Category Archives: Exploitation

Memorabilia musings

At one point you could get the original Pearl Music royalties contract for “You Better Know It” with Jackie Wilson’s signature for a mere $2000 (USD). And for an estimated $100-$200 (USD), you might have snared a photo of Jackie and his “mama,” suitably framed and autographed (please don’t laugh) “Jackie Wilson.”

[Note: These items are no longer listed for sale, so if you want to take a look at them, you had better click the URLs sooner than later, because they may come off the Web at any time.]

Not “Mama!” An advertisement for the photograph contains the following “item description”:

American soul and R&B singer (1934–1984) best known for such hits as ‘To Be Loved’ and ‘Lonely Teardrops.’ After suffering a heart attack while onstage in 1975, Wilson remained in a coma until his death nearly a decade later at the age of 49. Vintage glossy 6.5 x 4.5 photo of Wilson and his mother at Robert’s Show Club in Chicago, matted to a size of 8.75 x 7, signed and inscribed on the mat in blue ballpoint “To Mama! Forever & Always, Your son! Jackie Wilson.” Photo is matted and framed to an overall size of 12 x 10.25. Two staple holes around inscription, another staple hole to bottom of mat, and a spot of damp staining next to signature, otherwise fine condition. Accompanied by the photo’s original folder.

Moms Mabley portraitEven if a son were likely to inscribe a photo to his own mother using his surname, the folks insisting they have authenticated the photo might have noticed that Jackie wrote “To Moms,” not “To Mama.” His handwriting is quite clear. The woman in the photo with Jackie is not Jackie Wilson’s mother, but rather the very well-known x-rated comedienne Moms Mabley (shown without stage costume in the studio portrait to the left). Mabley’s face could be identified by almost any African American over age fifty who still has a pulse, and, of course, the “authenticating” team could have just asked the average Jackie Wilson fan if the woman in their picture could have possibly been Jackie’s mother.

JW w eliza freda cropOne of the few photos of Jackie’s mama (and a major digression by the blogger). Jackie’s mother, Eliza Mae Wilson Lee, is on the left in this photo of Jackie exiting Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. The picture was taken six weeks after Our Hero had been accidentally shot twice in the abdomen while trying to confiscate a handgun wielded by Juanita Jones, a girlfriend who had shown up at Jackie’s front door, intending to threaten, maim, or kill her old chum and rival, Ebony cover girl Harlean Harris, (shown here and here), who was at the time Jackie’s live-in woman for New York City. (See Jackie Wilson Biography). The incident took place as Jackie and Harlean returned to his apartment in the early hours of February 15, 1961.

If Jackie looks a bit tired, remember that he had just lost a kidney, had nearly lost his life, and was still carrying a bullet in his back at the moment the picture was snapped. If he looks a bit apprehensive, it is probably because the woman on the right is Freda Hood Wilson, Jackie’s childhood sweetheart, first and current wife, and mother of four of his children (not pictured because they are in Detroit, where Freda, Mrs. Lee, and the kids normally live). Freda has spent much of the last six weeks in Jackie’s New York City apartment, tearing up compromising photos of Jackie and Harlean together and tossing Harlean’s clothing into the street—at least according to what Freda told Jackie’s biographer, Tony Douglas.

How soon was Jackie performing again? Here he is on The Ed Sullivan show on May 28, 1961, just a little more than fifteen weeks after the Valentine’s Day “Date from Hell”:

The hospital photo was staged to bolster the image of Jackie, the family man, as the American press continued to report Jackie’s progress after the shooting, which had been publicized as an accident that occurred when Jackie heroically attempted to disarm “a deranged fan” who was attempting suicide, presumably due to unrequited love for Jackie.

Hey, it seemed a plausible story to me, reading it as a teenager out in Ohio.

