Miss Rhythm : The Story of Ruth Brown©2000JCMarion


The year was 1928, the date January 28, and the place was Portsmouth, Virginia. A baby girl was brought into the world and her name was Ruth Weston. Nobody would know it then of course, but this baby girl would some day become the foremost performer of the music that would change the times. By the time this young woman was a teenager, she enjoyed the singing styles of a triumverate of singers who lit up the world for many listeners in the early and mid forties - Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and Dinah Washington. With such worthy influences, the teenager from the Tidewater area dreamed of achieving the type of greatness that she heard on record and on the radio. She got her first experiences as a singer by appearing at servicemen's clubs in the area during the second world war.

With her young boyfriend, a budding trumpet player named Jimmy Brown in tow, young Ruth Weston ran away from home at the age of seventeen to follow her dream. She eventually married Brown (for a short time) and soon had a fleeting gig with a travelling band under the leadership of Lucky Millinder. One night in 1948, the newly renamed Ruth Brown was singing a few tunes at a Washington, D.C. night spot called The Crystal Cavern where she caught the attention of Blanche Calloway, a talent management specialist. Being the sister of world famous entertainer Cab Calloway gave Blanche a leg up in the industry, and also instant credibility. From that night on, Blanche Calloway became the personal manager of Ruth Brown, and soon made inquiries with the recently formed Atlantic Records in New York. Soon the recording session was set up and Ruth Brown was set to put her talents on wax. Fate intervened however as Ruth was seriously injured in an auto accident on her way to New York. This unforseen tragedy postponed Ruth's first recording session for close to a year, but then in 1949 she recorded the song "So Long" with traditional jazz guitarist Eddie Condon. Condon played a unique four stringed guitar and was most famous for his anti-be bop comment that "we don't flat our fifths, we drink 'em". This unlikely combination produced a new hit recording for the mounting power in the R & B world, Atlantic Records. The flip side of this first Ruth Brown side for Atlantic #879 was "It's Raining".

Later in 1949 the second release for Atlantic was #887 - "I'll Get Along Somehow" which was originally a two part recording. However a subsequent re-release (also carrying #887) had an edited version of the song on one side and the flip side was "Rockin' Blues". In early 1950 Atlantic released #893 - "Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe" and "Love Me Baby", and soon after, the label launches the first publicity campaign for one of its artists in Canada. Ruth Brown is also scheduled for personal appearances in Toronto. In February Atlantic teams Ruth with The Delta Rhythm Boys on #899 - "Why" and "I'll Come Back Sunday". Brown's first record ("So Long") is still selling well across the country into March. In April Ruth Brown makes her third appearance in six months at the Apollo Theater. During that month the new Atlantic release #905 is issued - "Sentimental Journey" and "I Can Dream Can't I?" with the Delta Rhythm Boys. At the end of the month Ruth appears at the Regal Theater in Chicago with Josh White and the Cootie Williams Orchestra. In May Ruth enters into her second marriage, with Ravens vocalist Leon Puzey. Brown's constant output for Atlantic continues in may with #907 - "Where Can I Go?" and "Dear Little Boy Of Mine" with the Sid Bass combo.

In June Ruth Brown does a series of one nighters in the Midwest with Illinois Jacquet and then has a two week stint at the Riviera Club in St. Louis. In July, Atlantic Records realizes the talent they have with Ruth and they sign her to a three year recording contract. In August Ruth does an extended stay at New York's Cafe Society Downtown, and then tours eastern theaters with The Ravens through September. That month #919 is released - "Teardrops From My Eyes" and "Am I Making The Same Mistake Again?" with the Budd Johnson Orchestra. In October Ruth teams up with the band of Willis Jackson and does a tour of the Mid-Eastern states. By November the sales figures show that "Teardrops" is turning into a huge national hit-the biggest for Ruth Brown and Atlantic Records. The cover versions start to appear in November - among them are Wynonie Harris with Lucky Millinder on King; Red Kirk on Mercury; Louis Prima on Robin Hood; and country covers by Rex Allen on Mercury, Wayne Raney on King, Joy and Wes Halley on Tennessee, and Gene Autry (!) on Columbia. Pop covers are by Fran Warren on RCA, Jo Stafford on Columbia, and June Hutton on Decca. Riding on the strength of her big hit record Ruth Brown ends the year 1950 with a triumphant week at the Apollo Theater in New York.

