In Black America; Blues Superstar with Ruth Brown
Thanks very much for watching. From the Longhorn Radio Network, the University of Texas at Austin, this is in Black America. When I began, music was a way for me to get out, not really get out and then on the other hand it was a way for me to contribute.
And I knew because one day I sang for a wedding and they paid me $35. That was more than my father made for the whole week on his job. My father was a laborer and worked very hard. And it led to be 42 years old, my mother was a domestic, but the kind of money that I see being earned. If I had a better sense of the business, I probably would not have been fighting for 11 years against my current record company for back raw materials. And in so doing, I brought about the construction of a foundation called the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, who now looks and fights for back raw materials, that's what the intent is. Ruth Brown, the original queen of Rhythm and Blues. Her career has taken her from the Apollo Theater to Broadway. In recent years, Brown has been on a remarkable role. In addition to her radio work, her appearances on records and at nightclubs, she has been
racking up a ward after ward for a published autobiography titled Miss Rhythm that has been made into a movie, her work in film, on television, and on the Broadway stage. This blue superstar has been in the blues business for decades. Brown had so many hits during an 11-year period starting in 1949, that a Latin records was called the House that Ruth built. In 1989, Brown made her Broadway debut in Black and Blue. Her performance earned her Tony Awards, also that year she received her first Grammy. I'm Johnny Johansson Jr., and welcome to another edition of In Black America. On this week's program, the queen of Rhythm and Blues, Ruth Brown, in Black America. I'm gonna take a cent of metal journey, today I'm gonna set my heart at ease, on my way. I'm gonna make a cent of metal journey, hey hey, to a new old memory. I would take Harlem hit parade first of all, and in that particular radio show, I was
able to talk one-on-one with stars that I had worked with, and baby, they couldn't lie looking at me because I was there. And it was always interesting to say, do you remember, like Bo Diddley was on my show and I said, Bo Diddley, do you remember the night I had to run in your purse in Kansas City to get out because Jackie Wilson didn't show up? And the audience was going mad throwing bottles, and Bo Diddley was taking his band around in a purse at that time, and I jumped in the purse to get out of town with him. So there were things that we could remember, you know, I could talk to Edda James and everybody else, and I always was proud of that show. I was proud of it, and now there are a couple of other shows that kind of following behind that idea, good enough, you know, but some of it is like not real, there are a lot of the legends that are still around, people just don't look for them. Ruth Brown is a survivor from the heyday of Jackie Wilson, Sam Cook, and Big Joe Turner. The days before rhythm and blues was recast as rock and roll.
In the 50s, she was known as Miss Rhythm. Also during that time, she was the top female star in R&B. Born Ruth Weston on January 12, 1928 in Porthmouth, Virginia, she is the oldest of seven children. She sang in a church choir, and then joined Lucky Millner's Big Band after winning a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Her two dozen hits at Atlanta Records helped secure its footing in the record industry. Recently, Ruth Brown was in Austin for a taping of the public television program Austin City Limits, and in Black America had an opportunity for this exclusive interview. I am, I was, I lost a sister last year, the oldest of seven children, and I always say it's quite a question that I have never really found the answer to ask to why out of seven children, I was the one that could sing. So I believe that it was a gift indeed, you know.
Growing up in Virginia had its highs and lows, its highs being, whenever I got a chance to sing it, most time that was in the church. And that is not unusual, you know, for, for any child who came up with the kind of family background and the portions and positions from which we came. I spent my summers in North Carolina. I spent all of my school seasons in Port Smith, Virginia going to school, but June 15, when school closed, the next day we were on whatever means of transportation there was to get us to North Carolina, to my grandmother, to go into the fields and work in shared crops all summer. And indeed, when I was a girl coming up, it wasn't a happy time. But now that I'm a woman and I look back at that, it was a good time, you know. And I think that all of that background has a lot to do with my stamina today and being
able to endure certain things that a lot of ordinary people might say, how'd you do that? Well, it had a lot to do with family, the morals by which we lived, the respect we had for our parents out of total fear, you know what I'm saying, you know. I remember so well that irregalist to what the situation was when my father came home, he was the man of the house, no doubt about it. You know, we were told children should be seen in that herd, you've heard that, right? And speak when you're spoken to and come when you call, like they're talking to a little puppy dog, but that was it. But when I came to North Carolina, I remember that we went to a church called Lovely Hill Baptist Church, just was in Macon, North Carolina. And there was an old upright piano, not anything else.