The “You Better Know It” contract. As Jackie Wilson memorabilia goes, this contract, offered at auction by Argosy Old & Rare Books Prints & Maps, is certainly worth more than ten times the suggested price for the Moms Mabley photograph. Although the contract has not been signed by the other listed songwriter (Norm Henry), it does appear to be Jackie’s signature on the document, along with that of Nat Tarnopol. Neither signature is witnessed.

Nat the Rat owned Pearl Music (named, according to various sources, for a Tarnopol aunt). The contract is dated January 26, 1959. “You Better Know It” would be released as a single the following August and make it to #1 on the Rhythm and Blues chart and #37 on the Hot 100.

The “You Better Know It” video clips. The film clip at the top of this post is from “Go Johnny Go,” the last of the Alan Freed teen flicks to be released before he became the target of the payola scandal that should have hit Morris Levy instead. The film was supposedly going to include a clip of Jackie singing “Lonely Teardrops” as well, and no one seems to know if it was ever even shot. It certainly did not appear in the movie. Jackie looks great in the film, beautifully coiffed and elegantly dressed.

Why is Jackie performing in front of a coffee cup graphic? At the time, it was important to keep this sort of film free of references to alcohol, so Jackie had to be performing in a coffee house, not a night club. I call this video the “the coffee cup (CC) version.” There is another video of this song, however, that has puzzled me for a long time. It is highly unlikely that this other video was shot for the movie.

In the no-coffee-cup (NCC) version, we see a younger-looking  Jackie, almost baby-faced, with jet-black eyebrows and a less sophisticated hairstyle, looking much more like the Jackie Wilson in publicity shots for Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Jackie is nicely dressed here, but the style of the jacket is not close to the refined tailoring we see on the suit from the coffee-cup version. And his bow tie, of course, is actually a clip-on, something fans are not going to see anywhere else on the suave Mr. Wilson. In fact, it seems unlikely that Jackie would commit such a fashion faux pas once he had had a hit record and invested in a first-rate stage wardrobe.

The dance steps are virtually the same and the vocal is the same, albeit a bit shorter on the CC version, however, the NCC version (the video of the younger Jackie) is more engaging. There are no cuts to a faked audience, and this clip features close-ups of Jackie’s dancing feet and dimpled cheek. His eyebrows are coal black and rounded. It builds up to a wonderful few seconds focused on Jackie’s boyish-looking features, catching a series of winks and smiles as he tells his lady friend, “You can love me, come on. You can hug me, come on. You can squeeze me, come on. Just come on . . . Love me, honey. Love me long. Love me right. Love me strong . . .”

NRRArchives has posted a clear copy of the video on YouTube:

Back to the songwriting contract. Given the date on the royalties contract that was offered at auction, the NCC video becomes more intriguing than ever.

Below are some screen grabs of Jackie performing (lip synching) “Lonely Teardrops” on Dick Clark’s Beechnut Show on March 21, 1959, three months after the contract and five months before the release of “You Better Know It.” (A memorable weekend for me: I had just turned twelve the day before, and I was already in love with Jackie Wilson from listening to the Top Forty every night on my bedside radio.):

JW Beechnut 032159 1JW Beechnut 032159JW Beechnut 032189 2Notice that Jackie looks older and is much better dressed than in the NCC “You Better Know It” video. The hair looks professionally groomed, and his stage makeup is more sophisticated: the ultra-dark eyebrows have been scaled back and arched slightly, possibly even plucked.

The front page of the songwriters’ agreement with the publisher shows the Detroit address crossed out, with no substitution. The Detroit address is intact on the inside page, where the contract itself appears. I believe Pearl Music was housed in the Brill Building after the move to New York (someone correct me, please, if I am wrong.), but I don’t know at what date this occurred.

