Saturday, November 18, 2006

RandBobit: Ruth Brown

The death has been announced of Ruth Brown, one of the first inspirational voices of R&B who became a thorn in the music industry's side.

Known both as "the girl with a tear in her voice" and "Miss Rhythm", Brown was born in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1928; like many of her background, her first public performances were in church, and then around local army bases. It was her militaryfanbases who scraped together the railfare to allow her to attend a talent show in Harlem, and that win at the Harlem Apollo led to a role in Lucky Millinder's big band.

A backstage meeting with Billie Holiday persuaded Brown to develop something beyond her original half-Holiday approach:

"She was standing there and I went to go by her and she could tell my eyes were just welled up," Brown recalls. "She said, 'Let me tell you something. You've got a good voice. Find out who you are, because as long as you go out and sound like that, they're going to call my name,and they'll never remember yours.'"

While touring, she was spotted by a DC DJ. He knew some people establishing a new record business; he effected an introduction, although a car accident meant it took a year before Brown would be able to take full advantage of the offer.

With her legs still in traction, Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson signed her to their Atlantic Records label. She rewarded them with So Long - the second in what was to be a long run of hit singles for Atlantic, which would come to be known as "The house that Ruth built." She then hit her stride, developing a sassy R&B style which would see her dominate the R&B charts for much of the 1950s and frequently visit the main listings as that most valuable of commodities, a crossover artist.

Her fame, though, didn't count for much in the South in the 1950s. During a national tour with Charles Brown (no relation), a Mississippi gas station attendant refused to allow Ruth to use the toilets - they were for white customers; told they didn't want the gas if they couldn't pee, a situation developed which started to look nasty, as Ruth recalled later:

"They said, 'Oh, you gonna take this gas,' 'cause they had the hose in the back of the car." Charles peeled out, and within minutes, the Fleetwood was surrounded by police cars.

"We thought they might lynch us 'cause we was in Mississippi," Ruth says. "I don't know how we got away except that Charles's grandfather,who was traveling with us, got out of that car and walked around in back and stayed with these officers about ten minutes. We were inside, nervous and scared to death. And when he came back and got in the car he said, 'Okay, let's go.' To this day, we don't know what his grandfather said or did to get us out of that. Charles and I thought we were goners that day."


You can hear her influence on most of the next two decades female singers, from Aretha to Etta; even Little Richard acknowledged that he'd based his vocalstylings on those of Brown. And although she had no formal training, she had a natural ear for music - Dizzy Gillespie observing that " Ruth Brown could hear a rat wee on cotton."

A change in label led to a slump in fortunes, and the 1960s weren't kind to Brown. A 1963 marriage to policeman Bill Blunt ended in divorce - he'd refused to allow her to perform during the marriage - and, broke, and with a child to support, Brown enquired about outstanding royalties from Atlantic. A cheque for $1000 arrived in the post, which was to be the last she'd see of any earnings for twenty years.

While Atlantic continued to do nicely from her recordings, Brown was scraping a living however she could:

"I did nine-to-fives. I washed dishes. I drove a school bus. I cleaned houses. Yes ma'am."

She still sang - at church, at small clubs for little or nothing - but her star wouldn't be revived activist Ann Sneed - buoyed by funding from the National Endowment For The Arts - brought her back under the auspices of International Art of Jazz.

Performing again, but still doing menial work, Brown contacted Atlantic once more to ask if she might not be owed some cash by them. On the contrary, she was told, you owe us monies unpaid from the 1950s. Shamefully, Atlantic continued to lie and stonewall.

An old friend from the 1950s, Red Foxx, repaid Browns' kindness to him the past (she'd helped him with money when he had none; now he came to her aid.) Riding high in the USSteptoe remake Sanford and Son, he got Brown work in the series, and cast her as Mahalia Jackson in his stage musical Selma. It provided a base from which Brown was able to start to rebuild her career, although this comeback was nearly thrown off course after she was the victim of some brutal domestic violence meted out by partner Earl Swanson.

Another survival; another summoning of strength.

Invited to sign some albums backstage after a Washington gig, Brown was surprised to see records she'd never even heard of. Pointing out that she'd never earned a cent from these titles, Brown signed anyway. She was lucky, though, that the autographs had been requested by Howell Begle, an entertainment lawyer. He took on her case, and that of others who had been conned by Atlantic into signing away rights, and threatened with large bills for "unpaid expenses" when they dared to ask about recompense. After a long battle with Atlantic, and then with Time Warner when they bought the company, Brown would eventually win a back payment of $30,000; thirty-five other artists also got the money they'd been owed for thirty years and a shamed Time Warner were bounced into reluctantly endowing the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. (The next time record labels talk about how they "support artists", try picturing the pile of records lost to the world because Atlantic kept R&B singers in poverty, cleaning rooms to live when they should have been making music.)

Brown won Grammys, Tonys and - in 1993 - an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her citation in the Hall of Fame records her musical achievements; it oddly finds no space for the arguably more significant work she and Begle did in calling record companies to account.

Ruth Brown died from a stroke. She was 78.


2 comments:

eyetie said...

'The next time record labels talk about how they "support artists", try picturing the pile of records lost to the world because Atlantic kept R&B singers in poverty, cleaning rooms to live when they should have been making music.'

Most touching words I've heard in a long while and I imagine they will mean a lot to anyone who has come from a poor working-class background. I was the first in my family to go to university, the first to work in a middle-class job and the first to earn six-figures in a year (well, legit ;) ) but I'm still feel that I'm only one step away from where I was growing up: washing Beefeater dishes with my mum and cleaning Hampstead gardens with my dad.

Ruth Brown, rest in peace.

Jenny said...

Thanks for the very informative post. Enjoyed the Dizzy Gillespie quote, "Ruth Brown could hear a rat wee on cotton." Ha, ha!

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