Cover Critique: I love the colour scheme here. Orange, white, red, and pink. It really makes her name pop out. I do hope the U.S. Postal Service made a special stamp from that picture of her, as it was clearly the designer’s subliminal intention. I also like how the folks at Atlantic put “rock & roll” in tiny letters running the wrong way – hard to read, easy to miss and showing they had the good sense to feel a little bit ashamed of marketing this as rock and roll. Two stars.
As Long as I’m Moving
Wild Wild Young Men
Teardrops from My Eyes
Hello Little Boy
Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean
It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)
Old Man River
Oh What a Dream
As I understand it, R&B evolved from the urban blues market in much the same way rockabilly evolved from country swing – the youth wanted faster and edgier sounds. And Ruth Brown must have been a reigning queen hitmaker on the R&B market in much the same way as B.B. King was for the electric blues, as both of them got albums out well in advance of the pack. Like his album Singin’ the Blues, Ruth Brown’s awkwardly titled Rock and Roll is a compilation of her successful singles, ranging from the lush late 40s into the leaner sounds of the 50s.
Now when it comes to Ruth Brown, the singles are only half the story and the less interesting half. Her band sported a fuller sound than any concurrent rockabilly acts, and when they really revved up they (like Louis Prima’s ensemble) could actually give those boys with the exciting but still thin electric guitar sound a run for their money. Alas, these singles don’t really capture the impact of the Ruth Brown stage show – find some youtube clips from the era and you’ll see that Ruth Brown was a live performer first and foremost, the band kicking into high gear while she commanded the stage with telling looks and gestures; here’s a woman who was a burly, comical wildcat on stage instead of a lady.
None of that is really captured on these more modest studio takes. Everything is moderated and mostly lacks the fire of the live performances. Ruth Brown has a fun brawny delivery but the visual cues are a big part of the draw because the songs themselves are not technically overwhelming.
First song is the worst. ‘Lucky Lips’ has to be heard to be believed – a Leiber and Stoller comedy number and an example of professional hacksmanship at its worst because no amount of humour can get past the fact that it’s a goddamn Christmas song. That last bit of the chorus when the backing singers echo Ruth’s “with lucky lips I’ll always have a fellow in my arms” gives it away. How is this sonically different from ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’ It isn’t, and when combined with lines like “when they spin that wheel of fortune all I do is kiss my chips / and I know I’ve picked a winner ’cause I’ve got lucky lips” it ranks right up there on any Worst of the Fifties playlist you may want to create. Do you realize how many people had to say yes to this song that it became the leadoff track on Ruth Brown’s first LP?
If you make it through ‘Lucky Lips’ and haven’t died laughing, Rock and Roll gets better in that at least the other songs are real music and not a cheap parody thereof. Random thoughts: ‘Hello Little Boy’ is the rowdiest, raunchiest number by far and an easy standout. On the other hand, this tame version of ‘Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean’ pales compared to her Apollo performance of the same. ‘Teardrops from My Eyes’ was a huge hit for Ruth and a major breakthrough in the R’n’B sound, but it’s still an ostensibly sad song done in a weirdly upbeat style that leaves me unsure what it’s trying to convey. Meanwhile, ‘It’s Love Baby (24 Hours of the Day)’ comes closest to bridging the gap between the Ruth Brown singing style and the dramatically emphasized Etta James style. I like the piano in ‘Mambo Baby’ but the “he goes… (clapping) …all the time” part obviously doesn’t translate to record. ‘5-10-15 Hours’ gives space to the saxophonist and gets a standardized slinky feel that is a welcome change of pace.
The oddest thing is how Rock and Roll wraps things up with four old-school tracks: ‘Sentimental Journey,’ where Ruth Brown tries to follow the path of Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington while her backing male vocalists (especially the baritone) take the mike away from her; an unnecessary take on ‘Old Man River’ with more prominent backing vocalists; and to end, a sentimental, orchestrated 1949 ballad called ‘So Long’ (sounding like a fascinating historical relic by this time) and a sentimental doo-wop ballad called ‘Oh What a Dream.’
Bottomline is that I’m not enamoured of this stuff but it’s possible if this chronological journey had begun in the 30s or 40s instead of the 50s I would have the necessary backstory to understand Ruth Brown’s impact. As is, the Rock and Roll LP comes rather out of context. These singles, which could have been towering highlights in the standards-soaked early 50s, do not have the same punch in 1957. It all has a good sound, I just feel like it could have been more energetic and with that energy almost every one of these songs could have been like ‘Hello Little Boy.’ I would recommend it mostly on a historical basis for those who already love old school R&B.
Best Track: Hello Little Boy.
Worst Track: Lucky Lips.
Rating: Three stars.
And now the live show…