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Honoring Playwright Neil Simon

Neil Simon is this year's recipient of the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. (The award ceremony will be broadcast this week on many PBS stations). His plays and movies include Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl, The Out-of-Towners and The Sunshine Boys. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Lost in Yonkers and is the author of Rewrites, a memoir. This interview originally aired on Oct. 17, 1996.


Other segments from the episode on November 23, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 23, 2006: Interview with Neil Simon; Obituary for Ruth Brown.


DATE November 23, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Neil Simon discusses his life and his work

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to start by wishing you a Happy
Thanksgiving. On this holiday edition, we're going to listen back to an
interview with Neil Simon. Last month he was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for
American Humor. The Kennedy Center ceremony was broadcast earlier this week
on many public TV stations. Simon started his career in the early days of
television, writing for Sid Caesar's show, Phil Silver's Sergeant Bilco, and
"The Garry Moore Show." But his real ambition was to write plays, and he sure
succeeded. His hits include "Come Blow Your Horn," "Barefoot in the Park,"
"Plaza Suite," "Prisoner of Second Avenue," "The Sunshine Boys," "The Goodbye
Girl," "California Suite," "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and
"Laughter on the 23rd Floor." He also wrote the book for the musicals "Sweet
Charity" and "Promises, Promises."

Simon adapted many of his plays into successful films. The popular movie and
TV series, "The Odd Couple" were adapted from his hit play. The movie starred
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as two divorced men sharing an apartment,
having the same kinds of problems with each other they used to have with their

(Soundbite of "The Odd Couple")

Mr. JACK LEMMON: (As Felix Unger) Oscar, what is it? Is it the cooking?
The cleaning? The crying?

Mr. WALTER MATTHAU: (As Oscar) I can tell you exactly what it is. It's the
cooking, the cleaning and the crying. It's the talking in your sleep. It's
those moose calls that open your ears at 2:00 in the morning. A-baaa-eeeh!
A-baaaa-eeeh! I can't take it any more, Felix. I'm cracking up. Everything
you do irritates me. And when you're not here, the things I know you're going
to do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow.
I told you 158 times I can not stand little notes on my pillow. `We are all
out of cornflakes. FU.' It took me three hours to figure out that FU was
Felix Unger.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: I spoke with Neil Simon in 1996 when the first volume of his memoirs,
"Rewrites," had just been published. The second volume, "The Play Goes On,"
came out in 2002.

Early on in your career, your brother, Danny, was your writing partner.
He's--what?--about eight years older than you?

Mr. SIMON: Eight and a half years older, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And you write in your book that he was somewhere between your
brother and your father. He was your mentor as well as your brother, and your
father, actually, was in and out of the family. He left the family and came
back, I think, about eight times.

Mr. SIMON: Exactly, yes.

GROSS: Was it strange to have him coming and going like that, not knowing
exactly what his relationship to you was?

Mr. SIMON: It was awful because I felt my life was sort of on a yo-yo, to
give my kind of example. My mother never knew when he was coming back, and
the whole world lit up when he came back because it meant not only that we'd
not have to fear for the rent--because he didn't leave any money for us--we
didn't have to worry about food. But I felt a solidity there with the family,
and I felt happy for my mother. When he was gone, it was the most awful time,
and I thought he was never coming back. And I'm sure a lot of my personality
has been formed by that relationship, and it makes me somewhat insecure at
times, and it's why I think I fell back on writing, possibly, as a way of
being able to support and survive for myself.

GROSS: I imagine your mother, when your father was gone, ended up very busy
with earning money to take care...

Mr. SIMON: Well, she...

GROSS: ...of the family.

Mr. SIMON: Yes. She was uneducated. She did not have a job, and she would
do whatever she could to provide for us. She borrowed from her family. But
what she eventually did, which was the hardest thing for us, was that she took
in two men to live in our house, two boarders, who took her bedroom, and she
slept on the sofa in the living room. My brother and I had our own bedroom.
And they were butchers, and they paid us mostly in meat, in lamb chops and...


Mr. SIMON: And it was no fun sitting at the room, in the kitchen, eating
with them.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. SIMON: They were like strangers. They didn't talk to us. They were
mostly foreigners and--I don't mean mostly foreign--they were foreign and
spoke some English. But it was difficult, and it was not my father, and I
felt I was living in not my house, but their house.

GROSS: You know, the stereotype of the Jewish mother of your mother's

Mr. SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...was of the overly possessive, overly neurotic Jewish mother, right?
I imagine your mother was much too busy...

Mr. SIMON: She was, yes.

GROSS: fit that stereotype at all.

