The old Yankee Stadium in New York was called “The House That Ruth Built” in tribute to slugger Babe Ruth’s accomplishments. Another New York institution, Atlantic Records, later shared the nickname thanks to its own heavy hitter, Ruth Brown. Raised in a religious household where blues was banned, in Portsmouth, Virginia, where she was born on Jan. 12 (or 30, according to some reports), 1928, Brown was a ballad singer when she began singing professionally. Atlantic recognized her potential as a saucy blues and R&B artist and Brown became the most popular African American woman of the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll era. She had five No. 1 R&B hits for Atlantic, including “Teardrops from My Eyes,” “5-10-15 Hours,” and “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” According to Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B Singles, Brown’s record ranked No. 4 in chart success among all R&B artists in the ’50s. Brown left the music business to raise a family and sometimes had to resort to menial jobs to survive; despite her sales figures, she said that Atlantic’s accounting of production costs left her in debt to the company, and her struggle for royalties eventually led her to establish the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1988 to help other past stars of R&B who were in the same situation. Atlantic Records not only paid their housebuilder but also contributed funds to get the foundation started. Brown, who had begun working as an actress, made a comeback as a singer and became a heralded performer and spokesperson for African American music in her final years. Ruth Brown died in Henderson, Nevada, the Las Vegas suburb where she made her home, on Nov. 17, 2006.
— Jim O’Neal