advocate for the rights and royalties of recording artists.

The oldest of seven children, she was born at 1747 London St. She grew up at 918 Nelson St.

She began her singing career at Emanuel AME Zion Church in Olde Towne. She attended I.C. Norcom High School, where she was a cheerleader. Performances at the Shriners Arabia Temple led to USO shows. By the outbreak of World War II, Brown had learned enough Bing Crosby songs to serenade crowds at Langley Field, Fort Eustis, Camp Lee and Little Creek.

Her parents didn’t know.

“Lots of times my parents didn’t even know I was on a base, because I lied a lot to get to where the music was,” she told The Virginian-Pilot in one of several articles about her life. “I was supposed to be going to choir rehearsal. One time I got really unlucky and my father showed up at one of those performances. He stood up at that stage, and I stopped singing immediately. I think he probably whipped me for about 10 blocks.”

She snuck up to New York and won first place at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night. She turned down a return engagement, lest she get caught by her family.

In 1945, at age 17, she ran away. She hit the road with trumpeter Jimmy Brown, whom she married. She soon discovered he was already married. The union was annulled, but she kept his last name. Through Cab Calloway’s sister, Ruth met Ahmet Ertegun, who was starting a fledgling imprint named Atlantic. In 1948 she was booked to appear at the Apollo to perform alongside Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, but she shattered her knees in a car crash en route. She remained in the hospital for 11 months. Her legs gave her problems for the rest of her life.

In May 1949, Brown recorded “So Long” while still on crutches. It became her first hit. She favored ballads, but Atlantic pushed her toward uptempo songs. “Teardrops in My Eyes” remained on the rhythm-and-blues charts for 11 weeks in 1950. Songs including “I’ll Wait for You,” “I Know,” “5-10-15 Hours” and “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” made her an unstoppable blues singer in the 1950s.

Atlantic Records became known as “the house that Ruth built.” Gradually, her advance for a song was raised from $69 to $350. But while Atlantic told her that her songs were million sellers, its accounting showed her owing the company for recording costs. Tho se discrepancies would come to a head later in her career.

Brown also began developing a rocking, no-nonsense persona. It was far from an act. Once, backstage at the Apollo, she knocked out Little Willie John’s front teeth after he insulted her. “I was kinda brazen,” she said. “Didn’t step back off of nothing or nobody.”

The 1950s belonged to Brown, a star on the rhythm-and-blues, or “race music,” circuit. She had three gold records and 50 hits on the charts.

Her brother Benny Weston acted as her transportation manager. As they worked the South, their skin color meant they were barred from hotels and restaurants. Brown would pack chicken or pork chops. They slept in the car. They washed up in gas stations.

In 1955, she married Earl Swanson, with whom she had her second son. They later divorced. “Lawdy,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I could pick a good song but I sure couldn’t pick a man.”

As the decade ended, so did her winning streak. She had left Atlantic, recorded a few albums for the Mercury label and in 1963 married Bill Blunt, a Long Island police officer. He wanted her to leave show business; they separated in 1966 and divorced. Her records were out of print and royalties non existent.

“I took some hard knocks. Why shouldn’t I tell somebody that I had to work as a school bus driver and a maid? I put on black glasses when I went to get food stamps. I’ve been working in a private home and taking care of a child and heard my music come on the radio. They didn’t know it was me.”

Aside from a Grammy nomination in 1969 for a cover of “Yesterday,” Brown recorded just for small labels. In the mid-’70s, she ran into comedian Redd Foxx, whom she had helped years earlier, at a Long Island show. He flew her to the West Coast, where engagements in Los Angeles and Las Vegas reignited her career.

In 1987, D.C. attorney and fan Howell Begle helped Brown win a voluntary payment from Atlantic Records of $20,000. It also opened the door for the formation of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which helped struggling pioneer musicians.

Howell Begle with, from left, the singers Carla Thomas, Ruth Brown and Bonnie Raitt at an awards show in Memphis in 1990. Ms. Raitt said that Mr. Begle’s “dedication and tenacity in fighting for royalty reform” made him “a hero.” © Julie Eilber

In 1989, she starred in “Black and Blue,” a Broadway show that earned her the Tony.

