Ruth Brown

TrackSingle / Album
Shine OnAtlantic 948
5-10-15 HoursAtlantic 962
Daddy DaddyAtlantic 973
Oh What A DreamAtlantic 1036
Lucky LipsAtlantic 45-1125
This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'Atlantic 45-1197
Why MeAtlantic 45-1197
Don't Deceive MeAtlantic 45-2052
It Tears Me All To PiecesAtlantic 45-2104
Shake A HandAlong Comes Ruth

Ruth Brown photo 1

 

 

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Ruth Brown playlist

 

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Ruth Brown …

The lady who built Atlantic.

You might have thought that Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson built Atlantic and, yes, it’s true that Ahmet founded the company back in September 1947, and hired Herb as President for his music biz knowhow, but without that cash flow that Ruth gave them throughout the fifties, the company is highly unlikely to have survived and where would soul music have been then? Even the writer who produced the Wiki write-up on Atlantic concedes the point:

“On the recommendation of broadcaster Willis Conover, Ertegun and Abramson visited Ruth Brown at the Crystal Caverns club in Washington and invited her to audition for Atlantic. She was injured in a car accident en route to New York City, but Atlantic supported her for nine months and then signed her. So Long, her first record for the label, was recorded with Eddie Condon’s band on 25th May 1949. The song reached No.6 on the R&B chart. Brown recorded more than eighty songs for Atlantic, becoming its bestselling, most prolific musician of the period. So significant was Brown’s success to Atlantic that the label became known colloquially as ‘The House That Ruth Built’.”

But there was an inbuilt irony in this. After Ruth left Atlantic circa 1962, she was forced to scrape for a living, in large part due to Messrs. Ertegun and Abramson not having fully paid her what she was due, but, good fortune, nay, talent and seriously hard work, won through, and she got herself a new job as an actress and, by the late eighties, was starring on Broadway and from the tail end of that decade onwards, was sweeping up award after award.

And yet, a large number of those people who enjoyed her shows, films and TV appearances and even those august folk who presided over those award processes would have had minimal real knowledge of those 1950s Atlantic singles. That’s in spite of the fact that within the black communities of the United States she must have been virtually a household name.

One way of positioning Ruth in musical history is as the bridge between the jazz oriented female singers of the immediate post-war years, the Billie Holidays, the Ella Fitzgeralds and the Dinah Washingtons, and the soul divas of the sixties: the Esther Phillips, the Etta James and the Aretha Franklins. While that’s undoubtedly true – and Ruth’s ability to handle standards from the forties etc. is amply demonstrated in the 1959 LP, Late Date With Ruth Brown – I prefer to see her as the standard-bearer for the new generation, having personally performed much of the hard slog in turning blues and R&B into Soul Music. Yes, she had help from those guys at Atlantic but they were feeling their way too; no one had that clear an idea of where they were headed.

It struck me that it might be of interest if we compared Ruth’s first and last singles for Atlantic spanning a period of a little under 12 years. Disc 1, on 78 RPM of course because this was 1949, coupled So Long with It’s Raining with both being blues ballads of the sort that could have been sung by, say, Dinah Washington. With hindsight either track could have been seen (or heard) as a precursor to soul balladry but equally neither were at all unusual for their time. The black public certainly liked the record and pushed it up to #4 in the nation’s R&B Chart – and yes, this does differ from the paragraph from Wiki I quoted earlier, but Wiki got the number wrong. Whilst looking at the very early records it’s worth bending an ear to a number called Hey Pretty Baby which appears early (4th track) in the track list of the Rhythm & Blues CLASSICS Series: Ruth Brown: 1949-1950. In fact, this track was nothing to do with Atlantic’s sessions with Ruth. It was purchased by Atlantic and featured “Brown and Brown”, the name used by Ruth and her then husband Jimmy when they performed together in pre-Atlantic days. Its strong rhythm was something that would characterise many Ruth Brown records over coming years (and probably impressed Atlantic).

