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ATLANTIC 919; SEPTEMBER 1950

 
 

 

It’s been three years to the month since rock ‘n’ roll first appeared on the recording scene during which time it rapidly went from a fringe element on the black record landscape to the dominant force within it.

Yet during that time there was a vast gender disparity which was one of the genre’s more inexplicable quirks with females lagging well behind the men. There’d been scant amount of national hits by women in rock and none of those ladies who had scored a hit had – or even seemed likely to – become a star.

That was about to change in a big way.
 

 

Introducing Miss Rhythm!
Ruth Brown’s goal was never to be rock’s first female star, or even to sing this music in the first place. Her dream was to sing ballads, high class pop material… lush sounds bathed in strings that was fit for the most elegant nightclubs in the land.

But while she had the talent to do so the times were changing and that audience was no longer dictating the trends of the day. The environment that had produced Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan was quickly drying up and in its place was something far less “lady-like”.

Brown didn’t appear interested in this new reality, for even her surprising hit debut, So Long, had been a rock song only by virtue of the soulful qualities she brought to the pop standard, and also, let’s face it, because of her later path in life.

In the year since then however she largely avoided even trying to match that, instead cutting records in every conceivable style, all in fine voice with plenty of grace and style, but none of them stirring the least bit of interest. She may in fact have been capable of singing anything, yet everything she sang after that first one had her headed in the wrong direction stylistically.

Atlantic’s co-owner Herb Abramson had been trying to get Brown away from the standards she preferred and into something far more earthy. She wasn’t a screamer, was too sophisticated to sing anything with “down home” qualities, yet she had the emotive qualities of an actress and a voice that was strong, pure and with a natural soulfulness that was unmatched… if only they could find a song to bring those qualities out of her.

Enter Rudolph Toombs, hands down the best songwriter for hire in early 50’s rock, who panned Teardrops From My Eyes expressly for Brown who wasn’t all that enthused about it. It was a sad song which for some reason they wanted her to do uptempo, emphasizing the rhythm which put it seemingly at odds with the story contained within.

She was fond of Abramson though and a year without a hit was a lifetime in a young singer’s career and with all of the ballads having failed to draw interest she might as well see if something different might click… something rousing, exuberant and rocking.

They holed up with Brown for a week of rehearsals with Herb imploring her to not hold back and sing the song with “a tear in her voice”.

When she perfected that squeal that would soon become her trademark they turned her loose in the studio and she promptly delivered what may just be the definitive rock hit by a female solo act in rock’s first twenty years.
 


 
 

The Sun Is Shining
With saxophone blaring out from the speakers as the needle drops before being answered by the rest of the horns, the sound envelops you, beckoning you in with a warm smile. The first six notes on sax are as infectious as any progression you could ever hope to hear and when the others join in you get the sense this is a joyous party about to kick off.

Ruth’s grinding sultry delivery does nothing to dissuade you from that notion either, but if you listen to what she’s singing rather than focusing simply on the way she’s singing it, you’ll find that Teardrops From My Eyes more than lives up to its title, for it’s a song of immense sadness as she struggles to deal with a breakup she never saw coming.

It’s a formula that Motown would work to perfection down the road, particularly with The Supremes, ironically the first females chronologically to overtake Ruth Brown in the all-time rankings, as they too specialized in marrying despondent stories with joyous music. On paper it seems bound to fail but when it hits your ears this game plan almost never fails to captivate listeners no matter the era and if anyone deserves credit for showing how well it could be done, it was Ruth Brown.

The key to making these things work is to keep the two divergent aspects pulling at each other throughout the song, with the aural components never giving any indication of torment while the written composition itself pours on the anguish from start to finish.

Brown lays into that dichotomy for all she’s worth, drawing out notes in such a way as to almost warp their phonetic qualities, her voice so finely tuned that each inflection lends new meaning to the words, all of which take on countless shades whose colors shift depending on the angle they’re being viewed from. Her power is wisely held in check but never far from your consciousness as you can practically see the coiled energy in her ready to unleash itself if called upon giving this an unmistakable aura of tension and constant anticipation.

