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Rhythm and Blues Singer Ruth Brown.

Rhythm and Blues singer Ruth Brown. She got her start in the 1940s, and influenced a whole generation of singers including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Bonnie Raitt. Her hits include "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and "Teardrops From My Eyes." Later she appeared in John Water's film "Hairspray" and in the Broadway hit "Black and Blue." In 1996 her autobiography was published, "Miss Rhythm"(Donald Fine Books) and this year she has a new CD, "R + B = Ruth Brown"


Other segments from the episode on December 22, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 22, 1997: Interview with Ruth Brown; Commentary on literary classics.


Date: DECEMBER 22, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122201np.217
Head: R + B = Ruth Brown
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown was one of Atlantic Records' first hit makers. In the '50s, she was their most prolific and bestselling performer. She recorded over 80 songs for the label between 1949 and 1962. She later sued the label for royalties.

Her best-known records include "Teardrops from My Eyes," "Five, Ten, Fifteen Hours," "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," and "Lucky Lips." Ruth Brown made a 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. Last year, her autobiography was published. Her latest CD is called "R + B = Ruth Brown." Let's open with a song from it that's she been singing through her career, "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman."


The one that I trusted
You brought it back to me
All broken and busted
I've sold my heart to the junkman
And I'll never fall in love again

GROSS: That's Ruth Brown from her new CD, R + B = Ruth Brown. Ruth Brown, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BROWN: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: This song that we just heard is a song you've been singing through your career. Do you remember how you first started singing it?

BROWN: Of course I know. I remember this song especially well because it's one of the tunes I used to hear in the morning before I went to school on a radio station in my hometown. The disc jockey's name was Jack Holmes (ph) and I heard this song -- I used to hum it with no knowledge of who the female singer was of it at that time. And as time went on, I later found out, and she turned out to be my good friend, that it was Dinah Washington that I was listening to.

But this is one of the songs that I heard and started singing around in the USO shows around the State of Virginia; pre-war years, you know.

GROSS: Now, you sing some very good songs on the new CD. Do you get to choose your songs now or...

BROWN: Well fortunately now I do have that privilege, even though the thing that was exciting about this album was that the young man who produced it, Scott Billington (ph), he brought a list of songs to me. And it was as though he was just tuned into me because just about everything that was on the list, I totally agreed that it was something that I would like to do. So we had a mutual consent about the music.

Now, in my earlier recording days that was not truly the case, of course. Most times they would probably bring five or six demo records at that time, the writers had written, and then got someone to sing it the way they wanted it to be done. And they'd send seven or eight tunes and tell you: "well, you've got two or three days. Listen to this. And these are the tunes we're going to record."

So there was not mutual consent and I didn't have that much of a leeway. Indeed, I would not admit that I would have always been correct or made the best judgment because some of the tunes that I did not want to record turned out to be some of the luckiest ones for me.

GROSS: Like what?

BROWN: "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" -- I hated it. When they brought it, I said: "I'm just not going to do this silly song." And of course, I didn't record that until 1953, and I had been with Atlantic since 1948 and of all the things that I ever recorded, this is the one tune that people remember. I don't care what I do and where I go, they eventually ask for Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean.

And I think probably I'm glad that Ahmet Erdigan (ph) sort of insisted that time that we do this song. He heard and felt something in it, and sure enough, it had had longevity like nothing else that I've ever done. You know? So I'm thrilled.

GROSS: Why don't we play it? And this is Ruth Brown's 1953 recording of "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean."



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'll tell you mama
He treats your daughter mean

GROSS: That's Ruth Brown, recorded in 1953. She has a new CD and that's called "R + B = Ruth Brown."

You started singing in church.

BROWN: Mm-hmm.

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

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. And then, there were those church-going persons who for whatever the reason said that what we were trying to do outside the church was the devil's music, you know.

GROSS: Which you liked a lot, right?

BROWN: So the devil got credit for a lot of good stuff, I tell you he did.


