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Miss Rhythm Returns
Ruth Brown at Au Bar

Written by Ilise S. Carter

Ruth Brown

Nothing, it seems, can diminish the power of Ruth Brown’s voice. Not the fifty-plus years that have passed since she began recording; not the trials of a career that has seen more than its share of highs and lows; not even a debilitating stroke that left her unable to walk and speak for a time. Miss Rhythm (as she was nicknamed early in her career) is a true force of nature – a tempest that howls and moans the blues with the sultry conviction of hard-earned life experience.

Though she now commands the stage from a chair and reads her lyrics from a binder (“I call it the Book of Ruth”), she certainly still commands it. Sharing personal stories from her life and her career, she sketches out how a preacher’s daughter ran away from home to become an early pioneer in rhythm and blues singing “the Devil’s music.”

“The Devil,” she quips, “had all the good stuff.”

Considered downright raunchy in her day, her early style is marked by suggestive songs that, while tame by today’s standards, influenced a generation of singers and earned her a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In fact, she still sings hits like “ 5-10-15 Hours (of Your Love)” and “That Train Don’t Stop Here No More” with such joyful, lusty abandon, it’s abundantly clear that age also has done nothing to tame her bawdy side.

Despite this initial success in the fifties with Atlantic Records, the sixties brought a dry spell where she was forced to take work as a domestic and a school bus driver to support her two children. “Rediscovered” in the seventies and eighties, her career was revived with a number of successful blues albums, a Tony award for her performance in Black and Blue, and a new cult following from her appearance as Motor Mouth Maybelle in the John Waters’ film Hairspray.

In 2000, however, she was dealt another devastating blow in the form of a stroke -- doctors told her she would never sing again. “Somebody was wrong,” she crows. Admittedly, though, the experience did leave her sadder but wiser. She found that some people, who were there in the good times, were absent during the bad ones. She now introduces the Billy Holiday song “God Bless the Child” with the bittersweet understanding that “this song belongs to me now.”

For whatever life has handed her, Miss Rhythm is not bitter, but glad to be alive and in front of an audience. “I would rather be singing songs you can feel than anything else at this point in my life.” And judging by their standing ovation, it’s certain that audiences are glad to see her do just that.

 


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