Mr. SIMON: No, I don't think she did fit that stereotype. She was very
different. She was very loving and very encouraging in terms of my brother
and I doing the writing. My brother, foolishly, I think, would read the
monologues that we would write at first to my mother, and she would just laugh
all the way through. And my brother said, `Do you understand what they mean?'
And she said, `No, I don't.' He said, `Well, why are you laughing?' She says,
`Well, it pleases me to please you.' I mean, it was such a wonderful thing for
her to do. It didn't encourage us as writers, but it encouraged us that we
had a terrific mother.

GROSS: You write that your brother got you a whore shortly after your 21st
birthday, and that was your sexual initiation.

Mr. SIMON: Yes, it was.

GROSS: Looking back, was that a good way to become initiated?

Mr. SIMON: I don't know if it was a good way. It was the only way. I mean,
if he left it to me, I'd be 54 before it happened. I'm sure glad it did
happen, but it did change me. I mean, you have to get through that moment
because it was the most fearful moment in my life, and I don't know why it is,
looking back. I mean, that you don't expect this woman to think that you
should be expert at what you're doing, or that this is going to be a very
personal affair and that we should like each other. It's really a
cash-and-carry business, and you just do it. But I felt so much better,
having done it, and that I would never have to do it that way again, which I
never did.

GROSS: There's a similar but different scene in "Biloxi Blues" where the
character there also has his first experience with a prostitute, but that's on
an Army base, so it's...

Mr. SIMON: Yeah, but that--the origin of that scene in that film was exactly
what happened to me. I mean, it was with a prostitute.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SIMON: It was his fellow friends bringing him there, but he was--there
was a line in it that summed it up, because I felt the same way when it
happened to me. He said, `I'm not expecting this to be a pleasurable
experience. I just want to get through it.'

GROSS: Let me ask you about creating two of your most famous characters,
Felix and Oscar, "The Odd Couple."

Mr. SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you come up with those characters?

Mr. SIMON: Well, I just watched it in real life. It was my brother, Danny,
and a friend of his named Roy Gerber, both of whom moved in together in the
same apartment because they recently were divorced, and they wanted to cut
down on their expenses so they could help pay their alimony. And in their
social life, rather than going out on a double date somewhere and spending a
lot of money on the dinner, my brother, Danny, decided to cook, and Roy was
kind of a--you know, things came and go very easily for him, so he would just
say to the girls, `Come up for dinner. Come, you know, 6:30, 7, 7:30,
whenever you're ready.' Well, to Danny that was anathema. I mean, he was--he
cooked the pot roast that night, he wanted them there at 7:30. And I watched
this one night. I came up to Danny's apartment and Roy's apartment. I saw
this taking place as they were getting prepared for this dinner--I was going
to leave before the dinner happened--and it was hilarious to me. And I said,
`Danny, this is a great movie, a great play, something. You must write it,'
because Danny was a writer, too.

But he never wrote by himself, and he started to write the play, but he took
three months or so to write 10 pages and finally called me, and he said, `I
can't do it.' He says, `I'm not a writer, and I'm certainly not a playwright.'
He is a writer, of course, but he was not a playwright, and he didn't know how
to construct it. And he said, `You take the play and you do it.' And so I
made a financial arrangement with him because it was his basic--it wasn't his
idea to do it as a play, but it was his life, so I was taking a part of it.

When I wrote the play, in the beginning, I thought I was writing a very dark
comedy. I didn't think it was going to be as funny as it was dark because
here was a man who has broken up with his wife that he loved dearly, and he
had to leave his two children at home, and he was almost suicidal; whereas Roy
was another kind of character who was--I mean the character that Roy was based
on, the Oscar character, was a man who couldn't really keep his life going
together, didn't know how to take care of his children's goldfish when they
left. And so I thought I was writing, as I said, this grim comedy until I
gave it to Bob Fosse, a good friend of mine who lived in the same building, to
read, and he says, `This is the funniest play I've ever read.' And I said,
`You don't find it dark?' And he said, `No, not at all.' So the author is not
always sure about what impression he's going to leave when he writes this

GROSS: Now, how'd you feel about "The Odd Couple" when it became a TV series,
where instead of like a constructed play every week, there was another little
adventure or mishap...

Mr. SIMON: Well...

GROSS: write about?

Mr. SIMON: I have to preface that by telling you the story, which you may
have read in the book, that I had a business agent who thought he was doing me
a favor by getting a deal made with Paramount Pictures, whereby they would buy
this little company from me for $125,000, which seemed like an enormous amount
of money, in which they got all of the TV and television rights to "The Odd
Couple." So I never saw a penny of any of "The Odd Couple" television series,
so I could not watch that. I didn't watch that for two years because when I
saw that it was a hit, I saw that's my money going down their drain.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SIMON: And I also lost all of the stage rights of "Barefoot in the
Park." I never made a penny on that play from the day it opened. And so I
looked at that as a very bad experience, and it was hard for me to watch the
show, until I finally did see it about two years after it was running, and I
saw how good it was. It was really good. It didn't do me any good, but it
was OK for them.

