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ATLANTIC 892; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

The road to stardom as a singer rarely follows a straight line… or maybe the better way to put it is, the ones which have at least a few twists and turns along that road are usually far more interesting to study because it makes pondering the choices that were ultimately made – and the choices which were discarded – a fascinating game unto itself.

Ruth Brown had scored right out of the box with her very first record in the summer of 1949 and since we know that she would become the biggest female rock star of the first decade of the music’s existence suggests that she was one of the few whose career path could be plotted with the edge of a ruler.

But that’s not the case at all. Instead she took a few early detours, heading down some side roads that she herself wanted to travel only to find rather quickly that she was only succeeding in getting lost and as a result she needed to find her way back to the main thoroughfare if she wanted to get someplace worth going.
 

 
If It Takes You All Night Long
In many ways Ruth Brown can serve as the prototypical rock star of the 1950’s, or at least one of the distinct models for rock ‘n’ roll, in particular how it differed from many of the styles that predated it such as pop, jazz and blues.

Six months after cutting her debut record So Long, which soon became her first hit that summer, Atlantic Records seemed to be at a loss for what they should do with her. Brown could sing anything, any of those styles we mentioned, but the question they were now asking themselves was what types of songs should she be singing?

Too classy a vocalist to be delivering the raw urban blues that was growing in popularity or the cruder country blues that still held sway in certain areas while the nightclub uptown blues seemed to have a commercial ceiling to it for record sales. Her primary love growing up had been for pop sounds but was it even possible for a black woman in 1950 to become a pop star? Few had. Jazz certainly had a better track record in that regard but it seemed to be on the wane commercially at this point too, particularly in the singles market.

So what about rock? Just two years old when this record was cut but already enjoying consistent commercial returns in the black community without needing to vie with white artists on white airwaves to reach the ears of white listeners to succeed… might that be her best bet?

They weren’t sure yet. Old attitudes are hard to break after all and new frontiers are often not fully trusted, even with they’ve proved to be a boon for the independent record companies and so Atlantic Records kept casting a wide net with their material for Brown and hoping to get some further confirmation as to which direction they should head into.

It’s safe to say however that Love Me Baby is most assuredly not it.
 

No Use For Us To Fuss And Fight
There’s no surprise to find Atlantic Records looking for something in the same musical vein as her debut hit as this features a slow tempo which requires Brown to utilize the same halting delivery that made her first record so appealing. But whereas So Long had a good melody buried in it, this song by contrast seems to have NO discernible melody at all and so it doesn’t take much to see how this record was doomed from the start.

Call it bad judgement in choosing material if you want but the more damning criticism it deserves is how they compound that with even worse judgement in how it’s arranged to highlight its lack of musical merits.

Because Love Me Baby is so desolate by design there’s nothing in the accompaniment to add any interesting shadings to off-set the gloomy mood. Saxophonist Budd Johnson leads the band here and he’d go on to contribute some excellent work behind Brown in the near future but with this he’s stuck in neutral for most of the song, never getting a chance to imprint anything noteworthy on the record. He does his best to provide a lurching groove behind her but it’s distant and a little wheezy besides which hardly helps matters.

You feel cast adrift listening to this as a result. This kind of slow-pace calls out for a slow, sultry, seductive tenor sax solo to not only inject some melodic flavor but also to impart the warmth this is so sorely lacking otherwise. There’s plenty of room to add such an interlude but he’s never given the chance. Instead – like the rest of us – Johnson is left to look on helplessly as this takes on all the trappings of a funeral procession with its stark droning backing as the horns are holding notes as if they’re in pain, all of which causes the song to slouch rather than swing, grinding itself down rather than lifting things up.

Amazingly over the course of three excruciating minutes there’s absolutely no musical respites from this sound – save for the opening notes on piano – and as a result if a song that’s ostensibly about a night of sensuous lovemaking still to come can possibly come across as both tedious and depressing, then this is surely it.
 

I Tried Hard…
But therein lies the biggest question for all involved… why did they take a song that’s about wanting to hook up for sex and saddle it with a musical arrangement that has already put them in purgatory for their so-called sinful behavior?

Brown herself seems to fully understand what the song calls for but she’s straitjacketed by the way it’s framed. Thematically you could even say this was almost like a rough draft of her future hit 5-10-15 Hours, and as such the lyrics themselves might actually make for a tasty dish… except it’s missing some essential ingredients like joy, excitement and unbridled lust, not to mention the captivating rhythm to tie them all together.

She’s supposed to be eager, horny, ebullient – take your pick – but because of the dreary backing she can’t help but sound as if she’s in distress for a lot of it and as a result much of the underlying desire she’s trying to impart has to come from her own thoughts as she’s singing, methodically working the stark melody over like she’s kneading dough, all to little avail.

At times she still somehow manages to hit a few high points, stretching out in the bridge and letting her voice swell, pulling back and using a series of hesitation moves to try and get you hanging on her next line, all of which shows her intuitive abilities to mine each song for the greatest impact. But without the musical payoff to match it then no matter what she does to dress things up it won’t be enough.

The rest of Love Me Baby is an odd mixture of weary resignation over her trevails in getting this guy to notice her and urgent yearning for him when he finally does consent to be with her. The ambiance though reflects little of the pleasure the song’s lyrics hints at and in the end, even though the talent behind the voice is evident, she’s simply let down by those around her – on both sides of the glass.
 


 

You Want To Know What It’s All About?
Though a few bum records in a row following her break-through might not sink her career altogether, the hierarchy at Atlantic was clearly floundering about at this point.

Brown may have been slightly ahead of them in terms of at least knowing what to do with each song she was given, but she too had much to learn. Ironically it was during this exact stretch when this record came out, her career still in limbo between the sudden rise to stardom with So Long and the seemingly eternal wait for a follow-up to equal its success commercially and artistically, that Ruth Brown began to get steered onto the right track from a rather unexpected source.

It came about at Café Society, a classy joint in New York where Brown was doing a show, when she saw Billie Holiday walk in. Not only was Holiday one of the greatest singers ever to live but she was also one of Brown’s avowed idols and upon seeing her in the audience Brown began to sing Billie’s songs… in tribute or just hoping to impress her, it matters not.

Now of course anyone hearing Ruth Brown sing knows full well that she probably could do a pretty convincing job with Billie’s material but Holiday was not flattered in the least and stormed out.

Brown was devastated and left at the end of her set close to tears… where she ran into Holiday waiting for her backstage, an icy stare leveled at Ruth as she approached. But instead of tearing into her Billie was just brutally honest with the young singer, telling her bluntly: “Every time you open your mouth and do what you did out there they’re gonna call my name, not yours. And that’s better for me, but not for you. I appreciate you likin’ me so much you want to be like me, but you can’t be me, cause I’M me and there’s only one Billie Holiday… Don’t try and be someone you’re not, be yourself”.

Ruth later admitted that, though she was still shaken by being dressed-down so harshly by someone she revered, it was the best advice she ever got.

Of course it’d still take awhile before she found herself and even then it was with an approach she hadn’t been too keen on trying, but it was unquestionably something only she could do in that manner and it was what made her a star. Once she’d crafted her own unique persona these early misfires like Love Me Baby would wind up being seen as little more than a false step on the road to self-discovery… a long and winding road that every artist needs to travel whether they want to or not.

These might be tough lessons to learn in the public eye but if you truly want to make something out of yourself they’re the ones you’ll have to tackle first. As of yet Ruth Brown hadn’t quite mastered them.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Ruth Brown for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)