Opinion » The Rant

The Rant



I was really surprised by the lack of press coverage it got, but not really. And for selfish reasons, I'm rather glad it didn't. I was in New York not long ago and was privileged to be invited to a memorial service for the late rhythm-and-blues singer Ruth Brown -- the original female rhythm-and blues singer who was so popular in her day and sold so many records that her record company, Atlantic Records, was known as "The House That Ruth Built." The service was held in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, an absolutely exquisite 1920s structure with immense stained-glass windows and red-velvet-covered pews and hanging art-nouveau chandeliers. People filed into the church dressed to the nines, and the crowd was there not to see a spectacle but because they really wanted to honor Brown. There was no media circus, and no one was allowed to use flash photography. When the service began, the minister asked everyone to stand and cheer for Ruth Brown, which we did, and when the noise would die down a little, he had us cheer and clap even louder. It was amazing. I can't write this without name-dropping, because Bonnie Raitt got up and spoke about how Brown had been like a mother to her. The First Lady of Motown and later Stax singer and lead singer for Ray Charles' Raelettes, Mable John, got up and spoke about how, on the night of her first appearance at the Apollo theater, Brown took her home, opened her closet, and told her to pick out as many dresses as she liked, because if she was going to be performing at the Apollo she needed some new gowns. Little Jimmy Scott, at age 84, got up and sang one of Brown's favorite hits, "So Long," and sounded like solid gold. Others from Broadway and beyond sang, spoke, told happy stories and not-so-happy stories, including one about how Brown, having not received royalties for her music, had to work as a maid to put food on the table for her children and would hear her own songs on the radio in houses where she was mopping the floor. But then they spoke of how, in later years, she worked relentlessly to reform the music business to make sure this didn't happen to anyone else. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were there. Paul Shaeffer was there, albeit late. Ben E. King was there. There's no telling who else. The service lasted two-and-a-half hours, and when we left the church building, snow was falling in Harlem. There is indeed some kind of point to this. I know it sounds cheesy, but for those two-and-a-half hours, it was like being in a civilized world. For that period of time, there was no war in Iraq and no need to wonder why on earth there even is a war in Iraq. There were no insane plans by an insane man to send more young people over to that insane war. There were no presidential candidates shrieking about this or that. There was no poor little Miss U.S.A. going into rehab for drinking too much. There was no Orange Alert or Red Alert or protecting oil rigs or nonexistent weapons of mass destruction or bombs or kidnappings or lies for political gain or people eating cockroaches on television or commercials advertising crap no one really needs or computer viruses or Hummers or really bad singers making fools of themselves or people listening to Britney Spears. It was absolutely civilized. It made me wonder if people who don't pay attention to what's going on the world because it is just too depressing might not have the right idea. That used to drive me crazy, but somehow it's starting to make sense. And it was great to see such a service for a real legend. The older I get, the more it seems like everything in American culture is totally fleeting, without any real merit, and usually just plain bad. I know I sound bitter, but when I think that someone like the aforementioned Britney Spears can sell millions of records while Ruth Brown mops floors, I get a little queasy. But hey, that's just me.

Add a comment