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Ruth Brown Keeps Deep R&B's Fire Blazing

By Ted Drozdowski

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Miss Rhythm is on stage working the blues, and she's got the audience on a string. Sashaying up to the microphone in the ballroom of Newport's stylish old Viking Hotel on a late-July night, she sings a few lines of "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town" and then explains why in a string of saucy one-liners: temptation knocks with every grocery delivery, it gets lonely way out there during the day, and what if her man starts acting just like her?

The crowd -- here for a warm-up party the night before the annual Newport Rhythm & Blues Festival -- is full of laughter and smiles and rains applause on 69-year-old Ruth Brown. But Brown's saving her heart for tomorrow, when she'll pour it out in a funny, captivating, poignant set of little over a half-hour that makes the day's headliners -- especially Patti LaBelle playing her cookie-cutter R&B/pop -- seem shallow.

Of course, Brown's career does run more than 50 years deep. She was first hired to sing at age 16 by big-band leader Lucky Millinder. "On a bet," asserts Brown, who has a brand-new CD and plays a gala benefit in Mansfield for the Barry L. Price Rehabilitation Center on November 1. "I traveled with the band for a month and almost never got to sing. Then he fired me. Some guys in the band asked me to bring them some sodas, and as I crossed in front of the stage with a tray of sodas, Lucky Millinder looked down and said, 'You're fired. I hired a singer, not a waitress. And on second thought, you can't sing anyway.' "

Millinder was very wrong, but his bet ultimately paid off for Brown. She went on to become Atlantic's bestselling artist of the '50s, recording 87 singles including a string of hits like "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean," "Lucky Lips," "Teardrops from My Eyes," and "Oh What a Dream." Along with other vocal piledrivers like Big Joe Turner and Clyde McPhatter, she laid the foundation for rock and roll. But the difference is that Brown is also a graceful jazz singer. She can sing on the big beat or stretch syllables with the feline ease of Billie Holiday and travel 'round the rhythm with the command of Dinah Washington -- two of her inspirations. That's why her favorite tunes have always been ballads, even if the rough stuff harvested the lettuce and earned her the nickname "Miss Rhythm" as well as a spot in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

Despite her contributions to Atlantic's catalogue and coffers -- and to musical history -- Brown needed to sue the label in the early '90s for back royalties. The attention that case (amicably settled out of court) drew sparked the creation of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, which today works to promote the health care and careers of pioneering R&B artists and their restitution of their funds.

When Brown's hits stopped, in the '60s, she stayed busy in nightclubs and made albums for various labels. By the mid '70s, she had embarked on a second career as an actress with the help of her friend Redd Foxx, the late comic genius who starred in TV's Sanford and Son. She'd aided Foxx years before when he was a scuffling comic, and he was happy to pay her back.

Brown played Mahalia Jackson in the musical Selma, which Foxx produced, and become a character actress. She was in the short-lived Norman Lear sit-com Hello Larry and on Little House on the Prairie. She also played Motormouth Mabel in John Waters's camp classic Hairspray. And in 1989 she won a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway musical Black and Blue -- which she promptly followed with a Grammy for the album Blues on Broadway.

Yet it seems that music has always fired Brown's creative passions the brightest -- right from the days she started singing as a child in the churches of Virginia, where she was born, and North Carolina, where her family worked farms in the summer. Seeing her become the darling of the Newport R&B Festival with bravura performances in 1995 and '97, or hearing her new R+B = Ruth Brown (Rounder), has been a joy -- not only because of her easy command in the spotlight, but because of her own obvious delight in performing.

Nonetheless, Brown says that it took a '95 tour with Bonnie Raitt and making R+B = Ruth Brown "to instill a belief in myself and my music all over again." It wasn't that she'd lost faith, really. She was simply disillusioned. And she offers a spirited explanation.

"When we were making this music back in the '50s, we didn't know how well it could endure. It was relegated to black audiences in warehouses and barns. It was the music that washed away the pain. That's why a lot of our younger generation doesn't want to listen to it. It came along in a period they don't want to deal with -- their parents' and grandparents' day, the days of segregation. It was the music that caused us to survive.

"When we were touring then, there were a lot of things you just didn't get -- like food or hotel rooms. A lot of the young generation of R&B performing now take that for granted. They're able to do things that have been paid for -- and I say that lovingly -- by the generation before. I worked recently with somebody that made $65,000 in one night. I couldn't believe it! My daddy never made that much a year with seven children. And for a person to earn that in 30 minutes with plane fares and food and all the other gratuities that went with it . . . I'm amazed at what people take for granted.

"Besides that, I know that the music I have been a part of is and will continue to be the base on which the popular music you hear now is built. I have real strong memories of the people who did certain songs or styles first, and today when I hear the radio, I hear a lot of clones. And I can name everybody they're cloning -- I know where what they're doing comes from. It's fine, but I would like every once in a while to hear somebody get credit from the new generation that's doing the cloning.

"Now I'm not going to sit around and beg for that. I'm able to sing and prove what my worth is. And I've been fighting hard for record reform, fighting for the respect and the money that's due to the people who gave this music the strength and longevity it's had."

She pauses.

"I think it's interesting that none of the young people of my ethnic persuasion who are making big money has ever said, 'Ruth Brown, I'll give you 15 minutes on my show.' Bonnie Raitt, God bless her, is the one person who opened some doors for me. Fifty-some years I'd been in the business and had never sung on a major television show. Bonnie took me on the Arsenio Hall show. He was so unaware of what I was about that for the week before, when they ran blurbs, every time they would say 'Bonnie Raitt' they showed Bonnie's picture, and every time they'd say 'Ruth Brown' they showed a picture of Etta James. Oh yes! And I told him about it on the air. He didn't want to believe it. I said, 'Well, evidently you don't know who I am.' "

Now Hall knows. So do a lot of other people thanks to Raitt, Brown's Newport performances, and the attention the Grammy-worthy R+B = Ruth Brown is receiving. The album was cut in New Orleans with a sharp band whose line-up includes Duke Robillard and Delfeayo Marsalis. And it still seems that Brown loves her ballads best. She embraces the lost-love lyrics of "In Another World" as if she were comforting a friend, and she knows just where to drop a sigh in the tearjerker "Too Little Too Late." She reprises "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town," trading verses and ad libs with Bonnie Raitt. And she swings gracefully through "That Train Don't Stop Here," finishing with more of those funny, spitfire asides she says she learned to deliver from listening to Louis Jordan.

Brown says she's already thinking about the next album. She'd like to record numbers that take her back to her roots -- "songs with an inspirational feel." She'd also like to recast some of her old hits in light of her subsequent decades of experience. "I've thought about slowing 'Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean' down -- not joyful as it was in the '50s -- so it would take on a whole new meaning relevant to the concern over domestic abuse. These days when I sing 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out,' it's different because now I've been there too. When I was younger, I didn't worry about those things.

"There's another one I recorded: 'There's So Little Time and There's So Much I Want To Do,' a B-side. Now I can live that. There are a lot of songs to be sung, sweetheart, and I sure want to be around a while more to sing 'em. I want to see my grandbabies get old enough to say, 'Wheew! Is that my grandma?' I'd love to be able to see that. But hey, I'll take what I can get."

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