GROSS: Oh, boy, what heartburn it must cause to feel that you almost don't
want to see the success of your own work because you're not getting anything
out of it.

Mr. SIMON: I know. It was hard, but maybe just pushed me on to do other
things. And I said, `I've got to get on with this. I'm not going to sit and
just gripe about it for the rest of my life.' And I just went on to write
other plays.

GROSS: You say that you have always followed the advice of Max Gordon, who
said, `Think of characters, not story or plots.' Why is that good advice?

Mr. SIMON: Because that's what a play is about. There are very few plays
that are about a plot. Movies are made about plots. Televisions shows are
about plots. If you go to a movie studio today and bring a script and they
start to read it and they'll say, `Oh, I see, this is character-driven, isn't
it?' which is a negative to them. I grew up reading many, many books. I got
pulled into the stories by the characters, as I did with the early films that
I saw, the characters that Humphrey Bogart played or even Leslie Howard, any
of the great actors, that's what I was attracted to.

GROSS: My guest is Neil Simon. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with playwright and
screenwriter Neil Simon. Last month he was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for
American Humor. The Kennedy Center ceremony was broadcast this week on many
PBS stations.

You write a little bit in your book about being in analysis, and you say that
your first year of analysis was, in a sense, an attempt to introduce you to
yourself, the two sides of you, one the writer and the other, the person who
doesn't write. Are these two sides of you at odds?

Mr. SIMON: Well, they have been for years. They weren't always at odds;
they were just different people. They were not the person that I was with my
family, with my friends. The writer is a very solitary person who is, I guess
in the worst sense, willing to pick the bones of somebody else's character and
put it up there on the stage, even though I don't think I've ever hurt anybody
by doing it because no one ever came up to me and said, `How dare you put this
up there on the stage?' As a matter of fact, when I put my father up on the
stage in "Come Blow Your Horn," he came to see it, and I was very fearful of
what he was going to say. And I said, `What'd you think, Dad?' And he says,
`Oh, I know men just like that.' He never saw himself in it at all, which is
what most people do. Sometimes people come up to me and they say, `That was
me you were writing about, wasn't it?' and it wasn't at all anything that I
was writing about.

So about the two Neil Simons, yes. The writer was persistent. He just always
wanted to write. The other person wanted to have more fun, more leisure time,
more time with his family; and so they were at odds. But I find as time goes
on, right about now, maybe, as we're talking, that the two characters are
becoming more wed to each other. I don't see the disparity in the two
personalities anymore. It sounds like I'm a little psychotic, but I'm not,

GROSS: Well, maybe that's because the two have lived together for so long
they've become more acclimated to each other.

Mr. SIMON: I know. I'm my own "Odd Couple."

GROSS: That's a nice way of looking at it.

Mr. SIMON: Yes.

GROSS: Did analysis help?

Mr. SIMON: Well, analysis, I think, helps in the long run. I never went for
like long, long periods at a time. I would go from time to time when there
was great trouble in my life, when my first wife died, when I had other
personal problems. But after a while, I started to go because it was a way of
learning about myself and about learning about other people because the
conversations were not only about this Neil Simon character, it was about how
they are affected by other people in the world. And once you get into that
subject, you start to talk about the other people in the world, and you
realize that you do not live alone in this world. So it was very educational
for me. I graduated, got a diploma, it was very nice.

GROSS: Was it helpful for you as a writer to introspect out loud like that?

Mr. SIMON: I think so. The one thing it helped me to do was open myself up
to a complete stranger, because I went to different analysts during my life,
and I never had any trouble doing it. I know people who would say, `Oh, I
would never tell that to my analyst.' And I said, `What are you going for?' I
was never afraid that they were going to betray my privacy or that they were
going to dig too deep. I was sometimes afraid that I was going to go
someplace that was so dark and deep in myself that it might throw me, but it
never did. I never found that place that was so awful. I just realized that
I was human and I was subject to human experiences and troubles and travails
and a lot of happiness.

If anything, the analysts may have taught me to try to enjoy my life so much.
One of them said, `Neil, you don't enjoy your successes long enough.' And I
said, `Well, how--you mean, a play?' And she says, `Yes. I mean, you go
around for about three or four days and say "This is great," and then you just
go back to work and you forget about it.' And I said, `Well, you have to tell
me how long I'm supposed to enjoy myself.' It's work to me, and I enjoy the
work, so I'm enjoying the work more than I am the success.