That church did not have an organ, and a lot of the music was just plain old, acapella singing inspired by whoever would start singing, you understand? And that particular church, I remember so well because my grandmother on Sundays after having worked the fields all week long on Sundays, you were obliged to go to church. Nothing else happened. Nothing else happened. And being the oldest girl, I was up like four o'clock in the morning anyway to get breakfast. I had to learn how to cook and feed everybody else. And we had to be finished with breakfast cleaned up and then go and get your shoes and get your blue sea of gasoline, you know what I'm talking about, get the elbows and the husk and this off you and go to church and sit on the back of the wagon going to the church. Because that's the means of transportation, my grandmother didn't have a car. But we had a wagon and a mule. Do you remember that first big break, the first recording session?
Yes. Tell us about it. I remember it because I was on crutches. How did you happen to? I had been in an automobile accident that had waylaid me one year. I was en route from Washington, D.C. and I was riding in the car with Blanche Calloway, Cape Calloway's sister who had become my manager and she was taking me to New York to go on the Apollo theater stage. She's spoken to Frank Schiffman and like sight unseen, she told him that she had discovered this girl with the great voice and to please give her a shot. I was on my way to New York to do that and at the same time to sign a contract with the Atlantic Records because they had a verbal agreement that they were going to sign me and I was on my way there and we got to Chester, Pennsylvania which is right outside of Philadelphia and there was an automobile accident and my legs were crushed and I remained in the hospital for one year.
So when I finally got into the recording studio, I was on crutches when I went in. And I went in because Atlantic didn't really know what to do with me musically. Remember that first song? Yes. So long. So long. And on the other side was a song called, it's raining, I never forget it. You know? They weren't sure where they were going to put me because at that particular time we were not identified as R&B singers. You know, you were mainstream, it was race music, you know, and either the things that I was singing were based on country in Western because that's mostly what I heard. You know, but I did go into the studio and the reason that they took me in, they were doing a show called Voice of America, Cava Cade of Music for the Voice of America which
was for Armed Forces, radio at that time. And they were recording Eddie Condom and Buddy Bobby Hackett and Ernicka Saras and Big Sid Catlett. I remembered well. And there was a space that they needed to fill and that's what they brought me in for. And I remember that when I went into the studio that day, there was this kind of not a strange attitude. And I learned musicians who are technicians, I'll have a great respect for each other. And then income is this woman that can't even tell what the signature means on the music, on the paper. You know? Nor can she read. I don't know what key I do anything in. And so they all said, over here we go again, you know, let's do this and get it over with. And I'll never forget that they played like the introduction to this song. And when I went into it, I guess I did about eight bars.
And Big Sid Catlett, the drummer, stopped it. He said, wait a minute, wait a minute. Let's go back and do this right because this kid can sing. I remember that. And that was my first experience in the studio. And that tune was pulled out from that volume. And that was my introduction to the music business, the first female over on Atlantic Records. Are there any musicians that you like to perform with or go into the studio with for your recording? Oh, at that time, definitely. Unfortunately, I'd hurt to say there are not too many of those wonderful guys around. That was the difference in recording in those days. We did just what you said. We went in the studio and everybody was sitting like, we are now facing one another. A lot of times there were not charts or arrangements. But they would say, what are we going to do with this? What key is this? And the saxophone player would say, I got some ideas. And we're talking about like Sam the Mantella.
And we're talking about Mill Jackson, who is still with us, thank goodness. And there was on it, Cobbs, your Texan. He was on a lot of the King Curtis. You know, all of the sunny, state Gene Ammons, no telling who might be in the studio when you went in. And there was this kind of family thing, you know, we'd sit around and discuss the music. And somebody would send out and get some food and we'd eat and then we'd go back and say, look, I think I'm going to change this. But the wonderful thing was that people were there in person. You could stop if you had a change of heart, which is unlike what they do today. You know, a lot of it is already pre-programmed and pre-done and you've got to go in and sing to the track. I know that's progress. But it's difficult for me. But it does it. It does it for the creativity. Yes.
Yes. There's no improvisation going on. No improvisation whatsoever. And for instance, you know, you may go on stage and during the middle of your performance, you may catch somebody's eye and realize that their body language tells you they're enjoying or either they're not. And you'd like to respond to that. You know? And I mean, how else does the music become personal? How else, unless you can go back and I interject what it is, you give me by smiling? Correct. You know? And so that's the reason in the later years, I was amazed that they finally, somebody finally decided they were going to sign me and let me go and go into a studio with live musicians once again. You know? So, traveling around the country now, give us a retrospective of the difference today versus what it was when you initially started asking. Let me say, when I came to Austin, I could not go to the Renaissance, right? Yes, ma'am.