Her final Atlantic disc, released in May 1961 which was still early in terms of the development of soul music, featured a Jeff Barry authored song, Anyone But You produced by a youthful Phil Spector, with It Tears Me All To Pieces, from the pens of the prolific and reliable, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. The A-side has to be one of the clearest examples of doo wop morphing into soul that I’ve heard, utilising the doo wop progression loved by all those street corner Frankie Lymons, a perfectly competent group with a bass man making sure you know he’s there, with Ruth emoting on top. But the B-side had already been through that morphing phase and come out the other end as genuine soul music; there’s no other way of describing the record:

Back in those very early years the Atlantic bigwigs didn’t really have much of a clue as to what they were doing; starting out recording jazz bands and artists who happened to be in the Big Apple and widening that net out to include blues and even black vocal groups like the Cardinals and the Clovers. Their first hit, Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee from “Stick” McGhee and his Buddies (that’s what it says on the label), was something of a blow-in but it did highlight what would become known as Rhythm and Blues, a cruder or more immediate, depending on which way you look at it, form of (usually but not this time) small jazz band music often with a strong blues flavour. The label on the McGhee record read “Vocal Blues/Novelty” and, yes, I guess that described it.

They continued with Ruth in a slow blues setting for a while, mixing in the occasional standard sometimes given a touch of a beat like the pleasing Sentimental Journey on which Ruth proved just as accomplished. But the success of So Long wasn’t to be repeated until the release of Teardrops From My Eyes in 1950. The song’s title and lyrics would have led the potential buyer into an expectation of something slow and possibly agonised but the bouncy arrangement confounded those thoughts. The live clip below has accelerated the tempo and probably added even more verve to the Brown delivery but the arrangement is still similar if not identical:

The record not only repeated the success of So Long, it exceeded it, giving Ruth a number 1 R&B Chart Hit; the first of five of her singles to achieve that feat.

Prior to looking at some of those later big sellers, I’d like to shine a light on a track that saw the light of day in 1951 as the flipside of a non-charting A-side, Without My Love. The A-side was a fine ballad but not exceptional. But flip it and you got something else altogether. Shine On, or to give it its full title, Shine On – Big Bright Moon, Shine On – and no the pun was fortuitous, not planned – has never received any attention in all those debates on “the first rock’n’roll record” but it should have. After a bar or two of relatively innocuous piano those horns arrive having travelled from way down yonder in New Orleans, or Fats Domino land to be precise:

Whether there was conscious cribbing or not of the Domino/Dave Bartholomew Band sound, we don’t know but even without that possibility, the record does bear a significant resemblance to another single released that year, Tampa Red’s Since My Baby’s Been Gone and here the ‘borrowing’ has to have been deliberate. The rhumba rhythm is identical and the chorus does appear if you listen to the record for long enough. None of which detracts from the fact that the Brown record is excellent in its own right (though it does make me wonder whether its absence from the vast majority of her Atlantic compilations is deliberate).

The platter following Without My Love/Shine On in Spring ’52 impressed Cashbox no end: this is what they said:

“A real low down jump tune is belted out by Ruth Brown as she gives a solid set of lyrics a successful send-off. The upper lid, entitled 5-10-15 Hours, is a pretty thing which is treated to a dramatic arrangement. Ruth Brown’s dynamic chanting receives solid support from the ork, which features a muted trumpet in the backing. The result is an exciting etching which should make merry in the jukes.”

I hope that doesn’t need translating and can only wish my descriptive powers were up to the Cashbox scribe’s. All I’d add is that the record sounded totally natural with Ruth and bluesy pianist effectively duetting over a bed of easy horns, and her beau at the time, Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson, giving us a suitably satisfied sax solo since he was the putative recipient of the 5-10-15 hours of Ruth’s love; Atlantic had found a groove and it showed with the black public awarding Ruth and her disc a second #1 R&B Chart position. For those good reasons, it was a song that tended to stay in the repertoire so below I’m giving you the 1952 record and a live performance from L.A. in 1983:

 

By now, the Brown bandwagon had a head of steam behind it. The immediate follow-up to 5-10-15 Hours, Daddy Daddy journeyed to Latin America for its rhythmic base which would happen with some regularity at Atlantic over the years to come (and would position them well to take advantage of the Fifties Mambo Craze in the U.S. with Mambo Baby, her fifth R&B Chart #1 in late ’54). Paying punters probably appreciated the fact that Daddy Daddy also built on the lyrical approach of 5-10-15 Hours, opening with “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy love me strong / I don’t mind if it’s all night, Daddy” and going on in that vein.

I’m at risk of skipping ahead slightly in terms of successive R&B number ones and the pair I ignored justify some attention. Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean, number 3, was a rocker which can be found in all the “best of” comps but, with no disrespect to Ruth and team, doesn’t appeal to me. Not sure why but I guess I see it as clichéd showbiz. For the curious reader, this is that record.

