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Ruth Brown

By RD Heldenfels Published: November 18, 2006

About three years ago I saw Ruth Brown in Los Angeles, singing as part of a PBS presentation to tout the ''The Blues'' series. Bobby Rush was also there, which was cool enough, but Brown -- even in a semi-casual setting like this -- was royalty.

Brown has died. (Obit here.) She was 78 years old. Some folks may know her only for a small role in John Waters's ''Hairspray.'' But I like to think of her as ''Miss Rhythm,'' the name she picked up as a star for Atlantic Records from 1949 to 1961. As the liner notes acknowledge on the ''Miss Rhythm: Greatest Hits and More'' CD collection, she was such a success -- a couple of dozen chart hits -- that Atlantic was dubbed ''the house that Ruth built.''

Remember, this is a label whose roster over the years included Aretha Franklin, Bobby Darin, Cream (and Eric Clapton solo), Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding and other stars too numerous to lift here. All built on the back of Ruth Brown.

But I wouldn't be writing about her here if she was merely a commercial success. Instead, I am thinking especially of ''Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,'' a stomping, shrieking blues that for years seemed to pop up on every various-artist anthology Atlantic made. ''Wild Wild Young Men.'' ''Teardrops From My Eyes.'' ...

I'm going to have to play her some tonight or tomorrow.

She doesn't rank among my favorites, partly because the style of her recordings didn't resonate with me the way, say, Aretha and other '60s soul does. Her songs are in many case a transition between big-band jazz and the harder r&B to come, and the blend doesn't work for my ears. But she was a marvelous, commanding singer, one who was not always as honored as she should have been. (If overstuffed memory serves, she was not a prominent part of the Atlantic 40th-anniversary concert I saw in New York City.) But she is still more than worth a listen.

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