You understand? I understand. Okay. It was difficult. And the music was relegated to our so-called Soulville, the section of town where the Afro-Americans have predominantly a lot of times, not only here in Austin, but most places we did a lot of southern touring. And we had to get in town in time to go to the heart of where the black people lived, go into whatever was the top barbershop or the beauty shop. Them not that you're in town? Let them know and bring that car and bus and pocket where they can see it because nobody's going to put their hard earned money out if you're not there. And at that time, hard earned money was like $7 to go to the concert. So, there was no pre-seal. Everything was at the door. No, baby. And that's why you had to be careful because a lot of times now, a lot of entertainers have clauses in their contracts and say, well, I get paid before I go to the state.
We didn't have that. We had to do the performance and pray to God to promote any going. You know, with some time, it could happen. Or you had to have somebody run outside and make sure the ticket's not be sold twice. But times do change and hopefully for the better, I don't know if it's, I don't know. You played on Broadway. Yes. And you received a Tony. How did you feel? The most unbelievable moment of my life. You know the reason I say that, and people may think that's funny, but I say it because I have been singing 50 years. I've never, until once in my life, I've received a Grammy. That don't make sense. Okay. And that is the award, the trophy, the metal piece structure that they give you to say, oh, you've been good at what you've been doing.
I mean, I think longevity has a lot to do to paraphrase Dr. King. I'd like to live a long life, you know. And I think longevity, if you can stay in this music long enough to be remembered by somebody, I think that's the sign of success. And for me, the older I get and I hear people say, I remember you. That's for me is all I need. I did a concert a few weeks up, two months ago in Brooklyn, New York, Brooklyn Academy music, Brooklyn, New York, and there was a woman in the audience who opened her wallet and had an autograph that I signed in 1950. Can you believe this is 1990, eight almost, she still had it. And it was written on a piece of brown paper from a brown paper bag. And on that I put her name and thanked her for liking my first record, which was so long. And she was in that audience that day was probably the most emotional moment that I can
remember because she described what I wore the first time she saw me. She described how long she stood in line to get inside. And she said that she still remembers that I was nice to her. Those are the important things. You know, those are the important things. Your membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yes. Well, I'm there. And I guess a lot of that came about because there were people who constantly said when the list came, I wear the girls, you know, look like we would not get, we're all the girls, you know. And there was this fine line that distinguishes Rock and Roll from Rhythm and Blues. I was a Rhythm and Blues singer, not a Rock and Roll singer, but what they did. Like my friend, little Richard says very loudly, Rhythm and Blues had a baby and they called it Rock and Roll, you see.
So I just happened to be there when all of this came about. And I lasted to look like nobody else to put up in there, so they said, let's take Rhythm. Of course, Rhythm went in before I did. And as well, did Laverne. Mama, he changed your daughter to me, Mama, he changed your daughter to me, Mama, he changed her daughter to me. And I was there about four months ago in Cleveland to this huge structure. And I saw my little section of memorabilia. I don't even remember sheet music that had my picture on it.
But they found it, you know, and there it is. And they had my Tamarine and one of my dresses, not one from that particular period. If you look at the size of it, you know, I did not wear that dress in 1950. But it was wonderful to go in and see this. It was exceptionally wonderful because my sons got to see it. And they did not, they never really knew at that time what I was about because they were both born in the 50s, you see. And it has become something now that's a part of the lot of the curriculum in schools. They're talking about this music. And I'm still articulate enough to go in and do some question and answers. And I think that's what needs to be done. Are we losing out on some of our heritage, our contribution to this form of music? Are you finding African-American young people not coming to it?
Not coming to it. Not honoring it. I don't know what the reasons are. And I've tried to look at this straight down the middle. And I think the only way I can do that is to really relive some of the visits and the things that this music stands for or reminds people of. Came along and was done at a very, very hard time in our lives. And I say, I am a black person who was touring in the deep south, singing where there were hangings going on and where my car was being burned or where we were just emotionally abused. And I said at that time I was young and kind of fly and had an attitude, you know. But for the persons who remained in the south and wherever else, this kind of injustice existed and dealt with the everyday hardships of that.
I tip my head because they're stronger than I. But I'm glad that was strong because for that reason there are certain things I can do now. I can talk about it. But some of the things I experienced like Jackie Wilson and all of us, we used to say, my God, how can this beat? But what we had working in our favor was that after we got through with the music, we could get on the bus and go home. And I think that it has to be the parents, the grandparents of the now generation because the now generation does not know anything about me, you know, and never will. Because communications, the media, the television, they're not going to let them know about me. But so much. You've done some radio work, Harlem hit parade and some other things. Blue stage.
