Classic Music Review: Ruth Brown: The Essentials

ruth

When you see all those iconic photos of Johnnies marching home into the arms of bobbed-hair damsels at the end of WWII, you might be tempted to believe that the joy of homecoming led to a blessedly peaceful, happy time in the good ol’ U. S. A.

Not!

The postwar period between 1945 and 1954 was actually a time of massive disruption and realignment. While less violent than the global conflagration that preceded it, there were still plenty of wars and revolutions to keep weapon makers in the green, and evil Communists lurking under beds to keep the population secure in their paranoia. Consumer goods were hard to come by, as industry took some time to retool and switch from building bombers to manufacturing Packards and Plymouths. Returning soldiers desiring a nice little private home where they could impregnate the hell out of their new brides found themselves in the midst of a nationwide housing shortage, meaning that Baby Boomers were largely the products of stolen-moment quickies. If those returning soldiers were black, they discovered that really nothing had changed, and despite the medals on their uniforms, they remained prime targets for lynching parties.

The music scene experienced an equal degree of disruption. The Big Bands that dominated the pre-war scene started to fold and the jazz scene had abandoned danceable music for the incomprehensible rhythms and melodies of bebop. The most popular music of the era came from Broadway, a trend that picked up steam with the new LP format. The original cast recording of South Pacific was the top-selling album for three years in a row, from 1949 to 1951.

I don’t think I could have survived in such a primitive culture.

Racial discrimination remained the norm despite the best efforts of Harry Truman, Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, and prejudice certainly shaped the postwar music scene. Although some of the smoother African-American performers like Nat King Cole appeared regularly on the pop charts, many others were relegated to that other Billboard list, the Race Records chart. It wasn’t until 1949 that Jerry Wexler succeeded in having the chart renamed the Rhythm and Blues chart after he coined that more accurate, racially-neutral phrase. Still, everybody knew what it really meant, and most of the black music wound up on that “lesser” chart while whitewashed versions of R&B hits became top sellers when sung by whitewashed performers.

And that’s what they called the racket: whitewashing.

Ruth Brown entered the R&B charts in 1949 and dominated the list for six years, producing sixteen top 10 records and five number ones. During that same period, she only entered the Billboard Pop chart three times, and failed to crack the Top 20. Several of her songs were whitewashed, entering the stream of pop music through white women like Patti Page, Georgia Gibbs and Gale Storm. During her peak years, when she turned Atlantic Records into a force and released several songs that featured the heat and rhythm that foretold the future of popular music, the vast majority of Americans–white Americans—hardly knew she existed.

That seriously pisses me off.

Along with Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn, Ruth Brown was one of the greatest singers of her time and a major influence whose trail leads us straight to rock ‘n’ roll. If ever a collection qualified as essential, this is the one. While the record contains only a dozen tracks, it is arranged in blessed chronological order, enabling the listener to follow her progress until she reached full bloom as The Queen of R&B. You literally hear a woman finding her voice from tentative steps to total command of her craft, and when Ruth Brown was on her game, few singers could compare.

Ruth grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia, the eldest daughter in a gaggle of seven children. Dad directed the church choir, but Ruth was much more interested in the popular music of the day. In her teens she started singing at USO shows and local nightclubs, then eloped with a trumpeter by the name of Jimmie Brown who gave her his name and not a whole lot more, since the bastard was already married. Still, the elopement allowed her to escape from the South and find regular work as a band singer, which eventually led to an accidental meeting with Cab Calloway’s sister, who hooked her up with the Ertegun brothers at Atlantic Records. She was on her way to what would have been her breakout show at the legendary Apollo Theater when she was seriously injured in a car accident and wound up spending the better part of a year in the hospital.

Jimmie Brown dumped her ass while she was in recovery. The story is that he left because she feared she would never be able to walk again, but that’s just the sanitized journalism of the period. The more credible story is he was afraid a cripple wouldn’t be able to tend to the needs of his willie, so he pulled up stakes and started hunting for an undamaged piece of ass.