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

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 Eyes are on the Sparrow" and "Precious Lord" and those things. That was in my father's church.

Very little exaltations that were visible -- I mean, people just didn't jump up and down and shout and show their joy in the Methodist Church. But now on the other hand, in the summer when I went to North Carolina, which is where my mother's people were, to work and share-crop 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 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 better sit down. Sit down, sinner, you 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, you got shoe, all God's children got shoes. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes, dance all over God's heaven."

So in my father's church, I was christened because that was the way of the Methodists. But -- and my mother's and my grandmother Nocka Nanna (ph), 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.


GROSS: No -- no...

BROWN: But -- mm-hmm.

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

BROWN: Yeah.

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

BROWN: Oh, my goodness -- "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" and "Oh, Lord Have Mercy on Me"...

BROWN SINGING: Oh, Lord have mercy on me
Oh, 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

BROWN: And then, there was like...

BROWN SINGING: This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

GROSS: Did you...

BROWN: But...

GROSS: ... sing yourself when you were working in the fields?

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 (ph).

GROSS: This is on the radio?

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 that 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 it 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 dances, the ropes fell down lots of times and the white kids and 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: Mm-hmm.

BROWN: I've seen -- I've seen long before Dr. King and everybody started their marches and protests, which eventually we knew would happen. But I've seen the music be so effective long time before that.

GROSS: My guest is Ruth Brown. Her latest CD is called R + B = Ruth Brown. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown. Ruth Brown, you started your singing career singing at USO clubs. Was this during World War II or after?

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...

BROWN: I was indeed.

GROSS: ... you were in your early teens during part of this.

BROWN: Indeed I was.

GROSS: ... so what was it like for you as a young teenager to be singing for soldiers?

BROWN: Well, to tell you the truth, I sort of snuck in to sing with 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 reasons 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 off with the USO show, you know...

GROSS: So what did you father do when he found out...

BROWN: ... singing -- 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. There 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.

'Course, that didn't stop me. I kept sneaking around trying to sing with these shows and did quite a 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 gonna wait on anyway.

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

BROWN: That's right.

GROSS: And I'm wondering, as a girl, what impact that realization had on you?

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 going many times to pick up his paycheck or his little brown envelope with the monies 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've become a woman, an elderly woman now, and I look back on all of that, I realize he was very -- probably very frustrated sometimes because he saw in me a lot of what could have very possibly happened for him, you see?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ruth Brown. And she has a new CD called R + B = Ruth Brown. She also wrote an autobiography a short while ago called "Miss Rhythm."


BROWN: Mm-hmm?

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


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


GROSS: And then in, oh, it must have been 1948 or '49, Atlantic Records wanted to sign you and they were going to bring you up north again, this time for a paid date at the Apollo.


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

BROWN: Well, we were due to be at the Apollo that Thursday for a three o'clock 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 nine 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 a -- 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 that -- 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.

GROSS: You were unable to talk until then?

BROWN: Yes, I couldn't speak. I couldn't speak, whatever the reasons, and my vision -- 'cause a 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 Chester.

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 Calloway's sister Blanche Calloway 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: So were you singing on crutches back then?

BROWN: Yes, yes I was. I was singing on crutches. They would get me to the edge of the stage, and help me get up there and more -- and then I'd have a stool or something, you know. And I had braces on my left leg. I had steel braces that went down the sides of my legs and went into some shoes -- you know, those real thick soles and the big heel -- like an orthopedic shoe. But that's the way I started back.

GROSS: Did you wear big dresses to cover up the crutches?

BROWN: Yes, yes, yes -- and it became my trademark, so of to speak, because in that time, crinoline petticoats...

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

BROWN: ... and they -- you know -- and the swag skirts and the saddle oxfords -- they were the norm. And so, it did help me sort of cover up what the reality was where my legs were concerned. And I started singing right around Philadelphia.

