Clip: Ruth Brown
An R&B Legend Battles Back to the Stage
Richard Termine for The New York Times
Ruth Brown performs at Le Jazz au Bar, to the delight of her longtime fans.
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
Published: July 20, 2004
Around 10 p.m. last Wednesday, a long line was snaking down the hallway at
the back of Le Jazz au Bar, a nightclub on 58th Street in Manhattan. It led
to a tiny dressing room, where Ruth Brown, the rhythm and blues legend, was
receiving fans after the first concert of her first extended stay at a New
York club in five years; the show runs through Aug. 1.
The room was cramped. Sequined dresses hung on the door, an old couch was
stuffed into a corner, and there was not much space for anything else. It
was noisy, though.
"I think about you so much!" Ms. Brown hollered to the first person in
line: Dick Cavett. "When I see you on television, I say, `Hey Dick! I'm
here! I'm alive!' "
Mr. Cavett said dryly: "You know when you see me on television? Every time
anybody dies, it turns out I had them on my show. Jack Paar, Bob Hope. . .
Ms. Brown turned her attention to Mr. Cavett's wife, Carrie Nye, but he
kept listing names to himself. As the three talked, the conversation was
liberally punctuated with the names of the dead: Charles Mingus, Joe
Williams, Ray Charles.
"Ray called me and said, `I'm doing this movie,' " Ms. Brown said,
recalling one of her last conversations with Charles, an old band mate. "He
said, `Who do you want to play you?' And I said, `Halle Berry, you crazy
fool!' He said, `I ain't that blind.' "
Though her fans were straddling to find room, Ms. Brown was sitting in a
chair, as she had throughout the concert. For the past few years she has
not been able to stand up for very long without a cane, and now she
performs sitting down. This goes back to 1948, when she broke both her legs
in a car accident on a trip to New York. She ended up staying in the
hospital for 11 months (during which she recorded, on crutches, one of her
first big hits, "So Long"), and since then her knees have not ceased giving
For Ms. Brown, who is 76, knees have not been the only problem. There was
the pneumonia, the colon cancer, the congestive heart failure. And the big
one, the stroke in March 2000.
The stroke left her unable to speak for a few days, and months passed
before she could talk without stumbling or slurring her words. The doctor
told her that it could take years for her to speak as well as she used to,
and that her memory may never fully recover. There are few worse things
that can happen to a singer.
"I just got to the place I was really just depressed," Ms. Brown said.
She took anti-depressants and spent her days on the couch watching
television when she was not in speech therapy. No singing, no concerts; she
refused to listen to music. Bills piled up ? despite her contribution to
popular music, Ms. Brown has never made much money ? and she relied on
music organizations and friends like B. B. King and Bonnie Raitt to help
out with the mortgage payments on her house, which is in a subdivision for
the elderly just outside Las Vegas.
One afternoon, she said, her youngest son and manager, Earl Swanson Jr.,
pulled her off the couch, began playing her music on the stereo and made
her look at a collection of her achievements: a Tony award, a Grammy award,
a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame award, pictures of her performing with Miles
Davis, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington. It worked.
She arranged a solo seated concert last summer at the Regattabar in
Cambridge, Mass. She was scared, she said, and despite all the shows she
has played since then, she is still scared.
"I didn't know how they would receive me, anywhere," she said. "Because the
memories they have of me. I used to walk that stage back and forth and
dance through the whole thing."
(Fenton Hollander, executive director of Water Music/Mainstage and the
Regattabar's former booking agent, said the audience went nuts.)
The chair is not the only change. Since the stroke in 2000, she has not
been able to sing without reading the lyrics from a book onstage. There are
limits to the places where she can perform (the Blue Note, for example, has
too many stairs) and she keeps interviews to a minimum. And though she has
been married four times, she is not involved in a current romance because,
she said, "physically I'm not in a position to do that."
Still she is one of the lucky ones in the first generation of rhythm and
blues. LaVern Baker, who was with her in the early days at Atlantic
Records, died in 1997. Charles Brown, with whom she traveled on tours
through the segregated South, died in 1999. Her organist of 26 years, Bobby
Forrester, died two years ago.
With fewer and fewer people to reminisce with, her stories are now told by
the songs and the way she sings them, the way she takes her time on "It
Could Happen to You," the way she holds onto a note until it fades,
crackles and falls off like cigarette ash. She compares her situation to
that of Ray Charles, explaining that his ability to conjure up images with
his voice is a direct result of his blindness.
Now, with her health problems, her memory lapses and her bad legs, she said
she knows more about what her songs mean than she ever has.
Which is why, when asked about the new, young, and above all, rich
generation of popular singers, she was skeptical.
"I'd like to hope that there are going to be some legends coming from
somewhere, but I don't see it right now," Ms. Brown said. "I don't know if
I'll live long enough to see it. Maybe that's why I'm here, I don't know.
I've asked why I'm left."