What a fucking gentleman.

Fortunately, Atlantic Records kept their end of this bargain (the screwing would come later) and brought her into the studio to record what would be her first hit. At this time, Ruth Brown’s repertoire consisted primarily of torch songs and ballads, reflecting the tastes of white audiences and the musical choices of the white female singers of the day. Ahmed Ertegun had a better idea and started nudging Ruth towards rhythm and blues. Ruth really didn’t want to go there, clinging to the more traditional singing style that had wowed them at the USO and enabled her escape from a life of cotton picking and housewifery. Ruth Brown: The Essentials is really the story of that artistic conflict—a conflict that would resolve itself when Ruth not only dominated the new genre but expanded its boundaries to open the door for rock ‘n’ roll by embracing the backbeat and adding (to borrow a phrase) a touch of erotica to her vocals. Appropriately, the album begins with Ruth Brown, torch singer, in a little ditty called . . .

“So Long” (1949, #4, R&B): A slick, sleek and sophisticated number selected from her audition set, Ruth turns on the tear faucet over a blues-tinged late Swing Era arrangement executed with professional precision by Eddie Condon’s band. The song falls clearly within the limited boundaries of Ruth’s comfort zone at the time, and you can easily imagine her performing this number in the smoky haze of a USO club filled with uniformed soldiers dancing with the local girls trolling the base for future husbands. The combination of her smooth delivery and contextual phrasing illustrates a Billie Holiday influence, and had she continued in this vein, Ruth would have had a moderately successful but relatively brief career as a professional singer—a special moment in her life that she could have used to impress the grandkids. In “So Long,” she’s playing it safe by submitting to the norms of the dominant white culture. Her vocal reflects a command of professionally-accepted technique and a mastery of sentimental emotion, but both song and delivery are firmly grounded in the narrow range of expectations attached to female vocalists in the postwar era. And it worked! Landing a Top 10 R&B hit on her first at bat must have been deeply gratifying, and the success of “So Long” would have encouraged any rational producer to stick to the formula until the well ran dry. Fortunately for music history, Ahmed Ertegun decided to mess with success, yank Ruth Brown out of her comfort zone and send her hurtling though unexplored territory.

“Teardrops from My Eyes” (1950, #1, R&B): Just like another headstrong woman by the name of Patsy Cline, Ruth resisted doing the song that would make her a household name (at least in the black households of the era). Ruth believed her sweet spot consisted of pop standards and torch songs, and “Teardrops from My Eyes” was another thing entirely—a song with a hip-shaking, finger-snapping 4/4 backbeat with a curious effect on the libido that must have sounded terribly risqué in comparison. Eventually, Ruth gave in and wound up with her first #1 hit—one that spent that spent eleven weeks at the top of the R&B chart. The band supporting Ruth shows no sign of hesitation whatsoever, grabbing the backbeat with genuine enthusiasm and supplying the swinging—no, rocking—background for Ruth’s vocal and a hot, growling tenor sax solo from Budd Johnson. Ruth begins in an upbeat, cheery tone, and in the first part of the song you can tell she’s somewhat tentative with the blue notes, approaching those naughty little variations with some trepidation. The take-no-prisoners character of the sax solo seems to loosen her up, though, and in the second half you can hear Ruth taking command and bending the blue notes to her will. After hearing this song, Frankie Laine gave her the nickname “Miss Rhythm,” and for the rest of her career, Ruth Brown would exceed the expectations implied by that tagline.

“I’ll Wait for You” (1951, #3 R&B): A big fat sax riff opens this finger-snapping delight, delivered by Ruth in the lower end of her range until the triumphant closing line. The production tends to favor the band over the singer, with the reeds and horns on fairly high levels throughout the song. Perhaps the producer felt Ruth needed more intense support to prevent her from backsliding into torch mode, as the lyrics do lean in that direction. She’s getting there, but it still feels as if she’s holding back.

