Born: January 1, 1928, Portsmouth, Virginia
Died: November 16, 2007
Photo credit: Damien Blaylock (still from Blind Faith Video)
A sassy vocalist and entertainer, Ruth Brown became known as “Miss Rhythm” for her pioneering work in creating and promoting R&B. Brown grew up in Virginia and North Carolina, where she spent summers picking cotton on her grandmother’s farm. More interested in music than laboring in the fields, she began performing pop songs at USO clubs. At the age of 17, Brown ran away from home with a trumpet player. After a short stint with the Lucky Millinder band, she landed a job in Washington D.C. at the Crystal Caverns nightclub. Willis Conover, a disc jockey with the Voice of America radio program, recommended her to Atlantic Records. On her way to audition for Atlantic, Brown was in a near-fatal car wreck that severely injured her legs and required a nine-month stay in the hospital. Brown recorded her first hit So Long while on crutches. A series of top ten hits followed throughout the 1950s, including Teardrops From My Eyes, 5-10-15 Hours, (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean, and This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin. Atlantic Records became known as the “House that Ruth built” after her early hits established the label as ironically, she received no royalties for her recordings for the Atlantic label. Her career rebounded in the mid-1970s with the help of Redd Foxx, who helped her get a role in the TV sitcom “Hello Larry” (1979–1980). This led to roles in the John Waters film Hairspray (1988) and the Broadway production of Black and Blue (1989). In 1989 Brown won a Tony Award for her performance in “Black and Blue” and a Grammy in 1990 for her album Blues on Broadway.