Health problem s began to emerge that year. She collapsed in January, suffering mild heart problems. The opening of “Black and Blue” was delayed because of an attack of angina and pneumonia. Complications from her knees crept in too.

“Some critic wrote I had the best legs in town,” she told The Pilot. “I thought, ‘I hope the wind doesn’t blow up my dress, because these legs are covered with bandages and band aids. I’m lucky to be walking.’ “

In 1990, Brown won a Grammy for her recording “Blues on Broadway.” That same year, she celebrated her 62nd birthday in Portsmouth with three days of events in her honor. There was a black-tie gala and a parade.

Nelson Street in Portsmouth was renamed Ruth Brown’s Place, and a scholarship for local high school graduates was started in her name.

After some debate, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Accolades and albums poured in: She appeared on an album by Bonnie Raitt, who credits her as an inspiration, in 1995. In 1998, at age 70, she was nominated for another Grammy for her album “R+B=Ruth Brown” as well as three W.C. Handy Awards, and she was consulting with Showtime for a movie on her life. In June 1996 she released her autobiography, “Miss Rhythm.”


She suffered a stroke in March 2000, which sent her into a depression. She was unable to speak for days; months passed before she could talk coherently. Her son Earl lifted her out of the depression, she said, by playing her music and making her look at her collection of awards.

In 2002, Brown came home to see a star placed in her name on the Legends of Music Walk of Fame on Granby Street in Norfolk. In May 2006, she was honored at the Portsmouth Notables banquet, where she was the keynote speaker.

“Coming back to Portsmouth is nothing new to me,” she said in an interview years before. “I’ve always been back to that place. That’s home to me. That’s a part of me.”

The Rhythm and Blues Foundation announced Friday that it will hold a public memorial to honor Ruth Brown and celebrate her contribution to rhythm-and-blues in New York, with details to be announced later.

Ruth Brown: Remembering Miss Rhythm

Rhythm-and-blues singer Ruth Brown died last week at the age of 78 from complications following a heart attack. This interview originally aired on Dec. 22, 1997.


Source: © Copyright The Virginian-Pilot

Ruth Brown, 78; pivotal rhythm-and-blues singer symbolized perseverance

By Ann Powers and Randy Lewis

Ruth Brown, the pioneering singer whose 1950s hits including “Teardrops From My Eyes” and “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” helped establish both the rhythm-and-blues form and Atlantic Records as the genre’s preeminent label, died Friday in a Las Vegas area hospital from complications after a heart attack and stroke earlier in the week. She was 78.

The Grammy- and Tony Award-winning Brown had suffered a variety of ailments in recent years. She had recovered sufficiently to work recently with director John Sayles on a feature film about African American musicians of the South, lawyer and family spokesman Howell Begle said Friday.

Much of her work in the last two decades had been as a driving force of efforts to get unpaid royalties and musical credit for R&B; and blues musicians, many of whom were not adequately compensated early in their careers.

Howell Begle with Ruth Brown

To that end she had helped create the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in Philadelphia in 1988 — financed by a settlement with Atlantic Records — to work to recover not just her back royalties but also those of almost three dozen other R&B; performers. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Despite being one of the top-selling R&B; singers of the early 1950s, Brown had to support herself and her two children through a variety of menial jobs in the 1960s and ‘70s, after musical tastes changed and other artists took over the charts.

“She had a hard life,” longtime Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler said Friday. “She had to drop out for a while and work as a maid. She’d be cleaning people’s houses and then hear her records on the air.”

Feisty, joyful and possessing the perfect balance of sugar and salt, Brown’s voice took African American pop into the rhythmically expressive, emotionally direct rhythm-and-blues era.

Her nickname, in fact, was “Miss Rhythm,” though she could turn a jazz phrase or give life to a Broadway song with as much grace as she showed shimmying through R&B; hits such as “Lucky Lips” or her most famous song, “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” Her trademark squeal in that No. 1 hit brought female sauciness to the fore in pop.

