Ruth Brown - Local Legend

by India Pougher

The Tidewater region’s musical claims to fame include artists like Missy Elliott and Pharrell, but one local phenomenon paved the way for musicians nationwide.

Ruth Brown was born in 1928 in our own Portsmouth, Virginia, the daughter of a choir director at the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on North Street. She was known for performing at local USO shows in her youth, before leaving the region at the age of 17. 

She signed with Atlantic Records a few years after leaving home.  With the 1950s bringing about the height of her career as a singer, she went on to put out hits like “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and “Oh What a Dream.” 

In a 2006 article from The New York Times, Jon Pareles called her “a queen of R&B.” She is known for her vast contributions to rhythm and blues, as well as pioneering areas of the music industry, especially policies regarding musicians’ royalties.  This led to the 1988 creation of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides support for R&B and its artists.

Brown stepped back onto the stage, following a period out of the spotlight, and became a Tony Award winner for her work in the musical “Black and Blue, and a Grammy Award winner for her album “Blues on Broadway.”

The Scene remembered the local legend in our look into to the Hampton Roads arts culture. Four songs by Brown were heard in The Scene’s season two video, “Appetite for Creation,” about Hampton Roads artist and restaurant owner, Sydney Meers. Her hit songs, “I don’t know,” “Sweet Baby of Mine,” “5-10-15” and “Wild Wild Young Men” were all featured in the episode.