“This is the lady, take my word for it, who started it all. Wasn’t for Ruth Brown, there wouldn’t be no Aretha, wouldn’t be nobody. I’m here to tell you this lady is a true legend.” – Stevie Wonder
The Original Queen of R&B?
Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder have all cited her as an influence, but have YOU ever heard of Ruth Brown? Unfortunately, I’d be surprised if you say you have! Before Beyonce, before Mary J. Blige and even before Etta James, the lovely and sassy, Ruth Brown (aka. Miss Rhythm) ruled America’s R&B and pop charts in the 50s. She was one of the first artists signed to Atlantic records and because of her multiple million-selling singles, such as “Teardrops from My Eyes”, “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and “Lucky Lips”, the company was often referred to as, “the house that Ruth built!”
Brown’s career went into decline in the late 1960s, during which she left the industry to start a family and work as a domestic. Yes, you heard right, I said a domestic! She wasn’t receiving any royalties from the company she had helped to build and this lead to a battle between her and Atlantic for many years. Her career resurfaced in the 80s and she is probably best remembered by our generation for her role as “Motormouth Maybelle” in the original version of the John Waters directed cult classic, “Hairspray”. In 1993 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In researching some of my favorite artists such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin, there was one name that repeatedly came up, Ruth Brown. So I wanted to know more and I was left wondering how someone so influential could be so Unsung. Though her records still sell well globally, her name goes virtually unmentioned. Could it be because she chose to fight the company that abused her? Whatever the case, her story unfortunately isn’t unique in the industry. Another great artist lost in the shuffle…
Some follow up research so you’re sure to impress at your local indie music shop:
Tidbit: Ruth Brown is the aunt of Hip Hop Legend, Rakim.
Tracks you should hear: “I Don’t Know,” “5-10-15 hours” and
“Teardrops from My Eyes”
Contemporaries: Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Lavern Baker & Big Maybelle.
By Terrence Lathan aka IBelieveInMuzik