“I Know” (1951, #7 R&B): Ruth takes another big step towards the integration of the erotic in this mid-tempo, heavy-on-the-horns, bluesy number enhanced by precious stop-time breaks that allow her to step into the spotlight and take command. One of Ruth’s vocal techniques was the squealing finish to a rising note, and there are plenty of squeals to go around in this piece. The key moment of transition can be found in the third verse when she finally gets in touch with her libido and loads her delivery with suggestive phrasing and more than a hint of the tease.

Daddy, won’t you hurry
Oh-oh-oh, daddy, take your time,
Ain’t no need to worry
‘Cause I know what’s on your mind

This time it’s Ruth who ignites the heat in the sax solo rather than the other way around, and by the last verse, Ruth Brown has found herself, belting it out like daddy’s on his way to Korea and this is the last fuck she’s going to get for a long time. The façade has been stripped, and finally, finally, you can hear the sex in the music.

Hallefuckinglujah!

“5-10-15 Hours” (1952, #1 R&B): Rudy Toombs was the man who wrote “Teardrops in My Eyes,” and here he pushes the blue envelope to give Ruth a less bouncy, more bluesy song with lyrics that encourage her to let it all hang out. “5-10-15 Hours” is about sex, sex, sex, and as it should be in the natural order of things, Ruth is in full command of the situation. The smaller combo makes for a much cleaner arrangement, making it clear that Ruth is the center of attention—and when she steps to the mike and there is no doubt who’s in charge:

Baby baby baby, I’ve got to have you for my own,
Baby baby baby, I’ve got to have you for my own,
If you ever need me baby, call me on the telephone.

Gentlemen, that may sound like a request, but it is a demand. When women have needs, they are powerful needs, and while we might be gracious enough to use our superior emotional intelligence to present the demand in the form of good manners, it is still a demand! It means get your ass over here and get to work! The chorus makes the demand a bit clearer, especially when you imagine the stop time beats to be thrusts or whacks from a riding crop:

Just give me five (thrust), ten (whack, whack), fifteen hours of your love.
Just give me five (whack), ten (thrust, thrust), fifteen hours of your love.
Give me fifteen hours while that shiny moon’s above.

Willis Jackson’s sax response to that first line of the chorus is the aural equivalent of a man giving it up in the face of female power. That’s my man, Willis! Now go grab a quick shower and a drink—we’ve got fourteen hours to go!

“Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1953, #1 R&B, #23 Pop): Ruth fought tooth-and-nail against this song, largely because it was originally presented as a slow blues number. Her resistance forced the songwriters to ramp up the tempo, a decision that satisfied Ruth, led to her third #1 on the R&B charts and her first appearance on the pop charts. Even more importantly, the change in tempo transformed the guitar riff from standard blues into a backbeat-supporting 100% genuine rock-and-roll riff. Both guitar and piano assert themselves in the piece, and while the horns are still there, the presence of the more percussive instruments makes the song sound positively modern in comparison to her previous work.

Ruth takes her singing to another level, dropping all hints of smooth-and-sophisticated in favor of a rougher sound. Ruth once mentioned that when she showed up for recording sessions with a sore throat, everyone in the control room was delighted, and they must have achieved orgasm hearing her scratchy vocal on this piece. Even with the roughness, she still hits her squeals without breaking a sweat. I also love her emotional tone—she’s not whining about this selfish, demanding asshole of a boyfriend, she’s fucking outraged.

“Oh What a Dream” (1954, #1 R&B): This slow doo-wop torch song features The Drifters as backing vocalists, though for their recordings with Ruth Brown, they’re credited as Ruth Brown’s Rhythmakers. While the torch flavor of the song recalls Ruth’s origins, this is a very different singer than the woman who sang “So Long.” Her exposure to blues and R&B has enriched her voice and given her more room to maneuver. While she obviously grew to love R&B, Ruth Brown would never be a one-genre girl. Later in the decade she would prove to the world that she could handle the more “grown-up” material—the album Late Date with Ruth Brown features Ruth taking on works by Ellington, Cole Porter and the Gershwin brothers.