“Little Richard once told me he got his squeal from Ruth Brown,” said Wexler, who produced dozens of her Atlantic recordings, mostly in conjunction with label founder Ahmet Ertegun.

Later, she came to symbolize other qualities, especially perseverance in the face of hardship.

“What always hit me about Ruth was her sass and the force of her spirit,” singer Bonnie Raitt said Friday. “Even though she had a girlish quality, behind it there was no kidding around…. She would sell the song, and the force of her personality was so strong — flirtatiousness mixed with vulnerability mixed with ‘Don’t mess with me.’ ”

The eldest of seven children, Brown was born in Portsmouth, Va. She began singing as a child in the church where her father was choir director. In her teenage years, after winning a prize at amateur night at New York’s famed Apollo Theater during a family vacation, she found her way onto the nightclub circuit, working briefly for bandleader Lucky Millinder and later at the Crystal Caverns, the nightclub in Washington, D.C., run by Cab Calloway’s sister Blanche.

Duke Ellington saw Brown perform there one night and encouraged Ertegun to sign her. He did in 1949, and soon after she produced the string of hits that gave the fledgling label the nickname, “The House That Ruth Built.”

On her way to New York to sign the contract with Atlantic, she was injured in an automobile accident that put her in the hospital for nearly a year. Ertegun and label partner Herb Abramson supported her financially during her recovery, even though she hadn’t recorded a note for them yet. When she recovered, she rapidly began returning the favor with a series of hits central to the transition of African American blues-based music of the first half of the 20th century into the driving beat-conscious sound that became the rage in the ‘50s.

“She’s the link between the 12-bar blues red-hot mamas of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s and the R&B; divas of the ‘50s,” music historian and author David Ritz said Friday. “She was the new archetype, and out of her comes Etta James and so many others.”

Touring with other Atlantic artists in the 1950s, Brown became, by necessity, a civil rights pioneer. In her 1996 autobiography, “Miss Rhythm,” she recalled desegregating a Mississippi gas station bathroom when her bus, also carrying singer Charles Brown and the vocal group the Fleetwoods, stopped so she could use the restroom. The group was soon surrounded by local police. “We thought they might lynch us,” she later remembered. Such encounters defined Brown’s intrepid early years.

Brown left Atlantic in 1961, overshadowed by the label’s newer artists, and faded from popularity. She raised her two sons, Ronnie McPhatter (who took the surname of his father, singer Clyde McPhatter) and Earl Weston. Brown was married four times but spent most of her life as a single mother; she worked a variety of jobs, including school bus driver, Head Start teacher and domestic.

The rejuvenation of her musical career started with a 1988 booking at the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel that led to a new record contract and, in turn, her performance on Broadway.

She won her only Grammy Award in 1990, for female jazz vocal performance, for her album “Blues on Broadway.” She also won a Tony Award in 1989 for her starring role in the Broadway musical “Black and Blue.”

“In her heart of hearts, she wanted to be a jazz singer, and in the end she wound up singing jazz and blues,” said author Ritz. “But she made her great mark in the field of R&B.; For her it became a happy meeting ground between commerce and art.”

She is survived by her sons as well as three brothers, Leonard, Alvin and Benjamin, and a sister, Delia. Another brother, Leroy, died Wednesday. Funeral arrangements were pending Friday, but Begle said she would be buried in Portsmouth. The Rhythm and Blues Foundation is planning a public memorial in New York City, with details to be announced.

Source: © Copyright The Los Angeles Times Archives

Ruth Brown, 78

By Adam Bernstein

Ruth Brown, 78, a rhythm-and-blues singer whose hits in the 1950s made Atlantic Records “the house that Ruth built” and who revived her career decades later as the Tony Award-winning star of the musical revue “Black and Blue,” died Nov. 17 at St. Rose Dominican Hospitals in Henderson, Nev., after a stroke and heart attack.

Ms. Brown, who lived in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, became known as a persistent and vital activist in the musicians’ royalty reform movement of the 1980s. Her efforts brought aging, often ailing musicians payments that major music companies had long denied them.