By January 1959, Nat and Jackie were already established in New York City. “Lonely Teardrops” was already a major hit. Taking the artifacts all together, the evidence is strong that the NCC video of “You Better Know It” existed before this contract with the song’s writers, one of whom, Norm Henry, never signed the contract. Given Tarnopol’s business practices, that writer may never have existed anyway. I’d bet the “Norm Henry” half of the paltry royalties due the songwriters went back to Nat’s pocket along with the publisher’s royalty. (Given that the publisher did so much better than the actual songwriters, I have never understood why Nat and others of that era were so reluctant to allow those songwriters have their names on the recordings and collect their legal shares, which were less than those of the artist, who also bore all the expenses. But I digress . . .)

The mystery about the video remains. NRRArchives describes the NCC video as a product of Brunswick Records’ promotional work and dates it in 1959. This writer just does not buy that. I cannot picture Nat the Rat spending the few bucks it would cost to make the video at the point when it was clear that a performance of the song would be shot for “Go Johnny Go.” If Nat were funding a video in 1959, surely it would be of “Lonely Teardrops”?

My personal guess is that this NCC version of “You Better Know It” was put together by Al Green in Detroit in 1957, when Jackie had returned to his hometown to put together a solo career. Green, who already managed rhythm and blues queen LaVern Baker, employed Jackie to sing in his Detroit clubs and became Jackie’s manager at the time. I think the video clip may have been made to use in the process of selling a record company on the stage presence of Green’s client.

The other possibility is that Nat Tarnopol did make the video, but made it in 1958, before he and Jackie relocated to NYC. But why he would have made it is hard to imagine.

At any rate, I have to believe that the NCC video, and therefore the recording, of “You Better Know It” predates the songwriting contract. The song was to be the first non-Berry Gordy single, and Nat may have thought or at least hoped it would be a major hit. If he didn’t actually own the publishing rights for the song, a video of Jackie lip-synching it might have been problematic. Perhaps that is why Brunswick insisted that both film clips are from 1959.

If anyone reading this has reached other conclusions, I would love to hear from you, because this has been puzzling me for a long time.

Jackie Wilson’s death (2): Harlean Harris

Background note: If you want to see photos of Harlean Harris, check here, here and here. There are a number of photos of other young Black models that are at times labeled as Harlean. The stepladder photos and the Jet cover are really her, as she looked a few years after Jackie first met her, when he was eighteen and she was probably sixteen. Harlean’s age is a mystery in itself: note that the stepladder photos are from the same photo session, but Harlean is a different age in the two photos. Jackie had just joined The Dominoes when they met, and Harlean, whom Jackie called “Harris,” was one of the co-presidents of the Billy Ward and His Dominoes Fan Club . . . along with Juanita Jones, who years later shot Jackie twice in the abdomen as he tried to wrest a gun from her hands.

Juanita was not aiming for Jackie. Her intended target was Harlean.

The shooting took place in 1961, outside Jackie’s New York City apartment, where he was bringing Harlean home in the wee hours after what turned out to be the “Valentine’s Day Date From Hell.” Police reports, by the way, listed Juanita as twenty-eight. It’s not unlikely that Harlean was closer to that age than the twenty-three or twenty-four she claimed to be at that time.

Jackie’s estate. When Jackie Wilson collapsed, he was deeply in debt to Brunswick, his record label, for “recoupments” on the many hit recordings he made for them. (Check here for an introduction to how recording contracts work for contemporary artists—and remember that things were much worse from the artist’s standpoint in Jackie’s day.) Jackie also owed a staggering sum in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.

Why would anyone fight for control of such an estate, an estate that consisted of no valuables, no bank accounts, no known assets whatever? At the time of his death, there was no reason to assume that much money would come from the piddling royalties that would be owed to the estate on any future sales of Jackie’s recordings, given that Tarnopol claimed Jackie owed Brunswick so much money.

The most obvious reason to fight for control of the estate was, of course, to control access to information about the status and history of Jackie Wilson’s financial affairs.

Jackie’s domestic life. At the time of his collapse in late 1975, Jackie considered Lynn Crochet his wife. According to his major biographer, Tony Douglas, Jackie lived with Lynn in Detroit and ultimately in Georgia, where the couple had purchased land to build a kennel so that dog-loving Jackie could enjoy his retirement from show business as a small businessman, breeding Malenois.

