Ruth Brown (Born 12/01/1928, Died 17/11/2006)
Born Ruth Alston Weston, 'Miss Rhythm' is perhaps best known by younger audiences through her role as DJ Motormouth Mabel in the John Waters film Hairspray; in the 1950s however, it's not too extreme a position to suggest that the wonderful Atlantic Records label was built almost entirely around her early R&B successes. From around 1949 through to the end of the 1950s, Ruth had a string of R&B successes, although when the hits tried up in the early 60s, the industry was quick to forget about her as she worked as a domestic to make ends meet. Through Hairspray, her role in the Broadway revue Black and Blue and various appearances in TV sitcoms (yes really!) she gradually got herself back to the top of her profession, her status as a pioneer assured and acknowledged, not to mention her work advocating the rights and royalties of her musical friends and colleagues.
The young Ruth Weston was a huge fan of Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn and she initially performed in the style of those performers with the trumpeter Jimmy Brown, whom she also married (and later divorced). It was while she was performing at Blanche Calloway's Crystal Caverns nightclub that she was spotted by DJ Willis Canover who recommended her to Atlantic Records and she was immediately signed to the fledgling independent label.
Her style developed significantly throughout her tenure on Atlantic Records. Seductive and rough and ready in equal measure, the hits kept on coming - '5-10-15 Hours', 'Mambo Baby' and the classic 'Mama He Treat Your Daughter Mean' demonstrate the new, confident and assured Brown while the Chuck Willis penned 'Oh What A Dream' illustrates the soft, tender and expressive quality of her vocal delivery. Over the period, we also got the occasional foray into mainstream pop, such as the classic if undemanding example 'Lucky Lips' (sadly, her biggest hit and, astonishingly, covered by Cliff Richard in the UK!).
After the 1960 hit 'Don't Deceive Me', Ruth star status began to wane and she didn't really begin to rebuild her career until the mid to late 70s. Until then, she worked a regular nine to five and raised her two children, although she did record periodically and released well regarded albums on the DCC and Capitol Jazz labels. Her career actually began to kick off again through bit parts in a couple of TV sitcoms and then through more rewarding roles in the theatre, including Amen Corner, Staggerlee and the aforementioned and acclaimed Tony award winning Black and Blue.
Ruth also spent much of this period fighting long and hard for artist royalty rights, including her own, and she won her own personal legal battle with Atlantic Records. As part of the settlement, Atlantic helped to set up the very important Rhythm and Blues Foundation to further the rights of artists who found themselves facing similar royalty, publishing or performing difficulties. Ruth Brown deserves an entry in any R&B or general music Primer as a pioneer and wonderfully expressive and gifted singer. She managed to get to the top of the tree on two occasions and worked hard to overcome injustices on both her own and others' behalf. She was deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.