By STEVE DOUGHERTY and Victoria Balfour
Updated March 06, 1989 12:00 PM

She swayed through the ’50s in floor-length satin gowns, winning over uptown audiences with her downtown messages of love on the run. Frankie Laine called Ruth Brown the Fabulous Miss Rhythm, and as one of the first singers signed by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson’s Atlantic Records, she helped popularize rhythm and blues. In 1950 she gave Atlantic what would become its first million-selling single, “Teardrops from My Eyes,” and during her 13 years with the label, she recorded more than 80 so-called race records targeted at black buyers. Her hit “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” was a best-seller in 1953 (though listeners tuned to the Hit Parade heard Tony Bennett’s cover version instead), and Brown’s blues with a backbeat soon jumped racial barriers to become known to the world as rock and roll. So astounding was her success that Atlantic was dubbed the House that Ruth Built Yet by 1967 she was dead broke and down on her knees, scrubbing suburban Long Island floors to support her two sons. “Ruth the singer disappeared,” says Brown, who stopped receiving royalties in 1963. “I did a lot of things to survive. All I wanted was to feed my kids and keep the lights on.”

Though Brown, 61, still worries about keeping the power on in her cramped one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, her career is back in the spotlight Following her movie debut last year as the blond-wigged disc jockey Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray, Brown has just released Have a Good Time, her first album in six years. In December she was the focus of a PBS documentary, That Rhythm, That Blues. In January, Brown bounced back from a recurring heart ailment to make her Broadway debut in Black and Blue, a 1920s jazz-and-dance revue.

While her comeback is surging, Brown is beginning to receive symbolic recognition that she was not well treated the first time around. Nine months ago, in response to her long-standing claim that she was owed royalties, Atlantic paid her $20,000 and agreed to investigate the royalty status of 25 other artists, including Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave. “This year has been storybook time,” Brown says. “Everything has come full circle.”

Born Ruth Weston in Portsmouth, Va., the eldest of seven children, Brown first felt the excitement of what her dockworker father called the devil’s music when an uncle bought her some Billie Holiday records. But it was a rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” that snared her a job at the local USO during the Big Band frenzy of World War II. “I got out of the house by saying I was going to choir rehearsal,” says Brown, who was then 15. A year later she eloped with Jimmy Brown, a Navy midshipman and trumpet player. Ruth, whose turquoise pantsuit does little to conceal her middle-age bulk, chuckles at the memory. “As it turned out, he was already married. I’m laughin’ now, but it wasn’t funny then.” She had the marriage annulled but kept Jimmy’s name.

Still in her teens, Brown was befriended by band leader Blanche Calloway, sister of Cab, who hired her to sing at the Crystal Caverns club in Washington, D.C. “Blanche became like my second mother,” says Brown. “I used to wear all kinds of feathers in my hair, and gloves, and bracelets over the gloves. Blanche got at me about too much jewelry. She told me to wear just one little strand of pearls.” Getting Brown to change her vocal style was another matter. She was a Billie Holiday imitator until one night when Lady Day herself stormed backstage and told her devastated fan, “If you copy me, nobody will ever copy you.”

Brown got the message. Soon, her own rocking blues attracted the attention of Ertegun and Abramson, who signed her on Jan. 30, 1949—her 21st birthday—in a hospital near Chester, Pa., where she was confined for more than 10 months with injuries sustained in a car accident. “Ahmet and Herb paid my hospital bills,” Ruth says. “They brought me a book on how to sight-read music. They took care of me.” Quick enough, Brown was taking care of them—thanks to the string of hits that made her the top female R&B artist of the ’50s.

Despite those record sales, more than 3 million in all, Ruth’s paychecks weren’t substantial enough to build a retirement fund. In keeping with music business practices of the day, recording and touring costs were deducted from her earnings. After years of grueling one-night stands, performing in clubs and halls where white and black audiences were separated by ropes, Brown discovered that she was actually in debt to Atlantic Records. “I felt responsible for being negligent, for not taking care of business,” says Brown. “A lot of us were really naive.”

Coupled with this discouraging financial news was Ruth’s dismay at the personal cost of life on the road. Her mother was caring for her two sons—Ronnie, born during her second marriage to saxophonist Willis Jackson, and Earl, fathered by her third husband, saxophonist Earl Swanson—and Ruth saw them too rarely. Returning home one day in 1962, “I went to pick up my baby and he screamed as though I was some animal,” Ruth remembers. Since the new popularity of British rock meant the market for her music was dwindling anyway, Ruth quit singing to spend time with her boys.