Jackie Wilson singing a duet with Shirley Ellis
Jackie Wilson singing a duet with Shirley Ellis

It is noteworthy that Jackie was looking into retirement at age forty-one. Jackie and Lynn had two small children, one born in 1972 and another born in 1975, less than two months prior to Jackie’s collapse.

On the other hand, Jackie and Harlean Harris had been separated at least seven years at the time of his collapse, and they were neither friends nor even friendly throughout those years.

Jackie’s relationship with Harlean Harris had ended acrimoniously after little more than a year of their marriage, which had taken place in 1967. Jackie had left their apartment for good upon finding evidence that convinced him that Harlean was conducting an affair with his manager, Nat Tarnopol, and he never saw Harlean or their son (born in 1964) again after the breakup.

Although a financial agreement had been established by a court (allowing Harris to have Jackie arrested for non-payment of support any time he entered New York City), the final divorce degree was never granted, providing the legal loophole employed to establish Harlean Harris as Jackie’s wife and widow.

In such circumstances, no contemporary American court would recognize Harlean Harris as Jackie’s wife, putting Jackie’s physical well being in the control of an adversary. Why did it
happen back then?

To some degree, race could have been part of the decision-making process or at least a justification for the decision. Historically, it was a time when there were public debates about whether white couples should be permitted to adopt black children, and many Blacks were angered by celebrities of their own race dating or marrying whites. Indeed, many Blacks were angered when any of their race even dated whites. Harlean Harris was black. Lynn Crochet was white.

If there were no assets, what would Harlean Harris achieve by being declared Jackie’s wife? Any child support or alimony owed her would still be owed to her as an ex-wife, so what was her interest in being legally named Jackie’s wife?

One answer would be vanity, grabbing a last chance at the spotlight. Harris had once been a model, a stunningly beautiful young woman. However, by the time of Jackie’s collapse, Harlean Harris’s once-spectacular looks were deteriorating. In a photo taken of her with a celebrity helping to raise money for Jackie’s medical bills, she appears plump and unhealthy. Photos taken at Jackie’s funeral show Harlean fat, frumpy, and looking far older than the number of years she claimed to be.

Another possibility would be that Harlean Harris was thrust into a role she didn’t choose for herself. Perhaps she was made an offer that she could not refuse.

Harris could not afford the legal battles she undertook, so she must have had financial backers. Maybe her family helped out there—a wealthy aunt, or a generous sister . . . or possibly even a solicitous godfather?

Part Three of this series will address Brunswick and Jackie’s notorious manager, Nat Tarnopol.

Chambers Brothers alert

Do you enjoy watching this wonderful video of Jackie Wilson on Shindig! singing “She’s All Right,” the one with the Chambers Brothers providing the backing vocals? Check out this article on CNN’s Web site about Lester Chambers, yet another of the many African American performers cheated by the “recording industry.”

Tommy James’s memoir

James, Tommy, and Martin Fitzpatrick. Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Okay, you rightly want to know, what does Tommy James, of Tommy James and the Shondells, for pity’s sake, have to do with Jackie Wilson?

The answer is “Nothing at all and a whole lot.”

The “nothing at all” refers to music, but the “whole lot” James and Wilson had in common makes this book worth reading for any Jackie Wilson fan. James explains in detail how managers, record companies, and the mob operated in the last century to exploit, entrap, and control young recording stars.

James’s memoir, penned with Martin Fitzpatrick, begins with a Prologue focused on the death of Morris Levy. One has the unmistakable impression that Morris Levy had to die before James could tell his story. That’s a chilling realization about a subject as good timey as popular music. What’s chillier, however, is realizing that the publication date for book is twenty years after Morris Levy’s death.