With an aching, gospel-tinged approach to lyrics, Ms. Brown was among the top black pop singers of the early 1950s. Many of her recordings topped the R&B charts, including the rollicking “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and the ballad “So Long.” Her other popular recordings included “Teardrops From My Eyes,” “Lucky Lips,” “5-10-15 Hours,” “Mambo Baby” and “Oh What a Dream.”

Her admirers spanned several generations. Little Richard once said that he borrowed his trademark whoop (“Lucille-uh”) from her. Bonnie Raitt, with whom Ms. Brown played in recent years, also cited her as a musical influence.

Between career peaks, Ms. Brown endured a professional slump that left her at times in dire poverty. She partly blamed her ignorance about business matters. However, Atlantic’s royalty system did not favor artists, with its low royalties and faulty bookkeeping.

Many artists left the studio owing money for production costs, which Ms. Brown said was a way to discourage attempts to collect payment when a studio reissued material. By Atlantic’s calculations, Ms. Brown owed the company $30,000.

The matter stalled until her Tony — as well as a Grammy for the jazz recording “Blues on Broadway” (1989) — brought a resurgence in public attention. Working with Washington lawyer Howell Begle, she arranged an alliance of political forces, including Jesse L. Jackson, to pressure Atlantic and its longtime owner, Warner Communications, for payments.

Ms. Brown received $20,000 and was forgiven all “debts.” The company changed its royalty payment system to favor her peers, other R&B pioneers. This was credited with inspiring a royalty reform movement among other labels, including MCA.

Warner’s Atlantic subsidiary also agreed to contribute $1.5 million to start the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, a nonprofit aid organization for needy entertainers now in Philadelphia.

Ms. Brown was committed to having the group give money to her peers who were suffering financially and could not afford medical attention. She became critical of how the foundation evolved and went on a publicity attack.

“It’s my baby, but it’s kinda jumping out of my playpen,” Ms. Brown told Reuters, noting that money was spent on glitzy award ceremonies and payments to artists far from skid row, including Isaac Hayes Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.

Ruth Alston Weston, the eldest of seven children, was born Jan. 12, 1928, in Portsmouth, Va. She first sang with her father in his church choir but much preferred the pop music of the day, what she jokingly called “the devil’s music.”

Ms. Brown described herself as a mischievous child, sneaking out at night to sing for troops at wartime USO shows and dressing like singer Billie Holiday, down to the trademark gardenia in her hair.

Her singing led to an early, ill-fated marriage to a bigamous sailor named Jimmy Brown (she kept his name professionally). Unwelcome at her family’s home, she wound up with the Lucky Millinder band in Detroit, but the job ended a month later in Washington when she was caught serving drinks to the musicians.

She stayed on in the city, where she found important backers such as nightclub owner Blanche Calloway, sister of bandleader Cab Calloway, and Willis Conover, a Voice of America disc jockey.

Conover urged Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, who had just started Atlantic, to sign her. Ms. Brown was critically injured in a car accident on her way to the New York studios. Atlantic paid for her 11-month hospital stay, and she made her recording debut in 1949 on crutches.

Ms. Brown became the company’s first star, variously marketed as “Miss Rhythm” and “the girl with the tear in her voice.” She toured on bills with Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine and Clyde McPhatter, with whom she sang a duet of “Love Has Joined Us Together” and had a child.

With most of her songs played on radio stations catering to black listeners, she felt overshadowed by white singers who covered songs she first popularized, such as “Oh What a Dream.” She later said, angrily: “I never got to do ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ Patti Page did.”

She left Atlantic in the early 1960s making $350 per record side. After marrying a police officer who lived on Long Island, she attempted a more conventional life, but the marriage grew strained when she began singing nights.

After holding a series of low-paying jobs — floor scrubber, bus driver — she wrote to Atlantic’s Ertegun asking for money. He sent a $1,000 check — “crumbs from the rich man’s label,” she said in her 1996 memoir, “Miss Rhythm,” written with Andrew Yule.

