PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
January 25, 2005

The Book of Ruth

by Jim Newsom

Ruth Brown was inducted into Norfolk’s Legends of Music Walk of Fame in September, 2002, but she hasn’t yet seen the star with her name embedded in the Granby Street sidewalk in person. A stroke three years earlier had left her health in a precarious state, and the week before the ceremony her doctor told her she wasn’t strong enough to fly from her current home in Las Vegas to Norfolk.

So this week, when “Miss Rhythm” comes home to perform at the newly reopened Attucks Theatre, one of the stops on her itinerary will be a visit to her star in front of the Roper Performing Arts Center.

“They sent me a picture of it,” she told me by phone earlier this month. But a picture is not the same as the real thing, so this trip back to where it all began is especially meaningful for Ruth Brown.

“I’m lucky,” she said, “I’m still hanging in. I’ve done a lot of things, but my hometown, between Norfolk and Portsmouth, there’s nothing else that I need to do because they’ve given me everything.”

We spoke the day before her 77th birthday, and she’d just had another alarming health incident one day earlier.

“I was a little ill during Christmas,” she said. “I had the virus, a lot of people had it. I went to the doctor yesterday and I had a real bad scare. I went in to do some tests and I have some of those stints into my heart, you know. And they put those dyes in you. And that thing reacted wrong. I thought I was dying. They had to run and get the doctors and resuscitate me, the whole thing. It was scary.

“They put those dyes in me and it stopped my heart…It scared me so bad. I felt my heart stop. I was dying. I called for my son.”

Fortunately she was in pretty good spirits on the telephone and seemed to get recharged as we talked. She is one of the friendliest, most full of life individuals you can imagine. She is once again performing, although she has to sit down now to sing. (“Like B. B. [King] and myself say, we earned it!”) She maintains a busy schedule.

“Every Thursday night I’m doing a place here in Vegas called the Bootlegger. The place is owned by the lieutenant governor of the state of Nevada. Every Thursday night it’s ‘Ruth’s place’ whenever I’m in town.

“When I leave you guys I’m going to New York and I’ll be there for one month. I’m working right now on my show for New York called ‘The Book of Ruth.’ And then there are some people coming down there that are doing a documentary of me. They came here and filmed me at the Bootlegger. Bonnie Raitt and a lot of people are gonna be in it.”

The film crew is coming here to capture Ruth’s return home to Portsmouth, where she was born Ruth Alston Weston on January 12, 1928, the daughter of the choir director of Emanuel A. M. E. Church, and to Norfolk, where her singing career began.

“I sang on Church Street, every place that had a stage,” she said when we talked in 2002. “I did it by sneaking out at home to get on the ferryboat and get over to Norfolk.”

I asked her this time what her favorite memory was of the Attucks Theatre, which was called the Booker T. at that time.

“Oh lord,” she replied with a joyful laugh, “going up there on that Amateur Hour and sneaking in there because, at the time, my dad didn’t even know. I must’ve been about fifteen the first time. I sang a Vaughan Monroe song.”

Another favorite Church Street haunt was the Big Track:

“There was a band in Norfolk called Harlem Harley, and then there was the Big Track diner. That was during the war years. That’s where I met Little Miss Corn Shucks---these are singers people don’t even know. I heard her right there, and I heard Betty Roche and Doc Wheeler and the great jazz singers, they used to come to Norfolk.

“In fact, that’s where I met my first husband [Jimmy Brown]. He was in the Navy playing trumpet. And that’s how I met him, sneaking over there. I thought I was going on the road to be a star. So I ran away and got as far as Hampton!”

She did ultimately get further than Hampton, and she did become a star, one of the biggest. In fact, her record label, Atlantic, was called “the house that Ruth built” in the 1950s, for the decade-long string of hits she recorded for them beginning with “So Long” in 1949. “Teardrops From My Eyes,” “5-10-15 Hours” and “Daddy Daddy” followed, with her best known song, “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” recorded in December, 1952, and released in February ’53. It was number one for five straight weeks, then became a hit again two years later when it was reissued.

But the changing tastes of the pop music world caught up with Ruth Brown as the ‘60s began, and for a while, she was one of the forgotten pioneers of rock and R&B. So she turned her attention to raising her children:

“I was doing housework, I was driving a bus on Long Island, trying to keep both of my kids in school.”

But in the mid ‘70s, she began to reappear on the entertainment scene, first in an off-Broadway play called Stagger Lee, then on TV sitcoms Hello Larry and The Jeffersons, and in John Waters’ 1985 film, Hairspray. In 1989, she won a Tony Award for her Broadway performance in Black and Blue and a Grammy for her Blues on Broadway recording.

These days, Ruth Brown is both a survivor and an icon. She was an inspiration to many of the greats that followed her, a diverse list that includes Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones and Little Richard. (“He said he wanted to be Ruth Brown,” she told me of Little Richard, “He thought he was Ruth Brown!”)

Saturday night she’ll be back home at the Attucks Theatre, on the stage where she first sang 62 years ago at the Booker T. Amateur Hour. And she’ll get to see her sidewalk star on Granby Street.

“A lot of great, important people came of there, Norfolk and Portsmouth,” she concluded. “People have no idea. I have all my good memories there.”

copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.

"The Unsinkable Rhythm of Ruth Brown"
- Ruth Brown talks with Jim Newsom in 2002 about her life and career -