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They called Atlantic Records "the house that Ruth built" during the 1950s, and they weren't referring to the Sultan of Swat. Ruth Brown's regal hitmaking reign from 1949 to the close of the '50s helped tremendously to establish the New York label's predominance in the R&B field. Later, the business all but forgot her -- she was forced to toil as domestic help for a time -- but she returned to the top, her status as a postwar R&B pioneer (and tireless advocate for the rights and royalties of her peers) recognized worldwide.
Young Ruth Weston was inspired initially by jazz chanteuses Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington. She ran away from her Portsmouth home in 1945 to hit the road with trumpeter Jimmy Brown, whom she soon married. A month with bandleader Lucky Millinder's orchestra in 1947 ended abruptly in Washington, D.C., when she was canned for delivering a round of drinks to members of the band. Cab Calloway's sister Blanche gave Ruth a gig at her Crystal Caverns nightclub and assumed a managerial role in the young singer's life. DJ Willis Conover dug Brown's act and recommended her to Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, bosses of a fledgling imprint named Atlantic. Unfortunately, Brown's debut session for the firm was delayed by a nine-month hospital stay caused by a serious auto accident en route to New York that badly injured her leg. When she finally made it to her first date in May 1949, she made up for lost time by waxing the torch ballad "So Long" (backed by guitarist Eddie Condon's band), which proved to be her first hit.
Brown's seductive vocal delivery shone incandescently on her Atlantic smashes "Teardrops in My Eyes" (an R&B chart-topper for 11 weeks in 1950), "I'll Wait for You" and "I Know" in 1951, 1952's "5-10-15 Hours" (another number one rocker), the seminal "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" in 1953, and a tender Chuck Willis-penned "Oh What a Dream," and the timely "Mambo Baby" the next year. Along the way, Frankie Laine tagged her "Miss Rhythm" during an engagement in Philly. Brown belted a series of her hits on the groundbreaking TV program Showtime at the Apollo in 1955, exhibiting delicious comic timing while trading sly one-liners with MC Willie Bryant (ironically, ex-husband Jimmy Brown was a member of the show's house band).
After an even two-dozen R&B chart appearances for Atlantic that ended in 1960 with "Don't Deceive Me" (many of them featuring hell-raising tenor sax solos by Willis "Gator" Jackson, who many mistakenly believed to be Brown's husband), Brown faded from view. After raising her two sons and working a nine-to-five job, Brown began to rebuild her musical career in the mid-'70s. Her comedic sense served her well during a TV sitcom stint co-starring with MacLean Stevenson in Hello, Larry, in a meaty role in director John Waters' 1985 sock-hop satire film Hairspray, and her 1989 Broadway starring turn in Black and Blue (which won her a Tony Award).
There were more records for Fantasy in the '80s and '90s (notably 1991's jumping Fine and Mellow), and a lengthy tenure as host of National Public Radio's Harlem Hit Parade and BluesStage. Brown's nine-year ordeal to recoup her share of royalties from all those Atlantic platters led to the formation of the nonprofit Rhythm & Blues Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping others in the same frustrating situation. In 1993 Brown was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and 1995 saw the release of her autobiography, Miss Rhythm. Brown suffered a heart attack and stroke following surgery in October 2006 and never fully recovered, passing on November 17, 2006.
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.
Early life 
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.
Later life 
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 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.