Morris Levy. So who was Morris Levy? The name sounds familiar, but you can’t quite recall why you know it, right? Well, among other things, Morris Levy is (or was) Frankie Lymon’s manager, the guy who made all the money that Lymon and the other “Teenagers” never saw, the guy that got the fortune made from the umpteen recordings of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”

Morris Levy gave Alan Freed his start. And his finish, as he let Alan take the fall in the Payola scandals.

Morris Levy was associated with Joey Dee and the Starlighters, the Cleftones, the Hullaballoos, and Lou Christie. Morris Levy founded Roulette Records, a label that for many years had a single act, Tommy James, and various Shondells who came and left.

Morris Levy pioneered getting filthy rich off the creative efforts of others, particularly through highjacking songwriting credits and through owning the publishing rights to music. Most of all, Levy was THE music industry big shot:

It was not for nothing that Morris Levy was called the Godfather of the music business. People from all over the industry called him or came to him to sort out problems. If somebody from Atlantic Records or Kama Sutra found out their records were being bootlegged, they called Morris. It seemed like once a month Morris would grab Nate McCalla and a few baseball bats and take off for somewhere in New Jersey or upstate New York.

As James further relates, Levy handled more than the muscle. He negotiated the deals that moved artists from company to company or took songs from one artist in order to give them to another. Every deal he “negotiated,” of course, put someone in debt or more deeply in debt to the Godfather of the Music Industry.

Similarities to Tarnopol and Brunswick. Look at Roulette and Levy, and you begin to understand Brunswick and Tarnopol. Look at the white middle class high school graduate Tommy James struggling to get paid and trying understand what is happening to him, then imagine what the Black Jackie Wilson, possessed of an eighth grade education and a legacy of poverty and in the business ten years earlier, must have endured.

Tommy’s management and record company and Jackie’s management and record company have lots in common, including things like connections with mobster Gaetano “Tommy” Vastola (aka Sonny Vastola, aka Corky Vastola), adversarial relationships with the IRS, and criminal indictments.

[Before I go any farther, let me point out that you can find items on the Web that attempt to exonerate Tarnopol and his associates, even one with a letter from Carl Davis. You may want to compare the letter with what Davis says about Nat Tarnopol in his own memoir, The Man Behind the Music: The Legendary Carl Davis, which was published a little over a year ago. The comparison with the letter will leave you scratching your head.]

What happened to Jackie Wilson? Frankly, it is a waste of time trying to prove what happened to Jackie Wilson. Any evidence was long ago destroyed, and Jackie was incapacitated before he could testify in the case against Tarnopol and Brunswick. Jackie has now been dead a quarter of a century, and his story has been actively suppressed for so many years that it will probably never be told, although as recently as two months ago songwriter Al Kasha was attempting to sell a script. [See the comments on the YouTube video “Jackie Wilson 20/20 Interview, Pt. 1.” The 20/20 segment, by the way, touches on some of the same conditions James covers while applying them directly to Jackie Wilson.]

What Jackie Wilson fans can do is learn about the practices prevalent in the recording industry in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies in order to understand conditions that most likely shaped Jackie Wilson’s short, pain-filled life.

So let’s get back to Tommy James and Morris Levy.

Back to the James book. This well-written book is a quick read. It is also surprisingly full of fun and the funny, although sometimes the funny is less humorous on reflection, such as the time Tommy was campaigning for then-Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, who commented about needing to stay up late to write a speech. James sympathized and handed the senator some Black Beauties.

Jackie Wilson also made campaign appearances for Humphrey. I do hope Jackie was never wasted to the point of handing drugs to a Presidential candidate.

James and his co-writer are capable of packing a big payload into a small phrase, such as when they reference “California Sun” as being “written by that great songwriting team Henry Glover and Morris Levy.” Levy, of course, like Nat Tarnopol, had no musical talent whatever but took the royalties for songwriting again and again. While his son was in kindergarten, Levy put the boy’s name on records as songwriter. Nat Tarnopol’s son, Paul, would ultimately be listed as having written “Doggin’ Around,” even though he wasn’t yet born when Jackie’s recording of Alonzo Tucker’s phenomenal blues became a hit.