GROSS: I thought a kind of funny part of your book was, I guess it's the late
'60s, early '70s, you were writing about the era of the so-called sexual
revolution, and you were married but you wanted in.

Mr. SIMON: Well, I...

GROSS: You wanted to be a part of this.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. It wasn't the sexual revolution so much. I'd been married
for 14 years, and I thought--I was looking at myself in a different way, and I
said, `You got married fairly young.' I had very, very few experiences except
in the grim hotel, and I was not looking--I didn't want to go out cheating on
my wife. I didn't want to have a very negative kind of a life, but I felt I
was so shallow in my experiences, so needy to know what the underbelly of life
was like, and so it was more of a mind experience, of wanting to know other
things without having the danger of going through them. And so I did have a
talk with my wife, almost asking to get out of the marriage for a while, and
she took it so casually because she knew I wasn't going anyplace--she knew me
better than I did--and I kept saying, `Well, I think I'm going to leave,' and
she said, `Oh, that's OK. When do you want to go?' And I was shocked and
amazed by her attitude, and I knew how much smarter she was than me and how
much better she was than me, and when--I reached the point when I felt that I
already had my freedom because she had given it to me, and I said, `Never
mind.' And I never went anyplace.

GROSS: Your book ends with your first wife's death from cancer, and you
explain in there that the doctor had told you that the cancer had

Mr. SIMON: Yes.

GROSS: ...and that she didn't have long to live. But you and your doctor
agreed it might be best not to let her know that.

Mr. SIMON: Well, we did tell her that she did have--the doctor did tell her
that she had cancer, but he told her--he told me he was going to tell her that
we had nipped it in the bud, that it was caught and she was going to get
through this, and he said to me, `We have to give her hope.' He says,
`However, the time will come,' he says, `because I don't think she has more
than a year and a half.' He said, `She will tell you when it's the right time
to talk about it.' Only in the year and a half she never did. But my children
didn't know, and that was my greatest regret, that I never told the girls
until the very end. My eldest daughter, Ellen, I did tell about a few weeks
before it happened. My middle daughter, Nancy--when I say middle, I have
another daughter now with my current marriage--Nancy didn't know until it was
too late. I mean, she loved her mother dearly and just didn't know what was
going on. She was only 10 years old, where Ellen did understand. Ellen knew
it even before I told her.

GROSS: It's always, I think, a hard decision for people to make how much
information to give a loved one about their own illness. Do you have any
regrets about not having told the complete truth to your wife when she was

Mr. SIMON: Well, I kept waiting for her to talk about it. I did see her
talk about it in various other ways. We moved up to the country for a while,
and Joan would talk to Nancy and say--talk about the trees and the flowers,
how they would all be replenished and how they all stay in this world and one
nurtures the other thing, and so in her own way, she was saying to Nancy that
`I will not be gone. Maybe my body will be gone but the rest of me, the
spirit of me won't be gone.' She didn't put it in those words but Nancy sort
of understood that without knowing what was actually going to come.

GROSS: You have a theory that you write about in the book that your mind
doesn't know when you're writing that it's only fiction. Your mind thinks
you're actually living through whatever you're putting on paper.

Mr. SIMON: Yes.

GROSS: What has led you to this conclusion?

Mr. SIMON: Because my body goes through the pain that I am going through in
the writing. I feel the tenseness if I'm writing a scene between, let's say,
a husband and wife who are having a fractious marriage. Things are going
wrong. There's a big argument. There's a confrontation. I feel the
intensity in my body, and I don't think I'm acting that out. I truly feel
that. I'm exhausted when I go home. Whereas if I write something that's a
funnier scene, a lighter scene, a more loving, romantic scene, I don't feel
that same tension, I feel a lightness about me. So I don't think that the
mind differentiates about what's going on in real life or what's going on in
the fiction you're writing.

GROSS: So fiction really does take its toll on you physically.

Mr. SIMON: It does but it's been very rewarding for me. I don't think I
would like to have been anything else in life but a writer, but I also don't
think I could have been anything else.

GROSS: Well, Neil Simon, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SIMON: It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Neil Simon recorded in 1996. He's the winner of this year's Mark
Twain Prize for American Humor. The Kennedy Center ceremony was broadcast
earlier this week on public television.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Here's a song from a musical Neil Simon wrote the book for, "Sweet Charity."

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer:
If they could see me now
that little gang of mine
I'm eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine
I'd like those dumbo bums to see for a fact
the kind of top-drawer, first-rate junk I attract.
All I can see is wow
We look at where I am
Tonight I landed, wow,
right in a pot of jam.
What a set-up. Holy cow!
They'd never believe it
if my friends could see me now.

