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Brown and Green

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R&B pioneer Ruth Brown remembers the good and the greedy

CALL IT A BAD CASE of cultural amnesia, call it historical myopia, call it anything you want, but as a group, colored folks apparently find their outsized cultural contributions to this nation fatally unattractive--music in particular. For too many of us, if the jam is more than a few months old, said music is dismissed as antediluvian. Hence, for a goodly portion of the baggy-pantsed generation, names like Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding don't ring a bell. As for the generation of singers and players preceding the one-time queen and king of soul, forgetaboutit.

Blackfolks' obliviousness notwithstanding, the legacy left behind by the moms and pops of rock still stands. And if Ruth Brown ("[Mama] He Treats Your Daughter Mean," "5-10-15 Hours") has anything to do with it, those early linchpins of today's popular-music industry will at the very least be remembered by the big dealers and wheelers cashing in on the business. Brown's Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography of Ruth Brown, Rhythm & Blues Legend (co-written with Andrew Yule) works on two levels. As a cautionary tale of music-industry greed, it is chilling; as a memoir, it makes for entertaining, sometimes downright hilarious reading.

Brown's recollections of particular childhood events are sure to have you laughing out loud. According to Brown's account, her Granny, "D," was quite a character, "gruff and tough, lean and mean," and an unforgiving taskmaster. She'd take a switch to young reprobates like Brown in a quick minute. A respecter of high-and-mighty titles, Granny had a nickname for her sapling of choice, Dr. Green, and she would command the kid getting the licking to retrieve it him or herself. Talk about psychological intimidation.

Of course, some of Brown's best tales arise from the times on the road in the 1950s with musical peers like Count Basie and suave singer Billy Eckstine. Seems that Eckstine was quite the prankster, with a particular fondness for spying on band members while they were engaged in compromising positions. With an eager if fearful audience of players surrounding him, Eckstine would demand a small chunk of change in exchange for the victims' right to privacy.

Basie and Eckstine are far from the only black pop pioneers with whom Brown toured. Rock's king of camp, Little Richard (whom she claims wore a wig during his wild reign), rock shouter Joe Turner ("Shake, Rattle and Roll"), Ray Charles, Laverne Baker ("Tweedle Dee"), doo-woppers like the Platters, the Clovers and the Drifters, and gangs of others, along with Brown, inhabited the uppermost regions of the all-(African) American chitlin circuit.

Fun and games aside, Brown's pivotal role as a participant in R&B's rise and subsequent fall into the clutches of the money men will prompt compassionate readers to weep at some of her travails, both professional and personal.

BROWN'S BUSINESS relationship with Atlantic Records (dubbed "the house that Ruth built" by her peers) and her subsequent role as indefatigable champion of black artists "served" by the system are both poignant and revelatory. Atlantic's gradual development into the most profitable independent label of its era was due largely, argues the singer, to her string of chartmakers in the label's infancy.

Brown provides a frank account of how R&B pioneers were suckered out of the kind of loot today's rock gods take for granted, and she is not afraid to name names, either. She pulls the coat, for instance, on the likes of Ahmet Ertegun, the much-lauded Mt. Olympus of R&B's popularization.

According to Brown, Ertegun's (and Herb Abramson's and Jerry Wexler's) fame--and fortune--is directly attributable to unscrupulous manipulation of artists' contracts--i.e., royalties, overseas sales, intentionally undercounted domestic earnings, etc. (When they sold Atlantic in the early '70s, Ertegun and company earned a cool $17 million cash made on the backs of Brown and other black artists, including Tiny Grimes, "Stick" McGhee, Blind Willie McTell, the Coasters, the Clovers, Joe Turner, et al.)

Don't misunderstand, some white artists got the shaft as well, particularly early C&W twangers. But on the whole, it was American-born African artists who were the main victims. Although monopoly capitalism purports to see nothing but green, American history strongly suggests that the system's "vision" then and now is skewed by an unhealthy obsession concerning black and white.

Finally, as Brown believes, Atlantic was far from the only label exploiting its colored hit-makers. Equally notorious, she writes, were the Chess brothers (Chess and Checker), the Mesner brothers (Aladdin), Art Rupe (Specialty), Paul Reiner (Black & White) and scores of other scammers. Miss Rhythm's unstated message: It pays to be the boss and not the mule.

Nicky Baxter

Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography of Ruth Brown, Rhythm & Blues Legend by Ruth Brown; Donald I. Fine Books, Penguin; 360 pages; $23.95 cloth.

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro's Literary Quarterly

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