GROSS: Ruth Brown -- her recent autobiography is called Miss Rhythm. Her latest CD is called R + B = Ruth Brown. She'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown. Her latest CD is called R + B = Ruth Brown. Her friend and champion, Bonnie Raitt, is featured on one track.

When we left off, Ruth Brown was telling us about her early career. She signed her first record contract with the Atlantic label while she was in the hospital recovering from a car accident that left her with two broken legs.

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


GROSS: ... for Atlantic Records.


GROSS: It was called "So Long."

BROWN: Yes, Ma'am.

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

BROWN: I remember going into the studio on crutches to do this tune, and in fact, it was not my record session at all. Atlantic was at that time recording a section of music with Eddie Condon (ph). It was Eddie Condon. Sid Catlett (ph), Bobby Hackett (ph), Joe Bushkin (ph), Ernie Caseres (ph) -- you name 'em -- the great musicians were there. And they were doing something called "Cavalcade of Music."

And I don't know if it was Herb or Ahmet who had the bright idea...

GROSS: From Atlantic Records.

BROWN: ... yes -- the bright idea to include me on one of the tracks in there, just to sort of get me -- you know, they found this opportunity that they could put me on this album with Eddie Condon, which they did. But not thinking that the single that they had me on was going to take off the way it did.

And that was the very first tune that I'd recorded -- a tune called "So Long" that I'd heard a young singer years back -- when I was still in Virginia -- called "Little Miss Cornshucks." She had done this tune and I used to hear it by her.

Her real name was Mildred Cunningham, one of the most interesting little artists I've ever seen. She used to sit on the side of the stage with her legs hanging over, with a straw hat and bare feet and a straw basket. And they would put one little light on her, and she'd sit there and sing this song So Long. And people would walk up and put money in that basket.

I've never seen anything like her since that time, with the exception of maybe Judy Garland, who sat on the side of the stage and sang "Over the Rainbow." But I saw Little Miss Cornshucks sit on the side of the stage long before I saw that, you know. But that's where I got the song.

GROSS: Well Ruth Brown, let's listen to your version -- your first recording, 1949, of "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, you know
You've been mine so long

GROSS: That's Ruth Brown -- her first recording made in 1949. Ruth Brown, this recording made the rhythm and blues charts.

BROWN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But your next few records didn't do as well.

BROWN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to find the right material?

BROWN: Yes, it was in a way, but as I said, I didn't have that much to do about it. And I think that one of the things that made the difference was that when I went with Atlantic Records, I was the first female on that label. And I consequently had an opportunity to hear all of the good material when it came.

And they had a lot of wonderful staff writers over there, you know, like Rudy Tunes (ph) and Tony Orlando and Bobby Darin and Neil Sedaka and Otis Blackwell (ph) and Lee Benstrolla (ph) -- all these young men who were writers and bringing material.

But as long as I was with Atlantic in those early years, and they had not become as big a label, but when they started to fill out with other performers and their roster got so big, I wasn't the one to see the good material all the time. You know, there were a lot of ways for it to be spread around.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BROWN: And I think that somewhere -- that's where I felt as though we sort of lost track of each other, 'cause I didn't get some of the good material again. And then once again, the record company had become so big and would continuously be coming bigger, they had people now like Ray Charles and the Clovers and the Drifters. And they had -- who else? -- Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin and -- you name it, you know the -- Laverne Baker (ph) was there by that time.

So Ruth Brown wasn't the one that always got the good material.

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?

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 the "Supershows." The Weinbergs (ph) 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 (ph), 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 "Hucklebutt" (ph) Williams and Charles Brown and Roy Brown.

And sometime, there were about 10 acts on one bill, and the ticket only cost about $7.50, you know...

GROSS: So you're saying -- you're saying...

BROWN: ... but it was wonderful.

GROSS: Did Lester Young share the bill with the Drifters and the Clovers?

BROWN: Oh, of course -- with me. Of course.