In contrast, number 4, Oh What A Dream, does tickle my taste buds. It’s a blues ballad that’s beginning to sound a bit like early soul. Maybe that was due to the fact that Chuck Willis was the writer, but, as far as I can tell, he never recorded the number himself. According to Ruth in her autobiography, “Miss Rhythm”, Chuck wrote it for her and, probably for that reason, it was her favourite song. In the Toppermost I wrote on Chuck, with assistance from Cal Taylor, I commented “Chuck’s strength whilst at OKeh was the 32 bar blues, often referred to as a blues ballad” and he was still at OKeh when Ruth recorded this song (though in 1956 he moved to Atlantic where he stayed until his death in 1958). Ruth’s version of the song deserves comparison to Johnny Ace’s Pledging My Love which is widely admired as a pre-soul ballad and paved the way for the soul balladeers we know and love (and it features in the story of Ruth’s label mate LaVern Baker).

On page 109 of “Miss Rhythm”, Ruth makes further reference to Oh What A Dream and the events surrounding its creation. She goes on to say:

“Oh, What A Dream” was a killer title but I fell in love straight away with the wonderful slow bluesy mood he’d created in his combination of words and music. All we needed was for Jesse Stone to come up with an arrangement to match, and we were home free – well, almost. The record was barely on the streets when the inevitable happened. You guessed it, a Patti Page duplicate on Mercury.”

This was something that was happening with increasing frequency as the fifties rolled forward – other labels with white singers effectively ‘stealing’ any showing in the National Pop Chart for an R&B original, and Patti Page and Mercury were by no means the only villains.

In between the ballads, Atlantic kept Ruth busy with a diet of more danceable material; good examples included It’s Love Baby, a grinding rocker with the effect mitigated somewhat by the trademark upwards curl in the Brown voice, Hello Little Boy, one of the fastest jumpers ever (and what that little boy made of a ferocious Ruth B isn’t on record) and If I Had Any Sense, a near two chord affair which looked forward to soul dance discs via the use of horns responding to Ruth’s voice plus a funky guitar (for the early fifties that is).

In 1955, Atlantic cut LaVern Baker, their other R&B diva, on Tweedle Dee, a number which was clearly aimed at a bigger audience than the buyers whose sales got totted up in the R&B Chart, and, the exercise worked like a dream. But Ertegun and co waited until 1957 to try something similar with Ruth. They’d managed a #23 in the Hot 100 as far back as ’53 with Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean but nothing had registered since. They had used songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in ’55 with Ruth on I Want To Do More and, although that record did achieve a perfectly respectable #3 in the R&B Chart, the guys were just about to hit a real hot streak in ’57/’58 with records from the Coasters and Elvis hitting the Top Twenty and several making the Ten. Lucky Lips might not have been the greatest song Jerry and Mike had ever written but Cashbox referred to the record as a “scintillating bouncer … with a simple but very commercial beat and tune”. They knew what they were talking about; Lucky Lips wasn’t a mammoth hit but it did manage a #25 Hot 100 so, as with the LaVern single, the exercise was a (qualified) success and I say “qualified” because the record only reached #6 in the R&B Chart. And you know what? I rather like it although I would have thought it too poppy for my taste.

For various reasons, one of which was a falling out between Leiber & Stoller and Ahmet on the subject of royalties (as documented in “Miss Rhythm”), Ruth wasn’t able to command a regular stream of songs from the boys but their efforts did grace a flip in 1959. The song was Papa Daddy which rhythmically borrowed a little of the famous Diddley beat while having rather more hip lyrics than Lucky Lips. Since it appeared on a B-side it’s one that doesn’t appear in the compilations but is worth searching out. The A-side, I Don’t Know, though a little loungey, wasn’t bad either.

In my humble opinion, Ruth’s best rocker was This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’ in 1958. Written by Bobby Darin and Mann Curtis, back in Darin’s Brill Building days before he’d really established his name as a performer. I guess you’d call the number a second generation rocker not unlike some of the tracks that Darin himself would go on to cut for Atco. To these ears the song had slight similarities to gospel, a feel that was more explicit in Darin’s Early In The Morning (which he’d just cut). That said, the lively guitarist – Mickey Baker I believe – and highly recognisable King Curtis on sax put the performance firmly in commercial rock’n’roll territory. For this single, turning it over would have been highly recommended with Why Me putting its best step forward as a slow rocker, or a blues ballad with more oomph if you like but lyrically definitely in soul ballad territory, “When there’s a heart to be broken / Why mine, why mine”.

