Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tragical Mystery Song

Some months ago, I wrote a lengthy piece about the kiddie song »On The Good Ship Lollipop«. I argued there that the song, innocent as it seems at first sight, may have a hidden dimension which already has proven attractive to subversive artists, but which still awaits detection by minds of a more bourgeois inclination. Now, I recently came across another version of the song, recorded in 1965 by no one less than Ruth Brown. But why, for all heavens' sake, should an established r&b-artist the like of Ruth Brown waste her voice and talent on such a ditty? I thought about it, did some research, and eventually understood that an answer to this question must take several things into consideration.

»... blues belters Big Maybelle, Ruth Brown ... after they wailed
at a "down-home" soul session« (JET Feb. 27, 1964, p. 66).
Most importantly, we have to consider at what point in Ruth Brown's career she went into the studio to record this kiddie song. It was towards the end of '64 or the beginning of '65, and her career was stalled by then. Her name still rang with the many hits she had had during the '50s (famously making Atlantic »the house that Ruth built«), but Atlantic dumped her in '61. She then recorded for Philips, Decca, Brunswick and, finally, Mainstream; she charted the last time in '62.

What happened to her career between 1964 and 1966 can easily be gleaned from the following quotations (in chronological order):
»YES, SIR, THAT'S MY BABY ... (2:10) - Sensational comeback for Miss Brown here. Side has a very contemporary sound ...« (Billboard, Feb. 22, 1964, p. 3)
»Singer Dee Dee Warwick, who used to work as a background singer on recordings for other stars, stepped back into her old role recently for friend Ruth Brown when the latter singer recorded some new sides.« (Jet, March 12, 1964)
»Mainstream is being developed by owner Bobby Shad as a class album line, with singles strictly promotional in nature ... The new pop product features ex-r&b vocalist Ruth Brown ...« (Billboard, Feb. 13, 1965, p. 30)
»A new and more interesting Ruth Brown emerges on this disk [i.e. Main- stream # 56034]. Well known as the top-selling rhythm and blues vocalist, she sheds the blues mantel for smooth, sophisticated ballads.« (Billboard, Feb. 20, 1965)
»Blues shouter Ruth Brown gave a successful performance at local Playboy. ... Miss Browne's routine is based on degrees of the blues ... She is a straight- forward performer, avoiding gimmicks with a slight vibrato helping to achieve a comforting effect« (Billboard, Jan. 15, 1966, p. 18)
»Folks who reminisce "what ever happened to Ruth Brown, Frankie Lymon, Clyde McPhatter ... etc.?" should be pleased to know that these and other stars of a few years ago appear at the Apollo beginning Dec. 9« (Jet, Dec. 15, 1966, p. 64).
The picture emerging from those quotations is quite clear: Already in February 1964, Ruth Brown was accorded a »sensational comeback« which at the same time insinu- ates, between the lines, that before she was no longer a relevant star. Note also that her record is praised for its »contemporary sound« (which again insinuates, willingly or not, that before her music was out of touch with contemporary taste). The notice from JET (March 12) stresses that she had recorded »new sides« and props this up with the mention of Dee Dee Warwick. The two reviews from Billboard (Feb. '65) put Ruth Brown in the pop field and describe her as an »ex-r&b vocalist«, insinuating that she had become someone else by now. This is made more explicit in the second review where her art is called »new and interesting«, underlining the fact that she has »shed the blues mantel« which is the same message all over again: Ruth Brown has reinvented herself and left r&b behind. Alas, when success did not come, she was in 1966 re-packaged into the r&b-artist viz. »blues shouter« mould, only to finish up towards the end of the year in a list of »stars of a few years ago«, stuff to reminisce about: »What ever happened to Ruth Brown«? And so, in 1966, she was back being an old-fashioned »blues shouter« after she already had been called a »blues belter« in a JET-issue of 1964 (see the pic above), right when she was about to start her comeback. If you look at the pic above, you also note that Ruth Brown is shown together with Big Maybelle, and this is highly emblematic after all: Big Maybelle was another »blues belter« of days past and »ex-r&b vocalist« whose comeback failed in the '60s.
* * *
Ruth Brown performing at benefit show
at Statesville Penitentiary, Aug. 1963
Several record companies after 1962 struggled to get Ruth Brown back on the charts, and the latest effort for a long time to come was made by Mainstream Records in 1965. This effort was doomed, however, and her »comeback« faltered. The above-quoted passages tell the story.
     Ruth Brown described the mid'60s as her »wil- derness years«. She had kids to look after, and in June 1965 married a second time (the police patrolman W. C. Blount). In her autobiography, she wrote about her Mainstream album (entitled Ruth Brown '65, nicely advertising her »contemporary appeal«, and released in February '65):
»A mercurial little guy named Bob Shad signed me up for an album he called Ruth Brown '65. I was impressed with the trouble he took and the instrument- ation he used ... There were two Nellie Lutcher tunes, "Hurry on Down" and "He's a Real Gone Guy," and a slow, dreamy version of the old Shirley Temple classic, "On the Good Ship Lollipop."« (Ruth Brown with Andrew Yule: Miss Rhythm. The Autobiography of Ruth Brown, Rhythm and Blues Legend, New York 1996, p. 165.)
For the rest of it, Ruth Brown passes much of the '60s over with silence in her autobiography. As for the album Ruth Brown '65, I won't go into details (if inter- ested, see here and here). Frankly, I don't think the LP does contain anything near a song which could qualify as an authentic ear-catcher in 1965. And I have been musing, so far in vain, what was in the minds of Bob Shad and those responsible at Mainstream Records when they signed Ruth Brown. Mainstream Records, founded in spring 1964, was basically a Jazz label. In February 1965, Mainstream was reported being »in switch to pop« (see Billboard, Feb. 13, 1965, p. 30), and a spokesman of the label mentioned the new recordings by Ruth Brown explicitly in this regard. Thus they wanted to release »pop«, but what they did release was anything but.

This brings us back to the ditty »On The Good Ship Lollipop«. Mainstream had chosen it, together with »Hurry On Down«, for the single to promote the album (incidentally, it was to be Ruth Brown's only single for the label). What we have in the version as recorded by Ruth Brown is an arguably over-orches- trated Bigband- Blues adaption of the song. She herself called it »slow« and »dreamy«, and I am at a loss of what to call it. Certainly, Ruth Brown's version must not be included among the song's (potentially) subversive readings. But it nevertheless is interesting for what it is: Ruth Brown's tragical mystery song of 1965 when a producer's whim and a stalled career led her to apply her vocal artistry to this tune.

Ruth Brown: »On The Good Ship Lollipop« on Mainstream # 611 (1965):


  1. The intro is killing me because piano sounds so familiar - like something out of Dinah Washington songbook but I can't put my finger on it - "I thought about you" or one of those ballads. However it's firm look back at previous decade and not a "modern" Ruth Brown although they wanted to point her at different direction. Similar to Nat Cole's widow Maria Cole who was recording string-based huge-orchestrated album in 1966 when Tina was already breaking Wall of sound.

  2. I agree, we have Ruth being behind the times here, musicallywise. Just think what not only Tina T. but all the British bands were turning out by 1965 and '66. And I love the hint at Dinah's songbook, now we'll have to try figuring out what tune is echoed here!