Ruth Brown, 78; R& B Singer Championed Musicians' Rights

Ruth Brown is backed by Paul
Ruth Brown is backed by Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams on saxophone and Riff Ruffin on guitar. (From Ruth Brown)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006

Ruth Brown, 78, a rhythm-and-blues singer whose hits in the 1950s made Atlantic Records "the house that Ruth built" and who revived her career decades later as the Tony Award-winning star of the musical revue "Black and Blue," died Nov. 17 at St. Rose Dominican Hospitals in Henderson, Nev., after a stroke and heart attack.

Ms. Brown, who lived in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, became known as a persistent and vital activist in the musicians' royalty reform movement of the 1980s. Her efforts brought aging, often ailing musicians payments that major music companies had long denied them.

With an aching, gospel-tinged approach to lyrics, Ms. Brown was among the top black pop singers of the early 1950s. Many of her recordings topped the R&B charts, including the rollicking "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and the ballad "So Long." Her other popular recordings included "Teardrops From My Eyes," "Lucky Lips," "5-10-15 Hours," "Mambo Baby" and "Oh What a Dream."

Her admirers spanned several generations. Little Richard once said that he borrowed his trademark whoop ("Lucille- uh") from her. Bonnie Raitt, with whom Ms. Brown played in recent years, also cited her as a musical influence.

Between career peaks, Ms. Brown endured a professional slump that left her at times in dire poverty. She partly blamed her ignorance about business matters. However, Atlantic's royalty system did not favor artists, with its low royalties and faulty bookkeeping.

Many artists left the studio owing money for production costs, which Ms. Brown said was a way to discourage attempts to collect payment when a studio reissued material. By Atlantic's calculations, Ms. Brown owed the company $30,000.

The matter stalled until her Tony -- as well as a Grammy for the jazz recording "Blues on Broadway" (1989) -- brought a resurgence in public attention. Working with Washington lawyer Howell Begle, she arranged an alliance of political forces, including Jesse L. Jackson, to pressure Atlantic and its longtime owner, Warner Communications, for payments.

Ms. Brown received $20,000 and was forgiven all "debts." The company changed its royalty payment system to favor her peers, other R&B pioneers. This was credited with inspiring a royalty reform movement among other labels, including MCA.

Warner's Atlantic subsidiary also agreed to contribute $1.5 million to start the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, a nonprofit aid organization for needy entertainers now in Philadelphia.

Ms. Brown was committed to having the group give money to her peers who were suffering financially and could not afford medical attention. She became critical of how the foundation evolved and went on a publicity attack.

"It's my baby, but it's kinda jumping out of my playpen," Ms. Brown told Reuters, noting that money was spent on glitzy award ceremonies and payments to artists far from skid row, including Isaac Hayes Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.

Ruth Alston Weston, the eldest of seven children, was born Jan. 12, 1928, in Portsmouth, Va. She first sang with her father in his church choir but much preferred the pop music of the day, what she jokingly called "the devil's music."

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