 

I’m skipping forward again, this time to 1960 and a couple more blues ballads which are of interest. They are, to me, particularly so because both have the name Chuck Willis in the writing credits. I made Chuck’s original of the first of the pair, one of my selections in his Toppermost and this is what I said about it at the time:

“Don’t Deceive Me, sometimes known as Don’t Deceive Me (Please Don’t Go), was almost the archetypal blues ballad, a format/style that lent itself to the world-weary approach. You sort of knew that Chuck knew in his heart of hearts that she was going to leave. It was to become one of his most widely covered songs from the period. Probably the most remarkable version came from the remarkable James Brown who stretched the number out to eleven minutes 43 seconds, by means of a seriously extended two chord fade. Unfortunately, that track isn’t on YouTube, or at least not in the UK. However, it is on Spotify, contained on the 1990 compilation Messing With The Blues. Definitely worth searching out. There were also versions from Ruth Brown, Little Richard and Solomon Burke.”

I’m pleased to say that the version from James Brown has appeared on YouTube during the period between the posting of the Chuck Willis Toppermost and the research into this one. Is this important? Well, it always helps to listen to the music in order to clarify connectivity, in this instance, the loose connection via one particular song between Chuck Willis, James Brown, Little Richard, Solomon Burke and Ruth Brown. In the hands of James, Solomon and Richard, the production – and by that I mean the coming together of all the components not just the vocal – sounded like soul music. Here’s the Ruth Brown Don’t Deceive Me:

Listen to Ruth. She’s in control. She doesn’t like the situation, in fact she really, really hates it but she’s still going to try to keep hold of her man. That’s why there’s no heavy emoting though the effect is slightly marred by the strings which rather suggest the arranger had been told “give me a power ballad”. But it’s a totally valid approach and stands up against those other big names, and yes, this is soul too. (And if the reader wants to explore further, other versions of the number can be found in Secondhandsongs; and, I make further comment about the song itself within the footnotes.)

The second Chuck Willis song (which appeared on Ruth’s follow-up to Don’t Deceive Me), was The Door Is Still Open and it’s a number that Chuck didn’t cut himself. Instead, the original came from the Cardinals and it was very nice indeed. Ruth’s version varies dramatically from her Don’t Deceive Me approach in that she does turn on the agony this time – melisma, big upwards swoops, etc. – in line with the lyrics: “I must confess / That I’m tired of loneliness / And the door is still open / To my heart”. A fine performance and a fine record which got squeezed out because of numbers.

Ruth made three LPs for Atlantic though Allmusic raise the possibility of four and then dismiss it – see footnotes. So, three LPs then. They consisted of Ruth Brown: Rock & Roll (with the R&R disappearing from later issues – 1957), Miss Rhythm (1959) and Late Date With Miss Brown (1959). There’s doubt about the order in which numbers 2 and 3 appeared – the online sources differ – but it’s of no great significance. The Late Date album is, in a sense, the odd one out, in that the composer credits for the songs include names like Richard Rodgers (with Lorenz Hart), George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. In other words, it was an album of standards with no attempt at a contemporary wrapping but then this was contemporary in 1959 to a large number of people. Ruth handled the material well since these were the sort of songs she was singing in night clubs before Ertegun and Abramson signed her up, though most of the folk who bought the record probably wouldn’t have known that. The other two were filled to the brim with singles and B-sides with the emphasis on hits.

After a parting of the ways with Atlantic – for detail, see footnotes – Ruth got picked up by Mercury with discs issued by that label and its then parent, Philips. In all, four singles were released plus an LP, Along Comes Ruth, and a six track EP extracted from the album. The LP and some of the singles were cut in Nashville under the watchful eye of Jerry Kennedy who would go on to be the production mastermind of the Jerry Lee Lewis country comeback and one of the “thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers in Nashville” on Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. And I have to say that John Sebastian’s characterisation of those pickers was spot on. Amazingly, they could deliver soul just as convincingly as they did country. Take a listen to Ruth’s cover of Faye Adams’ Shake A Hand on which Kennedy has obviously convinced Ruth to let her gospel hair down, and my, doesn’t she do it well; it’s the timing that gets you in the first verse just before an earth shattering “Yes” prior to the horns coming in for the second, just like they did – or perhaps the verb should be “like they would start doing” – in Memphis after the M.G.’s first verse of most songs in the Stax studio. By the third, the Nashville Raelettes – well I had to call them something – are in there with Ruth and the revival is seriously motoring.

