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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ruth Brown is Rhythm and Blues

Ruth Brown is known as Atlantic Records first recording star, helping to establish the label as the pre-eminate R&B label from 1949 through the end of the 1950s. Those in the know call it "The House That Ruth Built." When the decade of the 1960s arrived, and music styles and tastes changed, like several old-school artists of the time, Ms Brown found herself lacking employment; and so as a single parent, with two sons to raise, she was forced to do a variety of jobs outside of the entertainment industry. She worked as a maid, drove a school bus, and as a Head Start teacher. This native of Portsmouth, Virginia performed all theses jobs with the same dignity and grace as found in her musical perfomances.

Later in the mid-1970s Ruth Brown began recording blues and jazz for numerous recording companies; she even toured Europe performing in the revue "Black and Blues". When she returned to the U.S. she starred off-Broadway in Allen Toussaint's "StaggerLee". She later rejoined the cast of the revue "Black and Blues" during its run on Broadway.

Film director John Waters cast a reluctant Ruth Brown in the role of Motormouth Maybelle in his film "HairSpray". Brown continued to sing as she also went on to have a career in radio, television and on the stage.

In a 1997 interview on National Public Radio Brown disclosed her reticence to wear the character Motormouth Maybelle's white wig in the film. She revealed that at the urging of her friend, the late actor Divine, she wore the wig, played the part and was received in the role to rousing acclaim.

Ms Brown was the host on National Public Radio's series "Harlem Hit Parade". In 1989 Ruth Brown received a Grammy Award for the album "Blues On Broadway" . In 1993, she was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ruth was recognized in 1999 with a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Blues Foundation, in addition to receiving two W.C. Handy Awards from the organization.

Ruth Brown's song styling influences can be heard in everyone from Little Richard to Aretha Franklin, to Christina Aguilera.

Ms Brown will long be remembered for her singing ability as well as her activism in the music industry. According to a 1997 NPR interview Ms Brown said she was cleaning someone's house when she heard a radio disc jockey announce how popular her music was as he introduced one of her many hits. She was totally unaware of how important an influence she was to the genre. Ms Brown also realized she'd not received a royalty check for nearly 30 years. As a result of hearing that program she began work for wider recognition and provisions of financial assistance to Rhythm and Blues musicians of any stature. The direct result of her work is the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.

Ms. Brown began to speak out, onstage and in interviews, about the exploitative contracts musicians of her generation had signed. A ccording to record company accounting many hit-making musicians had not recouped debts to their labels, and so were not receiving royalties at all. It can be said Ms Brown's crowning achievement for the industry came shortly before Atlantic held a 40th-birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1988. At that time the label agreed to waive unrecouped debts for Ms. Brown and 35 other musicians of her era, and agreed to pay 20 years of retroactive royalties.

Ruth Brown sustained a career for six decades: first as a radiant, bluesy singer who was known as "the girl with a tear in her voice" and then, after some tough times, as the expression of a funky, unconquerable, undefeatable black woman. She had a life of obligation, bad breaks, drive, courage, and grace. Many who knew her have said R&B stood as much for Ruth Brown as it did for rhythm and blues.

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