“Mambo Baby” (1954, #1 R&B): Cuban music was extremely popular during the 1950’s, especially the music connected to various dance forms: conga lines, cha-cha-cha and the mambo. Pérez Prado and Xavier Cugat were the big names, and Prado in particular landed several hits on the pop charts (I love his hit, “Patricia”). Definitely a novelty song, Ruth does her part with tongue-in-cheek professionalism, probably delighted that she lived in an era when any song featuring the word “mambo” had a decent chance of making it to #1.

“As Long as I’m Moving” (1955, #4 R&B): Now we’re cookin’ with gas! “As Long as I’m Moving” is balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll, a bad-ass boogie with a dramatic stop-time-driven chorus guaranteed to move a crowd to a frenzy and drive horny women to hit the road looking for some down-and-dirty satisfaction. The first verse could have been written about my partner and me—two intensely oversexed women with a mutual, compelling attraction who think sex first, last and always, morning, noon and night:

You’re crazy ’bout lovin’, I’m crazy ’bout love myself
You’re crazy ’bout lovin’, I’m crazy ’bout love myself
When I’m with you baby, can’t think about nothin’ else

But of course, Ruth Brown was talking about men, and hey, we love guys, too! Ruth seems to be more into the he-man type, though . . . we tend to prefer brains over brawn:

You got big broad shoulders, build like a trailer truck
You got big broad shoulders, build like a trailer truck
Let me run with you daddy and maybe I’ll change my luck

Ruth sings this song from a perspective that must have felt as alien to women of the era as the characters in those delightfully awful 50’s sci-fi movies. Honey, if you’re spending your life looking longingly at that rolling-pin because your man always has his head in the newspaper instead of planted firmly between your legs, hit the road and find a man who can deliver the goods!

I wanna go north, east, south, west
Every which way, as long as I’m movin’
Long as I’m movin’, long as I’m movin’
Long as I’m movin’, long as I’m movin’ baby, I don’t care

And don’t settle for any bullshit! Guys can be sneaky bastards, so don’t let them near your sweet spot unless you know they’re ready to get down and get real!

Well it must be rabbit, because mink don’t feel that way
Well it must be rabbit, because mink don’t feel that way
Well don’t you talk that talk, don’t believe a thing you say

Fuck that June-Cleaver-Margaret-Anderson yes-dear bullshit! Women have as much right to a good lay as any man! “As Long As I’m Moving” was a positively radical song in the climate of 1950’s female oppression, and it’s too bad more of those white women wasting their lives away baking cakes in Levittowns didn’t pay attention to R&B back then . . . Women’s Lib would have arrived a decade early and it would have been a helluva a lot more sexy!

“I Wanna Do More” (1956, #3 R&B): Ruth takes charge again in this slightly less frenzied boogie, resolving to force her man out of his funk with a healthy doze of booze and sex:

You used to hug and squeeze and hold me tight
Gimme your love with all your might
You used to make me laugh, and that ain’t all
You used to take a little nip and have a ball

Gonna do more and more for my baby, um-hmmm
I wanna do more to make you understand
I gotta do more and more for my baby, uh-huh
I want you to know that you’re my lover man

I read just the other day that guys are much more likely to get laid if they can make a girl laugh, and I think there’s some truth in that if the guy isn’t a stand-up comic. The greater truth in this song is that men are often very sensitive to slights, slings and arrows, but instead of talking about it, they tend to fucking brood. I personally don’t have the patience for that, but I’m glad there are women like Ruth Brown who are willing to take the time to wheedle, cuddle and snuggle to make the poor baby feel better. If I were Queen of the World, it would be more like “off with their heads—and whack off their dicks while you’re at it.”