If they could see me now...

(End of soundbite)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Ruth Brown discusses her life and her career in music

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown
died Friday at the age of 78 after suffering a heart attack and stroke
following surgery. We're going to remember her today by listening back to a
1997 interview. Ruth Brown was nicknamed Miss Rhythm by the singer Frankie
Lyman. She was one of Atlantic Records' first hitmakers, and in the 1950s she
was their most prolific and best-selling performer. She recorded over 80
songs for Atlantic between 1949 and 1962. Her best-known records include
"Teardrops from My Eyes," "Five, Ten, Fifteen Hours," "Mama, He Treats your
Daughter Mean" and "Lucky Lips." Her 1958 recording "This Little Girl's Gone
Rockin'" has recently been used in a TV commercial for Hummer. Ruth Brown
started her comeback in the '80s when she starred in the Broadway review
"Black and Blue," for which she won a Tony award. She also co-starred in John
Waters' film "Hairspray" as Motormouth Mabel. In 1993, the year she turned
65, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In addition to her
hits, she's remembered in the music world for her successful efforts to recoup
her royalties from Atlantic and to fight for royalty reform for artists of her
generations whose contracts came to be seen as exploitive. Let's start with
her 1953 recording "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean."

(Soundbite of "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean")

Ms. RUTH BROWN: (Singing)
Mama, he treats your daughter mean
Mama, he treats your daughter mean
Mama, he treats your daughter mean
He's the meanest man I've ever seen

Mama, he treats me badly
Makes me love him madly
Mama, he takes my money
Makes me call him honey
Mama, he can't be trusted
Makes me so disgusted
All of my friends say they don't understand
What's the matter with this man?

I tell you, Mama...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: You started singing in church.

Ms. BROWN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What was the church and what was the music?

Ms. BROWN: Well, I started singing in church, not necessarily because that
was of my choosing, but that was the rule, you know. My dad and coming from a
Southern family, I don't know, I wouldn't say that because it was a Southern
family that was the norm, but I think that practically any R&B artist and most
of us of my ethnic persuasion started singing in the church. If indeed at all
you did have any kind of a talent, the understanding was it was something that
was God-given and you had to give that back. And so my father insisted that
if I didn't sing in the church, I was not going to sing at all, you know.

GROSS: So what kind of singing did you do in church?

Ms. BROWN: Well, I was sort of twisted between--my father's church was
Methodist, and they have sort of just flat-footed inspirational spirituals, I
call it. You know, "His Eye Is On the Sparrow" and "Precious Lord" and those
things. That was in my father's church. But now, on the other hand, in the
summer when I went to North Carolina, which was where my mother's people were,
to work and sharecrop in the fields in the summer, we went to a Baptist
church, and it was totally different. You know, in the Baptist church we
didn't have the big organ and all of that like we had in the Methodist church.
The music was made by the patting of the foot, clapping of the hands, and
everything was just done with the human voice, and, of course, it was so
joyous. And on the other side, if it wasn't joyous it was so depressing. You
know, there were songs like `Sit down, sinner, you'd better sit down. Sit
down, sinner, you'd better sit down. You ain't going to heaven, so you better
sit down.' If that didn't take your spirit away, nothing did, you know? And
then on the other hand, you had `I got shoes and you got shoes. All God's
children got shoes. When I get to heaven I'm going to put on my shoes and
dance all over God's heaven.' So, in my father's church, I was christened
because that was the way of the Methodists. And my mother's and my
grandmother in North Carolina, she insisted that unless you were submerged in
the deep water, you hadn't done a thing. And so I stood on line at the creek
and was submerged in water, so I was baptized, you know. So the spirit had me
on either side. So you know, but...

GROSS: Another exposure to music you had was when you were in North Carolina
for the summers working in the cotton fields...

Ms. BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...a lot of the people sang and shouted there. Sing me some of the
things you heard in the cotton fields.

Ms. BROWN: Oh my goodness. `Sometimes I feel like a motherless child and oh
Lord, have mercy on me.' (Singing) Oh Lord, have mercy on me Lord, have mercy,
have mercy on me. When the world's on fire, when the world's on fire, when
the world's on fire, Lord, have mercy, mercy on me.

And then there was like: (singing) This little light of mine, I'm going to
let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This
little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine,
let it shine.


GROSS: Did you sing yourself when you were working?

