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Image: Ruth Brown
Stuart Ramson  /  AP
Ruth Brown shot to stardom in 1949 when her recording of the ballad "So Long" became a hit. Her soulful voice produced dozens of hits for Atlantic Records, cementing the then-fledgling label's reputation as an R&B powerhouse.
updated 11/18/2006 11:04:45 AM ET 2006-11-18T16:04:45

Ruth Brown's recordings of "Teardrops in My Eyes" and "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" dominated the rhythm-and-blues charts in the 1950s and earned her the nickname "Miss Rhythm."

But her other nickname might as well be "Miss Survivor" for persevering through the highs and lows of a career spanning six decades.

Brown died Friday of complications from a stroke and heart attack at a Las Vegas-area hospital, said Lindajo Loftus, a publicist for the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, which Brown helped establish. She was 78.

"Ruth was one of the most important and beloved figures in modern music," Bonnie Raitt said in a statement. "You can hear her influence in everyone from Little Richard to Etta (James), Aretha (Franklin), Janis (Joplin) and divas like Christina Aguilera today."

"She was my dear friend and I will miss her terribly," Raitt said.

Brown shot to stardom in 1949 when her recording of the ballad "So Long" became a hit. Her soulful voice produced dozens of hits for Atlantic Records, cementing the then-fledgling label's reputation as an R&B powerhouse.

Trained in a church choir in her hometown of Portsmouth, Va., Brown sang a range of style from jazz to gospel-blues in such hits as "5-10-15 Hours" and "Teardrops in My Eyes."

But as R&B fell out of style in the late 1950s and other artists took over the charts, Brown was forced to find other work. She worked as a maid, school bus driver and teacher to support herself and her two sons for the next decade and a half.

Brown enjoyed a career renaissance in the mid-70s when she began recording blues and jazz tunes for a variety of labels and found success on the stage and in movies.

She won acclaim in the R&B musical "Staggerlee" and won a Tony Award for best actress in the Broadway revue "Black and Blue."

She also played a feisty deejay in the 1988 cult movie "Hairspray." A year later, she won a Grammy for best jazz vocal performance for the album "Blues on Broadway."

Brown continued to perform and record in her later years, becoming a popular host of National Public Radio's "Harlem Hit Parade" and "BluesStage."

She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

She became a prominent advocate for the rights of aging R&B musicians during her long struggle to recoup her share of royalties from Atlantic. Her effort led to the formation of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to providing financial and medical assistance, as well as historical and cultural preservation of the musical genre.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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