In the Fifties, Ruth Brown was known as “Miss Rhythm,” a testament to her stature as a female rhythm & blues singer whose only serious competition was Dinah Washington.
Signed to Atlantic Records in 1948 by label founders Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, Brown gave the fledgling company its third-ever hit with “So Long,” a simple, bluesy showcase for her torchy, church- and jazz-schooled voice that entered the Billboard R&B chart in September of 1949.
“Teardrops in My Eyes,” her second R&B hit (and seventh single release), brought out her more swaggering, aggressive side, and she was rewarded with her first Number One R&B hit. For the duration of the Fifties, Brown dominated the R&B charts and even crossed over into rock and roll with some success with “Lucky Lips” (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) and “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’” (written for Brown by Bobby Darin). But her best work was to be found on such red-hot mid-Fifties R&B sides as “5-10-15 Hours” and “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” No less a rock and roll pioneer than Little Richard has credited Brown with influencing his vocal style. Brown’s two dozen hit records helped Atlantic secure its footing in the record industry, a track record for which the young label was referred to as “the House That Ruth Built.”
Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on January 30, 1928, Ruth Brown sang in the church choir and then joined Lucky Millinder’s big band after winning a talent contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. While performing at a Washington, D.C. nightclub, Brown was noticed by a local deejay who contacted the top brass at Atlantic. They were duly impressed and offered her a contract. However, while en route to New York to sign it, Brown was involved in a serious car accident, which landed her in a Philadelphia hospital for a year. After recovering, she began her amazing tenure at Atlantic with the recording of “So Long” in 1949. It was a relationship that would last until 1961, at which point she jumped to another label with middling success and then retired.
The story might have ended there, but Brown enjoyed a career renaissance in the mid-Seventies. She began recording blues and jazz for a variety of labels, and also conquered the worlds of theater (winning a Tony award for her role in the Broadway revue Black and Blue) and film (appearing as a feisty deejay in the John Waters–directed Hairspray). She also became a popular host on two National Public Radio shows ("Harlem Hit Parade” and “Blues Stage"). Finally, she continued to perform and record, exhibiting the same electrifying energy that lit a fire under Atlantic Records and the world of rhythm & blues back in the Fifties.
Ruth Brown passed away on November 17, 2006 in Henderson, Nevada, after a stroke and heart attack.
Ruth Brown (vocals; born January 30, 1928, died November 17, 2006)