Ms. BROWN: Oh, occasionally. Occasionally. But I think that by that time I
had started to listen on the radios back in Virginia and hear some things that
I wanted to really get into musically. Of course, I was exposed first of all
to country and western before anything else, you know. And then after country
and western, the war years, I listened to, like, the Andrews sisters and Bing
Crosby and Vaughn Monroe.

GROSS: This is on the radio.

Ms. BROWN: Oh, this is radio. Oh, yeah, well, radio's always been the
intermediary, you know, and one thing about radio was that it very possibly
was one of the reasons that rhythm and blues as I knew it eventually turned
into rock and roll. There had to be a change because what the kids were
hearing, they had the privilege of turning their dial, listening to whatever
they wanted to listen to without seeing the color of your skin or who you were
or what you looked like, and they were dancing to the music. And so, just
like in a lot of other things, this had to make some changes because now was
going to be something that was exposed. People were dancing. Even though
they had ropes down the center of the barnyards and all when I played the
dancers, the ropes fell down lots of times and the white kids and the black
kids danced together. Nobody said a thing about it until some big official, a
sheriff or something, would come up and say, `Stop the music,' and put the
ropes back in place. So the music itself had already started to become the
common denominator, you know.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1997 interview with R&B singer Ruth Brown. She
died last week at the age of 78. We'll get back to the interview after a


GROSS: We're remembering the rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown. She died
last week at the age of 78. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with
her in 1997.

Ruth Brown, you started your singing career singing at USO clubs.

Ms. BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: Was this during World War II or after?

Ms. BROWN: Yes. This was--well, it was between 1941 and 1945, you know,
which was--Pearl Harbor was December 7, 1941, and these were the war years.

GROSS: Well, you were a teenager. You were...

Ms. BROWN: I was.

GROSS: your early teens during part of this.

Ms. BROWN: Indeed I was.

GROSS: So what was it like for you as a young teenager to be singing for

Ms. BROWN: Well, to tell you the truth, I sort of snuck in to sing for the
soldiers. My dad didn't know it in the beginning because I had gotten a job
working at the USO working behind the soda fountain. And so I was allowed to
go into the USO because I had a part-time job in there, so everybody thought.
But my basic reason was to get in and work and sing with that little USO show
that was rehearsing there quite often. And a number of times, and I was
supposed to have been in choir practice on Thursdays, I was over to the USO
shell, you know, singing.

GROSS: So what'd your dad do when he found out?

Ms. BROWN: And my dad walked in one night--oh sure, somebody told him. And
he walked in one night unannounced, and I was up on stage. I'll never forget.
I was singing "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and, I tell you, my dad was that person,
you know, he just didn't have to say a word. He had a look about him, you
know, and there was something in his stride, you know. When he walked, there
was like--you talk about body language, it was body language, and all he did
was walk to the edge of the stage and look straight up at me and beckon, you
know. He didn't open his mouth. All he did was come to the edge of the
stage, beckon and point, like with his finger, and say, `Come on down.' You
know. And you knew what he meant, and you knew what to expect when you got
down off of that stage. But I met the force--may the force be with you. The
force was with me even then when I came down because my dad didn't even wait
for me to get outside the building. He decided that if I had ignored him then
he was going to make what I had done public, and he gave me my whipping right
there in public, you know. Of course that didn't stop me. I kept sneaking
around trying to sing with these shows and did quite of few of them, you know,
until I was just struggling to get to be of an eligible age, you know, when
you get to be that 17 or 18, which I wasn't going to wait on anyway.

GROSS: You say at some point that you realized you could make more money
singing two nights a week than your father could make working a full week...

Ms. BROWN: That's right.

GROSS: ...and I'm wondering, as a girl, what impact that realization had on

Ms. BROWN: Well, it was really important because I was the oldest of eight
children, and being a girl had nothing to do with the fact that what your
position in life was, as the oldest, I was the first one that had to go to
work. My dad was a dockhand and a laborer, and I think I remember many times
going to pick up his paycheck or his little brown envelope with the money in
it at that time. They didn't have checks. They just rolled up what little
money they would do and put them in a little brown envelope and that was it.
And I know that he made up to $35 a week, which was big money for him. But
when I went out and sang and earned $35 in one night, I knew that something
here was wrong, you know. Something was definitely wrong. And I'm sure that
had it not been for the fact that he was a young father with all these
children, if the opportunity had presented itself, he very possibly could have
been a great singer because he had a wonderful baritone voice. And I'm almost
sure that sometimes now, since I became an elderly woman now and I look back
on all of that, I realize he was probably very frustrated sometimes because he
saw in me a lot of what could have very possibly happened for him, you see?

GROSS: You won one of the amateur nights at the Apollo...

Ms. BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: ...sessions in I guess it was the late 1940s.

