Ruth Brown is in the enviable position of having two distinct identities. She is both an icon of Fifties R&B and a celebrated radio, theater and film star.
Born in Virginia in 1928, Brown has roots that are firmly planted in late-Forties show business. After winning amateur night at Harlem's Apollo Theater in 1948, Brown was hired by the popular big band leader Lucky Millinder. While on tour with Millinder, Brown was fired and left stranded in Washington, D.C. There she experienced the first reversal of fortune in a career marked by extraordinary turnarounds. Brown began singing at a local club where she was heard by the influential radio personality Willis Conover. Thoroughly impressed, Conover immediately contacted Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, whose fledgling record label, Atlantic, was in need of new talent. Heading to New York to sign her Atlantic contract, Brown was injured in a serious automobile accident and landed in the hospital for a year. Ertegun and Abramson stuck by Brown; she soon repaid their loyalty.
Brown's early recordings find her jazz-inflected vocals goosed by the R&B edge of the jump bands backing her. In time Brown allowed her more aggressive gospel-blues side to emerge. Major R&B hits followed. "Teardrops From My Eyes," "5-10-15 Hours" and her 1952 signature tune, "Mama (He Treats Your Daughter Mean)," established Atlantic as an industry contender. The nicknames of the hit maker, Miss Rhythm, and her label, the House That Ruth Built, say it all. In 1957, Brown crossed over to the pop charts with Leiber and Stoller's "Lucky Lips"; the next year she hit again with "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'," written by Bobby Darin. Yet as rock & roll changed in the late Fifties, Brown fell out of fashion.
The remarkable second phase of Brown's career began in the mid-Seventies, when she found a new avenue of expression in the theater. Ruth Brown, the R&B pioneer, had reinvented herself as an actress and a singer who escaped classification. In 1987 Brown starred in Allen Toussaint's off-Broadway musical Staggerlee; in 1989she won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for the Broadway revue Black and Blue. She appeared in the John Waters film Hairspray, became a popular host of National Public Radio and went on to win a 1990 Grammy for her album Blues on Broadway. Brown also sparked the creation of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, which continues to benefit her fellow R& B veterans.
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