Legal efforts to extract money she thought she was owed were “expertly stonewalled by the powers at Atlantic,” she wrote. “And always, always there was the constant threat from them: Leave, get lost, drop it, or we’ll sue for recovery of the money you owe” from production costs calculated by the company.

Her situation began to improve in the early 1970s, after comedian Redd Foxx, an old friend, took an interest in her circumstances. Foxx funded her move to Los Angeles and got her acting work in stage musicals and TV shows, including his “Sanford and Son.”

Her rise was slow, but she cultivated many new fans as a flamboyant disc jockey in John Waters’s “Hairspray” (1988). She followed with a starring role in “Black and Blue,” and reviewers noted her gift at conveying with extraordinary sauciness the furniture-store innuendo of Alexander Hill and Andy Razaf’s “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sitting On It.”

She also hosted a public radio blues program and in 1993 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She overcame the effects of a stroke in 2000 and continued an active singing career in Las Vegas and elsewhere until her illness.

Of her offstage life, Ms. Brown once said, “I could pick a good song, but I sure couldn’t pick a man.”

After her first marriage ended, she had a romance with saxophonist Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson, whom she described as a Lothario. She said her second husband, saxophonist Earl Swanson, was a drug addict who beat her; they divorced. Her third marriage, to police officer Bill Blunt, also ended in divorce.

Survivors include a son from her relationship with McPhatter, singer Ronnie McPhatter of Los Angeles; a son from her second marriage, Earl Swanson Jr. of Henderson; three brothers; a sister; and a grandson.

Source: © Copyright The Washington Post Archives

R&B pioneer Ruth Brown dies at age 78

By Reuters Staff

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Pioneering rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown, known as “the girl with a tear in her voice” for emotion-laden singing, died on Friday at age 78 after a stroke and heart attack in Las Vegas, friends said.

Ruth Brown – 1998 © Fred Prouser /Reuters

Brown was the best selling black female artist of the early 1950s with songs including “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” “So Long,” “Teardrops From My Eyes,” “Oh, What a Dream,” and “Mambo Lips.”

Her hits for Atlantic Records were so huge that record company became known as “The House that Ruth Built.”

But her work with Atlantic Records ended in 1961 as her gutsy, belting style fell out of favor.

Her career faded in the 1960s and she was reduced to taking menial jobs, including that of a maid, until a revival of her work in 1970s. In later years she hosted her own National Public Radio show, “The Harlem Hit Parade,” on the great black blues and R&B singers of the 1940s, 50s and 60s and won a Tony award for her work in the musical revue “Black and Blue.”

When she left Atlantic, the company said she owed them $30,000. When her career revived, she led a battle for artists to receive royalties from record companies.

Besides being known as “The Girl with a Tear in her Voice,” she was also called “The Original Queen of Rhythm & Blues,” “Miss Rhythm & Blues,” and “Miss Rhythm,” a nickname given to her by Frankie Lane,

When she revived her career, she starred in Allen Toussaint’s off-Broadway musical “Staggerlee” and appeared in John Waters’ film “Hairspray” as Motormouth Maybelle.

She was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Singer Bonnie Raitt said, “Ruth was one of the most important and beloved figures in modern music. You can hear her influence in everyone from Little Richard to Etta (James), Aretha (Franklin), Janis (Joplin) and divas like Christina Aguilera today.

“She set the standard for sass, heartache and resilience in her life as well as her music, and fought tirelessly for royalty reform and recognition for the R&B pioneers who never got their due. She taught me more than anyone about survival, heart and class. She was my dear friend and I will miss her terribly.”

Source: © Copyright Reuters

Ruth Brown, 78, a Queen of R&B, Dies

By Jon Pareles
Ruth Brown performing at Rainbow and Stars in New York in 1997 © Jack Vartoogian /FrontRowPhotos

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 a 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 as much for Ruth Brown as it did 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 all of 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 said in an interview with The New York Times 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 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, D.C. . 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.

