A TRIBUTE TO RUTH BROWN, MISS RHYTHM (1/12/28-11/17/06)

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!

 

Coming Next Week: Ruth Brown Tribute

Portsmouth born Ruth Weston Brown was truly a legend in her own time. She was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammys ( proudly accepted by her son Earl Swanson) and it was a long time coming And so well deserved!

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of working as a research assistant on a yet-to-be completed project on Miss Brown’s illustrious life. The highlight of that heady experience was sitting backstage with Miss B.holding her hand as she prepared to make her final appearance onstage at the renowed  Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Va. (Writing that sentence just gave me pause).

And the memory of  being with this Grand Lady of Rock ‘n Roll, Blues, Atlantic Records, “Hairspray”  fame was truly a highlight of my writing career}.

I will revisit a Post I wrote together with 2 of her devotees Bill Griggs and Bill Easley.  Stay tuned! And Thanks for Reading.

Talking About a Revolution 

IMG_0094Don’t you know
They’re talking about a revolution
It sounds like a whisper…
While they’re standing in the Welfare lines/
Crying at the footsteps of those armies of salvation/
Wasting time in unemployment lines/
Sitting around waiting for a promotion/
Poor people gonna rise up/
And get their share.
c1982. SBK/purple rabbit music

Many folks think that we have come a long ways Baby and that the circumstances of America’s poor, disenfranchised, Not the talented 10th (or the Well heeled 10%) has improved since Tracy Chapman penned this song in the 80s.

I wonder.

Having been a card carrying member of the Movement during the 70s, And a poor person (I was a college student in Los Angeles working 3 part-time jobs, an unwed mother (now pc term Single Mom), a culture seeking, I love My People sistah who volunteered many wee hours growing food, cooking stew , sewing dashikis, teaching reading, tutoring and Workin’ for the People of Watts.

Often in the company of members of the Real Black Panther Party who were laser sharp serious about feeding hungry children in the city of the Angels only a stone’s throw from Holly weird, Shoppers- paradise-Rodeo Drive and right up the road from the Happiest place on earth.

Is it possible that things really do change while remaining the same?

Fast forward to 2016 and the country is immersed in holiday cheer, spending $ like water for a day that is supposed to honor a King/healer/leader/ Teacher and not an obese man in a redsuit.

Uh uh, here she go humbugging Christmas.

Readers, Like many of you, I luv the holidays and all the lights and carols and decorations and eggnog and gift giving/receiving and baking and hosting and TV specials and excitement on the faces of little ones opening their gifts on Christmas eve…

Remember I’m a Boomer and grew up in a Black household modeled after Leave it to Beaver, Father knows Best, and My3Sons. We DID Christmas thoroughly and enjoyed it.

But that does not mean we and America get to take a pass just because it’s the Holidays and the cofers of capitalism need replenishing.

And before you think it..I’m not talking about the seasonal well meaning middle class gestures of throwing some loose change (do they take debit cards now) in the armies of salvation kettles, or buying a pair of socks for the angel tree.

Hunger, Virginia is a 24/7 proposition. Being poor for too many children is a lifestyle handed down from previous generations and like crack, it’s hard to break the cycle.

Like Dredlocked wearing, folk song singing, visionary Tracy Chapman says…
Oh you better run/run/run//run/run …talkin’ bout a Revolution.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good nite!

Blogging Again…

Well readers, it has been a minute since I last sat in front of this blinking cursor. Let’s just say like my grandma used to say, God required me to ‘sit down’ for a minute.

The genesis for this came in the form of a rear end accident that occurred almost 2 years ago while I was parked at the local post office…yes, I believe in snail mail…even have all my hate mail/bills directed to a PO box that I check periodically.

I had just left said establishment and was sitting in my car perusing the latest edicts from AARP…10 Best Places to Retire (if you have money, of course) when a loud boom followed by a forceful slamming of my venerable ’99 vehicle assaulted my body.

The perpetrator of this action was a delivery van backing into my unmoving vehicle (I did say I was parked didn’t I?) at a rather high speed for said parking lot. I saw the lady parked next to me running from her car with a look of fear on her face and because of the times we live in assumed it was some type of attack being rained down on said  PO…maybe a worker gone postal even…outside of the building.

Or perhaps, it was some type of random assault in which I was the starring victim. But imagination aside, it turned out to be an errant driver-in-a-hurry  whose actions turned me into an “accident victim” resulting in long hours lying on heating pads, mildly addicting pain meds and muscle relaxants, endless visits to physical agony (oops) therapy sessions and even a deja vue experience standing in a courtroom pleading my case to an understanding judge.

The legal wrangling alone is worth a Blog, but I was warned by my legal mouthpiece to refrain from discussing my case while it was pending.  And it is now just a mere 2 years later that this ‘case’ has been resolved and I am able to find my voice again.

did she just say that she hasn’t written a blog in almost 2 years because she had a court case pending? girl please…

Well, reader, I wish I could say I was “richer and wiser” because of the experience.  What I can say is that my 65 year old neck/ back will never be the same again and I think I have PTSD for the Post Office.  So much in fact that I just signed up online to pay my yearly PO box fee. Now, if I could figure out how to get them to mail me the contents of my always bulging box. Hmm, that might be a way to save snail mail.

Well, it’s approaching daylight….no, my insomnia has not disappeared…and I will bid adieu to you.  I hope that you will allow me to visit your inbox sometimes when my creative juices are flowing.  As always, I look forward to your comments. What is a writer without a reader.

But guys, be kind, like Ericka Badu said…I’m an artist and sensitive about my ****.

Happy Holidays!