R&B Icon Ruth Brown Dies at 78

Outspoken rhythm-and-blues singer Ruth Brown, who notched numerous hits for Atlantic from 1949 to 1960 and later appeared on numerous TV and radio shows and films, died in the Las Vegas area on Friday night of complications from a stroke and heart attack. She was 78.

Born Ruth Weston on Jan. 12, 1928 in Portsmouth, Va., Brown spent her youth singing in a church choir, but quickly fell under the spell of jazz chanteuses Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday; aiming for an entertainment career, she left home in 1945 with trumpeter Jimmy Brown, whom she soon married. After a brief stint with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra in 1947, Brown began performing at Crystal Caverns nightclub under the management of Cab Calloway’s sister Blanche. Willis Conover, the Voice of America disc jockey, saw her there and recommended to Ahmet Ertegun that he sign her to his then-fledgling Atlantic label.

Starting with the torch ballad “So Long” in 1949, Brown had a string of hits, helping elevate Atlantic from a new venture to a major player in the recording industry; Atlantic was even dubbed “the house that Ruth built,” fortifying her status as label linchpin. Among her most popular songs are “Teardrops in My Eyes” (1950), “I’ll Wait for You” (1951), “I Know” (1951), “5-10-15 Hours” (1952), “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1953), “Oh What a Dream” (1954), “Mambo Baby” (1954) and “Don’t Deceive Me” (1960). By the turn of the decade, Brown was arguably R&B’s brightest star.

Sadly, however-and typical when compared to the average career of blues and jazz musicians of that era-the record industry changed immensely, veering toward white-bread pop, and Brown was left without a contract and forced to stay home to raise her two children and work a full-time job. Eventually, the entertainment bug bit her again and she began rebuilding her career in the mid-’70s with a role in the TV sitcom Hello, Larry and by performing in the small-club “oldies” circuit. In 1988, she landed a high-profile role in John Waters’ film Hairspray as flippant DJ Motormouth Maybelle.

In recent years, Brown became a tireless advocate for the rights and royalties of her peers as well as herself, fighting to recoup years of royalties lost to Altantic. In 1988 she founded the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing financial and medical assistance to R&B artists of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s as well as preserving the history and culture of the genre. During this time, she also recorded for Fantasy, toured throughout the country and hosted two shows on NPR called Harlem Hit Parade and BluesStage.

Undoubtedly a major influence on Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Irma Thomas and Janis Joplin, Ruth Brown’s powerful, expressive vocals and engaging, comedic stage sensibility can still be seen in some of today’s R&B artists, though some could surely learn from her candor and determination.