Ms. Brown, this is Bill Griggs from the Portsmouth Notables Occasion. That is how our nearly 20 year friendship started in 1987. You are the only singer on the dais. Would you like to sing a song for the event? Baby, Ruth said, I’d be happy to.
Little did I know, that I had called at one of the low, transitional points in her career. In 1986, she had returned from Paris where she was performing in Black and Blue which would not be a hit on Broadway until January 1988. She had closed an off Broadway show called Stagger Lee which led to her role as Motor Mouth Mabel in the film Hairspray. The film at this time was yet to be released. And her dear compatriot, Howell Begel was helping Ruth fight Atlantic Records for her long overdue payments on recordings not only for Ruth, but for all of Atlantic artists.
At this point, she had four eyes on the stove setting on simmer. Later Ruth said that receiving the Notable Award from Portsmouth was the fuel that helped to fan the flame on her simmering projects.
After the Notables was over, Ruth and I stayed in touch by phone on a regular basis. We enjoyed chatting about her latest performances and upcoming events or just talking about family.
She always asked, Baby, what’s going on back home? We began meeting wherever she was playing: On Broadway at the Blue Note, at Wolf Trap and once at the Cinegrill in Hollywood. There I arrived without her knowledge. She spotted me in the second row, stopped the band and introduced me to the audience. With Ruth, I shared many great moments. I want to share with you, a few of them over the years.
In January 2002, I asked Ruth to dinner at the Palms Hotel in Vegas. This would be her first venture into the public after spending over a year and a half learning how to speak again. Ruth said she would be there and that her son and manager Earl would bring her to the hotel. We agreed to meet at the entrance at 7 pm. When my good friend Claus Ihlemann and I arrived at the front entrance there she was, draped in a black cape with fur. She looked stunning. There was the queen of rhythm and blues sitting at the slot machine in the center of the main entrance. We had a wonderful dinner at the top of the Palms. The patrons who came by the table to wish her well was an early birthday present to Ruth.
Caesar’s Palace at Terrazzo
In February of 2004, I once again found myself in Vegas on business. Again, I called Ruth and asked her to join us for dinner at the restaurant of her choice. She chose Terrazzo’s at Caesar’s Palace. Ruth told me of a great pianist named Galeebe Galab who played at the lounge there. I met Galeebe the day prior to the dinner and we arranged for a private table in the restaurant behind Galeebe’s lounge. After another two hour dinner, Ernie Warinner and I escorted Ruth to the lounge, coming in the back behind the audience. As we reached the half way point to our table in the back, Galeebe announced: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Queen of Rhythm and Blues, Ms. Ruth Brown. All of a sudden, a surge of strength came over Ruth and she headed to the stage. She sat at the edge of Galeebe’s piano bench and began to sing lyrics to the blues riff that he was playing. For four minutes she glowed and sang. There was not one hint that she was recovering from a stroke. When she brought the song to a close she said, I don’t know what I just sang, but they call it The Blues. The audience rose in applause.
In the fall of 2003, Lightning in a Bottle, a film about the makers of the Blues had just been filmed at Radio City Music Hall. Director, Martin Scorcese was very pleased with the success of the film and wanted Ruth to front a show of the fellow blues artists for a 40 city bus tour of the US. She was thrilled. A few months later, I asked how the tour was. She said, Oh baby, we didn’t go. With the ages and the conditions of all of us, Martin found out it would take too long to load and unload the bus!
I called Ruth in mid 2004 to check on her. She was happy and sounded terrific. Guess what, she said, Ray called me. He said Ruth they are making a film of my life and you are in it. I am! Well, honey, I want Holly Berry to play me, Ruth replied. Ray was quick on the uptake, Ruth I’m blind, but I’m not that blind.
In the fall of 2004, I called Ruth with some good news. WHRO and the Virginia Arts Festival want you to appear at the restored Attucks Theatre in Norfolk. Oh Baby, that’s where Daddy pulled me off the stage. I’ll be there.
Ruth is there anything you want? Baby, there are only two things I don’t have. You know B.B.’s got a blues festival named after him. I would love to have the Ruth Brown Rhythm and Blues Festival. What’s the other, I asked. One day a club called Ruth’s Place. Well, I replied, we can do a test run at the Attucks. That night at the Attucks was magic. A cameo moment as her fan Cabot Wilson called it.
I don’t have my friend to call anymore. I do have her number. She was honesty, sincerity, wisdom and determination. R not only stands for Ruth, It stands for Resilient. She endured all the hardships of life, yet she rose to the top of it all. Racism and segregation. Poverty and constant leg pain. Rejection and thievery. There is no wonder she sang the blues as only she could. The tears in her voice, the wailing of pain were her trademarks. Trademarks of a life that only the power of Faith, Family and the adulation, applause and never failing acceptance of an audience could heal.
I know that today you are walking all over God’s Heaven, free of pain and as light in flight as the Butterflies that you loved. When I hear the Robin sing and his voice begins to wail, I know you are singing just for me. Know that you will always be in my heart. Ruth, thank you for your song.