GROSS: Must have been an awfully interesting bus ride.

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. I even worked with Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion of the world. A lot of people don't know that, but he went on the road and toured with me and did comedy, you know.

GROSS: What kind of comedy? Did you...

BROWN: He did just what it is he does. He played the boxer and he had a little guy with him named Leonard Reed (ph) who played his second -- he was the one he was always trying to punch out, you know. And Joe came out with us when he lost his heavyweight title to Ezra Charles (ph). He came on the road and rode the bus with us.

Joe Louis, Billy Eckstein, the Count Basic Orchestra, Nipsy Russell -- my dear friend -- Redd Foxx -- you talk about shows, you -- you will never see anything like that again.

GROSS: During part of the time when you were touring, you were also pregnant.


GROSS: What was it like to -- before pregnancy was as socially accepted in working women as it is today or in show business.

BROWN: A lot of people didn't know it.

GROSS: So you just covered it up?

BROWN: They didn't know it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BROWN: You know, you just put on those full skirts and full dresses and went on out there, you know.

Well, the first time that I gave birth to my first child, I was working with Charles Brown at the time.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BROWN: And I wasn't aware that I was pregnant. I was told that I had tumors, and we got to Chattanooga, Tennessee and I got so sick I went to the doctor, and he X-rayed me and he said: "come, I want you to take a look at this tumor you've got here. It's not a tumor. It's a baby" -- you know? And it was then that I decided I was going to come in off the road. And Dinah Washington came out and took my place.

GROSS: My guest is Ruth Brown. Her latest CD is called R + B = Ruth Brown. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown.

I would like you, Ruth Brown, to choose if you have one, your favorite of your early recordings and we'll play that.

BROWN: Oh, there are so many that were good, but I think -- if I had to choose one, if will probably be at this point in my life, "oh, What A Dream."

GROSS: And why are you choosing that one?

BROWN: Because this life has been a dream. I tell you. When I look back at it, and I -- I have been recently editing the manuscript, because my book was purchased and it's going to be a film.


BROWN: And I've been editing manuscript, and I can't believe some of the things that did happen. And when I look back on it now, it's -- I don't know. It seems like a dream. That's what it is, you know?

GROSS: Well, let's hear your 1954 recording, "Oh, What a Dream."


BROWN SINGING: Woke up this morning
And I looked around
So disappointed
I laid back down
Oh, what a dream
What a dream I had last night

Dreamed I held you in my arms
But I'm still waiting for that day to come
Oh, what a dream
What a dream I had last night

Dreamed we were walking down the aisle
The organ was playing "Here Comes the Bride"
You looked down at me
You began to smile
When I looked around, everybody began to cry

I opened my eyes...

GROSS: That's Ruth Brown, recorded in 1954.

Ruth Brown, you've said that you always knew how to choose a good song, but you weren't as good at picking a good man.

BROWN: You read the rock and roll magazine, didn't you?


A rolling stone, yes, yes.

GROSS: You know, well I think one of your husbands didn't want you to work...

BROWN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... and so you basically retired from music for a while. What was that like for you to not -- not sing professionally?

BROWN: Very hard. Very hard. I sang a little, but as I said, I was living in a -- an environment. My husband that you're speaking about was a police officer and he became a great role model for my sons. That's what I really wanted -- a real strong male image for the both of them. And the breakup of that marriage was totally my doing. It was totally my doing because I got the yearn to get back to the stage.

I missed all of that and I tried being your suburban housewife, you know, and going to the bowling leagues with the kids and doing all the things that a suburban wife does. It did not work out and we separated, but became friends -- stayed friends until the day he died, which was just last year. We were still in communication with each other, 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?

BROWN: Oh, yes, of course.

GROSS: What did you do?

BROWN: Of course. I did domestic work.

GROSS: This is...

BROWN: I drove a school bus.

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

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, 'cause 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 -- who my mother had chosen for her own -- the only thing she didn't do was give him birth -- that's why she loved him so much.