Getting paid and paying sidemen. As we learned from Ruth Brown’s memoir, artists did not get much of an accounting of the money their records earned, but they were frequently reminded of the costs they, the artists, incurred for their management and the recording company.

Tommy James needed to beg for money to take his band on the road to promote the records, and every time he asked for the “advance” he needed for payroll, gasoline, hotel bills and the like, he was made to wait and come back and beg again. When Levy finally did have checks cut, the ritual included a recounting of how recording studio costs were overwhelming poor Morris:

If I got the advance, I’d usually walk out feeling grateful for having money in my pocket . . . until I realized how much the son of a bitch really owed me. In the beginning I actually fell for the line he would always spew about studio costs. “You’re spendin’ a fuckin’ fortune in the studio.” “You’re putting me in the fuckin’ poorhouse.” Right, you don’t sell twenty million albums and singles in eighteen months and still lose money for the record company, especially when Morris got all the publishing rights.

The failure to pay band members, songwriters, and other creative types exacerbated problems. At one point on the road, the band got to the promoter before James, taking all the income from the gig, and James had to fire several band members. Another important associate, a songwriter and arranger, left because he was never paid a cent. Ultimately, James becomes the focus of the frustrations felt by others:

It wasn’t just me, everybody connected with the Shondells was trapped in Morris’s demented financial black hole. And yet, in a way, the whole Roulette debacle started to become my responsibility. Everyone would come to me because they were too afraid to confront Morris. I was becoming the shop steward for most of our team—the band, photographers, publicity people, art designers, sometimes even the studio. The joke about “the quietest place on the planet” being accounts payable at Roulette was no longer very funny.

Psychological effects. James states that Levy took “an almost demonic glee” in making him beg and that Levy had a “pathological need for money, especially other people’s money.” James explains that stopping Levy was impossible:

All the lawyers I hired were either bought off or scared off. Everything in my life and my career was tied up in this guy. And it was slowly taking its effect on the Shondells [the band] and Ronnie [James’s wife] because it was slowly taking an effect on me. I was becoming a stranger to myself. I didn’t realize the extent of it at the time, but Morris was infecting me somehow. His rages were slowly becoming my rages. It didn’t happen overnight, it was more insidious than that. It crept up inside me and I was helping feed that beast with all the drugs and booze.

The pattern James describes is all too common among recording artists. It’s commendable that he takes the responsibility for “feeding the beast” by ingesting the drugs and alcohol; however, we should ask ourselves why entertainers find those outlets so readily available and why managers do nothing to discourage substance abuse in their clients. I mean, it’s not as though Morris Levy, for example, hadn’t seen the problems drugs caused for other artists, such as, oh, Frankie Lymon?

Well, James says that Levy did warn him against drug abuse: that solitary warning occurred on the night Frankie Lymon died. Curiously, James tries hard to see Levy as genuinely caring about him. I don’t think readers can say that James was unfair to Levy. If anything, some of the assessments are generous.

How Levy operated. The book contains details of how Levy stalled and stumped the IRS investigators that dogged him for years: “Morris was so contemptuous of them that he actually gave them their own office” where they could go over whatever set of books Levy’s minions provided on a given day. Several sets, apparently holding competing realities, were always on hand.

Levy’s approach to handling bootleggers (a guy with a baseball bat) and his equally ruthless approach to troublemakers, such as people asking to be paid or having the nerve to walk out on Levy (these just don’t work in the business anymore) are documented, as well as Levy’s own lavish lifestyle. Even more important is the account of how Levy undermined his artists’ royalties by pirating material he owned himself.

But enough. The book is simply a “must read” for those who want to understand how Tommy James, Jackie Wilson, and too many others were treated . . . and mistreated.

Ruth Brown’s memoir

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.