Born: October 20, 1937
Ruth Brown was born Ruth Alson Weston in Portsmouth, Virginia. She was raised in Virginia and in Macon, North Carolina, where she spent summers helping her grandmother sharecrop. Brown developed an interest in music very young, sneaking out to hear shows and eventually, to sing out herself. “I dearly wanted to discuss my developing interest in singing for a living,” she writes in her autobiography, “but I knew Dad would hit the roof if I did.”
Following World War II, Brown acquired both the surname “Brown” and some additional performing experience when ran away from home and became half of a short-lived husband-and-wife performing team “Brown and Brown” with trumpeter Jimmy Earle Brown. After that, she toured for a brief time with Lucky Millinder and his band, but Millinder was unhappy with her performance and fired her—leaving her in Washington, DC, to fend for herself.
As a favor, Blanche Calloway offered her a gig singing for tips in her club, Crystal Caverns, to raise the funds she needed to return home to Portsmouth. Duke Ellington, Sonny Til of the Orioles, and Willis Conover of Voice of America happened to be in town one evening and heard her there. Willis called Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson at Atlantic Records, excited about the new talent they had just discovered. Atlantic sent a representative to see Brown, and then offered her a contract; Blanche Calloway became her manager. En route to New York to sign the contract and perform at the Apollo, however, Brown was in a car accident that crushed her legs. She signed a contract with Atlantic in 1949 from her hospital bed. She spent months recovering and had to wear leg braces for a time afterward. Atlantic Records helped to foot the medical bills.
Brown’s success for Atlantic was such that the label has famously been called “the House that Ruth Built.” She would eventually cut more than one hundred sides for the label. Initially, Brown recorded mainly ballads and jazz standards. Her first #1 R&B hit, “Teardrops from My Eyes,” marked a firm turn in her style toward the “hot” rhythmic style for which she became famous. Hits including “5-10-15 Hours” (1952) and “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1953) are arguably among the first of the rock and roll era. Her first major crossover success came with “Lucky Lips” (1957), which made it to the Billboard Top 100 list. She recalls in her autobiography that the success of that song plus her involvement with rock and roll “supershows” such as Alan Freed’s was that “I sang ‘Lucky Lips’ seven times in one day. And nothing else! It was a fiasco, a rock ’n’ roll circus, but it was a huge business.”
Brown also toured widely throughout the fifties and early sixties, which she later credited for her success. “One of the reasons that I was what we considered popular, hot, ‘red hot,’” she said in an oral history for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “was the fact that I was very involved—I was visible. I was one of the few female artists that made appearances in the deep South. Every place that there was a stage, no matter what the economic situation was, even in the midst of the worst period of segregation—I was always there. I made personal appearances.” She would often stay in private homes, and she recalls changing her clothes in the car when denied dressing rooms.
In the late 1960s into the 1970s, Brown’s musical career faltered somewhat, and she was also not receiving royalties from her early records. “With the passing of the sixties—it was in that period that found out that I had to do many other things,” she told Bob Santelli in an interview. “I became a domestic, I drove a school bus, I took care of the elderly, I worked as a counselors in drug abuse. I worked in Headstart, I worked in kindergarten with the children. I did whatever was necessary to maintain a livelihood for myself and my two children. I did it with dignity then, and I am not ashamed of it now.”
Her musical career, however, kicked back into gear in the later half of the 1970s. She began a different kind of stage career in 1975, when she played Mahalia Jackson in the musical Selma. In 1987, she appeared in Allen Toussaint’s R&B musical Staggerlee. Her next role was in Black & Blue at the Theatre Musical de Paris, and she was cast in the Broadway production of the show in 1989. According to Playbill, the show ran for 829 performances. She also appeared in the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray, starring as Motormouth Maybelle.
Brown was a tireless advocate for musicians’ rights. Her own struggles to receive fair compensation for her early records were the impetus for the creation of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation—a non-profit organization dedicated to providing financial and medical assistance to musicians as well as educational outreach and other efforts to preserve the cultural legacy of rhythm and blues.