Ms. BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: And then in, oh, it must have been 1948 or '49, Atlantic Records
wanted to sign you...

Ms. BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: ...and they were going to bring you up north again, this time for a
paid date at the Apollo.

Ms. BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: What happened to you when you were driving up north to play the

Ms. BROWN: Well, we were due to be at the Apollo that Thursday for a 3:00 in
the afternoon rehearsal, which was what they did, and you rehearsed downstairs
in a little place under the main theater. And we left Washington, DC, en
route to New York to be there in time for that rehearsal, and I would assume
it was about, I guess, quarter of 9 in the morning of October 29th--I remember
it well--outside of Chester, Pennsylvania. I'm still not sure what happened.
Maybe the gentleman driving might have gone to sleep at the wheel. I don't
know. All I know is that I heard--I remember a screeching of tires, and I
remember a crash, you know, and I remember then finally hearing somebody say
`The girl in the back is dead,' and they were talking about me, and they took
everybody else out before they did me. And finally, when they came to move
me, when they went to straighten my leg, my left leg had been broken three or
four places and was back up under my body. They tried to straighten me out to
pick me up, and that's when I screamed, and they realized that I was indeed
not dead, just in a state of shock, but I say...

GROSS: You were unable to talk until then?

Ms. BROWN: Yes. I couldn't speak. I couldn't speak whatever the reasons.
And my vision, because the suitcase had fallen and hit me in the face and in
the head. But I did end up in Chester Hospital and was there for 11 months
and something. And once I was released after that period--in fact, my
contract with Atlantic was signed while I was a patient in the hospital. They
came over for my 20th birthday and brought the contracts and I signed them on
my bed in the hospital there at Chest. And when I finally did get out of the
hospital, they brought me to Philadelphia, and I stayed up in north
Philadelphia on Butler Street with Cab Callaway's sister Blanche Callaway for
many, many months until I was able to manipulate around on some crutches. And
then I started singing around Philadelphia in all the little clubs, you know.

GROSS: Well, I guess this brings us to your first record, made in 1949...

Ms. BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: ...for Atlantic Records.

Ms. BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: It was called "So Long."

Ms. BROWN: Yes, ma'am.

GROSS: Tell us about your memories of this first recording session.

Ms. BROWN: I remember going into the studio on crutches to do this tune.

(Soundbite of "So Long")

Ms. BROWN: (Singing)
So long
Hope we'll meet again someday
Hope that maybe then you'll say
Darling, I was wrong.

So long
Gee I hate to see you go
You're the world to me and though
You've been my so long

All alone...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: When you became a rhythm and blues star, you toured with some of the
rhythm and blues and rock and roll shows, and I'm wondering if you could give
us a taste of what it was like for you as a performer to be in those rock and
roll shows.

Ms. BROWN: Oh, it was wonderful, but of course, they came along a little
later. I think they started--there was a father and son team out of West
Virginia who booked all those shows called supershows, the Weinbergs, were the
promoters, and they put these shows together. They had this brilliant idea,
and at one time there were people on the bus like The Clovers, The Drifters,
The Five Keys, Lester Young, Buddy Johnson's orchestra, Ella Johnson, and then
you would have, like a Sam Cooke, you know, and you would have a John
Coltrane, and you would have Paul "Huckabuck" Williams and Charles Brown and
Roy Brown. And sometimes they were about 10 acts on one bill and the ticket
only cost about $7.50, you know, but it was wonderful.

GROSS: Are you saying--did Lester Young share the bill with The Drifters and
The Clovers?

Ms. BROWN: Of course! With me.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BROWN: Of course.

GROSS: Must have been an awfully interesting bus ride.

Ms. BROWN: It was interesting, but we were so young and naive, I didn't
realize the greatness of a lot of these people I was working with so...

GROSS: Was there ever a point during your adult life when you couldn't earn a
living singing and you had to do other jobs?

Ms. BROWN: Oh, yes. Of course.

GROSS: What did you do?

Ms. BROWN: Of course. I did domestic work.

GROSS: This is...

Ms. BROWN: I drove a school bus.

GROSS: You did domestic work after you had had rhythm and blues hits?

Ms. BROWN: Oh, sure. This was during the '60s. That wasn't too long ago.
This was during the '60s, the advent of the Beatles and the British invasion,
and the business became a little more complicated. But that wasn't really the
reason I left, because I chose, I really chose. Somewhere down the line it
started to sort of ease back because I had two wonderful children, and I
wanted to spend more time where they were and it went back a few years before
that that I had thoughts of it because my mother used to take care of my sons,
and I remember coming home one time to visit. My only tie to my children had
been material things, you know, things that you could send money home for and
purchase gifts, and I came home and my oldest, of course, was jovial and
jumping up, but my baby, my baby, when I went to reach for my baby, he didn't
want me to touch him, and he screamed and yelled, you know? And I think that
was probably the first day that I said to myself, `Well, I've got to do
something about this,' and that was one of the reasons that I finally decided
to come in, so to speak. But in those times I did many things. I did
domestic work. I cooked. I worked in day care. I worked in the home for
retarded children. I worked in drug abuse as a counselor. I drove a school
bus. I worked in Head Start. I worked wherever I could bring a paycheck
home, you know.

