Here's an idea: Let's send a couple of large buses over to Madam Wongs, the Roxy and maybe the Club Lingerie, load up all the performers with rock aspirations, and cart them to the Cinegrill to hear Ruth Brown.
Tuesday night, in her opening set, the '50s R&B; pioneer made it dramatically clear that, before there were Elvis and Little Richard, before there were Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, there were Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker, Willie Mae Thornton, Dinah Washington and a generation of powerful urban blues performers.
Listening to Brown sing "Teardrops From My Eyes," "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and "5-10-15 Years" was less a tour through nostalgia than a confirmation of how much the vitality of rock music continues to depend upon the rich roots provided by performers like Brown.
At 60, she has lost none of her ability to move from knock-'em-down belting to smooth-as-honey ballads. Her always colorful sound has been brightened by the use of a throat-catching yodel, and she has added a discreet, but effective trace of jazz phrasing to her slower-paced songs.
Opening with a hard-rocking "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good To You," Brown wasted no time laying claim to the room with an intensity that traced as much to a direct, completely guileless contact with her listeners as it did to her music. This is a singer who brings an audience into her songs.
A closing collection of material--"Lover Man," "This Bitter Earth," "Since I Fell For You," "Good Morning Heartache" and "At Last"--from some of Brown's great female contemporaries was a remarkable feat.
Few performers would risk a medley of five continuous ballads, but Brown moved from Billie Holiday heartache to Ella Johnson soul stirring without the whisper of a problem. In the process, she reminded us that there is a valuable legacy of '50s songs awaiting revival and restoration.
Brown, who has rarely appeared in the Los Angeles area recently, wisely brought her regular New York trio with her. Led by the mad-scientist organ playing of Bob Forrester, the group also featured Bill Williams' solid blues guitar and sturdy drumming from Clarence Bean.
Brown continues at the Cinegrill tonight through Saturday and Thursday through Saturday next week.