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Ruth Brown, the vivacious R&B singer whose early hits established Atlantic Records, has died of complications following a stroke and a heart attack in Henderson, Nev. She was 78.
Brown, who died Friday, suffered a stroke in 2000 and had been in declining health in recent years. She had been on life support in a hospital near her home in Las Vegas.
After spending the ’60s and ’70s in the musical wilderness, the vocalist enjoyed a lively second act in the ’80s and ’90s: She won a Tony for her role in the 1989 Broadway revue “Black and Blue,” and the following year her Fantasy album “Blues on Broadway” won a Grammy for best jazz vocal performance.
Her latter-day film performances included an unforgettable turn as DJ “Motormouth Maybelle” in John Waters’ 1988 feature “Hairspray.”
Born Ruth Weston in Portsmouth, Va., she was in-spired by such vocalists as Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. She began touring as a teenager with bandleader Jimmy Brown, whom she married. She later sang with Lucky Millinder’s jump-blues group.
On the recommendation of DJ Willis Conover, Brown was signed to Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson’s fledgling Atlantic label. Her debut session was sidetracked by a grave auto accident that laid her up for nine months. However, her first session with guitarist Eddie Condon’s N.B.C. Television Orchestra spawned the top five hit “So Long” in 1949.
Brown’s decadelong run of lively R&B hits for Atlantic earned her the nickname “Miss Rhythm.” Her biggest smashes were 1950’s “Teardrops From My Eyes,” which enjoyed an 11-week run at No. 1; 1952’s “5-10-15 Hours,” which stayed at the top for seven weeks; 1953’s “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” which took the pinnacle for five weeks; and 1954’s “Oh What a Dream,” a Chuck Willis-penned number that boasted an eight-week run at the pinnacle.
In all, Brown charted 24 singles, only three of which failed to reach the R&B top 10.
After her split with Atlantic in the early ’60s, Brown’s fortunes waned; for a time, she worked as a domestic. Under the aegis of comic Redd Foxx, she began a comeback in the late ’70s, appearing on such TV sitcoms as “Hello, Larry” and “The Jeffersons.”
Brown’s renewed profile led to her high-profile Broadway and film parts; during the ’80s and ’90s, Brown hosted National Public Radio’s “Harlem Hit Parade” and “BluesStage” and recorded for Fantasy and Rounder’s Bullseye Blues imprint.
She also took on another role as an advocate for her generation of R&B performers. The outspoken singer’s public comments about nonpayment of royalties to R&B veterans and the labels’ onerous recoupment policies helped lead to Atlantic’s 1988 decision to pay back royalties to 35 of its early acts and provide seed money for the creation of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. Brown became one of the foundation’s first Pioneer Awards honorees in 1989.
Brown was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Over the years, she won a dozen awards from the nonprofit Blues Foundation and was inducted into its Blues Hall of Fame in 2002; she frequently served as a co-host of the foundation’s annual awards ceremonies.
Brown published her autobiography, “Miss Rhythm,” co-authored with Andrew Yule, in 1996.
She is survived by sons Lonnie McFadden and Earl Swanson; sister Delia Weston; and brothers Alvin, Lenard and Benjamin Weston.
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