Ruth Brown performing at the 15th Annual Chicago Blues Festival in 1998. © Jack Vartoogian /FrontRowPhotos

On the way to New York City, however, she was seriously injured in an automobile accident and hospitalized for most of a year; her legs, which were smashed, 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” 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&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, who has three children, of Los Angeles, and Mr. Swanson of Las Vegas. She is also survived by four siblings: Delia Weston of Las Vegas, Leonard Weston of Long Island and Alvin and Benjamin Weston of Portsmouth.

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 supported 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, invited her to Los Angeles in 1975 to play the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in “Selma,” a musical about civil rights he was producing.

She went 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 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.

Ms. Brown 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.”

Source: © Copyright The New York Times

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Charles Brown Gets His Reward – Raitt, Hooker celebrate R&B veteran’s comeback

on November 4, 1997 No comments

by Joel Selvin, Chronicle Pop Music Critic

Not long ago rhythm-and-blues giant Charles Brown was working as a janitor, although he was always careful with his fingers because he knew he would return to the piano someday.

Oakland’s Paramount Theater plays host to Charles Brown 75th birthday Bash. San Francisco Jazz Festival. Bonnie Raitt and Ruth Brown join the celebration to honor Brown – 1997  © Michael Macor /Chronicle

But he probably would never have guessed he would celebrate his 75th birthday in such grand musical style. At the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Sunday he was saluted by greats such as Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Scott and Ruth Brown before an adoring house of old and new fans. Charles Brown is not just a landmark stylist in modern American music, a figure whose music helped shape the sound of such disparate artists as Ray Charles and Sammy Davis Jr., but also a truly beloved man. “You can have those Grammys,” shouted a jubilant Bonnie Raitt. “I’ll take Charles Brown.” As the lead vocalist and pianist with Johnny Moore‘s Three Blazers and later, with his own solo recordings, Charles Brown was a huge star among black audiences in the late ’40s, although he was unknown to the white world. As styles changed, Brown’s popularity slipped until, living in Berkeley, he could no longer find work as a musician.

His return, nurtured by guitarist Danny Caron, has been bountiful. Only a few weeks ago, Brown appeared at the White House, where first lady Hillary Clinton presented him with a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. His appearance at the Paramount capped this year’s San Francisco Jazz Festival.

And when the money started coming in again, Brown moved from his studio apartment in a Berkeley senior-citizen housing project into one of the project’s one-bedroom units downstairs.

A sequined cap now replaces the sleek wigs he used to wear, and Brown has some physical infirmities, but with his long, elegant fingers on the keyboard and his smooth-as-scotch voice on the microphone, he is as commanding as ever.

He sang a duet with Raitt, “Someone to Love,” from one of his recent records. He joined Ruth Brown on a version of her first hit, “So Long,” a record that dates from — their first association as touring colleagues 48 years ago.

Bonnie Raitt, Ruth Brown at Charles Brown 75th birthday concert in Oakland’s Paramount Theater  © Stuart Brinin

“Charles is truly one of the persons my mama took me to see when I was little,” quipped the stately rhythm-and-blues queen.

A big band led by veteran New Orleans arranger Wardell Quezergue augmented his basic quintet, including both Clifford Solomon, whose sax solos graced many of Brown’s original recordings, and saxophonist Teddy Edwards, a ’50s bopper also undergoing something of a comeback.

Brown played graceful, understated accompaniment behind Jimmy Scott, whose broken-tempo ballad, “Heaven,” brought down the house. Brown tinkled across the dark, ominous rumble of John Lee Hooker, whose own recent recordings have featured Brown on piano, although Hooker’s earthy, raw Mississippi- Delta blues style is far from Brown’s polished, sophisticated approach (Brown, who practices for hours every morning, frequently dashes off a little Liszt or Chopin in those pri vate sessions).

Brown brought out the entire cast minus Hooker to sing his “Merry Christmas Baby” — the ebony “White Christmas” — with Scott, Raitt and Ruth Brown trading lines with the man who wrote the song and sold the rights for $35 a half century ago. The song was recorded by Elvis Presley, Otis Redding and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few.

Charles Brown lived long enough to get his just rewards, something he never counted on happening. He will never have to do windows again.

Source: © Copyright SFGate

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