Ruth Brown with Andrew Yule. Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography of Ruth Brown, Rhythm and Blues Legend. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.
Many Americans know Ruth Brown as a singing actress in film and on the stage rather than as a touring rhythm and blues singer and recording star. Why? Probably because so much of her success as a vocalist occurred when Black artists got limited exposure on “white” radio stations and their work was still referred to as “race music.”
Where’s Jackie? Still, much of her career was contemporaneous with Jackie Wilson’s, and our hero makes appearances in the pages of this book, the first being a story Ruth relates about a Jackie no-show. The promoter kept her on stage, telling her to keep singing the same songs until Jackie arrived. As she raised her tambourine to sing “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” for the umpteenth time, someone shouted, “Don’t you dare sing that song again. Where’s Jackie?” Well, uh, it seems Jackie was still at the tour’s last stop . . . with a female companion. The audience began hurling objects at the stage, and Ruth and the rest of the performers had to run for their cars and get out of town.
Despite this story, Ruth obviously thought highly of Jackie as an artist and as a friend, referring to him warmly as “Mr. Excitement, Mr. Delightment.”
Artists’ royalties and contracts. Of even greater interest to Jackie Wilson fans than direct references to him are the passages explaining how Black artists of the day were defrauded of their royalties and in other ways abused by recording companies. Ruth Brown and attorney Howard Begle were ultimately triumphant in the battle for royalty reform, and they established The Rhythm and Blues Foundation as a means for righting wrongs to the degree possible. They are genuine heroes in the fight for the rights and dignity of Black entertainers. Unfortunately, these victories came too late to help many artists, among them Jackie Wilson. Nonetheless, learning from this memoir just how the system functioned and how difficult it was to fight helps us understand Jackie’s struggles.
Basically, most Black artists of the Fifties and Sixties signed contracts that insured they would never see royalties on their recordings. Royalties for the artists were usually small anyway (smaller than those for songwriters, for example), and costs of producing recordings were generally subtracted from the artists’ earnings. In addition, any “advances” for touring expenses (paying musicians and other members of an entourage, transportation costs, hotel bills, food, performance clothing, cleaning bills for performance clothing) were all set down as debts the artists owed, even though touring promoted the records for those taking the profits.
Touring. With no record royalties coming in, constant touring was necessary to earn even a modest income, but constant touring exhausted performers, sometimes damaging the voices of the best singers. It also destroyed their domestic lives. And yet it did not pay their bills.
Furthermore, for Black artists touring in the American South, the experience included some genuine peril and abundant indignities. Brown recounts a number of these, including being dragged out of a public toilet stall and hauled before a judge, who fined her and told her that she should have known that a sign saying “Ladies” meant “White Ladies.” She also recounts how the New York license plates on the entertainers’ Cadillacs made them easily identifiable targets for highway patrolmen, who pulled the cars over to the roadside to harass the occupants. Tactics included forcing everyone out of the cars to take up their instruments for roadside performances. In one such stop, Brown recalls, officers ordered the band’s pianist to “play” an imaginary keyboard on the hood of a car.
Add to these problems the fact that record companies and managers cheated the artists in other ways, including simply not crediting the royalties the artists earned to their “company accounts.” Ruth Brown relates that she received her first information about how she was being cheated from a fellow Atlantic artist who was moving to another label. The artist was Bobby Darin, and he took the risk of snooping into files in the company office before he left, passing on a warning to Ruth that both of them were being cheated.
Ruth’s life story. Despite some of the terrible things that happened in Ruth Brown’s life, her story is not only informative, but also surprisingly uplifting. From her childhood days of brutal summers spent sharecropping on her grandmother’s farm on through her success on Broadway in Black and Blue, the whole adventure is movie-quality amazing.
The book is full of funny anecdotes and details of activities from Brown’s life as a performer. She tells of her romantic interlude with Clyde McPhatter, setting to rest the rumor that he fathered one of her sons. [In the last years of her life, she would reverse herself and say that McPhatter was Ronnie’s father]. She describes singing gospel after hours with Sam Cooke and Richard Penniman, noting that most of us would not recognize the man until he donned his wig, makeup, and Little Richard attitude. And she tells of making room in her Caddy for Chuck Jackson and his mentor, our beloved Jackie, after (she suspects) they have lost their train fare gambling backstage at the Apollo.
Hey, didn’t our Jackie curse a bit? Perhaps Brown’s funniest anecdote relates how she flattened an obnoxious Little Willie John with one punch, again backstage at the Apollo. The incident amazed observers because, as one of the Schiffmans noted, Ruth was always such a “lady.” The reason for the punch? Ruth hated foul language. Given that our Jackie was notorious for his profanity, I wondered how he escaped her ire, but elsewhere in the book she noted that on tours, the men observed a self-imposed rule to refrain from cursing in front of the women. Apparently Jackie observed the rule that Willie broke.
Jackie Wilson is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the sadder passages in the book involves the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Jackie Wilson, which was, of course, posthumous. Tickets were expensive, but Joyce McRae Moore, who had done so much to help Jackie in time of need, managed to arrange tickets and transportation for two of Jackie’s daughters to attend. McRae handed them off to Brown so that Ruth could seat them at the table she and Howell Begle were sharing. Unfortunately, Ahmet Ertegun, in charge of proceedings that year, ejected Jackie’s daughters before the ceremony began. He was enforcing Harlean Harris’s edict that among Jackie’s children, only her own son could be present.