Ms. Brown, whose long career began in the late ‘40s, died in Las Vegas, where, after a fallow period during which she struggled for work, she began a comeback in the mid-'70s. A stage career began when, in 1975, she played gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in a musical about the civil rights movement called Selma. Soon after, she took on singing gigs in Las Vegas, and, in 1982, accepted a role in the 1982 Allen Toussaint Off-Broadway musical Stagger Lee.
Three years later, she appeared in Black and Blue at the Theatre Musical de Paris in Paris. When it transferred to Broadway, Ms. Brown went with it. New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote, "Ruth Brown, the rhythm-and-blues chanteuse, applies sarcastic varnish and two-a-day burlesque timing to the ribald Andy Razaf lyrics of 'If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' on It.'"
The show ran for 829 performances and Ms. Brown—along with co-stars Linda Hopkins, Bunny Briggs, Savion Glover— won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
She made one more Broadway appearance, in the short-lived 1983 musical Amen Corner. She continued to appear on the stage sporadically, starring in Triplets, The Diva Musical at New Jersey's TheatreFest, a 1998 blues revue in which she appeared with Carol Woods and Angela Robinson.
Following the success of Black and Blue, Ms. Brown resumed her recording career, putting out "Blues and Broadway," a 1989 album which won a Grammy Award for best jazz vocal performance, female. She was also a radio host on the public radio shows "Harlem Hit Parade" and "BluesStage." The singer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Ms. Brown was also the original Motormouth Mabel in the John Waters film "Hairspray," which later inspired the hit Broadway musical. She was born Ruth Weston in Portsmouth, VA, on Jan. 12, 1928. Like many of the soul singers of the rock 'n' roll era, she learned to sing in church, at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where her father directed the choir. She ran away from home at 17 with trumpeter Jimmy Brown, and took his name when they married. (The musician, it turned out, was already married, but Ruth Brown kept her new name anyway.) She later sang with bandleader Lucky Millinder. Her big break came, when, while singing at the Crystal Caverns in Washington D.C., disc jockey Willis Conover recommended her to Atlantic Records.
Ms. Brown became Atlantic's star act and was the best-selling black female performer of the early 1950s. During this time, she picked up many nicknames, including "The girl with a tear in her voice" and "Miss Rhythm," and Atlantic became known as "The House That Ruth Built." Among her hits during this period were "So Long," "Teardrops From My Eyes," "I'll Wait for You," "I Know," "5-10-15 Hours," "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and "Don't Deceive Me." She had 16 top 10 blues records including five number ones.
By the 1960s, however, the hits came to an end and she was all but forgotten, living on Long Island and working as a teacher's aide.
"Music is the greatest healer in the world," she told USA Today in 1997. "Sometimes, I'm very tired when I go on stage. But … all in all, I'm fine. Every day I wake up and if my name is not in the obituary column, I go to work."
Ruth Brown is survived by her sons Ronald Jackson and Earl Swanson of Las Vegas, and four siblings: Delia Weston of Las Vegas, Leonard Weston of Long Island and Alvin and Benjamin Weston of Portsmouth.