Ruth Brown’s Rainbow

5:30 p.m. Nov. 24

Ruth Brown was bigger than New York, where she cut her R&B chops and she was larger than Las Vegas, where she died from complications of a stroke and a heart attack on Nov. 17. Brown was 78 and she lived life at a full tilt 78 RPM/MPH/DIY.

She cast a rainbow with an endless pot of gold.

I met Brown in April, 1988 at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary party at Madison Square Garden in New York. I was backstage doing interviews with seminal Atlantic R&B artists like Brown and the late LaVern Baker. Brown was the most commercially successful act at Atlantic between 1949 and 1962 and the label was often referred to as “The House that Ruth Built.” I was more excited about seeing Baker and Brown than the historic reunion of Led Zeppelin (without John Bonham of course), the Bee Gees (who hadn’t performed together since 1979) and Vanilla Fudge!

And Brown was on the cusp of something very big……..

Washington, D.C. lawyer Howard Begle had befriended Brown. He was her lawyer and executor at the time of her death. When they met in 1983 Brown told Begle that despite the fact the market was full of Ruth Brown reissues and compliations, she had not received a royalty check since the early 1960s.

Brown introduced Begle to other R & B artists who were in the same boat: Big Joe Turner, Sam Moore, The Clovers, The Drifters and many others. There was a great Wilson Pickett story about how the Wicked Mr. Pickett visited former Atlantic producer and vice president Jerry Wexler on his yacht. Pickett took a rowboat to the yacht, where Wexler was sunning and drinking cocktails. Pickett asked about the claim of Warner Bros. (Atlantic’s parent company) that Wexler was behind on royalty advances by $286,000. Wexler said, “Baby, I don’t own the company any more–I can’t help you.” Pickett rowed back to shore.

The Atlantic party launched efforts to recover lost artist royalties that still exist today. More than $10 million from the concert’s sponsorship deals and ticket sales were donated to the Atlantic Records Foundation, the upstart Rhythm and Blues Foundation and others. Atlantic pledged to erase all negative balances claimed against older artists and recalcuate royalties from 1970 to the present. (It was impossible to recalcuate pre-1970 royalties because of shoddy bookeeping).

This was an unprecedented effort.

At times Brown could be sassy, but she was glowing before she took the Garden stage on that spring afternoon. “There are some things you do in life that somewhere along the line you come to regret,” she told me. “And there are some things you do in life that you regret you didn’t do enough of. And this relationship with Atlantic Records has been sometimes hurting. But whatever was negative about my relationship, there was something so positive that I would forget what the negativeness was.”

Brown then went on stage to sing “Teadrops From My Eyes” and her best known jump song “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” She also joined Baker for her hit “Jim Dandy.” Her voice was still as big as the Empire State Building. “I’m just a flat-footed singer,” she told me in a 1987 phone interview. “I’m not geared to backup singing, choreography and heavy instrumentation. It has to come very, very big. It seems that technology limits the performance. Once you’re locked into a situation, you can’t improvise and you can’t move.”

Stay tuned. Before moving on to royalty recovery with the increasing popularity of satellite radio, here’s an oddball Ruth Brown sidebar you won’t read in any other appreciations. [The most complete recap on her remarkable life was Jon Pareles’ obit in the Nov. 16 New York Times.]

Brown was scheduled to appear with Bo Diddley, Etta James and others at a January, 1989 concert as part of the inaugural festivities for President George Herbert Walker Bush. She cancelled after suffering a heart attack. The event was organized by the late Lee Atwater, a major music fan who was the first President Bush’s campaign director. Atwater also interned for segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond while in college. I remember calling Atwater to remark about how “soulful” the Bush bash was. He chuckled and said, “Well, we’ll have a lot more suprises,” and hung up. [One surprise was that the event was co-chaired by Cheryl Ladd and Chuck Norris…those sure were more innocent times.]

Begle helped Atwater book the D.C. event, which acccounted for Brown’s appearance as well as Dr. John and Koko Taylor. By 1989 Brown’s career had been on the ascent after John Waters cast her as Motormouth Mabel in the film version of “Hairspray.” As a result of the hit film, Brown was invited to a White House correspondents’ dinner. She invited Begle to come along—that’s how he met Atwater, as well as the camp of The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was toying with a presidential bid. Atwater told me, “The four years I managed the campaign, I would jog and fantasize about the ultimate concert and how I would like to have everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Ruth Brown.”

I just spun away from my computer and headed to another room where my turntable sits from another time. I played the first track Brown ever recorded: “So Long,” (May 25, 1949, Atlantic) with Amos Milburn on piano. Sometimes this his how I spend a Friday night. Brown had just spent nine months in a hospital as the result of an auto accident outside of Chester, Pa. She was supposedly singing on crutches. There is a sway and attitude in her voice that was unlike anything else of the period, the freedom of jazz washing up against big city blues. Ms. Brown sings, “…This can never be goodbye/we’ll just say so long…” and you hear the determination of someone who had someplace to go.

ROYALTY UPDATE: Pass this on to musicians you know.

SoundExchange, the non-profit organization that collects and distributes royalties from various digital music services on behalf of artists and record labels has submitted its case to the Copyright Royalty Board charged with setting rates that XM and Sirius satellite music services will pay for their streaming of sound recordings during the next six-year licensing terms, ending in 2012.

Recognizing that music forms the foundation of the two satellite services, SoundExchange’s request for royalties beginning at 10 percent of revenues and gradually increasing over the six-year term is a reasonable rate based on the findings of several leading experts.

In January, 2005 Milwaukee musician Paul Cebar told me that he was seeing $200 every quarter for songs that are getting played on satellite radio. At that time XM (disclaimer–I’m a subscriber) had 5.1 million subscribers. Today XM has more than 7 million subscribers.

SoundExchange is jointly governed by artists and record labels and has a strong record of protecting the interests of artists and record labels. Since its first distribution in 2001, SoundExchange has collected more than $53 million in digital royalties. It is the first performance organization in the United States to collect and distribute digital audio transmission royalties to artists and sound recording copyright owners.

All artists, labels, and/or representatives should check out:

http://www.soundexchange.com/

And remember, Ruth Brown got the ball rollling.

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