Jazz music, news and views

Friday, November 24, 2006

RIP Ruth Brown

Vocalist Ruth Brown died last Friday, November 17th from complications from a stroke and a heart attack. She was 78 years old. Known always as a strong, earthy, soulful singer, her career took off when she signed to Atlantic Records in the late '40s. Though she wanted to sing more ballads, the label urged her to try more upbeat material, which suited her well, though she would change and evolve greatly as an artist over a long, hard career.

Cutting her teeth in Lucky Millinder's band, she was hired in 1946 and fired the next year. Stranded in Washington, D.C., Voice of America radio host Willis Conover discovered her and pushed her to Atlantic Records. After a period of success in the '50s with some chart-topping sides and tours on the rhythm-and-blues circuit, she settled in Long Island but faced some lean years for a while. She spent some time as a bus driver, a teacher's aide and as a maid, went through a handful of romances, marriages and divorces, raised two sons and eventually made a comeback. Resettling in Las Vegas after playing Mahalia Jackson in the 1976 musical "Selma," her strong return to the scene was bolstered by her Tony Award-winning Broadway appearance in "Black and Blue." Her Blues on Broadway album won a Grammy for Best Female Vocal Jazz Performance, and four years later, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In addition to her career in performance, she advocated for her fellow musicians, voicing her objections to the unfair contracts that withheld royalties from artists who, like her, made hit tunes for their labels but were never issued checks. Thanks to her speaking out on the issue, Atlantic Records agreed to pay twenty years' worth of past royalties due to her labelmates. Another result was the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, to which Atlantic contributed almost two million dollars.

She was nicknamed "Miss Rhythm" by "Mr. Rhythm," Frankie Laine, as well as "the girl with a tear in her voice," a moniker inspired by her recording of "Teardrops From My Eyes" where her voice cracked slightly. The sound became something of a signature, but her over the years her performances also became much bluesier and deeper. No doubt her life experiences gave new layers to her performance. The timbre of her voice was attractively rough, deepened by soul and lifted by her strength in song. In addition to the qualities of her voice, she could croon, cry or belt a tune with singular style. She could deliver heartbreaking blues or sassy swing. Appropriately, her fans say that "R&B" stands not only for "rhythm and blues" but also for "Ruth Brown."


NY Times
SF Chronicle

"Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean"
"Teardrops From My Eyes"

Radio interviews:
WBUR (07.17.03)
WGBH (07.14.05)


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