A magnificent record and possibly the best of all the versions and in that I include Ms Adams’ excellent original and the Little Richard cover (and saying the last really costs me something since I’m a cast-iron Richard fan). Ruth’s ex-label mate LaVern Baker had also cut a perfectly good version and I do wonder whether Jerry Kennedy was zeroing in on Baker songs in this set since there were two other numbers associated with her included – a take on Jim Dandy and an even better one on I Cried A Tear which I guess you might call LaVern’s calling card (and what’s the betting that’s Floyd Cramer on the keys?). Sticking with the Atlantic days I should also mention that another version of Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean was chosen to kick off the LP and also as Ruth’s first single for her new label. Kennedy doesn’t go purely for the Atlantic era though; there are fine versions too of songs from other blues, soul and even swamp pop heroes: Bobby Bland (Cry, Cry, Cry), B.B. King (Please Accept My Love), Clyde McPhatter (Treasure Of Love) and Phil Phillips (Sea Of Love). I’ll leave the reader to find those on YouTube but I can’t resist featuring Ruth’s take on one of Chuck Willis’ (again) more popular songs, It’s Too Late:

Floyd Cramer again? And almost every time I hear a version of this song I do wonder why there are so many good versions around and, the only answer I’ve ever come up with, is that it must be something to do with the excellent taste of whoever selected the song to record (and there are fine takes from Otis Redding, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison and Willy DeVille not forgetting Buddy Holly who first brought the song to my ears).

There’s more on Along Comes Ruth in the footnotes, positioning it against other records released broadly at that time. It’s probably apparent from my remarks above that I like the album. It’s also interesting and maybe revealing that Ruth herself, on p.150 of her autobiography, describes it as “one of my all-time favourites”.

Ruth cut another LP for Mercury/Philips, Gospel Time, which perhaps surprisingly is the only gospel album she cut. Less surprisingly, it was of consistently high quality; I’ve selected Walk With Me Lord as an example but I really could have picked a good one blindfold. Once again, it was created in Nashville but, for this one, production was by Shelby Singleton.

Ruth’s acting comeback in the following decade was accompanied not only by reissues of her Atlantic material – and the Mercury/Philips tracks are now available via a Jasmine collection entitled Say It Again – but by plenty of new albums. Unfortunately, not all that many of those are now available. One that is, and it’s on Spotify, is the 1997 Bullseye set R+B=Ruth Brown which captures her still in great form on predominantly blues material with some nicely punchy horns in tow. However, for a final 45 from the great lady, here is Yesterday, one of only two releases from her in the second half of the sixties:

Somehow those opening words seem to relate all too closely to Ruth in 1969 and for several years to come: “Yesterday / All my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks as though they’re here to stay”.

Who knows, if Atlantic had paid better attention to Ruth, and by that I mean personally not just financially, and also started looking a little more closely into what was happening in places like Memphis a little earlier, they could have had an Aretha before Aretha.

 

“I idolised Ruth Brown. I wanted to be Ruth Brown.”
(Little Richard on the inside cover of “Miss Rhythm”)

 

Ruth Brown poster 1

 

FOOTNOTES

1. On hearing that I had embarked on Toppermosts for both Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker, Cal Taylor, very helpfully, loaned me his hard back copy of Ruth’s autobiography, the full title of which is “Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography Of Ruth Brown, Rhythm And Blues Legend” written by Ruth with Andrew Yule. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It puts real flesh on the skeletal biographical information I give below. It’s absolutely packed with story after story of Ruth’s life with portraits of other artists, of backing musicians, of Atlantic management, of agents and many more, often colourful people including those she sometimes gave her heart to and those who sometimes didn’t treat her well. There are surprises in there too in addition to the fact that Atlantic Records might not have been quite as cuddly as some of us thought. I was very tempted to use many of these stories but, by and large, held back from doing so mainly because of the sheer length of this essay.

2. Ruth Weston was born in Portsmouth, Virginia on 12th January 1928. She was a rebellious youngster and ran away from home at the age of 17 and met trumpet player and singer, Jimmy Brown who she subsequently married. Her desire was to sing in clubs and she was scratching about attempting to follow this dream when she met Blanche Calloway, sister of band leader and singer, Cab Calloway. Blanche got her a job in a club she ran in Washington D.C. called the Crystal Caverns. One evening, when she was performing, Duke Ellington came in along with Sonny Til (of “and the Orioles”) plus major disc jockey, Willis Conover. In an interview held with Rolling Stone, Ruth herself picked up the story:

“Now, Sonny Til and the Orioles had this record called It’s Too Soon to Know. And when I realized that that was Sonny Til – ohhhh! I told the bandleader I wanted to sing It’s Too Soon to Know,” and I dedicated it to him. I saw Duke Ellington’s expression, and without his saying a word, I knew that he was pleased with what he was hearing.”

