Readers, Windows 10 has struck again… and this time don’ run off with some of my saved documents!
Fortunately, I had a hard copy of my original post on Ruth Brown, but the guest post by Bill Griggs, local Renaissance man who knew and loved Miss B fiercely, along with comments from her long time Band member/friend the famed New York saxophonist Bill Easley is MIA.
Many of you who follow my posts know of my affinity for Music. I am a listener/sing alonger/lover of all kinds of music especially Jazz, soulful R&B, Blues, Hip hop, Country… did she say Country… Yes. Country. Especially folk like local Black cowboy Angelo Mayo, Sugarland, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown Band, Rascal Flats, Reba, Bonnie Raitt, Darius Rucker and even some Rap… T.Payne’s It’s a Circus, The Notorious B.I.G (my road song thanks to JoanG), Mos Def (did you know he has left the country?), Common, and on quieter, reflective occasions straight-ahead-jazz (thanks Daddy) and classical including my extremely talented cello/guitar/ piano playing grandson KhalifW, Regina Carter, and Vivaldi, to name a very few .
My favorite music, of course, playing as I write, on my ipod (used to be CDs), are the renderings of various bluesy, jazzy, soulful Male and Female crooners, the latter ranging from Bettye Lavette, Phyllis Hyman, Ledisi, Oleta, Rachelle, Farrell, Fantasia, Nina, Billie and of course, Miss Rhythm herself, Ruth Brown.
When I was a pigtail and bang, crinoline slip, black patent leather shoe wearing puff of innocence living in Norfolk, Virginia… Just across the river in Portsmouth, hometown phenom, Ruth Brown aka Miss Rhythm was making a name for herself in the world of music. That bluesy, “torchy, church and jazz schooled voice” that helped build Atlantic Records in the 50s to the music giant it would later become had her start singing in church and later won a contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater that propelled her to become winner of a Tony, Grammy ( 1990, 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award), W.C. Handy, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee during her long career.
Little did I know skipping up and down the streets of Marshall Manor and later newly built Victory Manor in Portsmouth that one day some 50 years later our paths would cross and this musical wonder would leave a lasting impact on my life/heart.
Ruth Brown became the voice of Atlantic Records making chart topping hits like So Long, Tear Drops in Her Eyes, and (Mama) He Treats your Daughter Mean. Her more than two dozen hits, including Blues, R& B and later Rock and Roll, turned AR into a record giant and it was dubbed The House that Ruth Built. Her relationship with AR ended in 1961 following contract disputes when like so many black artists, Ruth discovered she was not being fairly compensated for the hits she was making.
Undaunted, Ruth Brown reinvented herself in the 70s and began recording blues and jazz again. She won a Tony for her role in Broadway’s Black and Blue. And had a starring role in the film Hairspray where she played the feisty DJ. She also showcased her hosting talents on two NPR shows, all the while continuing to perform at concerts and nightclubs in the U.S and overseas to throngs of adoring fans.
It was during the resurgence of her career in the early 2000s that I met the famed Miss Ruth Brown. At 77, she was preparing a return to the newly renovated Norfolk Attucks Theater (where she had performed at age 16 without her father’s knowledge). A friend, GregC, at local Public Television station, WHRO, told me that a California director, Don O. was looking for a local person to assist with research for a documentary on Miss Brown’s life. I quickly contacted Don and offered my services, and for the next few months was launched into a worldwind of activity researching the life of Ruth Brown from a variety of local sources.
I spent hours searching dusty files tucked away in the rich archives of the Portsmouth Public library (thank you Mae H.) and the microfilm viewers at the Norfolk Public library, hunting down pictures, newspaper articles, memorabilia, anything I could find on this Portsmouth native. Thanks to archivist Dr.TommieB at NSU library, I was able to obtain black and white photos from the 60s taken of Ruth Brown and radio personality Jack Holmes at a local event. I even stumbled across a beautiful 8×10 of her, at of all places, the Portsmouth Naval Museum…who knew? One of her most ardent fans (and high school sweetheart) even had a delicate, crumbling autographed B&W photo of her taken at Sunset Lake Park (remember that spot) hanging on his Portsmouth garage wall!
For weeks, I worked the phones talking to people who knew Ruth Brown, folks from her teenage days at Norcom High School who included the likes of Mayor Holley, Councilman Whitehust, former School Supt. Horace Savage, jazz player Johnny Day, and distinguished, retired Mr. Sanford (a former RB suitor) and a host of other likeable, gracefully aging seniors who all had fond memories of Miss Brown. We made arrangements to have a surprise ‘class reunion’ backstage after the performance at the Attucks.
After immersing myself in all things Ruth Brown, I finally met the great lady as she rehearsed with her band a few days prior to the Attucks performance. Don, the producer, introduced us and she graciously greeted me like I was an old friend. She was delighted to learn I was a ‘hometown’ girl and invited me to join her backstage on the night of the performance. It was at that time, I also met Bill Easley, her long time NY friend, band member and sax player extraordinaire whose resume included recording with the likes of Issac Hayes, George Benson, Jimmy McGriff and other jazz greats including Ruth Brown. Our friendship continues today bonded by the initial connection to Miss B.
Despite needing a cane for support (she had injured her knees in a car crash years ago), Ruth Brown was still a fireball of energy, had an infectious smile, sophisticated style, and a voice that filled the 600 seat auditorium of the Attucks Theater.
On the night of her performance, I was busy greeting the ‘class reunion’ members and getting them seated, shopping for flowers for her dressing room, ‘rehearsing’ the presentation by her classmate that would follow Portsmouth Mayor Holley and Norfolk Vice Mayor Hester’s presentation of her cake, and overall just trying to be helpful to the staff of the Attucks.
When Miss Brown came backstage, her Assistant asked me if I would sit with her while she was waiting to go on. I was both floored and honored and quickly pulled up a chair next to the exquisitely gowned Miss B. We held hands tightly and talked quietly as she ‘calmed herself’ for this ‘debut back in front’ of her hometown some 50 years after she had ‘left town’. When the band played her intro, she released my hand and said, “Honey, I got this…I’m walking out there on my own.” She squeezed my hand and in true Ruth Brown style gracefully glided onto the stage.
The next time I saw Ruth Brown was about a month later when I traveled through the snow to join Director Don and his friends at a New York nightclub, Le Jazz Au Bar, where Miss Brown was performing. When we went backstage to greet her, she noticed me standing off from the group and said, “There’s my hometown girl, what you doing up here in the big city?” We both laughed and warmly embraced and spent some time catching up on Portsmouth goings on.
Sadly, almost a year later, following a stroke and heart attack while living/performing in Nevada, Ruth Brown’s light was extinguished. I along with hundreds of others attended her funeral services at Willet Hall in her beloved Portsmouth where she had returned on many previous occasions to see a street named in her honor, a scholarship established in her name; a star placed on Granby Street; and a parade and banquet recognizing her as a Notable.
Although, I only knew her a short time, this sassy, blues, R&B and Rock and Roll lady will always be in my heart and music collection! She was a survivor who like my muse writer Zora Neale Hurston overcame challenges of racism, sexism, and health to realize her dream.
And to my friends Bill Griggs and Bill Easley, if you are reading this, I am sure the Readers would love to hear from you!
Stay tuned and as always….thanks for reading!