There’s a clip from 1988 of Ruby Wilson singing "The Thrill is Gone," at the Peabody Hotel with B.B. King and Rufus Thomas. When Ruby steps up to the microphone B.B. steps back. “You think I'm gonna sing behind that, you're crazy,” he says, getting out of the way. And who can blame him? Wilson who passed Friday, Aug. 12, following a severe stroke, was a one woman wall of sound. Her voice could be a precision tool or a wrecking ball, and when even B.B. yields the floor, it’s not hard to see how she earned her reputation as the Queen of Beale.
Wilson, a 40-year veteran of the Memphis nightclubs, grew up in Texas where she worked in the cotton fields as a laborer, picking and chopping the stuff. Her mother was a maid, and the director of her church choir. Her father was a self-employed handyman, mechanic, and friend of guitarist and Federal recording artist Freddie King. Between the two parents Wilson was firmly grounded in gospel and blues traditions and she started singing in public when she was only 7-years-old. By the time she was 15 she was touring as a backup singer for gospel star Shirley Caesar, and by the time she was 20 she was singing with B.B. King, who called her his goddaughter.
Following advice given to her by Isaac Hayes Wilson moved to Memphis in the early 1970’s, and went to work in the Memphis City School system as a kindergarten teacher. She wrangled 5-year-olds by day and continued to pursue her career as a singer at night, performing at a club called The Other Place on Airways. She soon became a fixture on Memphis’ club scene, playing all over town in venues like Club Handy, Club Royale, Rum Boogie, Mallards, Alfred’s, Silky’s, Neil’s, Bosco’s, and Itta Bena to name only a few. She appeared in several films, including Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan, and performed on stage with Beale Street Ensemble Theatre, a summer stock company working out of Southwest Tennessee Community College.
Wilson toured the world numerous times. She has played for presidents, prime ministers, princesses and Queens. She performed alongside artists like Willie Nelson and Ray Charles, and recorded 10 solo albums.
She was also a survivor who reclaimed, not only her speech, but her ability to sing and perform following her first stroke in 2009.
The thrill may have gone away when B.B. passed last year. But, as anybody who ever partied with Ms. Ruby on Beale knows, now it's gone away for good.