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 gotta 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?

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 do anything else. I did a good job. I was a good housekeeper, you know?

And it wasn't until my knees were of such that I was cleaning house one day, and I heard my music. I heard a disc 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 of the -- out of country 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 -- 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 our new -- what was mine, you know. If these records are being sold, then I'm entitled to my part of whatever they're being sold for.

GROSS: You sued your first record company. Was the outcome of the suit?

BROWN: My first and only one. I sued them. I fought them for 11 years. I fought 11 years for royalty reform. I fought with a young lawyer out of Washington -- a young man who walked up to me one day with some Ruth Brown records under his arm. And I asked him where he got them, and he told me how he paid for them. We struck up a conversation.

He became my best friend and worked -- we fought almost 11 years to get record reform, which we did. And I finally -- now, after all these years, I'm getting record royalties back again for the first time in many, many years, you know.

GROSS: You -- 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?

BROWN: I cannot explain to you what it's like now. It's -- I would suppose that it's like where people try to explain if they sitting on a high? You know, if you ever walk out on the stage and you stand there and you work an hour, hour and 20 minutes -- sometimes more than that. And when you finish what it is you've done, people push their chairs back and stand to their feet and applaud you.

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 of 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.

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

BROWN: Yes, Ma'am, with Ricki Lake...

GROSS: About -- yeah, with Ricki Lake. It was her first big role.

BROWN: Yes, yes, yes.

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

BROWN: It was a spoof.

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

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

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BROWN: And I had said: "well, I'm not gonna 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 call his name. He died.

GROSS: Divine.

BROWN: Divine -- Divine -- I called him "The Divine, Divine." He came to me and said: "girl, put that wig on your head and make some money."


And I say to him: "no, I'm gonna lose every fan I've got in the world if I come out with this white wig." And Divine said: "well, I'll tell you what: for every one you lose, I'm gonna 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 Mabel?"

GROSS: That was your role in the movie.

BROWN: That was my role, and continues to be my claim to fame, you know. That -- that cult film was really been wonderful. I always -- 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 until this day.

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

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


I always warn people, you know. I say: "whenever I get a chance to be interviewed, don't ever say 'tell me something about yourself' 'cause honey, I got about 60 years here to talk about. But you've been very kind.

GROSS: And I've enjoyed hearing your story and...

BROWN: Thank you.

GROSS: ... thank you very, very much.

Ruth Brown's recent autobiography is called Miss Rhythm. Her latest CD is called R + B = Ruth Brown.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ruth Brown
High: Rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown. She got her start in the 1940s, and influenced a whole generation of singers including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Bonnie Raitt. Her hits include "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and "Teardrops From My Eyes." Later she appeared in John Water's film "Hairspray" and in the Broadway hit "Black and Blue." In 1996 her autobiography was published, "Miss Rhythm" and this year she has a new CD, "R + B = Ruth Brown."
Spec: Music Industry; History; Ruth Brown; Books; R + B = Ruth Brown
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: R + B = Ruth Brown
Date: DECEMBER 22, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122202np.217
Head: Books from the Past
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Serious, frenzied, last-minute shopping begins today. For this year's book shopping list, critic Maureen Corrigan recommends that we look beyond the bookstore shelves featuring the glitzy new releases and instead consider some literary hits of holiday seasons past.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: There's a section of my local video store labeled "staff recommendations" whose shelves are dotted with little signs that say things like: "if you enjoyed Demi Moore in 'Striptease,' try 'Gypsy' starring Natalie Wood." These staff picks have sometimes guided me to older films that I'd never heard of or just never bothered to see.

And so for this holiday season's gift book list, I'm following the lead of those video store elves. I'm taking advantage of the popularity of some current bestsellers to recommend a few literary chestnuts and beloved personal favorites whose characters, language, and images -- like visions of sugarplums -- are perennially dancing in my head.

