Miss Rhythm : The Story of Ruth
Brown (part 2)©2000JCMarion
Ruth Brown kicks off 1954 with a new Atlantic record in early January. It is #1018 - "Love Contest" and "If You Don't Want Me". The following month Ruth does two big shows for one week each-at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia she appears with The Clovers, and back at the Apollo in New York her co-star is Roy Hamilton. After the Apollo date she embarks on a two month tour of one nighters throughout the Midwest with The Clovers, Billy Eckstine, and Johnny Hodges Combo. In late April Ruth does a week at Chicago's Regal Theater with Sugar Ray Robinson. At this time there is an interesting development out of Houston, Texas. Because of huge demand in that city, Atlantic Records re-releases "Sentimental Journey" from 1951 originally on #905. This time a new flip side is used - "It's All In Your Mind" with The Delta Rhythm Boys and it appears on #1023. The "new" April release from Atlantic is #1027 - "Hello Little Boy" and "If I Had Any Sense".
In May at Detroit's Capitol Theater, the Ruth Brown-Sugar Ray Robinson show does poorly at the box office because the run is affected by illness which struck both of the performers during the week. In early June Ruth joins The Clovers and Tiny Bradshaw with Moondog Freed in Cleveland. The 10th Annual Cavalcade of Jazz at Los Angeles Wrigley Field is the start of a two month's stay in California for Ruth Brown. Part of the schedule is a two week stay at the Savoy Ballroom in L.A. Atlantic announces plans for the release of the label's first 45 rpm extended play mini albums, and the first one to hit the stores will be a four song set by Ruth. During the summer Atlantic #1036 is issued. The 'A' side is a Chuck Willis song entitled "Oh What A Dream", and the flip side is called "Please Don't Freeze". The blues ballad "Dream" takes off immediately and gives signs of becoming another national hit. It is quickly covered for the pop market by Patti Page on Mercury Records. In August Ruth returns to New York for another week's shows at the Apollo Theater. She also films a musical short along with Joe Turner which is mc'd by Willie Bryant. By mid September "Oh What A Dream" is number one on juke boxes, and number two in sales on the national R & B charts.
Beginning on October 1st, Ruth will join Charles Brown and his band for an extensive tour of Southern states. It is the first time they have shared the stage. In October Atlantic releases #1044 - "Mambo Baby" and "Somebody Touched Me" with The Rhythmakers (the Atlantic "house" vocal group later known as The Cues). With Ruth Brown's track record well known in the music industry it comes as no surprise that the hot selling side ("Mambo Baby") is quickly covered by a host of singers including Georgia Gibbs on Mercury, Sy Oliver for Bell, and two R & B covers - Edna McGriff on favorite, and Dolly wade for Two Mikes. Ruth takes some time off from performing for motherhood, and in the meantime Atlantic releases #1051 - "Bye Bye Young Men" and "Ever Since My Baby's Been Gone". In March, on the stage of the Apollo Theater in New York, she is the recipient of an award noting the 5 millionth record sold on the Atlantic label. The biggest seller among that total is of course Ruth Brown. The award is presented by label executives Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Ruth is also set to appear on the national telecast of the Steve Allen Show later in the month.
In mid March, Philadelphia based independent label Essex records releases a version of "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" by The Dinning Sisters. As this record begins to get airplay, Atlantic re-releases Ruth's original version. In April she is in Chicago for a play date at the Crown Propeller Lounge and takes part in a big Jam With Sam Show with radio personality Sam Evans. In May Atlantic #1059 is out. It pairs "As Long As I'm Moving" and "I Can See Everybody's Baby". In June Rut Brown is named the number one female R & B vocalist by Down Beat magazine. "It's Love Baby (24 Hours Of The Day)" and "What'd I Say" is Atlantic #1072 which is released in August at the time Ruth and The Clovers play the Apollo again. "It's Love" is a cover of an Excello Records original by Louis Brooks. In October Studio Films releases "Rock 'n Roll Revue" which features a segment featuring Ruth Brown. She also plans to film a spot for the same studio's new film called "Rhythm & Blues Revue".
In October Atlantic releases an interesting duet featuring Ruth Brown and Clyde McPhatter (newly out of the army and apparently also out of The Drifters) on "Love Has Joined Us Together" and "I Gotta Have You". Ruth and Clyde do an unrehearsed set of tunes at Buffalo's Zanzibar Lounge on radio with George "The Hound" Lorenz. Late in the year Atlantic releases #1082 - "I Wanna Do More" and "Old Man River". Doctor Jive's Christmas Show at the Brooklyn Paramount will feature Ruth and Clyde, along with The Flamingos, Turbans, Five Keys, Shirley & Lee, Bo Diddley, Willis Jackson, and (believe it or not ) Pat Boone ! After the holidays Ruth returns to the Apollo with Roy Milton, Charlie & Ray, and The Five Keys. In March #1091 - "Sweet Baby Of Mine" and "I'm Getting Right" is released by Atlantic. The record seems too disappear almost immediately. Soon Ruth is part of the R & B Show of 1956 with a cast that includes Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Clovers, Cadillacs, Turbans, Little Willie John, and the Choker Campbell band. The show will tour the Southern states for two months.