Brown passed away in 2006, but not without first enjoying major accolades for her work: she received a Tony Award for her performance in Black & Blue in 1989—the same year she received one of the inaugural Pioneer Awards from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation—and she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
“So Long” / “It’s Raining.” Atlantic 87 (1949).
“I’ll Get Along Somehow (Parts 1 and 2).” Atlantic 887 (1949).
“Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe” / “Love Me Baby.” Atlantic 893 (1950).
“Why”/ “(I’ll Come Back) Someday.” Atlantic 899 (1950).
“Sentimental Journey” / “I Can Dream, Can’t I.” Atlantic 905 (1950).
“Where Can I Go” / “Dear Little Boy Of Mine.” Atlantic 907 (1950).
“Teardrops From My Eyes” / “Am I Making The Same Mistake Again?” Atlantic 919 (1950)
“I’ll Wait For You” / “Standing On The Corner.” Atlantic 930 (1951)
“I Know” / “I Don’t Want Anybody (If I Can’t Have You).” Atlantic 941 (1951).
“Shine On (Big Bright Moon)” / “Without My Love.” Atlantic 948 (1951).
“5-10-15 Hours (Of Your Love)” / “Be Anything (But Be Mine).” Atlantic 962 (1952).
“Daddy Daddy” / “Have A Good Time.” Atlantic 973 (1952).
“Three Letters” / “Good For Nothing Joe.” Atlantic 978 (1952).
“The Tears Keep Tumbling Down” / “I Would If I Could.” Atlantic 1005 (1953)
“(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” / “R. B. Blues.” Atlantic 986 (1953).
“Wild Wild Young Men” / “Mend Your Ways.” Atlantic 993 (1953).
“Love Contest” / “If You Don’t Want Me (I Don’t Want No Part Of You)” Atlantic 1018 (1954).
“Sentimental Journey” / “It’s All In Your Mind.” Atlantic 1023 (1954).
“Hello Little Boy” / “If I Had Any Sense.” Atlantic 1027 (1954).
“Somebody Touched Me” / “Mambo Baby.” Atlantic 1044 (1954).
“Bye Bye Young Men” / “Ever Since My Baby’s Been Gone.” Atlantic 1051 (1955).
“I Can See Everybody’s Baby” / “As Long As I’m Moving.” Atlantic 1059 (1955).
“It’s Love Baby (24 Hours Of The Day)” / “What’d I Say.” Atlantic 1072 (1955).
“Love Has Joined Us Together” / “I Gotta Have You.” Atlantic 1077 (1955).
“I Want To Do More” / “Old Man River.” Atlantic 1082 (1955).
“Sweet Baby Of Mine” / I’m Getting Right.” Atlantic 1091 (1956).
“Mom Oh Mom” / “I Want To Be Loved.” Atlantic 1102 (1956).
“Smooth Operator” / “I Still Love You.” Atlantic 1113 (1956).
“Lucky Lips” / “My Heart Is Breaking Over You.” Atlantic 1125 (1957).
“One More Time” / “When I Get You Baby.” Atlantic 1140 (1957).
“Show Me” / “I Hope We Meet.” Atlantic 1153 (1957).
“A New Love” / “Look Me Up.” Atlantic 1166 (1957).
“Just Too Much” / “Book Of Lies.” Atlantic 1177 (1958).
“This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’” / “Why Me.” Atlantic 1197 (1958).
“Jack O’Diamonds” / “I Can’t Hear a Word You Say.” Atlantic 2026 (1959).
“Papa Daddy” / “I Don’t Know.” Atlantic 2035 (1959).
Ruth Brown, Oral History for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Ruth Brown, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Series Performance & Interview with Robert Santelli.
Chip Deffaa, Blue Rhythms: Six Lives in Rhythm and Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
Ruth Brown with Andrew Yule, Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography of Ruth Brown, Rhythm and Blues Legend (New York: Donald I. Fine Books, 1996).
John Pareles, “Ruth Brown, 78, a Queen of R&B, Dies,” New York Times, 18 November 2006.
Robert Simonson, “Ruth Brown, Tony-Winner for Black and Blue, Is Dead at 78,” Playbill, 20 November 2006.