When asked about Ruth Brown – the R&B singer, Tony and Grammy award winner, actress, and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee – some people may draw blanks. However, Sheryl McCallum and David Nehls’ new cabaret show, Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown, will give you a full rundown of Brown’s life in approximately 75 minutes at the Garner Galleria Theatre May 6 through October 15.
McCallum, who brings Ruth Brown to life in Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown, described how she got a better sense of Brown through research.
“I thought I knew Ruth Brown but I only knew a little bit,” she explained. “Doing this research and then going down different rabbit holes, you find out that she was not only an incredible performer, but that she was an incredible woman as well.”
Brown had an extensive catalog of hits with Atlantic Records in the 1950s, from “Teardrops from My Eyes” to “5-10-15 Hours” and “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” dubbing Atlantic as “The House That Ruth Built.”
“The woman was always in a recording studio, I swear,” said David Nehls, who co-created Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown with McCallum. He explained how he and McCallum developed the idea for the production while working on another show.
“Sheryl and I, we’ve known each other for decades,” he said. “We were doing a show right before the pandemic. It was a review of Frank Sinatra songs, and one day, we’re backstage and I asked Sheryl if she was familiar with Ruth Brown, and she was. I said we should come up with something for Ruth Brown, because Sheryl has a sense of energy that’s very similar to her. The sass and the voice and the performative ideas.
“Then COVID came and swiped us,” Nehls added, “but it wasn’t a bad thing because then it got the juices flowing. We started working on it, and the more we started going, the more exciting it became.”
McCallum also recalled how the working model of Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown came to fruition.
“Once I read it, I said to David, ‘I don’t think I want to be her, but let’s get a sense of who she is and I can put it in my words.’” she said.
Nehls reminisced over the time he met Ruth Brown after a New York performance in 1992, an experience that followed him forever.
“I was in New York and I had nothing to do one night, but I saw Ruth Brown was playing,” he remembered. “I went, and she blew my socks off. She did this thing that you don’t see performers do anymore where after her show, she hung out with the audience. She’s like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ ‘Oh, is your kid in college?’ ‘Oh, they got married?’ She knew everybody.
“A friend of mine and I were hanging out at the bar across the street,” he continued, “and my friend sees her coming out of the Blue Note waiting for her car. He said, ‘Come on!’ We ran over and there she was. My friend asked if she could take a picture with us, and even after I said, ‘No, no, I’m sorry to bother you,’ she said, ‘You get over here and you take a picture with me.’ We sat there and we talked to her for a half hour. She was everything you want somebody you respect to be.”
After that, Brown suffered a stroke, and doctors said she wasn’t going to sing again. But Nehls saw her later perform at Le Jazz Au Bar in 1997, and she remembered him on their next encounter.
“She was a little older, and a little rougher,” he said. “She had to sit down, and still did a great show. Comes out afterwards, and she’s hanging with everybody. I had a little thing for her to sign, and she said, ‘I know you! Blue Note!’ I think she loved people.”
The show also features a five-piece jazz band to exhibit a realistic Ruth Brown concert from the 1950s, including Nehls on the keyboard.
“I think we have some killer guys,” Nehls said, “And then we have a lot of substitutes because it runs for six months, so you have a lot of people weaving in and out throughout the six months, because everybody has gigs. Thank goodness. But what we’re trying to do is replicate seeing her in the 1950s.”
Outside of creating her own music, Brown was an advocate for other artists. She started the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1988 to help artists receive their royalties, which for Black artists, was always a struggle.
“[The foundation] was to pay back the money owed to artists of her time who were not paid royalties by their record companies,” Nehls said. “They were screwed all the time out of money. When [the Rhythm and Blues Foundation] was created, it not only gave the money back to these artists, but it also then started to be able to pay for some expenses in their old age, and now their relatives.
“And it also now does an outreach program to schools,” he added. “To expose young people to that music and to that era.”
In the end, McCallum and Nehls hope Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown gives audiences a teaching experience about Ruth Brown and a yearning to learn more.
“I would want them to walk away with a ‘wow’ factor,” McCallum said. “‘Wow’ for several reasons. If they didn’t know her, I want them to ask why they didn’t know who she was before. If they were already familiar with her, I hope they learn something more about her and question how many more unrecognized artists are out there.”
“Yeah, and to cap on that,” Nehls added. “I think people like Ruth Brown are fading in memory. I think we need to respect and remember people like Ruth Brown who came before, because without Ruth Brown, how many people would you not have today singing?”
Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown
May 6-October 15 • Garner Galleria Theatre