Blue stage, how you enjoy the other side of the table or the window. I liked it very much because I think radio is the medium. Okay. Thank you. Because it does require some kind of imagination. You know, you have to envision what you what's being said and you don't do that in television and MTV. It is all there for you to see it, you know. And so for the moment, you it's not really a learning tool anymore. It's an art form that allows a lot of non talent to become great stars. Now, I'll say that and they probably never let me say that again, but that's the way I feel. And I said to some of the wonderful people here, I said, if the lights go out, we can find out. We ain't got two minute stars left. If there's no electricity and nobody pushing the buttons and no reverbs and no strobe lights and no smoke screens, we're going to find out that we don't have too much out here going for us, you know. But I think the wonderful thing about radio and I loved it when I was doing it mainly because
I would take Harlem hit parade, first of all. And in that particular radio show, I was able to talk one on one with stars that I had worked with and baby, they couldn't lie looking at me because I was there, you know. And it was always interesting to say, do you remember, you know, like Bo Diddley was on my show and I said, Bo Diddley, do you remember the night I had to run in your purse in Kansas City to get out because Jackie Wilson didn't show up and the audience was going mad throwing bottles and Bo Diddley was taking his band around in a hearse at that time and I jumped in the hearse to get out of town with him, you know. So there were things that we could remember, you know, I could talk to Ed of James and everybody else and I always was proud of that show. I was proud of it and now there are a couple of other shows that kind of following behind that idea, good enough, you know. But some of it is like not real, there are a lot of the legends that are still around, people just don't look for them, a lot of us are still here.
I know you have another interview to do, but one last thing I want to ask you, looking back on your career, is anything that you would have done differently? Well I don't know where the music is concerned if I would have done anything differently, but I would have possibly had a better sense of the business end of it. When I began, music was a way for me to get out, not really get out and then on the other hand it was a way for me to contribute and I knew because one day I sang for a wedding and they paid me $35, that was more than my father made for the whole week on his job. My father was a laborer and worked very hard, only led to be 42 years old, my mother was a domestic, but the kind of money that I see being earned, if I had had a better sense of the business, I probably would not have been fighting for 11 years against my parent
record company for back royalties. In so doing, I brought about the construction of a foundation called the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, who now looks and fights for back royalties. That's what the intent is. They get slow too sometime until I come to the table and say, oh yeah she comes, don't let her in here. That's what it's about. If they're going to sell, if my art is still good now, then all I'm asking for is the recognition to show that I contributed. I was here a long time and I'm not going away. No where. I refuse to be sick. I was sick a little bit before I got here, but I ain't going to lay down. No, no, no, because there's still too many good songs, too many good stories, too many inspiring stories, too many nice persons like yourself who will open up this well spring. There's a lot to be talked about here and there's more to what we're
talking about than you'll find at the House of Blues. But the blues ain't black no more. You know that. It's green because it's too much money. Young people who are attempting to sing the blues nowadays don't have the real reasons. I don't see a reason to sing the blues. If you got a mansion and a chauffeur limousine and a big bank account, when we came along we had the reasons and that's why it's different. Looking out my window, I see my world has changed. Sun won't rise this morning, cause babies are going away. Yesterday I could tell myself they need to be back for sure, but the train don't stop here anymore. Blue superstar Ruth Brown. If you have questions, comments or suggestions asked your future in Black America programs write us. Also let us know what
radio station you heard us over. I would like to thank Austin City Limits for their assistance in the production of this program. The views and opinions expressed on this program are not necessarily those of this station or the University of Texas at Austin until we have the opportunity again for IVA technical producer David Alvarez and production assistant Kaelin Zaretha. I'm John L. Hanson Jr. Thank you for joining us today and please join us again next week. Cacette copies of this program are available and may be purchased by writing in Black America Cacettes, Communication Building B, UT Austin, Austin, Texas 78712. That's in Black America Cacettes, Communication Building B, UT Austin, Austin, Texas 78712. From the University of Texas at Austin, this is the Longhorn Radio Network.
I'm John L. Hanson Jr. Join me this week on in Black America. If my art is still good now, then all I'm asking for is the recognition to show that I contributed. You know, I will see a long time. The Queen of Rillerman Blues, Ruth Brown this week on in Black America.
- In Black America
- Blues Superstar with Ruth Brown
- Producing Organization
- KUT Radio
- Contributing Organization
- KUT Radio (Austin, Texas)
- AAPB ID
Copyright Holder: KUT
Guest: Ruth Brown
Host: John L. Hanson
Producing Organization: KUT Radio
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: IBA50-98 (KUT Radio)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
- Chicago: “In Black America; Blues Superstar with Ruth Brown,” 1998-10-01, KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 26, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-gb1xd0s322.
- MLA: “In Black America; Blues Superstar with Ruth Brown.” 1998-10-01. KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 26, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-gb1xd0s322>.
- APA: In Black America; Blues Superstar with Ruth Brown. Boston, MA: KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-gb1xd0s322