Ruth Brown (January 12, 1928 - November 17, 2006) was an American singer-songwriter and actress also known as "Queen of R&B" noted for bringing a pop music style to R&B music in a series of hit songs for Atlantic Records in the 1950s, such as "So Long", "Teardrops from My Eyes" and "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean". For these contributions, Atlantic became known as "The house that Ruth built" (alluding to the popular nickname for Old Yankee Stadium).
Following a resurgence that began in the mid-1970s and peaked in the 1980s, Brown used her influence to press for musicians' rights regarding royalties and contracts, which led to the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Her performances in the Broadway musical Black and Blue earned Brown a Tony Award, and the original cast recording won a Grammy Award.
Born Ruth Alston Weston in Portsmouth, Virginia, United States, Brown was the first of her parents' seven children. She attended I. C. Norcom High School, which was then legally segregated. Brown's father was a dockhand who directed the local church choir, but the young Ruth showed more interest in singing at USO shows and nightclubs. She was inspired by Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington. In 1945, Brown ran away from her home in Portsmouth along with trumpeter, Jimmy Brown, whom she soon married, to sing in bars and clubs. She then spent a month with Lucky Millinder's orchestra.
Blanche Calloway, Cab Calloway's sister, also a bandleader, arranged a gig for Brown at a Washington, D.C. nightclub called Crystal Caverns and soon became her manager. Willis Conover, a Voice of America disc jockey, caught her act with Duke Ellington and recommended her to Atlantic Records bosses, Ahmet Ertegün and Herb Abramson. Brown was unable to audition as planned because of a serious car accident that resulted in a nine-month hospital stay. She signed with Atlantic Records on her hospital bed. In 1948, Ertegün and Abramson drove to Washington, D.C., from New York City to hear her sing in the club. Although her repertoire was mostly popular ballads, Ertegün convinced her to switch to rhythm and blues.
In her first audition, in 1949, she sang "So Long," which ended up becoming a hit. This was followed by "Teardrops from My Eyes" in 1950. Written by Rudy Toombs, it was the first upbeat major hit for Brown. Recorded for Atlantic Records in New York City in September 1950, and released in October, it was Billboard's R&B number one for 11 weeks. The hit earned her the nickname "Miss Rhythm" and within a few months Brown became the acknowledged queen of R&B.
She followed up this hit with "I'll Wait for You" (1951), "I Know" (1951), "5-10-15 Hours" (1953), "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" (1953), "Oh What a Dream" (1954), "Mambo Baby" (1954), and "Don't Deceive Me" (1960), some of which were credited to Ruth Brown and the Rhythm Makers. In all, between 1949 and 1955, she stayed on the R&B chart for a total 149 weeks, with sixteen Top 10 records including five number ones.
Brown played many dances that were deeply segregated in the Southern States, where she toured extensively and was extremely popular. Brown herself claimed that a writer had once summed up her popularity by saying: "In the South Ruth Brown is better known than Coca Cola."
Her first pop hit came with "Lucky Lips", a song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and recorded in 1957. The single reached number 6 on the R&B chart, and number 25 on the US pop chart. The 1958 follow up was "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'", written by Bobby Darin and Mann Curtis. It reached number 7 on the R&B chart and number 24 on the pop chart.
She was to have further hits with "I Don't Know" in 1959 and "Don't Deceive Me" in 1960, although these were more successful on the R&B chart than on the pop chart.
During the 1960s, Brown faded from public view to become a housewife and mother. She returned to music in 1975 at the urging of Redd Foxx, followed by a series of comedic acting gigs. These included a role in the sitcom Hello, Larry, and the John Waters film, Hairspray, as well as Broadway appearances in Amen Corner and Black and Blue. The latter earned her a Tony Award as "Best Female Star of a Musical", and a Grammy Award as Best Female Jazz Artist for her album, Blues on Broadway, featuring hits from the show.
Brown's fight for musicians' rights and royalties in 1987 led to the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. She was inducted as a Pioneer Award recipient in its first year, 1989, and inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1993, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Brown recorded and sang along with fellow rhythm and blues performer Charles Brown, and toured with Bonnie Raitt in the late 1990s. Her 1995 autobiography, Miss Rhythm, won the Gleason Award for music journalism. She also appeared on Bonnie Raitt's 1995 live DVD Road Tested singing the song "Never Make Your Move Too Soon." She was nominated for another Grammy in the Traditional Blues category for her 1997 album, R+B=Ruth Brown.
Brown was still touring at the age of 77. Brown had completed pre-production work on the Danny Glover film, Honeydripper, which she did not live to finish, but her recording of "Things About Comin' My Way" was released posthumously on the soundtrack CD.
Brown's last interview was in August 2006.
Brown died in a Las Vegas-area hospital on November 17, 2006, from complications following a heart attack and stroke she suffered after surgery in the previous month. A memorial concert for her was held on January 22, 2007 at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York.
Brown is buried at the Roosevelt Memorial Park, Chesapeake City in Virginia.