Brown, Ruth (nee Alston Weston)

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Brown, Ruth (nee Alston Weston)

Brown, Ruth (nee Alston Weston) , American R&B singer and actress; b. Portsmouth, Va., Jan. 12, 1928. Brown was the daughter of Leonard Weston, a dock worker, and Martha Jane Alston Weston. Her father served as a church choir director, and she received her first musical instruction singing spirituals in church. She began singing secular music while working at a USO club during World War II and around 1945 joined the Raleigh Randolph band, where she met and teamed up with trumpeter/vocalist Jimmy Earle Brown as Brown and Brown. She married Brown, but the marriage was annulled when she found out he was already married; nevertheless, they stayed together and went out on their own, with Jimmy Brown forming his own group in 1947. The following year they separated and she began to perform alone. While appearing at the Frolic Show Bar in Detroit she was hired by bandleader Lucky Millinder, who fired her a month later, on July 4, 1948, stranding her in Washington, D.C. She found work singing in the Crystal Caverns, a club run by Cab Calloway’s sister, Blanche Calloway, who became her manager. This led to an engagement at the Apollo Theatre in N.Y and a contract offer from recently formed Atlantic Records.

On Oct. 28, 1948, Brown traveled north for the Apollo performance but was involved in an automobile accident in which both of her legs were broken, and she was hospitalized for months. But she signed to Atlantic on Jan. 12, 1949, and on May 25, 1949, did her first recording session, from which came “So Long” (music and lyrics by Russ Morgan, Remus Harris, and Irving Melsher), which entered the R&B charts in September and peaked in the Top Ten. Her next few singles were not successful, but Atlantic released “Teardrops from My Eyes” (music and lyrics by Rudolph Toombs) in the fall of 1950 and it hit #1 in December. That year she became involved with Willis Jackson, who became her common-law husband until 1955.

Brown scored two R&B Top Ten hits in 1951 and another two in 1952, the most successful of them being the million-seller “5-10-15 Hours” (music and lyrics by Rudolph Toombs), which hit #1 in May 1952. “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (music and lyrics by Herb Lance and Johnny Wallace) topped the R&B charts in March 1953, the first of her three Top Ten hits that year. She had only two Top Ten hits in 1954, but both of them hit #1, “Oh What a Dream” (music and lyrics by Chuck Willis) in September and “Mambo Baby” (music and lyrics by Charlie Singleton and Rosemarie McCoy) in November.

In January 1955, Brown gave birth to a son, Ronald David Jackson, actually the issue of a brief liaison with boxing trainer Drew “Bundini” Brown. That year she married saxophone player Earl Swanson, with whom she had a second son, Earl Swanson Jr., in 1957, after which they separated and divorced. From 1958 to 1962 she lived with trumpeter Danny Moore. She placed six recordings in the R&B charts in 1955, five of which reached the Top Ten, but she began to perform less frequently. She had four more R&B Top Tens through the end of the decade, two of which, “Lucky Lips” (music and lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; 1957) and “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’” (music and lyrics by Bobby Darin; 1958) also made the pop Top 40.

Brown scored a final R&B Top Ten hit, “Don’t Deceive Me” (music and lyrics by Chuck Willis), in 1960, then switched from Atlantic to Philips Records, but she stopped reaching the charts. In 1963 she married Bill Blunt, a police officer, moved to Long Island, and semi-retired from music, though she continued to perform and make recordings occasionally. In 1966 she and Blunt separated, later divorcing, and she began to work outside music to support her family. Her performance of “Yesterday” (music and lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney) on the Skye Records album Black Is Brown and Brown Is Beautiful brought her a 1969 Grammy nomination for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance, Female.

Brown resumed her career in 1975 as her sons began attending college. She moved to L.A., where she appeared in the play Selma portraying Mahalia Jackson. She began performing in Las Vegas and appeared there in a touring production of the Frank Loesser musical Guys and Dolls (Feb. 14, 1977). She was cast in the television series Hello, Larry, a situation comedy that ran from January 1979 to April 1980, and in April 1981 was part of the one- month tryout of the TV series Checking In. She also appeared in the 1981 film Under the Rainbow. She made her Broadway debut in the musical Amen Corner (N.Y., Nov. 10, 1983), which ran 28 performances. In 1984 she appeared in the musical revue Black and Blue in Paris. She was in the Off-Broadway musical Staggerlee (N.Y., March 18, 1987), which ran 118 performances. In 1988 she had a small part in the film Hairspray.

Brown repeated her role in the Broadway version of Black and Blue (N.Y., Jan. 26, 1989), which ran 824 performances, winning a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical. She won a 1989 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, for her album Blues on Broadway, released by Fantasy Records, and with costar Linda Hopkins was nominated for the 1990 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Recording for “’Tain’t Nobody’s Business ifI Do” from the cast album for Black and Blue.


Ruth Brown Sings Favorites (1956); Ruth Brown (1957); Late Date with Ruth Brown (1959); Along Comes Ruth (1962); Gospel Time (1962); Ruth Brown ’65 (1964); Fine Brown Frame (1968); The Big Band Sound of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis featuring Miss Ruth (1968); Black Is Brown and Brown Is Beautiful (1969); Takin’ Care of Business (1980); Have a Good Time (live; 1988); Blues on Broadway (1989); Brown, Black & Beautiful (1990); Fine and Mellow (1991); Songs of My Life (1993); Live in London (1996); R+B= Ruth Brown (1997); Good Day for the Blues (1999).


With Andrew Yule, Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography of Ruth Brown, Rhythm & Blues Legend (N.Y., 1996).

—William Ruhlmann

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Brown, Ruth (nee Alston Weston)

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