Interview: Miss Ruth Brown: Better Late, Than Never

By: Aug. 29, 2006

"It has taken me forty-two years to walk those eight steps" declared Miss Ruth Brown as she concluded her TONY acceptance speech in June of 1989.  She was sixty-one years old when she won in the "Best Actress in a Musical"catagory for Black and Blue.  The show was a Cotton Club style revue that originally offered her a guaranteed eight-week run in Paris, France in 1984.

That show can be viewed as the beginning of Ruth Brown's second act.  It followed years of Miss Brown working as a teacher's assistant, domestic, and school bus driver to make ends meet between paying singing and acting gigs.  When only years before, it looked like Ruth Brown's career was going to exist only in re-released catalogs of music, her second shot at her career is more than any performer could wish for.

In the past twenty-two years, Ruth Brown has won a TONY, GRAMMY, been inducted to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, sold out clubs all across North America and Europe, recorded a half-dozen new albums, and starred in a few films (she is the original "Motormouth Maybelle" from Hairspray).  She sued Atlantic Records for unpaid royalties and set up the Rythm and Blues Foundation as part of her settlement and wrote an award-winning autobiography. A few years ago she had  a devastating stroke, after which she could neither talk or walk.  It took over a year of physical and vocal therapy to gain back her strength.

She currently has a standing gig on Thursday nights at the Bootlegger Bistro in Las Vegas.  She sings with the house band. At 78 years old, you get the feeling Miss Brown is performing because she wants to perform, performing to keep herself in top shape.  For the price of dinner at the Bootlegger Bistro, folks can also get a full-length Ruth Brown concert.  There is no additional cover charge for Ruth's show.  Her show is one of the best kept secrets in Las Vegas.  Tourists probably won't find her show listed, and locals hear about it by word of mouth.

The Bootlegger Bistro is where my friend Jay Atwood (who is an unbelievably talented musician, currently touring with the Wicked Tinkers) and I saw her this past Thursday, August 24th.  She and the band played a full set, which contained songs from her time with Atlantic Records in the early 1950s and songs that she sang in Black and Blue.  I have seen Miss Brown perform a few dozen times over the past 15 or 16 years.  I can honestly say that on Thursday night,  she nailed it.  She has made some concessions to her age, she sits down to perform ("I have earned the right, as my friend B.B. King says, to sit down", she has proudly declared).  

Post-stroke, her memory is not as strong as she would like, so the lyrics to songs she has sung for over fifty years are written down for her, just in case.  Neither of these concessions significantly impact her performance.  In fact, on Thursday night, she beat a tambourine while she sang, which I haven't seen her do in nearly a decade.

After her set, she sat down with us: following are some excerpts of that conversation:

Randy Rice:  So, we first met about 15 or 16 years ago at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, MA.

Miss Ruth Brown:
  You know I love the Regatta Bar.  In fact, I just got a job from [my gigs at] the Regatta Bar. A guy came into the club who worked for an ad agency in Boston.  They used "This Little Girls's Gone Rockin" for the new Hummer commercial.

RR:  I saw it.

You did?  I am waiting for the check. (laughs raucously)

RR:  Are you going down on location to Louisiana for your new movie [The Honeydripper]?

MRB:  Alabama, yeah, I am going down to Alabama.   I hope it has changed since the last time I was there.  I got this movie and I have four songs in it.  Four good songs, blues, old time blues.  One song that really takes me apart, emotionally, is called "Things are Finally Coming My Way".

RR:  Who wrote it?

MRB:  It is a new song, I don't know who wrote it. [In the movie] I play a lady called "Bertha", (note: earlier in the evening, Miss Brown said "I play a lady named Bertha" then rolled her eyes for emphasis, and added "what else".) a singer for years.  They do a back-tracking of her life as a singer and then as she gets older and they didn't want her to sing anymore.

Hairspray.jpg" vspace="10" width="162"/>RR: Sounds a little familiar.

MRB:  That's what I am saying.  That's life, that's my life.  And she sings this song, "Things are Finally Coming My Way" and [in the movie] I sing that song and I pass, they don't know that I die, but I do.  You hear my music though, you hear my music all the way through the movie.  So I am excited, but I am not all that good of an actress to lay down in a coffin.  They want me to lay down in the coffin in the movie.

RR:  Time enough for that, later.

MRB:  That's right baby, that's right baby.

RR: Working with Danny [Glover] has got to be great, though.

MRB:  Oh yeah, I think it's gonna be good, really good. And Keb Mo' [is gonna be in it].  Its gonna be good.

RR:  So, have you been into the recording studio to put down the tracks?

MRB:  Oh yes.  I went to L.A. and did the tracks.  And on the tracks we just used harmonica, piano and guitar.

RR:  Real old blues?

MRB:  Real old-time blues.  I am going to Alabama on October 13th for five days.  I don't know the release date, but it is gonna be good. My son Ronnie is going to be in it, too.  It is directed by John Sayles, who is a good writer.  I was so happy that they gave me the opportunity to try.  Some things are coming late, but, better late than never.

RR:  Better Late than Never is the name of a new Ruth Brown documentary film, isn't it?

MRB:  Yeah,  lately, I have done "Lightning in a Bottle" and there is the new movie "Better Late than Never".  It was wonderful, wonderful. I just went to Seattle, there is a new club called The Triple Door and then we did this master class at The Music Experience.

RR:  When are you coming back east?

MRB:   Well,  I was supposed to come to New York, but they closed Le Jazz Au Bar.  You know I loved that club.

RR:  I know that you played twenty-six shows in thirty days.

MRB:  I sure did.  Well..the Blue Note wants me to come in there, but my problem is that they have all those steps.  I can't deal with the steps.  Birdland wants me to come there, but they want me to play three shows a night.

RR: That is brutal. I think that they could take one show a night, and be happy with it.

MRB:  I'm tellin' you.  But that is the way it is.  You know who wants to talk to me?  The Oak Room in L.A.  I think I would like that, I love the room.  The hotel is right in the same building, so I don't have to go anywhere, like the Regatta Bar.  I love that room.  That is my room.  Fenton used to book me in that room.  

RR:  When the Blue Note opened in Vegas I thought, "That will be Miss Brown's Room".  "That will be her home base".

MRB:  I thought so too, Vegas is hard, because there are not a lot of intimate spaces.  I am trying to do the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, I have to have them understand that I have to sit down [while I perform].

RR:  I will look for you on the telethon, I hope you get it.

MRB:  Thank you, bless your heart.

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