Heeeerre’s Ruth: Brown Hits Prime Time : Pop music: Even in her recording heyday, Ruth Brown longed to sing on ‘The Tonight Show.’ She got her chance and now she says, ‘I have finally made it.’
“When I sat down in that seat next to Johnny Carson last week, I said, ‘Thank you, Lord, thank you. I have finally made it.’ ” Ruth Brown, looking fit and trim in an electric-blue outfit, was a few days past that momentous experience. Comfortably situated in her suite at the Hollywood Roosevelt, grinning like a Cheshire cat, she described the achievement of one of her most elusive goals: a chance to sing on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.”
“And not just sing,” she continued. “But sit down and talk with him too. Now, for some performers that might not be anything special, but for me, it was a tremendous high.
“I have watched Johnny Carson ever since he’s been on the air. But in all those years when I was on the top of the music business heap, I never got to do his show--never, in all those years.
“That’s why I told him backstage that I was beginning to think that I never would get on the show--at least not before both he and I were too old and too arthritic to lift hands and say, ‘Good evening.’ But I finally got my chance.”
Brown, who ranks with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Dinah Washington and LaVern Baker among the important progenitors of rock, is also in town for another significant event--an anniversary engagement at the Hollywood Roosevelt’s Cinegrill. More than two years ago, it was a booking at the elegant room that led to a new recording contract and an extended run on Broadway as the Tony Award-winning star of “Black and Blue.”
“Yes, it started right here,” said Brown, a touch of puzzlement crossing her face as she gazed at the hotel suite’s Art Deco trappings. “And you know it really hasn’t been that long since I was cleaning places like this.”
When Brown’s career began a slide into obscurity in the mid-'60s, she turned away from the entertainment business and made a firm commitment to family life and the raising of her children.
“I’m truthful about what I had to do to survive,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I tell somebody that I had to work as a school bus driver--and a maid? My mother was a maid; she was a domestic. All those good ladies in the world who are domestics do it for one reason: to survive. And that was my reason too.
“I may not be an educated woman. I narrowly graduated from high school. But I feel I’m educated with what my mother called Good Old Mother Wit. Street learning. Experience. And that experience told me that the love of my children was a lot more important than any career.
“Besides,” Brown continued, settling back in her chair with a coy smile, “I’ve always believed that what Ruth Brown was will always be. I’ve always felt that there would be a place for my kind of singing.”
If her current activities are any indication, Brown’s certainty has not been misplaced. She headlined at Washington’s Wolf Trap a week ago, and last weekend found her at both the Long Beach and the San Francisco blues festivals. A concert at New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall follows the Cinegrill engagement.
To top things off, Brown has been nominated for no fewer than four W.C. Handy Awards. “Just call me the sepia Bonnie Raitt,” she said with a laugh.
But the Carson show appearance clearly was a relevant achievement for her--one that resonated on a deeper level than many other current performances.
“Yes, it was important to me,” mused Brown. “But to understand why, you have to go back to the way things were in the ‘50s. That was a time when black performers had very little control over the airwaves, and over the way our music was presented to the public.
“Our appearances were mostly relegated to Southern tours and one-nighters, and our music was locked into being played on black music stations. The Top 100 stations wouldn’t usually play our recordings. They would play ‘cover’ versions--recordings of the same songs that had been made by white performers--before they’d play ours.”
Like Baker and Little Richard, among many others, Brown’s recordings were covered by everybody from Tony Bennett to Georgia Gibbs. The more extensive distribution provided by larger record companies, combined with extensive radio air play, produced hits for the cover versions that far exceeded the success of the originals.
“In those days,” continued Brown, “the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ was the biggest television show, but I couldn’t get on it, even though my songs did. For instance, ‘I Did Have a Good Time’ was sung by Tony Bennett; Patti Page did ‘Oh What a Dream’ and Georgia Gibbs covered ‘Mambo Baby.’ But I never got to sing any of them on national TV.”
Brown’s singing has unquestionably been shaped and seasoned by her roller-coaster life experiences. But she views that as a plus.
“Good soul singers,” she explained, “sing the way they do because they are singing out of personal experience--be it tragedy, joy, disappointment, whatever. If they couldn’t express it through music, somebody going that deep into themselves would probably end up in a cell block somewhere.
“I’m a better performer now than I was when I was a young girl. The things that have happened to me have made me wiser and more mature. And you know all the bad experiences I had back in the ‘50s, when everybody was making covers of my tunes?
“I look at it this way,” concluded Brown, her smile brightening with a whimsical sparkle, “they were taking away a bone that belonged to me. Well, now I’ve got that bone back, and nobody’s ever going to take it away again--not ever.”