9 December 1950
THE SWITCH TO MICROGROOVE WAS WELL UNDER WAY. Atlantic Records had released their first 7-inch 45 single, Teardrops From My Eyes, in October 1950. Featuring the voice of Ruth Brown, the record had hit Number 1 in the R&B charts by December. “A piece of history,” Brown hailed it.
Ruth Brown had previously charted with So Long, her first-ever record, in September 1949. Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson were ecstatic: it was the label’s second release to notch a place in the charts. Atlantic was not to be a one hit wonder but a real record company.
Teardrops From My Eyes was the icing on the cake. The single was not only a hit but, in terms of black music, a super-hit as it topped the R&B charts for 11 weeks in a row. Not bad for a girl who had signed her Atlantic contract in a Pennsylvania hospital bed after a car accident in January 1949.
Penned by Rudy Toombs, Teardrops From My Eyes attracted cover versions by the sackload. Even in the brief time it took Brown’s rendition to clamber to the top, rival versions by Louis Prima, Frank Warren, June Hutton, Red Kirk, Benny Goodman, Jo Stafford with Gene Autry and Wynonie Harris with Lucky Millinder’s band were available, thanks to industrious promotion by George Simon’s Simon House company. Atlantic Records even covered their own release, recording a version by one Bill Haley, leader of The Saddlemen, a musician whose time was yet to come.
"I hired you to sing, not be a waitress. On the other hand you can’t sing either. You’re fired!”
But perhaps the cover that might have brought Ruth Brown most satisfaction was the one involving Harris and Millinder. She’d previously been a band singer with Millinder, and in her 1996 autobiography Miss Rhythm she revealed: “For over a month I rode the bus with the Millinder band without getting to sing one note. Lucky chose to stick with his two regular singers, Bull Moose Jackson and Annisteen Allen.” One night, Millinder lined up a gig in Washington DC and allowed Brown to perform two songs. They went down well with the audience, after which Ruth took the opportunity to grab half-a-dozen Cokes for her fellow band members. According to Brown, Millinder confronted her and snapped: “I hired you to sing, not be a waitress. On the other hand you can’t sing either. You’re fired!”
She’d started out as Ruth Weston, from Portsmouth, Virginia. And though Lucky Millinder may have thought otherwise, she knew she could sing. So did the audience at Harlem’s famed Apollo. Ralph Cooper, long-term MC at the theatre, remembers: “Ruth started out on my Amateur Night In Harlem show. She sang a Bing Crosby song but she didn’t sing it like Der Bingle. The audience was so blown away they called here back to repeat the chorus.”
Someone else who liked the way Ruth Brown phrased a song was Duke Ellington. It was he who mentioned his admiration to Herb Abramson and sparked Brown’s career on Atlantic. In the wake of Teardrops From My Eyes, she’d notch a succession of major hits for Atlantic throughout the ’50s.
Brash, naughty style...
Around this time African-American news weekly Jet reported: “Her fee for a one-nighter is $1,000 for Theatre Engagements, $2,500 weekly. Ruth says her voice is largely responsible for her success but thinks she got a little help from Heaven. She always says a little prayer before entering any theatre to entertain. A buxom brown girl with a sparkling personality, Ruth is a visual as well as a vocal delight. She seems to put all the oomph of her size 16 figure into the mournful ballads which she sings in a lazy half-sobbing manner and into the vigorous blues which she delivers in a brash, naughty style.”
Eventually her luck ran out and by the ’60s she was a Long Island maid, cleaning floors and scrubbing toilets to put her children through school. Though Atlantic had become known as The House That Ruth Built, the headlines now read: “The Houses That Ruth Cleans”. Thankfully, before her death in 2006, she’d pulled everything back. In 1989 she won a Grammy for her LP Blues On Broadway and a Tony Award for her role in the musical Black And Blue (she’d also memorably played Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs in John Waters’ 1988 movie Hairspray). In 1993 she was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, when she emotionally thanked Ahmet Ertegun.
But Teardrops From My Eyes writer Rudy Toombs was not so fortunate. A joyful, exuberant man whom Ruth Brown credited as the reason for her success, he died in 1963, robbed and murdered in his Harlem apartment.