Monday, February 12, 2007

R&B = Ruth Brown...Brangelina move into Matassa's old Nawlins studio haunt


The Grammy awards attempted to do some sort of weak R & B tribute that is getting almost universally panned by the armchair critics association...

I'll throw myself in with that bunch as well...

Who cares if Chris Brown has a sea of orange sweatshirted goons that stomp on command...

Maybe some TV producer thinks that's the "Rhythm"...but someone tell those assholes at NARAS/CBS that the B stands for "Blues" not Bad, Boring or Banal...

You know it's band when even the funk authorities at the So Cal's conservative Orange County Register have got complaints about too many weak Eagles tribute tunes and
"... that ridiculous medley that ran from Smokey "Robot" Robinson to Lionel "Hello!" Richie to Chris "Has Jacko Joined Slipknot?" Brown, who hardly merited such a pyrotechnics-laden entrance."

I guess seeing the musical tribute to James "I'm Black & I'm Proud" Brown being done with nary a mention of his name by anyone except a few pix & clips and Christina Aguilera singing "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" was beyond sorta short shrifted...

But what would anyone expect...

They had the cracked out looking Black Eyed Peas posse give Booker T & The M.G's some sorta lifetime achievement honor. I wouldn't actually call it an honor, as the producers of these shows seem almost embarrassed by the presence of older musicians and tend to graze past them so fast with the cameras that if you blink you'd miss their "appearance". So went blindingly fast went similar "tributes" to The Doors and Grateful Dead etc as if the network was afraid a Justin Timberlake fan might ask his parents who the grey haired people awkwardly waving from their seats were.They are treated worse than guests at any church social or union hall, except these are supposedly men & woman who've made some sort of huge contribution to their art but aren't even allowed to speak.

I was bored watching the endless parade of pablum that is the Grammy Awards on Sunday night when I finally saw the face of Cosimo Matassa appear. He was lumped in a split screen photo with Stax co-founder Estelle Axton and songsmith Stephen Sondheim who were all receiving some sort of Trustees Award.

Matassa for those not in the know was a seminal figure in the history of rock n roll, particularly that of New Orleans origin. He retired from the rock n roll scene to help manage his family's other Nawlins legacy, that being Matassa's Market @ the corner of St. Philip and Dauphine St in the French Quarter.

A recent edition of New Orleans music journal Offbeat magazine reports that

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt
"have bought the building that once was the site of Cosimo Matassa’s Recording Studio—the building where Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, Chris Kenner and Irma Thomas worked their magic. Several significant hits were recorded in this building including, “Walkin’ To New Orleans,” “I Like It Like That,” It’s Raining,” “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and “Mother-In-Law,” to name a few.

“That’s where my last French Quarter studio was located,” says Matassa, who will receive NARAS’ Trustees Award this month. “I owned the two buildings next door and then moved into that building around 1959. It was an old avocado warehouse when I bought it. I think I paid something ridiculous for it like $30,000. It was really just one big empty room with no heat or air conditioning. "

The home Matassa once recorded in at 521 Governor Nicholls Street has 4 bedrooms, 6 baths and according to previously published listing info features include a library with custom shelves, five fireplaces, a built-in wide and flat screen TV, and a second-floor landing with two Oriental silk lamps and a bank of French doors. Other features include ornate wood columns in the formal dining and living rooms, gauzy silk drapes framing floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room, a three-story guest house, and a gourmet kitchen with a Viking stove and hood, two ovens, a moisture-controlled warming tray, a Viking wine cellar, a SubZero refrigerator, a cappuccino machine, and a large butcher’s block island with an undermount porcelain basin...

Somehow I doubt ol' Cosimo Matassa kept the place quite in that style when he was making 45's outta there over 40-50 years ago. Another legend about the place is that it is haunted, and not just by the spirit of Professor Longhair. One New Orleans ghost guide goes as far as to say that back in the 1800's, that during efforts to save the building, volunteer firefighters found some gruesome crime scene evidence in the attic.

" According to several accounts, dead slaves were chained to the walls, but some were still alive and housed in cages, starved or maimed by medical experiments. One man had been surgically transformed into a woman, and a woman's arm and leg bones had been broken and reset at odd angles. Another woman's skin had been peeled off, while the lips of a third were sewn shut. A few had been dissected, with their organs still exposed. Scattered around the room were pails full of body parts, organs, and severed heads."

Or maybe that was another big house on the same block they were describing, y'know all look sorta spooky & similar in that part of the Vieux Carre...

Speaking of death, I was sorta shocked out of my stupor by a picture of Ruth Brown flashed during the closing farewell montage to all the musical figures who'd passed since the last Grammy telecast. I guess I missed that news flash around Thanksgiving last year...

