TORONTO--R & B just may have been named after Ruth Brown. "That's what they tell me," she said. The septuagenarian singer touched a finger to two gold-leaf initial pins on her black blouse--an R and a B that she got as a Christmas gift from Bonnie Raitt. "Could be Bonnie Raitt, Ruth Brown, rhythm and blues, really brave..."
When she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1983, Brown was honoured as "the first rhythm-and-blues singer. Every black woman before her was either a jazz, blues, or gospel vocalist. Ruth Brown was all of those, with the added element of rhythm."
Brown is one of more than 50 stars of Lightning in a Bottle--a concert documentary blended with blues history--that was shot by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) at Salute to the Blues, a benefit concert produced by Martin Scorsese at New York's Radio City Music Hall last February.
Sitting in a hotel room, Brown said she was delighted to be at September's Toronto International Film Festival to promote the movie, which opens on Friday (November 26) in Vancouver. "It's important," she explained. "And I'm really grateful to be a part of this because I've been doing this music since I was 21 years old. I'm now 76 years of age. The music has been so good--people are still dancing to the songs that I did 50 years ago. You know what I'm saying? So to see this put on film... I'm proud to be sitting in that picture with B. B. King and Buddy Guy and the Neville Brothers and Robert Lockwood."
For Brown, the concert was especially meaningful because a few years ago she was told she'd never sing again. "In 2000, I had a stroke. I lost all of my power of speech. They said I was never going to sing, maybe. I'm still singing. Now I'm back, a little bit at a time. I'm sitting down; I have to sit down to do it because [in] some areas I don't remember the lyrics after all these years. But the fact is that somebody lied; I'm singing again. And right now they tell me I'm singing better than I've ever been in my life. I know what I'm singing about now."
Brown--who has a Grammy and a Tony to her credit--was the first woman signed to Atlantic Records, back in the late 1940s. "At that same time I was working in theatres and I met Frankie Laine. And he named me Miss Rhythm because of my swingin' attitude."
Brown's memories of her early touring days are worth a movie of their own. "I came out at a time where most of the music was staged in the southern states, and during those times--we're talking about late '40s, early '50s--it was really, really bad in the South. Most places I could not eat. There was no place that I could stay. A lot of times I was taken to jail because I was in the wrong car, and I had to prove that I hadn't stolen the car. There was a couple of times that the white knights burned my car. I went to jail for what they called 'reckless driving': going 40 miles in a 35-mile-an-hour area. You know what I'm saying?"
When Brown played shows in the American South, the audience was always segregated. "A lot of times when we performed in auditoriums, there was a balcony and people on the main floor. That way the white spectators were upstairs. Sometimes it was the other way around: they were on the ground floor. Now sometimes, when we performed in a warehouse where there was cotton or tobacco still in there, in that case there was, like, a rope between the races, a rope like a clothesline. And there would be a card on one side that would say 'Colored' and one side it would say 'White'.
"But there were many times that we were on the stage doing what we were doing--the music was so overpowering that both races was enjoying that music." Brown grinned broadly at the memory. "They forgot that rope, started dancing, and were enjoying themselves so much that the police would come up and stop [the show]. Took my microphone: 'Stop. Put the lights up,' whatever. 'This is over, because you're dancing too close together.'
"So if they [viewers] get any idea about this music from this film, they have to understand that even then this music was important because it was the first time that the races were under the same roof together. No matter what your thoughts were, it was about the music."
And for Ruth Brown, it always will be. "I'm finally old enough to sing the blues."