30 Sep 1997
In over fifty years of singing and performing, the truly incomparable Ruth Brown, who was discovered in Washington D.C. at the Crystal Caverns on U Street, NW, has virtually defined rhythm and blues, topping the charts throughout the 1950s and establishing the legacy of Atlantic Records such that the label became known as “The House That Ruth Built.” Her vocals inspired the likes of Little Richard and set the stage for the emergence of Rock and Roll. Her contributions to the latter genre were recognized in 1993 when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ruth Brown is also an accomplished actress on stage, screen, and television. Her work in “Black and Blue” resulted in a 1989 Tony Award. You have also seen her in Norman Lear’s “Hello Larry,” in “Little House on the Prairie,” and as Motormouth Mabel in the John Waters film, Hairspray. In addition, she has served as National Public Radio’s host of “Harlem Hit Parade” and “Blues Stage.” Less well known but equally far-reaching are her humanitarian and activist credentials. It was Ruth Brown’s landmark and successful challenge to record labels, seeking greater artist equity and recognition, which resulted in her founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. She is also an author, whose book, Miss Rhythm, The Autobiography of Ruth Brown, was published in 1996 by Donald Fine Books. The book received the Gleason Award from BMI and Rolling Stone.
During her long career, she has influenced and been influenced by artists and other celebrities such as Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter, Bonnie Raitt, Muhammad Ali, Robert Altman and John Waters. In her autobiography, Ms. Brown notes that “If they’re under a hundred, honey, I knows ’em!” Ms. Brown also intimately knows the underside of American culture, as an African-American artist whose career was deeply affected by racism and Jim Crow laws, as well as by music industry practices that have deprived countless artists of revenue, recognition, and long-term livelihood. Through it all, her spirit, creativity, intelligence, and determination have conspired to form an original, enduring entertainer who has made singular contributions to art and artists for well over fifty years.
Described in the All Music Guide as, “one of the most important saxophonists in jazz history,” Sonny Stitt is one of 1997’s three inductees into the WAMA Hall of Fame. Born in Boston, MA in 1924, Stitt grew up in a family where everyone made music. His father was a college music professor, his mother a piano teacher, and his brother became a concert pianist. Despite family hopes that Sonny would follow in their classical tradition, his forty-year career – in which he made nearly one hundred recordings – was wholly rooted in the world of jazz.
Sonny Stitt performed and recorded with a panoply of greats including Billy Eckstine, Eddie Davis, Paul Gonsalves, Red Holloway, Zoot Sims, Art Pepper, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis. During the late ’40s and early ’50s, when Stitt and tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons had their own band, Stitt’s “cutting sessions” with his bandmate and other sax phenomena of the period became the stuff of legends and endlessly recounted anecdotes. Throughout his career, Stitt heard himself compared with, and described as the successor to, Charlie (Bird) Parker. Indeed, it is said that just before Parker died, he ran into Stitt on a street corner and told him, “Man, I’m handing you the keys to the kingdom.” Despite the flattering comparison, Sonny Stitt will be remembered as a prolific and wholly original sax great who stood out amid the giants of the genre. Sonny Stitt died in Washington, DC in 1982.
Donald Byrd has been among the finest trumpeters of his generation. He always had a keen ear for talent. He gained his initial fame as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the late 50s. His biting, dynamic lines and crackling sound help highlight many top Blue Note LPs. He discovered Herbie Hancock in the early Sixties and, a decade later, while chairman of the music department at Howard University, organized six of his students into a band he called the Blackbyrds, after his fusion album, Black Byrd. They were masters of jazz-funk fusion – or “acid jazz,” as it’s known today – but also had strong pop sensibilities.
Their debut album contained the #23 R&B, #69 pop single “Do It, Fluid,” while the second yielded an across-the-board smash in the #4 R&B, #6 pop “Walking in Rhythm.” Rare grooves from those two classic Blackbyrd albums have been widely sampled – by such hip-hop artists as Queen Latifah and UTFO. He currently teaches at Delaware State.
Content courtesy of Washington Area Music Association.