Obituary: Ruth Brown

R&B singer who won royalty reforms for fellow artists in the music industry

During her long career, the American rhythm-and-blues singer Ruth Brown, who has died aged 78, won popularity awards in two different musical eras, but her lasting achievement lay in the reforms she campaigned for and won within the music industry. Many artists who had been exploited in the past gained financially because of them.

In the business arena, Brown employed the drive and colourful language that characterised her blues-inflected songs. She liked sexual innuendos, such as the supposed furniture sales pitch of If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sitting On It in Black and Blue, her 1989 Broadway revue, but with industry politics she was blunter. "Crumbs from a rich man's label," she scoffed at a "gift" of $1,000 from Atlantic Records magnate Ahmet Ertegun during a fees dispute.

His record company was nicknamed "the house that Ruth built" after Ertegun heard Brown sing, and signed her in 1948. Although he could take credit for persuading her to switch from ballads to R&B, the numerous hits she made over the next decade lifted the young Atlantic label into big earnings. Among Brown's successes were the 11-week chart topper in 1950, Teardrops from My Eyes; the ballad So Long; the rocking [Mama] He Treats Your Daughter Mean; I'll Wait for You; I Know; Lucky Lips; 5-10-15 Hours [of Your Love], another number one hit; Mambo Baby; Oh What a Dream; and Don't Deceive Me, in 1960, when she left Atlantic.

By then the era's leading popular singer, Frankie Laine, known as Mr Rhythm, was calling her Miss Rhythm. She toured with Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson. Little Richard said he borrowed his trademark "Lucille-aagh" shriek from her. Yet suddenly she faded away.

The daughter of a docker, Brown sang in a church choir, but preferred "the devil's music". After running away from her Virginia home with a musician, she sang in clubs before joining the Lucky Millinder band in Detroit. But this employment ended a month later in Washington DC, when she was caught giving the musicians free drinks. She then sang in a Washington club, where she was admired by Willis Conover, the Voice of America disc jockey, who told Ertegun about her.

Brown had little business acumen, and her Atlantic career was hampered both by the poor fees black artists received and by dubious and dishonest deals from other record labels. Personally, her unhappy and career-damaging relations with men also hurt. She was voluble on all these subjects. "I can pick a good song, but I sure couldn't pick a good man," she regretted after three failed marriages.

On white singers, who would copy black songs and snare the money, she named one by saying: "I never got to do the Ed Sullivan Show. Patti Page did." Such remarks did not win her friends in the music industry, but eventually Brown won her fight against it.

Labels not only scrimped on black artists' fees, but also charged them unaccounted "production costs", which were held against payments for their reissued material. Brown "owed" Atlantic $30,000 until her career revived with a Tony award for Black and Blue and she hired a lawyer. Supported by the Rev Jesse Jackson, they persuaded Atlantic and its owner Warner Communications to change the system.

Brown received $20,000 and was forgiven all "debts". The royalty payments system was reformed to favour pioneering artists, and other labels followed, including the conglomerate MCA. Atlantic also agreed to contribute $1.5m to launch the Rhythm & Blues Foundation to help needy entertainers (which continues to this day in Philadelphia). Yet Brown continued her pressure, criticising the industry for spending lavishly on presentation awards instead of aspiring artists.

After leaving Atlantic, she raised a family, divorcing her bigamous first husband, being beaten by the second, she said, and quarrelling with the third, a policeman who opposed her singing career. She worked as a domestic cleaner and school bus driver before returning to show business in 1975 with the help of comedian Redd Foxx, who found her acting work on his hit show, Sanford and Son, and elsewhere. Her Tony award led to an album of the revue's hits, for which, in 1990, she received her one Grammy. She recorded for the Fantasy label, hosted a public radio blues programme, and in 1996 wrote a memoir, Miss Rythm.

Brown is survived by one son from a relationship with McPhatter, and another by her third husband.

· Ruth Alston Brown, singer, born January 12 1928; died November 17 2006


Christopher Reed

The GuardianTramp

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