GROSS: Well, how did you feel, after the adulation that you'd get on stage,
cleaning other people's houses?

Ms. BROWN: Well, I didn't feel anything about it because what I was doing
was earning a living, a clean, decent living, and it was what my mother had
done all of her life, so I felt no shame about it because I did that with as
much dignity as I'd do anything else. I did a good job. I was a good
housekeeper, you know. And it wasn't until my needs were of such that I was
cleaning house one day and I heard my music. I heard a disk jockey talking
about my greatness and how great Ruth Brown was, and, at that time, I think I
was scrubbing a floor, and that is when I sort of made up my mind that there
was some money that belonged to me that I had not been receiving, you know? I
had not gotten a royalty statement in almost 30 years. I hadn't seen one, you
know? And my records were being sold all over other countries, and he was
talking about how big this was in Japan and in Germany, and I had no idea
about this. So I began this battle, this uphill battle it was, to maintain
and reclaim something that was really mine. I refused to beg because I was
going to fight for, I knew, what was mine. If these records are being sold,
then I'm entitled to my part of whatever they are being sold for. Now, after
all these years, I'm getting record royalties back again for the first time in
many, many years, you know.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1997 interview with singer Ruth Brown. She died
last week at the age of 78. We'll get back to the interview after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering the rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown. She died
last week at the age of 78. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with
her in 1997.

You made a comeback in the '80s with a series of music theater reviews,
including "Black and Blue," and I'm wondering now how, when you're performing
on stage, the feeling and the audience compare with the earlier part of your
career in the '50s.

Ms. BROWN: It's kind of awesome, but the beautiful thing is that there are a
lot of young faces out there that are now becoming aware this music that I was
a part of, and a lot of them, not because they knew my music, but I did
another crazy thing one day. I did a film called "Hairspray," and I gained a
whole following of new young people with that crazy movie, you know?

GROSS: It's a great movie. It's a John Waters movie...

Ms. BROWN: Yes, ma'am.

GROSS: ...about...

Ms. BROWN: With Ricki Lake.

GROSS: Yeah, Ricki Lake in her first big role

Ms. BROWN: Yes, yes, yes.

GROSS: And it's about one of those dance shows in Baltimore.

Ms. BROWN: It was a spoof.

GROSS: It was kind of like "American Bandstand," but one set in Baltimore.

Ms. BROWN: It was a real show.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. BROWN: I remember the reality of it. And it was in a time when John
Waters was a young man. He grew up here hearing that, and I remember those
situations very, very well.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BROWN: And I had said, `Well, I'm not going to do this film,' especially
when they took me to wardrobe and brought that white wig out, I said, `Not on
your life,' you know. But of course it was the--oh, I can't recall his
name--he died.

GROSS: Divine.

Ms. BROWN: Divine. Divine. I called him the divine Divine. He came to me
and he said, `Girl, put that wig on your head and make some money.' And I said
to him, `No, I'm going to lose every fan I've got in the world if I come out
with this white wig.' And Divine said, `Well, I tell you what. For every one
you lose, I'm going to bring you two.' And every time I see that film--and it
runs continuously, and I've gone into grocery stores and see young people
following me around--my ego says, `Oh, they know who I am, Ruth Brown,' that
kind of thing. And then they will eventually say, `Aren't you Motormouth

GROSS: That was your role in the movie.

Ms. BROWN: That was my role and continues to be my claim to fame, you know.
That cult film has really been wonderful. I go to the mailbox quite often now
and find a little check with John Waters--God bless him--on it. And he writes
to me and sends me crazy Christmas cards and things till this day.

GROSS: Well, Ruth Brown, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. BROWN: Well, thank you, Terry. I done all the talking, you see?

GROSS: Ruth Brown recorded in 1997. She died last week at the age of 78.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BROWN: (Singing)
Along about the evening
I feel so blue
And though my heart is grieving
I'll wait for you

I'm writing you a letter...


GROSS: All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving. I'm Terry

(Soundbite of music continued)

Ms. BROWN: (Singing)
If you ever get the notion
You miss me too
Make it in a hurry
I'll wait for you.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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