'I Don't Know'
R&B and Soul
By Ruth BrownUpdated Aug 2020
Ruth Alston Brown (née Weston, January 12, 1928 – November 17, 2006) was an American singer-songwriter and actress, sometimes known as the "Queen of R&B". She was noted for bringing a pop music style…
Ruth Alston Brown (née Weston, January 12, 1928 – November 17, 2006) was an American singer-songwriter and actress, sometimes known as the "Queen of R&B". She was noted for bringing a pop music style to R&B music in a series of hit songs for Atlantic Records in the 1950s, such as "So Long", "Teardrops from My Eyes" and "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean". For these contributions, Atlantic became known as "the house that Ruth built" (alluding to the popular nickname for the old Yankee Stadium). Brown was a 1993 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Following a resurgence that began in the mid-1970s and peaked in the 1980s, Brown used her influence to press for musicians' rights regarding royalties and contracts; these efforts led to the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Her performances in the Broadway musical Black and Blue earned Brown a Tony Award, and the original cast recording won a Grammy Award. Brown was a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. In 2017, Brown was inducted into National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. She is also the aunt to legendary hip hop MC Rakim.
Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Brown was the eldest of seven siblings. She attended I. C. Norcom High School, which was then legally segregated. Brown's father was a dockhand. He also directed the local church choir at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, but the young Ruth showed more interest in singing at USO shows and nightclubs, rebelling against her father. She was inspired by Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington.
In 1945, aged 17, Brown ran away from her home in Portsmouth along with the trumpeter Jimmy Brown, whom she soon married, to sing in bars and clubs. She then spent a month with Lucky Millinder's orchestra.
Ruth Brown performs at the Mambo Club in Wichita, Kansas, 1957
Blanche Calloway, Cab Calloway's sister, also a bandleader, arranged a gig for Brown at the Crystal Caverns, a nightclub in Washington, D.C., and soon became her manager. Willis Conover, the future Voice of America disc jockey, caught her act with Duke Ellington and recommended her to Atlantic Records bosses Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson. Brown was unable to audition as planned because of a car crash, which resulted in a nine-month stay in the hospital. She signed with Atlantic Records from her hospital bed.
In 1948, Ertegun and Abramson drove from New York City to Washington, D.C., to hear Brown sing. Her repertoire was mostly popular ballads, but Ertegun convinced her to switch to rhythm and blues.
In her first audition, in 1949, she sang "So Long", which became a hit. This was followed by "Teardrops from My Eyes" in 1950. Written by Rudy Toombs, it was the first upbeat major hit for Brown. Recorded for Atlantic Records in New York City in September 1950 and released in October, it was Billboard's R&B number one for 11 weeks. The hit earned her the nickname "Miss Rhythm", and within a few months, she became the acknowledged queen of R&B.
She followed up this hit with "I'll Wait for You" (1951), "I Know" (1951), "5-10-15 Hours" (1953), "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" (1953), "Oh What a Dream" (1954), "Mambo Baby" (1954), and "Don't Deceive Me" (1960), some of which were credited to Ruth Brown and the Rhythm Makers. Between 1949 and 1955, her records stayed on the R&B chart for a total of 149 weeks; she would go on to score 21 Top 10 hits altogether, including five that landed at number one. Brown ranked No. 1 on The Billboard 1954 Disk Jockey Poll for Favorite R&B Artists.
Brown played many racially segregated dances in the southern states, where she toured extensively and was immensely popular. She claimed that a writer had once summed up her popularity by saying, "In the South Ruth Brown is better known than Coca-Cola."
Brown performed at the famed tenth Cavalcade of Jazz concert held at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles which was produced by Leon Hefflin, Sr. on June 20, 1954. She performed along with The Flairs, Count Basie and his Orchestra, Lamp Lighters, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, Christine Kittrell, and Perez Prado and his Orchestra.
Her first pop hit came with "Lucky Lips", a song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and recorded in 1957. The single reached number 6 on the R&B chart and number 25 on the U.S. pop chart. The 1958 follow-up was "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'", written by Bobby Darin and Mann Curtis. It reached number 7 on the R&B chart and number 24 on the pop chart.
She had further hits with "I Don't Know" in 1959 and "Don't Deceive Me" in 1960, which were more successful on the R&B chart than on the pop chart. During the 1960s, Brown faded from public view and lived as a housewife and mother.