Conover was sufficiently impressed with what he heard to put in a recommendation to the management of a relatively new record label, Atlantic Records. Herb Abramson of Atlantic travelled to Washington, caught Ruth’s act and made a verbal agreement with her on behalf of Atlantic. But, when she was travelling to New York to sign the contract, a serious car accident took her out of commission for a year or so. Ahmet Ertegun visited her in hospital and Atlantic paid for the hospitalisation. And I’ve already overlapped with the main text but I believe that the details I’ve documented in the last paragraph or two are closer to the truth than the Wikipedia statement I quoted.

3. Ruth left Atlantic in 1961. The hits had started easing off in 1959. In the time she’d been with the label, the company had grown significantly and grown away from Ruth; she didn’t have anything like the sort of family style access to the management that she used to have. She also didn’t have the amount of money that she thought she should have but didn’t know why – the reasons would only emerge years later. In addition, she had the example in front of her of Ray Charles who’d left Atlantic for ABC-Paramount in 1960. She put out feelers and it was Brook Benton who connected her with Mercury with the musical results described in the main text.

While she continued working the clubs and making the odd LP and a few more singles for various companies, some of which tracks aren’t even on YouTube, the money wasn’t adding up and she had a family to support, so, in her own words, from the Rolling Stone interview:

“I got myself a day job. A nine to five. Things were just not going well. I was trying to carry on a house out on Long Island with my children, so I became a domestic. And worked in schools – in Head Start, day care, drove school buses. I did that up until 1976. By that time I had gotten both of my children in college, and I started to climb back up by my fingernails again.”

However, from the mid seventies onwards her career started moving onto an upturn. She was offered and accepted, the role of Mahalia Jackson in the musical Selma working with comedian Redd Foxx (who helped Ruth get an audition). The success of the show led to further work including acting in the TV sitcom Hello, Larry; plus shows like Black And Blue which started life in Paris but then moved to Broadway, bringing Ruth a Tony award for best actress in a musical in 1989; Amen Corner, a musical version of a play by James Baldwin; and Staggerlee for which Allen Toussaint was responsible for the music. Her most notable role on film was that of Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs in John Waters’ 1988 Hairspray. In the period prior to her death, she was preparing for the John Sayles film, Honeydripper. She didn’t live long enough to perform in the film; her role was taken by Mable John.

Ruth’s increased visibility prompted rereleases of her Atlantic record oeuvre which got her thinking about her financial mistreatment by the label and almost inevitably posed the question, shouldn’t royalties be coming in? After no initial success in following up, she eventually found the right lawyer for the job and her description in the Rolling Stone interview of how she started to obtain redress is well worth a read:

“Through an attorney named Howell Begle. He was a Ruth Brown fan; his mother had taken him to see an Alan Freed show. He came to see me perform, and he had about eight or nine albums for me to autograph. And I said, “Where did you get all these records?” And he said, “I paid dearly for them, but they’re very precious to me.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know who got the money that you paid for these, but I didn’t.” And I went on to tell him that I hadn’t gotten a royalty statement in over twenty-five years. He couldn’t believe it. I said, “Well, not only me. There are a whole lot of us.” He said, “Let’s have lunch and talk.”

Her successful fight for the rights and royalties of herself and others led to the set-up of the Rhythm And Blues Foundation dedicated to assisting rhythm and blues artists: the idea came from discussion between Ruth, Howell Begle and others. Warner Bros.-Seven Arts which had taken over Atlantic in 1967, provided a $1.5 million donation, and the foundation was officially established in 1988 in Washington, D.C. and then, in 2005, moved to Philadelphia, P.A.

She died on 17th November 2006 from complications following heart surgery.

4. Ruth’s single The Tears Keep Tumbling Down (1953) has to be among the earliest popular songs to contain the immortal phrase “Have Mercy”.

5. A belated (1963) cover of Lucky Lips by Cliff Richard hit #4 in the UK but did even better in a whole host of other countries right across the world.