1951 opens with the news from Atlantic Records that further pressings of Ruth Brown's "Teardrops From My Eyes" will be available on 45 rpm, the labels first. In February despite the continuing sales of "Teardrops", a new Brown release is out on Atlantic - #930 - "I'll Wait For You" and "Standing On The Corner" again with Budd Johnson's band (not to be confused with Buddy Johnson of Decca and Mercury Records). During the spring Ruth is on the West coast for appearances at Los Angeles' Club Oasis. She is also set to appear at the first all Black radio show being prepared for the Mutual network. "I'll Wait For You" is one of the top selllers in L.A. In late July Atlantic #941 - "I Know" / "I Don't Want Anybody". In early October Ruth lines up with The Ravens and Willis Jackson's Orchestra for a tour of major R & B theaters in the Midwest and the East. The next month she does a week at New York's Birdland, usually a modern jazz venue. The same month Atlantic #948 is issued - "Shine On" and "Without My Love", and the new record immediately takes off in Texas and New Orleans.

In January of 1952 the music industry states that "Teardrops From My Eyes" was the third best selling R & B record during all of 1951. The following month during an appearance in Pittsburgh, Brown is robbed of personal belongings, valuables, and musical arrangements. In March Ruth does an extended stay at the High Hat Club in Boston. That month Atlantic #962 - "5-10-15 Hours" / "Be Anything But Be Mine" is released. The record starts to sell in all areas of the country and looks like the second national hit. Both "Teardrops" and "Hours" are written by Rudolph Toombs, who would continue to be a prolofic composer of R & B classics, most of them recorded for Atlantic Records. "Teardrops From My Eyes" has sold more than two and a half million records in all versions. Ruth returns to her hometown and other appearances in Virginia with Oran "Hot Lips" Page and soon continues on to Texas with Lowell Fulson. During the summer she appears with Willis Jackson in Atlantic City and shares the stage with Amos Milburn on a Washington D.C. river cruise. In late August "Daddy Daddy" and "Have A Good Time" on #973. The next month Ruth has husband number three - familiar touring partner, sax player Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson. They are joined by Atlantic label mate Joe Turner for a big show with Moondog Freed in Youngstown, Ohio. In October #978 is released - "Three Letters" and "Good For Nothing Joe". That same month she is on an interesting bill at the Earle Thedater in Philadelphia with Frankie Laine. The big voiced pop singer supposedly gives Ruth her nickname of "Miss Rhythm". In November Ruth Brown and Atlantic redo her contract, presenting a more lucrative set of terms as befitting her status as a top seller for the label. She closes out the year at Chicago's Hotel Pershing Ballroom and then to the Riviera in St. Louis with The Orioles.

In January of 1953 Atlantic releases #986 - "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and "R.B. Blues". Ruth appears at the Apollo with Tiny Bradshaw and Milt Buckner then on to the Howard Theater in D.C. In early March Ruth signs on with Count Basie and Billy Eckstine for a seven week swing through the South from Virginia to Texas. Just before the tour was to begin, Ruth fractured her foot in a fall, but the tour went on. The tour was a huge success in places like Atlanta, New Orleans and Houston. "Mama" looks like the biggest hit yet for Brown and Atlantic and spawns not covers, but answer records by Wynonie Harris and "Daughter That's Your Red Wagon" by Gloria Irving on States Records from Chicago. In April "Mama" is the number one record in the nation on the R & B charts. The Pittsburgh Courier's poll places Ruth Brown as the number one female blues singer. She plays Buffalo in May and then goes on tour with The Orioles. In late spring Atlantic #993 - "Wild Wild Young Men" / "Mend Your Ways" is out.

Ruth Brown is on the road constantly. In June with Wynonie Harris, The Clovers, Lester Young, Joe Louis, and the Buddy Johnson band which is a huge draw in Cleveland where the show is presented by Moondog Freed. After the tour she returns to the High Hat in Boston for a week, and then the Apollo with Dean Barlow & The Crickets where the show sets an all time attendance record. At New York's Band Box Ruth appears with Woody Herman in another interesting double bill. In late August Ruth sells out the Detroit Olympia. In September #1005 - "Tears Keep Tumbling Down" and "I Would If I Could". In October a big show plays the Laurel gardens in Newark, New Jersey - Ruth Brown, Fats Domino, Margie Day, and the Paul Williams band. On October 25th, the Pittsburgh Courier holds its Operation Music Poll Winners show. Ruth wins the Bessie Smith award as the top blues singer. Along with Ruth are Clara Ward, Dinah Washington, Fats Domino, Arthur Prysock, Billie Holiday, Earl Hines, Buddy Johnson, and many others. Ruth has the opportunity to appear with her idols on stage and is a dream come true for her. Brown closes out the year with an appearance at Gleason's in Cleveland.

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