Atlantic Records reports that April and May of 1956 were the best two months ever for the label. In June Ruth is part of a rare opportunity as she does a television commercial for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Baltimore Colts football star Buddy Young has a radio show on WEBB in that city. On his program in June he features Ruth brown right after her wedding to husband #4 - Earl Swanson. A fifteen minute segment of the show is sponsored by Lucky Strike, and it features Ruth singing the commercial jingles. In July Ruth is named the most programmed female vocalist in the R & B field by disk jockeys across the country in Cash Box Magazine. In August Atlantic #1104 is released which features "Mom Oh Mom" and "I Want To Be Loved". Soon "Mom" is the first Brown record to get airplay on pop music stations. Along with The Cadets, Muddy Waters, Chuck Edwards, and Earl Swan's Orchestra, Ruth plays a week at Chicago's Regal Theater. In October #1113 - "Smooth Operator" and "I Still Love You" is out. By the end of the year Ruth and Atlantic Records are contemplating the future. They wonder about what direction the music should take. Should Ruth Brown continue to work in the R & B style that she has represented on the label since the late forties, or should they move into a new pop oriented sound that is the big seller in music by 1957 ? Perhaps a bit of both, or try something even more untested, such as an adult directed style of blues and jazz. Whatever the decision, Atlantic knows the importance of their star vocalist. They don't call the label the house that "Ruth" built for nothing.
The answer where Ruth Brown was headed musically speaking, was obvious with the first Atlantic release of 1957. It was #1125 - "Lucky Lips" and "My Heart Is Breaking Over You". The bouncy tune "Lucky Lips" was an attempt to present Brown as a vocalist who could do well in the pop field. Before Atlantic could make a move in this direction however, the cover record masters at Dot Records had their own version out by actress and sometime singer Gale Storm. For one of the few times during the fifties, the original outdid the cover and Ruth's version made the national pop charts. "When I Get You Baby" was the next outing on Atlantic on #1140. "One More Time" was the flip side, and this time the record did not generate much excitement. #1153 had an even shorter life as the pairing of "Show Me" and "I Hope We Meet" was an absolute failure. Ruth Brown still had the name and the credibility to draw on the road, but these were in an adult setting and the rock 'n roll buying public had other interests. Atlantic continued with #1166 - "A New Love" and "Look Me Up" and reports in the trade press claimed that "Look Me Up" was her best seller in some time, but it received very little airplay on radio stations whose formats were geared toward young music fans.
In 1958, Ruth Brown joins two other R & B stalwarts for a tour of California for six weeks-Joe Turner and Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams and his band. In March #1177 is released featuring "Book Of Lies" and "Just Too Much". The 'A' side, "Book Of Lies" presented Ruth as a vocalist with a touch for blues and jazz rather then straight ahead R & B or pop shadings. "Book" was an excellent ballad with a bittersweet edge and won Ruth many new listeners. In late April Ruth appears at the Regal Theater in Chicago with veteran d.j. Al Benson. Also on the bill is Arthur Prysock, The Spaniels, Wild Bill Davis, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the Johnny Pate band. Over the July 4th weekend Ruth Brown is headlining once again at the Apollo. Also on the bill are The Coasters and Little Willie John. In August Atlantic #1197"This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'" (written by King Curtis and Bobby Darin) and "Why Me", and the uptempo side was a partial attempt to return to past glories. She reaches out to the mainstream pop fans with an appearance on Dick Clark's Saturday night national television show for the ABC network. Interestingly enough, the flip side of "Why Me" is a good seller in the Midwest, especially St. Louis. Late in the year Atlantic releases a new version of "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" on #2008 with "I'll Step Aside" on the flip side. Initial reports are that the flip side is getting greater airplay.
The next year Atlantic follows suit in early 1959 with a new version of "5-10-15 Hours" on #2015. The flip side is "Itty Bitty Girl". "Jack O' Diamonds" is a good jump tune that gathers some sales for Atlantic. The other side of Atlantic #2026 is "I Can't Hear A Word You Say". The Atlantic releases keep on emerging in 1959 - #2035 "I Don't Know" / "Pappa Daddy"; #2052 - "I Burned Your Letter" / "Don't Deceive Me"; #2064 - "The Door Is Still Open" / "What I Wouldn't Give"; #2075 - "Taking Care Of Business" / "Honey Boy"; #2088 - "Sho' Nuff" / "Here He Comes" and #2104 - "It Tears Me All To Pieces" and "Anyone But You". The sales and airplay of the Atlantic singles were fading away and her name was becoming less and less of an influence, and the 45s stopped. By 1960 the day of the teenage idol was upon us for the most part, and the classic R & B performers were upon hard times. By the mid sixties Ruth Brown was out of the music business, living on Long Island and raising her children. She was working as a domestic, school bus driver, and other various methods of employment. After more than a decade on top of the R & B world, she was a forgotten originator of the music that made the world go round.
By the late seventies, Ruth Brown began the long road back in resurrecting the legacy of Miss Rhythm. It began with bit parts on various television sitcoms, then a part in John Waters camp film classic "Hair Spray". Her comeback took a giant step forward with her appearance on Broadway in the musical show called "Black And Blue", and it resulted in her winning a Tony award for her performance. She and Charles Brown were the subject of a magnificent PBS documentary called "That Rhythm, Those Blues", which recalled the days of the R & B heyday in the late forties and early fifties. Ruth Brown also served as host of two rewarding and important radio shows for National Public Radio -"Harlem Hit parade" and "Blues Stage". Another way that Ruth Brown has been an important part of the history of the music is her work toward the establishment of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. One of the major aims of the foundation is to try and recoup back royalties for the classic R & B performers who were short changed by their record labels all those years ago.
Luckily for all of us, Ruth Brown's substantial output for Atlantic Records from 1949-1960 is available in many varied collections on CD during the present time. It is inconceivable that anyone with even a passing interest in the music of America in the late forties-early fifties, or in the foundation of rock 'n roll music, would be without the music of Miss Rhythm. From the monster hits ("So Long", "Teardrops From My Eyes", "Mama", "5-10-15 Hours") to the moderate sellers to the more obscure sides, the music of Ruth Brown is indispensable. If Atlantic Records was the house that Ruth built, then rock 'n roll is the music that Ruth built.
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