IT ALL STARTED WITH A PHONE CALL Guest Post by Bill Griggs

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.

The Palms

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.

 

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.