Ruth Brown - She was something special.
Rather than trying to wax on about her, let me reprint As It Happen’s bio here. (I’m sure I’m violating copyright, I want to repeat it because Ruth is someone who NEEDS to be known and absolutely no one has captured what I remember of Ruth better.)
She went from selling millions of records to working a nine-to-five job. But you can’t keep a good woman down – especially if that woman is Ruth Brown. She never stopped fighting, for herself, and for other musicians as well. The woman who defined rhythm and blues in the Nineteen-Fifties died last Friday. She was seventy-eight.
Ruth Brown was a singing prodigy. At the tender age of four, her father – the choir director at a Virginia Church – lifted her on top of the church piano, and she gave her first public performance. But as she grew up, her taste ran more to the secular. And she herself ran to the secular, when she left home at the age of seventeen to begin working as a big-band and club singer.
In the late ‘40s, a jazz DJ heard her, and recommended that his friends at Atlantic Records give her a chance to record. The people at Atlantic agreed. But on her way to sign a contract with the label, she was severely injured in a terrible car accident.
Her legs were shattered, and would cause her pain for the rest of her life. But injury or no, Ruth Brown wouldn’t give up. Nine months after her accident, she recorded the ballad “So Long”, while standing on crutches. The song had legs – her first single was also her first hit. And more followed, in quick succession: “I’ll Get Along Somehow”, “Teardrops From My Eyes”, “Five-Ten-Fifteen Hours”, and her signature song, “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean”. She was such a powerhouse that Atlantic Records became known as “The House That Ruth Built”.
Unfortunately, while that house continued to add rooms, Ms. Brown was evicted. By the early ‘Sixties, the hits had stopped coming, so she took on odd jobs to support her two sons – working variously as a maid, a teacher, and a bus driver. In 1975, after more than a decade spent mostly out of the spotlight, comedian Redd Foxx offered her the part of Mahalia Jackson in a musical he was producing. And Ruth Brown was back.
She developed a successful Vegas show, and took the Great White Way by storm in the mid-‘Eighties, when the revue “Black and Blue” turned out to be a success.
But Ruth Brown wasn’t just concerned with her own comeback. She wanted restitution for every musician who hadn’t received royalties for his or her work. It was no small undertaking, since early record contracts were usually exploitative; in fact, due to some specious accounting, Ms. Brown and many other former Atlantic recording artists were considered to be in debt to the label. She worked tirelessly, speaking at hearings and frequently travelling to Washington D.C., to press politicians. And in 1988, on the label’s fortieth anniversary, Atlantic Records agreed to waive the so-called debt – and to pay twenty years of back royalties.
It was another uphill victory for Ruth Brown. We haven’t even delved into her work for civil rights, her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, her Grammy Award, or her award-winning autobiography. We could talk about her all night – but it’s better to listen to her. Here, from 1953, is Ruth Brown, with “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean”.
Well, I’m sure it’s hard for a pudgy white guy to talk credibly about Ruth Brown, but I loved her music and appreciate her work. I’ve heard songs she’s done over the years, I wish I had copies. I’ll add it to my list of “must haves”, even if it runs a mile long already.
The biggest reason I’m so insistent upon telling Ruth’s story is that it shows both sides of the record industry’s downfalls. She fought the heartless and callous attitude towards those who created music and make fortunes for the industry. She was strong and diligent when artists needed her strength and her diligence.
And now she runs the risk of fading into obscurity except those enthusiasts and audiophiles who care so deeply for her passion and her glorious voice.
The music industry are guardians to our collective past, our collective history, our very culture itself.
Right now, master tapes are kept in vaults unheard, unknown, unloved.
The greatest time of distribution is upon us right now. This is not the moment to be suing file-sharing or arguing whether Apple is right to charge $0.99 a song or if the CRIA / RIAA can squeeze more money from the popular artists. Now is the time we should be teaching, sharing and educating others about this rich heritage we share. Now is the time the labels need to be freeing their past-copyright materials and getting the music OUT there.
I support local talent. I support independent talent. That’s where the good, creative, inventive music seems to come from.
I still love Ruth Brown’s music too. Sometimes, even an industry association gets it right.