6. The process of creating a Toppermost, for me, initially involves a lot of listening even to tracks I might feel I know backwards. Continued listening during the document creation process usually including both covers and particularly source tracks i.e. those which the subject artist has covered, then ensues. It was via this exploration that I stumbled over a possible resemblance between the Chuck Willis original of Don’t Deceive Me and the Hank Williams song, You Win Again. This I have documented as Footnote #16 in the Willis Toppermost since this was the logical home for it. While I would in no way claim that that footnote provides conclusive evidence that Willis plagiarised some of You Win Again to create Don’t Deceive Me, what I have written does suggest that it is reasonably likely that Willis had heard the number, and that the drip feed of influence between country and blues music, or white and black to put it another way, was underway as early as 1952/53. It’s widely recognised that this bidirectional feed was responsible for rock and roll; it’s also possible that in a more subtle way, country contributed both melodically and lyrically to soul music and that would be in addition to (and probably precede) the more obvious cross pollinators like Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and Esther Phillips. The Chuck Willis role in the development of soul is largely unrecognised; he didn’t get a sniff of reaction out of the US Pop audience for this record, for example, though it did get to #6 in the R&B Chart which accounts for the covers from black artists. The Ruth Brown version hit #62 in the Hot 100 and #10 in the R&B Chart i.e. it achieved wider acceptance.

7. Regarding the mysterious “fourth LP” from Ruth, Allmusic lists an LP entitled Ruth Brown Sings Rhythm and Blues Favorites but then refers us to a specialised publication called “Both Sides Now”. The online labels discography of that organisation lists the following within Atlantic LPs:

“ALS-115 – Ruth Brown Sings Rhythm and Blues Favorites – Ruth Brown (Unreleased?) This record is listed on the back of several of the early Atlantic 10 and 12 inch albums. Since no known copy of this record has ever surfaced it is the general consensus of record collectors that it was never released.”

8. The LP Along Comes Ruth didn’t make any waves at the time and the two sentence review in Allmusic is, to me, misleading:

“A good, but not essential, early-’60s session showing that both Ruth Brown and her brain trust were about to run dry. She still had the powerhouse vocals, but there are fewer inspiring songs, and by the end of side two Brown is getting by on energy alone.”

In my view, the set is more rewarding than the Atlantic LPs. Putting aside the album of standards, the other two, with the exception of a number of tracks of which several are in the Ten, sound very dated now. That’s less the case with Along Comes Ruth; by and large the tracks do sound like early sixties soul. I felt that it might be of interest also to widen the comparison. Of the ‘name’ soul singers, and putting LaVern Baker to one side, only two had had LPs released by 1962, Aretha Franklin and Etta James. Taking Aretha first, she had started at Columbia in 1961 and by the end of ’62 had released 3 LPs. In “RocknRoll” I made the following broad statement about Aretha:

“Columbia got Aretha wrong as, indeed, RCA originally got Sam Cooke wrong. But RCA learned. Columbia didn’t. They had hived off what was then called “race music” to subsidiary OKeh in 1953 and there seemed to be no one left at Columbia itself who was able to recognise what was happening in black music and how it was evolving. They weren’t even watching what was happening at OKeh where artists like Major Lance, Ted Taylor and Billy Butler were emerging.”

I go on to say that there was nothing bad about the music that Columbia was making with Aretha but as the years went by, this music was of decreasing relevance to the black community. The music contained in these three LPs is in line with those comments.

Ms James is a different matter. She had started out at Modern in L.A. And, once again using my words from “RocknRoll”, “Etta’s Modern records were largely updated jump blues often with a knowing sexual air. It was a style that was remarkably similar to records being put out by Ruth Brown in New York at the time and that similarity wasn’t coincidental.”

Etta moved to Chess/Argo in 1960 and her music changed. Out went blues, other than the occasional usage of a Willie Dixon penned number, and in came power ballads and pop plus strings and strings (and more strings). However, the James voice didn’t change that much which gave those ballads marinaded in violins something of a soul edge. Four Argo LPs featuring Etta saw release by the end of ’62 with broadly that mix though the last was standards oriented. At Last, one of her best known numbers, is a good example of what I’ve just been talking about and it gave its name to the first of those albums.

What I’m working my way round to saying is that, with a view of umpteen decades from the release of Along Comes Ruth, it now looks more representative of early sixties soul than the records from those ladies who are looked on as the key soul divas of the sixties.

9. The nickname “Miss Rhythm” which appeared as a title on an LP, on her autobiography and has sometimes been used generally about Ruth, wasn’t something dreamed up by marketing people. It came from the lips of Frankie Laine, one of the more popular singers of the fifties who himself was known as “Mr. Rhythm”.

10. The paragraph below appeared in the New York Times obituary of Ruth:

“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.)”

11. During his work to claim back Ruth’s unpaid royalties, Howell Begle extended this activity to other musicians beyond Ruth. The para below appeared in Howell’s obituary in the Washington Post:

“Besides Brown, Mr. Begle took on musicians including Big Joe Turner, the Drifters, the Coasters, the Clovers, and Sam and Dave. He helped turn public opinion in his clients’ favor by placing Brown and Turner, who by the 1980s was on dialysis, on the CBS newsmagazine “West 57th.” Brown appeared before Congress. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson joined discussions with record companies, protesting what he viewed as “racially exclusive, insensitive and economically exploitative policies.”

