No tags :(

Share it




Why do we do this?

Reviewing songs by legendary acts when these sides are on the absolute fringes of rock, I mean?

Is it just a sense of completeness… a desire not to leave anything out of a major figure’s story along the way? Or is it more about showcasing these commercial failures in the midst of their extended runs of popularity as a way of “proving” that pure unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll, not jazzy adult pop, was truly the only way to go if they wanted to create a lasting legacy.

In truth it’s probably a little of both even though those aren’t the only reasons, because in the case of Ruth Brown, even when she chose the wrong direction stylistically, she rarely faltered artistically and even if we can’t reward that when discussing how the record fits within the context of rock ‘n’ roll, that doesn’t mean we can’t find some way of admiring her talent in the process.

Can’t Live Their Lives Without You
In 1951 Ruth Brown was on top of the music world. Three top ten hits in the past year, including a massive chart topper which firmly sent her in the direction of rock ‘n’ roll… somewhat against her wishes at first.

Yet she proved so adept at it, such a natural when it came to expressing rhythm, that even when she moved outside that realm you always had the sense while listening to the milder pop-deviations that she was merely biding her time until she got another saucy rocker to lay into, even though in reality she’d have preferred to be singing the classier torch songs she’d loved since her childhood.

Early on in her Atlantic career she had plenty of opportunity to cut them too, as the company was still trying to figure out what might sell, but when none of them did and her rocking efforts started to skyrocket, her course was made clear and Atlantic would be foolish to turn their back on what worked now. But that being said they weren’t averse to occasionally letting her indulge in her lingering passion for more mature songs as a way to keep her creatively satisfied.

To that end Without My Love is typical of Atlantic’s attempts to be classy, yet still authentic, at the time, as it’s a very well produced record, superbly sung and even has some touches to connect it with rock audiences.

But at its core it’s still a song not meant for us… at least not meant for us in the usual decedent state of mind we’re often found in when discussing music… and thus no matter how competently it’s executed, our collective impression when trying to shoehorn it into a genre that approaches music far differently than this is going to wind up not doing the record justice and there’s nothing Ruth Brown, Atlantic Records or any of us can do about that.

If I Never Love Again
Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up, because the weakest aspect of the record is the song itself.

Not that it’s terrible mind you, but it is rather musically clubfooted.

Well maybe that’s a little harsh, but when you’re singing a slow and sultry torch song and the melody has an awkward glitch that snaps you out of the mood each time through, it’s kind of hard to describe another way.

That this flaw is found in the main hook – the title line no less – when she goes down the scale to deliver the line “I can’t live my life Without My Love” it can’t help but make the overall feel of the record fall short, no matter what style you were hoping to hear.

Everything else in this song is climbing the scale by design so as to show the yearning hope and potential bliss of life that she sings about, then on cue she switches her outlook to ponder life without her main squeeze and becomes despondent. Okay, you tell yourself, that certainly makes thematic sense if nothing else, but the problem is while she sells the emotional side of it, the musical side lets her down.

It’s like cruising along the highway at 80 miles an hour and the guy in front of you puts his breaks on because there’s an accident ahead of you or they’re doing roadwork and cutting down from three lanes to two. You may have plenty of time to slow down but the deceleration still feels much more abrupt because it snaps you out of the consistent speed you’ve come to expect after dozens of miles on the road.

Here Brown’s forced to pump the breaks, jolting you out of the ride she’d taken you on up to that point which is rather good. As always she’d got a hell of a voice, great judgement, control and a deft touch in selling the lyrics, and the primary melody leading up to that is really pretty nice and so despite it not being created for our sensibilities we sure weren’t averse to liking certain aspects about it along the way.

I Don’t Care What You Do
There are a few moments to be found where the ideas they put forth are exquisite and the score this gets owes a lot of it to those small touches – especially a mesmerizing guitar slowly plucking that seven note hook over and over again behind her.

Meanwhile the horn charts, even with the mighty Willis Jackson on sax, are sticking to a wistful dreaming motif that at best is reasonably effective but the longer it goes on the more they fall back on the simplistic ideas highlighted by vanilla changes centered around some increasingly repetitive and predictable concepts, alternately moaning softly in the distance and trying to assert themselves with artificial fanfare in between the lines.

The rhythm track is almost non-existent of course as Without My Love is a stately ballad, but there’s room for more quirkiness than they show here, as Howard Biggs on piano could’ve easily come up with a similar riff to echo or alternate with the guitar. Instead he’s as guilty as anyone for playing it safe, much to the song’s detriment.

In spite of this you’re almost ready to cast aside those criticisms and focus just on those moments when Brown is at her at her absolute best – which in this case finds her emphatically repeating the word “never” leading into the final stanza after letting her voice soar right before that – telling yourself that no singer THIS good can possibly make a truly bad record no matter what genre-specific measures you use.


As Long As I Have You
Listening to Ruth Brown here you might convince people of that position if you focus only on the high points, but all records are the sum total of their parts which then has to be put back into the proper context before trying to come to a definitive conclusion about its merits.

In a neutral environment for 1951 that would definitely work better. Yes, the disappointing melodic twist would definitely hurt its standing there as well, but everything else would be held in higher esteem because there’s be no need to have it conform to a more rigid stylistic set of ground rules.

But each individual genre exists on those rigid stylistic ground rules and thus if judged in a country music context, or a blues context, it’d fail to meet those requirements and no amount of vocal talent would be able to fully override that.

In a rock context however Brown does all she can to inject Without My Love with the kind of soul we’ve come to expect, while the musicians, at least whoever is lazily holding court on guitar, give us just enough to hold our interest.

A mixed bag for sure, whether you rate it as a good performance on a mediocre song, or an uninventive arrangement with some brilliant touches, the end result is still the same, namely Ruth Brown doesn’t hurt her standing as an artist in the least, even if she doesn’t advance her career as a budding icon of rock ‘n’ roll.

But then aren’t all detours like that – a long way around just to get back to where you should’ve been headed from the start.


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