“Lucky Lips” (1957, #6 R&B, #25 Pop): All her life, Ruth wanted to be a pop star, and “Lucky Lips” fulfilled her wish, if somewhat tepidly. This Lieber-Stoller ditty is godfuckingawful, but I grew to deeply appreciate Ruth’s version once I heard the whitewashed version by Gale Storm. You could eat five pounds of M&M’s and you wouldn’t approach the level of diabetic shock you’d get from one spin of Gale Storm’s version of “Lucky Lips.” Go find it on YouTube at your own peril.

The good news is Gale only made it to #77, a small win for the faith-in-humanity movement.

“I Don’t Know” (1959, #5 R&B, #64 Pop): The last song in this essential collection is in many ways the most alluring. Written by Brook Benton and Bobby Stevenson, “I Don’t Know” is a cousin of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” a slow-tempo, finger-snapping number with stand-up bass dominating the background and minimal instrumentation. The arrangement leaves ample space for Ruth’s voice to fill the soundscape, even with the introduction of background singers in and around the chorus. The mood she creates varies between reflective and steamy: the heat is there, but the voice of inner wisdom urges caution as she considers a deeper connection with a man of interest:

When he crushes my eager lips
My heart starts doing flips
Whenever I feel his touch
I get a thrill that’s much too much
Too much, too much, too much

Could a heart so right
Be led so wrong
If his love is weak
Would it last this long

I don’t know
I don’t know
But I hope and pray
That he comes my way, oh, oh

Her phrasing and tone on the repetition of “too much” sounds like a woman afraid of losing control; the last two lines of the chorus tell us she wants to lose control more than anything else in the world. The unresolved tension Ruth creates is agonizingly beautiful, and if there’s one song in her catalog that demonstrates her mastery of the vocal art, “I Don’t Know” is it.

Ruth’s time with Atlantic ended very badly: once she fell off the charts, they tossed her to side of the road. Because Atlantic forced their artists to foot the bill for their tours, Ruth ended up flat broke, and one of the greatest singers in America had to work as a maid, a bus driver and a teacher’s aide to feed her kids. Redd Foxx rescued her from obscurity, a step that led to a miracle comeback and eventually a Tony Award for her work in Black and Blue and a Grammy for the album Blues on Broadway. The miracle comeback is both touching and heartwarming, but what she accomplished beyond stage and studio tells you what kind of woman she was. From her bio on the Biography website:

In addition to her renewed success as a performer, during the 1980s Brown waged a relentless and ultimately successful campaign to reform the music industry’s royalty system. Her efforts resulted in the creation of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in Philadelphia in 1988 to help emerging as well as aging R&B musicians. The nonprofit was financed by a settlement with Atlantic Records.

In 1993, Brown was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She spent the rest of her life giving occasional tribute concerts and working with the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. On November 17, 2006, Brown died due to complications from a heart condition. She was 78 years old.

During the 1950s, Brown was one of America’s leading R&B singers. Her name was so synonymous with the genre that many commentators quipped that R&B actually stood for Ruth and Brown. One of the first great divas of modern American popular music, her songs provided a blueprint for much of the rock ‘n’ roll that followed in her wake. In addition to the musical legacy she left to the artists who came after her, Brown also left future artists a more artist-friendly environment, thanks to her tireless work to reform the royalty system.

Brown’s friend Bonnie Raitt summarized the traits that underpinned Brown’s success: “What I loved about her was her combination of vulnerability and resilience, and fighting spirit. It was not arrogance, but she was just really not going to lay down and roll over for anyone.”

We live in a time where we all feel that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Social and political systems are crumbling, the people tasked with leading us have proven to be stunningly oblivious and incompetent, and we all live in fear of terror or individual acts of madness. I don’t believe in God, fate or karmic ribbons, but I am deeply thankful for whatever ripples in time and circumstance led me to explore Ruth Brown’s music and story at this moment in history. Her music lifted my spirits, and her life story reminds us that while it is never easy, one person can indeed make a difference for the good of the human race.

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