Although she certainly was no spring chicken, I had no idea she'd left us, apparently passing last November at a hospital near her home outside las Vegas.

It seemed ironic that so many clapped on the telecast as empresario Ahmet Ertegun's picture was shown, yet so few responded to hers.

How many label monkeys & artists in attendance knew that his record label Atlantic's early success was so due to her, it was for awhile in the 50's referred to as "The House That Ruth Built". Brown was the most commercially successful act at Atlantic between 1949 and 1962. Yet, afterwards she spent many despairing years in a lawsuit with Ertegun's company lawyers to get the proper money she & other acts were owed.

Sadly, one of the things she's to be remembered for, will not only be her onstage wildness, joy & passionate R&B singing, but her hard battle for royalty reform. She testified not only onstage to enthralled audiences as a bluesy chanteuse, but before Congress, where Brown brought attention to the despicable practices of record companies that had left so many early rhythm and blues pioneers basically out of the loop & impoverished.

Ruth herself was tough and ended up scrapping between gigs and supporting herself over the years as a teacher's assistant, domestic, and school bus driver when show biz related offers would not come calling. Up until this fall she was regularly playing gigs weekly in a Las Vegas lounge alongside her 78 year old husband. In a recent interview she told the writer she was aware one of her old tunes was in a new commercial.

"They used "This Little Girls's Gone Rockin" for the new Hummer commercial,
...I am waiting for the check. (laughs raucously)"

Despite her levity, she paid the heavy price of paving a path as a woman in a male dominated industry, and was given less pay and less respect along her way to the top...and the slide back down to the bottom. Her efforts eventually resulted in renumeration for herself and other artists, and to the formation of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.

Aside from her legal battles, her contributions to American music were many, including her success being essential in helping break a guy named Ray Charles, who once played in her band and would open shows for her.

Ruth Brown, known as "Miss Rhythm" was a top concert draw during her heyday, with tunes that spent 149 weeks on the R&B charts from 1949 to 1955. Ruth had sixteen Top Ten R&B chart records that included five Number 1's. Yet, she was eventually chased out of the biz and dropped by the early 60's when she became pregnant by Clyde McPhatter and could not tour to support the release schedule determined by the Atlantic label.

In the 70's work was hard to get, although Redd Foxx helped with her financially and got her parts on his TV show, and some nightclub & theatrical work. After a role in the ill fated sitcom Hello, Larry dried up her career renaissance finally began in earnest on Broadway. She finally won a Grammy and a Tony from her soundtrack work related to her starring role in "Black & Blue" a stage musical.

By the early 1980's when she obtained an attorney, she mentioned that record stores were full of her reissues, yet no royalty checks had been sent to her since the mid 60's. She started her campaign to get what the industry owed saying of her battle
"We never wanted charity. We only wanted what we had earned.”

She toured sporadically throughout the late 80's & early 90's while contracted to Fantasy Records, and wrote an autobiography of her troubled career in 1996 called "Miss Rhythm". She was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and became a popular host on two NPR shows ("Harlem Hit Parade" and "Blues Stage").

Here's a clip of her in her early 50's hey day...

A whole new generation knows her from Broadway productions and later as DJ "Motormouth Mable" from John Waters' cult film "Hairspray" with whom she appeared alongside Ricki Lake, Debbie Harry and Johnny Depp.

Ruth Brown in Hairspray

Above image courtesy the Cinematica website whose poster Jette Kernion also had time to mention upon the passing of the late Ruth's B-day that:

If you want to see Ruth Brown onscreen and singing, rent Lightning in a Bottle, where she sings to a playful Bill Cosby.

One movie not listed in Brown's filmography, sadly, is the upcoming John Sayles film Honeydripper, which wrapped last month. Brown had originally been cast in the film as an aging singer named Bertha, but became too ill to travel to the Alabama production. She died on Nov. 17 from complications due to a heart attack and stroke. However, according to an interview from last August, she did record some songs for the Honeydripper soundtrack, so even if we won't see her onscreen, I hope we'll hear her voice.

Ruth is also featured in a few documentaries including "Better Late Than Never" and an older look at R&B that was on PBS in the late 80s called "That Rhythm, Those Blues"...

Ruth Brown - So Long
(her 1st Atlantic hit recorded while she was supposedly on crutches after a car accident in May 1949 backed by guitarist Eddie Condon's band featuring Amos Milburn on piano)

Ruth Brown - Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean

one of her biggest hits for Atlantic...

Vive La Ruth Brown... a very funny, tough, passionate & talented lady whom I never had the chance to see live ...

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