Biography

Born Ruth Weston in Portsmouth, NA, on January 12, 1928, the legendary R&B belter Ruth Brown cultivated her vocal skills during church services as a tyke, then established herself as a commercial vocalist in the early '50s, under contract to Atlantic Records. As an Atlantic artist, Brown churned out such rhythm & blues staples as "5-10-15 Hours," "So Long," and "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," almost single-handedly laying the foundation for contemporary blues-rock and for rock & roll per se (and imparting to that label the moniker "The House that Ruth Built"). Brown's string of Atlantic hits dried up by 1960, but the occasional Brown LPs continued to appear, including 1962's Gospel Time, 1964's Ruth Brown '65, 1968's Fine Brown Frame, and 1969's Black Is Brown and Brown Is Beautiful. Brown more or less disappeared for the duration of the '70s (with a 9-to-5 job outside of the entertainment industry and a growing family) but rebounded with great vitality at the tail end of that decade, when she turned to television and film acting. She began with a recurring role as Leona Wilson, a schoolteacher and neighbor of McLean Stevenson's Larry Alder, on the short-lived NBC sitcom Hello, Larry (1979-1980) and landed a bit part as a cleaning woman in Steve Rash's ugly and lackluster farce Under the Rainbow (1981), starring Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, but found her greatest success -- and broadest appeal -- eight years later, as Motormouth Maybelle in John Waters' Hairspray (1988), and as Martha in Charles Lane's True Identity (1991), starring Lenny Henry. Brown's musical presence also graced such live performance films as 1993's B.B. King: Blues Summit Concert and 2004's Lightning in a Bottle, and such documentaries as Tom Jenz's 1989 The Ladies Sing the Blues. Meanwhile, Brown hit her second wind as a recording artist, with albums released on the prestigious Fantasy, as well as Jazz House, Bullseye Blues, and Indigo, up through 1999's Good Day for the Blues (on Bullseye). After about seven years of inactivity, Ruth Brown died in Las Vegas, NV, after suffering a heart attack and stroke that followed surgery, on November 17, 2006. At the time of her death at 78 years old, she was slated to act in John Sayles' 2007 feature film Honeydripper. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi