Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1928, Ruth Brown (real name Ruth Alston Weston) won an amateur night competition at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1948 and was hired by the popular big-band leader Lucky Millinder.
While on tour with him, Brown was fired and left stranded in Washington DC. There she began singing at a local club where she was heard by Willis Conover – an influential radio personality.
Conover was thoroughly impressed and immediately contacted Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, whose fledgeling record label, Atlantic, was in need of new talent.
Heading to New York to sign her Atlantic contract, Brown was seriously injured in a motor accident and wound up in hospital for a year. Ertegun and Abramson stuck by her, and she soon repaid their loyalty.
She enjoyed numerous R&B hits during the fifties, among them the million-selling 5-10-15 Hours (1952), Mama (He Treats Your Daughter Mean) (1953), and Lucky Lips (1957) – the latter of which was also a million-seller for Cliff Richard when he revived it in 1963.
Ruth became known as “Miss Rhythm,” while Atlantic Records was frequently referred to as “the house that Ruth built”. But rock & roll changed and Brown fell out of fashion. By mid-1960 she had left Atlantic and only occasionally performed in public for several years.
A remarkable second phase of Brown’s career began in the mid-70s when she found a new avenue of expression in the theatre. She reinvented herself as an actress, and in 1987 she starred in Allen Toussaint’s off-Broadway musical, Stagger Lee.
In 1989 she won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for the Broadway revue, Black and Blue. She appeared in the John Waters film Hairspray (1988), became a popular host on National Public Radio and went on to win a 1990 Grammy for her album Blues On Broadway.
Brown also sparked the creation of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Brown died in Las Vegas on 17 November 2006 as a result of complications following a heart attack and stroke she had suffered after surgery the previous month.