1997 was the year of doorstop-sized historical novels by big name authors. If Don DeLillo's "Underworld" appealed to you, why not try Ralph Ellison's surrealistic classic "Invisible Man?" Invisible Man was published in 1952, the year after DeLillo's novel opens. And like Underworld, it surveys decades of American life with a biting humor and a justifiable paranoia.

Thomas Pynchon's mammoth book "Mason and Dixon" returned us to the bawdy, barely charted America of the 18th century and did so by mimicking 18th century language. But why restrict yourself to imitation Enlightenment fiction when you can also experience the real thing?

Lawrence Stern's (ph) 1759 novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy" (ph) is a topsy-turvy comic treasure whose experiments with the novel form paved the way for later innovative efforts by the likes of James Joyce and, of course, Pynchon himself.

Phillip Roth's slimmer but substantive historical novel "American Pastoral" traces the changes wrought upon one Newark, New Jersey family by the turbulence of the 1960s. If you're looking for another novel that devastatingly contrasts the 1950s and '60s, you must read E.L. Doctorow's 1971 masterpiece "The Book of Daniel" -- a fictional recounting of the Rosenberg case and its terrible legacy.

Because The Book of Daniel is one of my favorite novels of all time, I often teach it. One of my students once turned in a paper that serenely declared: "the Rosenbergs were put to death by electrolysis." It's a testament to The Book of Daniel that even that howler couldn't detract from the novel's enduring power.

Finally, Charles Fraser's Civil War novel "Cold Mountain" was the stealth historical fiction hit of the year. I loved it, just as I also loved David Bradley's (ph) 1981 novel "The Cheneysville Incident," which reconstructs the ordeal of a band of escaped slaves. The Cheneysville Incident is temporarily out of print, but it's worth hunting for in used bookstores.

For adolescent readers interested in the Civil War era, a recent discovery of mine is Ann Renaldi's book "An Acquaintance With Darkness" -- an atmospheric story about the days surround the Lincoln assassination, told through the perspective of a plucky 14-year-old girl.

Enough with historical fiction, on to true-life terror. 1997 was also a big year for extreme adventure tales like John Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" and Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm." If you like this kind of literature, I urge you to read Norman MacLean's (ph) 1992 book "Young Men and Fire" about the group of Forest Service smoke-jumpers who battled Montana's deadly Mann Gulch (ph) fire in 1949. Its tough lyricism and haunting meditations on courage and death infuse MacLean's account with the greatness of classical elegy.

Children, too, need to be inspired by real-life feats of heroism. For beginning readers, I highly recommend "Trapped by the Ice" -- a vividly illustrated new book by Michael McCurty (ph) that tells the story of the 1914 Shackleton (ph) Expedition to the South Pole, and the crew's harrowing two-year struggle to reach inhabited land after their ship was crushed by ice.

Another kind of non-fiction genre, autobiography, continued to flourish in 1997, with Frank McCort's (ph) "Angela's Ashes" deservedly still dominating the bestseller lists. Happily, this was also the year that Vivian Gornick's (ph) superb 1987 memoir "Fierce Attachments" came back into print. Gornick does for the Bronx and Jewish mother-daughter bonds what McCort does for Limerick and the ties between Irish mothers and their sons.

Finally, 1997 was also graced with a super-abundance of fine literary biographies. Hermione Lee's (ph) life of Virginia Woolf, Clare Tomalin's biography of Jane Austen, and the first volume of R.F. Foster's biography of W.B. Yeats.

Why not wait for the paperbacks of these acclaimed books? And as a present to yourself, curl up with Edgar Johnson's definitive and still dazzling 1952 biography of Charles Dickens. What better way to spend the holidays than to settle into a cushy chair and read about the hectic life of the literary genius who invented Christmas as we now know it?

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Book Critic Maureen Corrigan provides us with a special holiday list of her favorite books. Great books from the past.
Spec: Books; Holidays; Literature; Christmas
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Books from the Past
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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