Forebears: Ruth Brown, The Fabulous Miss Rhythm
This essay is one in a series celebrating women whose major contributions in recording occurred before the time frame of NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.
Ruth Brown was R&B's first major star; in fact, rhythm and blues as a genre was born at almost the same moment Brown released her first single. It was 1949 when Billboard changed the name of its "Race Music" category to "Rhythm and Blues" — the same year Brown released her first single, "So Long." Her early musical legacy isn't as well-known as her later accomplishments, but Brown's 1950s music laid the foundation for generations of artists who would come after her.
Brown's life story is the stuff that soapy Hollywood biopics are made of (so much so that it's a shame it hasn't been picked up for the silver screen yet). She started singing at four years old in her father's church choir in Portsmouth, Va. But she preferred pop tunes to choral arrangements, and she pointedly refused to learn to read music. At 17, she started sneaking out to sing to the soldiers at the USO clubs, where she met her first husband, a trumpeter. After running away to Detroit with her husband (and landing a gig with bandleader Lucky Millinder), she scored a job in Washington, D.C. at Blanche Calloway's nightclub, the Crystal Caverns. Soon after, Atlantic Records offered her contract and a debut concert at the Apollo in New York City.
A serious auto accident kept her from performing that show, and she spent a year in the hospital — during which her husband abandoned her. But all this merely delayed Brown's eventual triumph. In 1949 she recorded "So Long" for Atlantic, which went to No. 4 on the R&B chart. Her second hit, 1950's "Teardrops From My Eyes," went to No. 1. It became her signature song, and soon she was known as "the girl with the tear in her voice," a reference to the "squeak" she made on her high notes, as if her voice was breaking with emotion. (Little Richard would soon affect a similar break.)
Soon she was the best-selling black singer of the 1950s, landing dozens of singles on the R&B charts, including "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'." She toured ceaselessly throughout the South, and her popularity was surely helped by her vibrant stage presence. Her big eyes, expressive body language and joyful smile easily sold hits like "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean." Atlantic soon became known as "The House that Ruth Built."
Ruth may have built Atlantic Records, but Atlantic didn't pass the wealth on down to Brown. She was required to pay for touring and recording costs out of pocket. When Atlantic ended their professional relationship in the early 1960s, Brown had no savings to fall back on. She moved to Long Island, New York, and spent a decade and a half working a series of low-paying jobs, often as a single mother. Her recordings fell into obscurity.
But in 1976, her career was revitalized when she performed the role of Mahalia Jackson in a production of the musical Selma backed by legendary comedian Redd Foxx. From there, she began appearing regularly on stage, on television and in film — including her beloved role as DJ Motormouth Maybelle in John Waters' 1988 Hairspray; a Tony-award winning performance in Black And Blue; and a Grammy-winning 1990 album, Blues on Broadway. Most people who know of Brown's music encountered it in this later era, when she was recognized belatedly as a true musical diva with a bawdy sense of humor, as exemplified in her performance of "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' On It." She also hosted the NPR show Blues Stage.
Brown then used her new fame to leverage Atlantic Records into paying her back royalties — and she didn't stop there. The deal she cut with the label also allowed dozens of other musicians to recoup their earnings as well. In 1988 she helped found the Rhythm & Blues Foundation to preserve the legacy of R&B music, recognize its unique contributions to American music and provide support to its artists. In 1996, she wrote her autobiography, Miss Rhythm, which won the Ralph Gleason Award for Music Journalism. She died in 2006, at the age of 78.
Brown was a musical pioneer — so why is her early R&B work not better known? Much of this has to do with the racial and genre segregation and sexist double-standards of the music industry. Before Billboard renamed its "Rhythm and Blues" chart, its name, "Race Music," denoted songs by and for black people. So while today, Brown's music might sound indistinguishable from early rock 'n' roll, white audiences of her era didn't see it that way. Brown even said herself that R&B became rock 'n' roll "when the white kids started to dance to it." And while Brown's singles repeatedly hit the top of the R&B charts, they rarely crossed over onto the pop chart — but when white performers covered her songs, they often scored the pop chart successes in her stead. Patti Page's version of "What A Dream," for example, made it to No. 10 on the pop charts, while Brown's version, though it reached No. 1 in R&B, never made a mark elsewhere on the charts. The early stars of rock 'n' roll, too, were all men. It wasn't until 1962 that a solo black woman artist — Motown's Mary Wells — would break into the Billboard top ten with a recognizably rock 'n' roll tune.
In some ways, it seems that Brown's later career — more focused on blues, jazz and show tunes — has eclipsed her early career. But those chart-topping contributions to the canon of American popular music should not be forgotten. With her backbeat-heavy sound and saucy vocal style, the fabulous Miss Rhythm broke new ground as a truly exceptional artist.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.