In 1963 Brown married policeman Bill Blunt, and soon after the new family moved to Huntington, N.Y. Though that fourth marriage ended in 1972, Brown calls it the “best thing in my life. He tried to maintain a certain level of dignity for Ruth Brown the singer, and he instilled in my boys a great amount of self-pride.” For her part, she admits, “I tried to become a suburban housewife, but I was too used to show business. I couldn’t melt into the woodwork.” The divorce court, she says, awarded Ruth alimony of $5 a week. “They said I was qualified to earn.”

To keep herself—and provide a good suburban education for her boys—Brown rented a house in nearby Deer Park, N.Y. “I survived holding on to an image for my children. I did domestic work, I worked as a drug counselor, I drove a school bus. There’s a song that the Temptations did called ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.’ I wasn’t going to beg, but I’m not too proud to say I need a job.” She was too proud to let the world know her fate. “What people don’t see, they don’t know. And you keep your dignity in case you get to move back.”

Brown made her move in 1974 when old friend Redd Foxx invited her to appear on San ford and Son. Other TV, club and stage appearances followed, including a role in an all-black Las Vegas production of Guys and Dolls, and parts on the short-lived television series Hello, Larry and Checking In. But it wasn’t until Hairspray that Brown felt she had made it back. “That movie helped me reach a whole new generation,” she says. “Kids see me and go, ‘Motormouth! Motormouth!’ ”

Ruth’s persistence recently won her another reward. Starting in the late ’60s and for the next 20 years, Ruth had been dogging Atlantic Records for the “hundreds of thousands” in royalties she felt they owed her. Phone calls to her old friend Ahmet Ertegun went unanswered (Ertegun says he never got her messages), and three lawyers charged her $200 each in consultation fees without winning a dime. Her luck turned in 1983 when Washington, D.C., attorney Howell Begle, a longtime Ruth Brown fan, accepted her case. It took him four years, but he finally got Atlantic to agree to a voluntary payment. “Ruth had no copy of a contract, and royalty records were poorly maintained,” says Begle, who did not file a lawsuit and does not accuse Atlantic of intentional negligence. “No one thought 25 years ago that people would still be listening to rhythm and blues. The company was keyed into its new acts, not Ruth Brown.” Ertegun bristles at suggestions of impropriety on the part of Atlantic. “We’ve got nothing to hide. We’ve opened up our books.”

Perhaps because she has won some restitution—and brought attention to the plight of other artists—Brown is forgiving of her former recording boss. In the fall of 1987, Ertegun showed up backstage at an off-Broadway theater where she was performing. When they were finally face-to-face for the first time in about 10 years, Brown says, “We stood speechless for a couple of minutes. He said, ‘I want you to know that I love you and everything is going to be all right. I would never do anything to hurt you.’ ” Pressed about her reaction, Brown will only say, “I did feel anger, but I don’t now.” She is less restrained when discussing the sad fate of R&B great Jackie Wilson, a “very dear friend” who died penniless in 1984. “They had a fund to raise money for a tombstone,” says Brown, tears welling in her eyes. “Why should people have to beg to pay for a tombstone? Why couldn’t his record company pay for it?” She hopes that in the future her less fortunate contemporaries can turn to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Established last year to help pioneer R&B musicians, the foundation was recently awarded a grant of almost $2 million by Atlantic.

Brown has found that her own $20,000 payment barely covers her debts, and she lives modestly in the apartment she rents for less than $400 a month. Proudly she points to her sons’ college degrees and their careers—Ronnie, 33, as a singer and youth counselor, and Earl, 31, as a cable installation instructor. For her failures at love, she blames only herself. “I must say I was not always as wise in choosing husbands as I was in choosing songs,” admits Brown. “If I ever write a book, Tina Turner’s would look like a fairy tale.”

Not that she’ll ever let despair get the best of her. “I was taught by strong women—my mother, my grandmother and Blanche Calloway,” Brown says in a booming voice that belies her grandmotherly demeanor. “There’s nothing so bad that I would step out of the window and jump down.”

—Steve Dougherty, and Victoria Balfour in New York