In the process Teardrops From My Eyes becomes something far more potent than it’s individual parts would suggest, giving us a woman caught in a swirl of emotions – the burning love she still has for the guy who broke her heart – and as a result you’d almost think she doesn’t know which way is up.

But it’s an act of course… a risky gamble maybe, but one made out of desperation to win him back. She knows crying isn’t going to do it and that begging won’t change his mind, probably because she tried those already, so instead she places her bet on sparking in him the feelings that once got him to fall for her. She may be expressing pain in her words, but her delivery has a vivacious spirit in it that can’t be denied. It’s full of life, of love, of resilient hope and optimism, the very things that everyone craves in a partner, even one you’d already rejected.

It’s such an effective performance that by the final stanza when she finally makes her intent known by springing on him a plea to reconsider, it’s made NOT from a position of weakness as it would’ve been had she sung this full of despair, but instead she’s coming at him from a position of strength and as her voice soars you swear you can hear her smile knowing she’s about to win him back.
 

If You’d Come Back To Me
For this to work of course there can be no false steps taken and with this band there’s no chance of that happening as this might just be the best executed arrangement in rock so far… not the most difficult certainly, or even the most noticeable unto itself, but the one in which everybody is so locked in that, short of an atom bomb landing in the studio, it seems all but unstoppable.

The studio crew revolves around Budd Johnson’s saxophone who leads the others as if they’re under some sort of spell, and the rhythm churns with precision from the start. There’s two distinct horn parts being offset by a subtle but insistent guitar line underneath while the drummer swings in an understated way to tie it all together, all of it perfectly balanced. There’s not a hair is out of place, everything has been assiduously laid out where even the pauses sound musical by nature, yet it comes across as loose and freewheeling as if they were all simply caught up in the excitement and began jamming along with her.

When Johnson launches into a gutsy solo aimed at your loins it’s hardly by accident, both for selling the record to a public who wanted to grind away to rock ‘n’ roll, but also for selling the message Brown is trying to get across with her delivery.

She can’t exactly come on to this guy while expressing pain, yet that’s exactly what she needs to do subliminally and so you not only get that with her voice, but in case you somehow missed that, you also get it with the sax solo which is dirty without being obscene, steamy without overheating and pretty unambiguous without hitting you over the head with its intent.

Teardrop From My Eyes gets you to MOVE… on the dance floor, in your seat, even just in your mind when you hear it, but it also needs to move your emotions with it, to override your sensibilities in a way that transforms the song from one expressing misery to one promising endless rapture, almost without you being fully aware of how cleverly its manipulating you.

If sadness can sound joyful, if hurt can get you to feel euphoric, if the girl who’s been dumped can get the guy who broke up with her to scramble to win her back, then truly anything in life is possible.
 


 

Our Love Would Always Be
They called Atlantic Records “The House That Ruth Built” for good reason. It may have been a play on the term affixed to Yankee Stadium after it was constructed in the 1920’s while Babe Ruth was setting the baseball world on fire on that field, but it was just as appropriate to use for Ruth Brown’s impact on the record label and rock in general.

Teardrops From My Eyes hit #1 that December and stayed there for eleven weeks, the longest reign by a female at the top of those charts until nearly the end of the century.

For Atlantic Records their direction from this point forward was never in doubt. The song’s writer, Rudy Toombs, would contribute countless hits for all types of acts on their roster while the overall sound of their records would take on this more aggressively streamlined edge.

Women in rock, little more than an afterthought before this, suddenly became viable stars and hitmakers in their own right with Ruth Brown herself standing tallest among them, wracking up 25 hits, including four more chart toppers, over the next dozen years before going on to roles in television, film and on stage, winning a Tony Award late in life to cap off a career that lasted half a century.

Yet for all her hits, all the accolades and all the impact she made during that time across the spectrum, she’d be hard-pressed to top this one magical, powerful and irresistible record that started it all.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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