Singer Ruth Brown, whose recordings of “Teardrops in My Eyes,” “5-10-15 Hours” and “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” shot her to rhythm-and-blues stardom in the 1950s, died Nov. 17 of complications from a stroke and heart attack in Las Vegas. She was 78.
“Ruth was one of the most important and beloved figures in modern music,” singer Bonnie Raitt said in a statement. “You can hear her influence in everyone from Little Richard to Etta (James), Aretha (Franklin), Janis (Joplin) and divas like Christina Aguilera today.”
Brown’s soulful voice produced dozens of hits for Atlantic Records, cementing the fledgling record label’s reputation as an R&B powerhouse. Trained in a church choir in her hometown of Portsmouth, Va., Brown sang a range of style from jazz to gospel-blues in such hits as “So Long” and “Teardrops in My Eyes.”
She later crossed over into rock ‘n’ roll with some success with “Lucky Lips” and “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’,” a song she co-wrote with Bobby Darin.
But as R&B and rock ‘n’ roll fell out of style in the late 1950s, Brown and her musical contemporaries were forced into retirement. She spent most of the 1960s raising her two sons alone and earning a living as a maid, school bus driver and teacher.
Brown enjoyed a career renaissance in the mid-70s when she began recording blues and jazz tunes for a variety of labels and found success on the stage and in movies.
She won acclaim in the R&B musical “Staggerlee” and won a Tony Award for best actress in the Broadway revue “Black and Blue.”
She also played a feisty deejay in the 1988 cult movie “Hairspray.” A year later, she won a Grammy for best jazz vocal performance for the album “Blues on Broadway.”
Brown continued to perform and record in her later years, becoming a popular host of National Public Radio’s “Harlem Hit Parade.”
She also became a prominent advocate for the rights of aging R&B musicians during her long struggle to recoup her share of royalties from Atlantic. Her effort led to the formation of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to providing financial and medical assistance, as well as historical and cultural preservation of the musical genre.