Ruth Brown, the Tony® winner, Grammy® winner and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was celebrated Thursday night at Las Vegas landmark Bootlegger Bistro.
Brown, a rhythm and blues legend (not a word used lightly) was a Las Vegas resident who died in November 2006. She played the Bootlegger regularly on Thursdays for the last two years of her life. By the time she'd started there, a stroke had diminished her ability to recall lyrics (so she'd read them from what she called her "Book of Ruth") and her ability to stand (so she'd sit in a plush chair dubbed her "throne"). What wasn't diminished at all was her ability to deliver a song. And she sang them all, reminiscing along the way.
Brown was born in 1928 in Portsmouth, VA and began singing early on. She'd sneak out of the house to entertain at the nearby USO and eventually became the first artist signed to the then-new Atlantic Records. She recorded a string of hits and even when those stopped coming in the 1950s, she continued to sing. When he was appearing on Long Island where she was living in thte 1970s Redd Foxx brought her to LA and she did TV and club work. Brown eventually wound up on Broadway in Amen Corner and Black and Blue. She won a Tony as best actress in a musical for the latter and a Grammy award for her music from the show.. She originated the role of Motormouth Maybelle in the original John Waters film Hairspray and in 1993 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
At the Bootlegger, Brown always opened with This Train Don't Stop Here Anymore and by the time her set was finished, among others, she'd sung Love Letters, Teardrops From My Eyes, 5-10-15 Hours, If I Can't Sell It, (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean and would always close with Smile.
The tribute event, which was produced by musicians James D'Arrigo and Ron Mancuso, and was a benefit for the Society of Singers, packed the house.
Performers included Mary Wilson (Supremes), Sonny Turner (The Platters), Sonny Charles (Checkmates, Steve Miller Band), Jimmy Castor (Atlantic and Mercury Records), Regi Brown (Rose Royce), Wendy Edmead (Cats, The Pointer Sisters) and Mark Giovi (Las Vegas Tenors). The evening was hosted by Bootlegger owner Lorraine Hunt Bono — Nevada's former Lieutenant Governor and a former singer who made her mark in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas as Lorrie Perry — and her husband, singer and radio personality Dennis Bono.
Also appearing was Ronnie McPhatter, son of Ruth Brown and Clyde McPhatter, an original member of the Drifters and very successful solo artist. McPhatter sang and reminisced about life with his mom. At the end of the evening, a letter from Ruth Brown's close friend Bonnie Raitt was read. She called Brown a "force of nature," and pointed out that Ruth Brown blazed the trail for so many singers — from Etta James to Aretha and down the line.
It was an evening that Ruth Brown would have loved. One guest, pointing to Brown's "throne" that was placed atop the grand piano and the snifter of her usual blackberry brandy, said, "I know you think I'm nuts, but I'm telling you, Ruth was in this room tonight."
She probably was.