What is not apparent either from this newspaper quote or from my reporting on this topic earlier in these footnotes, is that Howell Begle’s work to obtain financial recompense lasted a long, long time. It wasn’t a battle, it was a war which went on for years. Even the set-up of the Rhythm And Blues Foundation wasn’t a satisfactory end point; substantial persuasive work by Howell had to be put in with other labels in order to get them to step up to the plate and Warner Bros were tardy in meeting their commitments.

With a spoiler warning to anyone who’s intending to buy the “Miss Rhythm” autobiography, I’d state that Ruth devotes a considerable amount of time to this “war” in the last third and it’s all engrossing stuff. She closes the book with the phrase “I had a dream” which both paraphrases the famous Martin Luther King declaration in 1963 and is also a clear statement of satisfaction with the long overdue recognition of work from black musical artists including herself. I may be pushing it, but I also see a reference to the fact that earlier on in the book, she almost goes out of her way to tell us that her favourite record out of her entire oeuvre was Oh, What A Dream.

12. In “Miss Rhythm” Ruth tells a story – date not given but circa late seventies, early eighties – about how she was performing in a show and was told Stevie Wonder was in the audience. She pointed to him and invited him down to the stage. After he’d been given a mike he announced:

“I want to tell you something. I did not come here because I had nothing else to do. I came here because they told me Ruth Brown was singing here tonight, and this is the lady, take my word for it, who started it all. Wasn’t for Ruth there wouldn’t be no Aretha, wouldn’t be nobody! I’m here to tell you this lady is a true legend,”

13. There’s a short sentence in the Wiki feature on Ruth which runs “She also toured with Bonnie Raitt in the late 1990s”. What this phrase doesn’t tell us is that Bonnie was immensely supportive to Ruth from the eighties through to her death, something that comes through very clearly in “Miss Rhythm”. In case Bonnie ever gets to read this essay, I’d like to thank her for that support.

14. I felt that the clip below from the Blues Summit in 1993 of Ruth performing Ain’t Nobody’s Business with B.B. King was a suitable closer: a demonstration that the soul of Bessie Smith was still up and rolling in 1993 with “rolling” being the operative word based on the repartee.

 

 

 

Ruth Brown photo 2

Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker
(as seen on the Spectropop website)

 

Ruth Brown poster 2

Ruth Brown (1928–2006)

 

Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award 1989

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Ruth Brown (1993)

Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award: Ruth Brown (2016)

National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame: Ruth Brown (2017)

“Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography Of Ruth Brown, Rhythm And Blues Legend” by Ruth Brown with Andrew Yule (1996)

Ruth Brown at 45cat

Ruth Brown at Discogs

Ruth Brown biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Johnny Ace, LaVern Baker, Bobby Bland, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, James Brown, Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Coasters, Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin, Fats Domino, Drifters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Buddy Holly, Mable John, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, Esther Phillips, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Charlie Rich, Big Joe Turner, Dinah Washington, Chuck Willis, Stevie Wonder

TopperPost #996

2 Comments

  1. Cal Taylor
    Nov 27, 2021

    A great post.
    First class resumé of one of the most underrated pioneers of post-war music. Without Ruth (and LaVern) Atlantic almost certainly would not have been as successful as it turned out to be, which might have deprived us of many favourite artists who followed on that label.
    Really good work, Dave.

    • Dave Stephens
      Nov 27, 2021

      Many thanks Cal and thanks again for the book loan. I’ve said that I didn’t use some of the content because of size concerns, I would add that I’m sure you recall that some of her stories weren’t repeatable in a public forum but they were (a) most enjoyable, and (b) evocative of the culture and the time.

      Something I found while producing this essay was that my opinion of Atlantic changed. And that’s not just because of the financial wrong doing of which I was aware, just not the extent, but their musical production capability and the tendency they had to “play safe”. It was almost invariably other artists or producers or competitors e.g. Ray Charles, Leiber & Stoller, Stax to quote examples of each, which made things happen. Jerry Wexler was a step in the right direction but largely because of his ability to see/hear things and quickly latch onto them; he tended not to create himself. This held back both Ruth and LaVern. It’s a shame Ruth didn’t see success from her Mercury/Philips spell where she possibly suffered from lack of promotion.

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