Tuesday, June 15, 2010

TNS African-Americans In Country Music Week- Artist Spotlight: Ruby Falls

All this week, That Nashville Sound is running a series of columns on the African-American experience in country music. This column is brought to us by a guest writer, Pamela E. Foster, Communications Dept. faculty member at Tennessee State University. Foster just might be the world’s highest expert on the subject, authoring two books including My Country: The African Diaspora’s Country Music Heritage and My Country, Too: The Other Black Music.

Ruby Falls has been the most successful black woman country performer to date, with her mellifluous voice taking her to the Billboard country singles chart nine times between 1974 and 1979. Her biggest hits were “You’ve Got To Mend This Heartache,” which peaked at number 40 in 1977 and “I’m Getting’ Into Your Love,” which peaked at number 56 in 1979. Falls was also nominated as country music’s Most Promising Female Vocalist in 1975 by country industry trade media. She recorded on the 50 States Records label and also found success in her stage shows. In the late 1970’s, she was touring through the Atlas Artists Bureau with Grand Ole Opry star Justin Tubb. She also performed with such country greats as Faron Young, Jeanne Pruett, Del Reeves, Narvel Felts, and Dave & Sugar. She additionally got significant Nashville area and national promotion on such television programs as the Ralph Emery Show, Nashville Today, Good Ol’ Nashville Music and Music Hall America.

When Falls died in Nashville at the young age of 40 of a brain hemorrhage in June 1986, she was touted by the media along with Linda Martell for becoming one of the first black women to find significant success in country music. In a brief retrospective nine years after her death, Nashville’s major daily newspaper, The Tennessean, proclaimed, “Along with other successful black artists of the period, such as Charley Pride and Stoney Edwards, she helped illuminate the black community’s long history of artistic contributions to the country.” Tubb told the media after her death that “She was the one of the best friends I ever had. Ruby Falls made everybody feel good that she was around.”

Born as Bertha Dorsey in January 1946, on a farm near Jackson, Tennessee, Falls spent her early years primarily picking cotton, tomatoes and strawberries. She dreaded her days in the field at the hand of a strict grandmother, who was her guardian. For refuge, she listened to the radio a lot at night, particularly to country music heard frequently on station KLAC out of Gallatin, Tennessee. The sounds she heard prompted her to dream of a singing career. She began that career singing in churches, in schools on talent shows and at local social events as a teenager.

After high school she moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, took voice, dance and charm lessons, and turned professional in early 1960’s by becoming lead singer with the group Harvey Scales and the Seven Sounds. The group travelled all over the country and performed country, pop, and rock in such places as Las Vegas and New York supper clubs. Then she joined a rock and jazz band whose club dates were typically closer to home. Then she decided to concentrate on the music she enjoyed most and moved to Nashville. There she was discovered by Johnny Howard, who signed her to 50 States in 1974.

She took the name Ruby Falls from one of Tennessee’s natural treasures- a cavern that is 1,100 feet below the surface of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, is the deepest cavern in the United States and boasts the highest underground waterfall open to the public. “It’s like a dream come true,” she says in a publicity brief, about her success as Ruby Falls. “I get to thinking about everything good that’s happened to me since I moved to Nashville and sometimes I get so excited I feel I sing in my sleep every night.” Of her move to Nashville to concentrate on both singing and writing country, she adds, “It made sense. There’s a lot of country girl left in me and I guess it shows in my music like it does in my talking…I love music and I love people, so my main goal is making music that people will love. I want to do my very best all the time so people will love me.”

After pounding the Nashville pavement and landing a recording contract, Falls found that having records out in the public and getting touring dates was not enough to bring her what she wanted. She wanted more. She wanted to catapult her career to the next level. A grand opportunity to just that came to her in 1976 when she won a slot to perform before thousands of country radio on-air personalities and executives from around the country. Gathered in Nashville for their annual industry convention known as the Country Radio Seminar, these are the people who somehow had to become attracted to Falls and be part of an overall effort to promote her and her music if she were to become a true star. But the opportunity didn’t open the doors she had expected, and by the time of her death she was disgruntled at not having done better in her career and had taken a traditional job at a computer firm.

Falls did not blame people’s reaction to her race for her not reaching the heights she had dreamed of, and she had earlier vowed to keep trying to reach her career goals in every way she could think of. “Everybody’s been real nice to me,” she said in a September 1977 Essence magazine article. “I’ve never had negative incidents on the road. If I did, I wouldn’t pay them any mind…I want to be a star. No one ever told me that it was gonna be easy. I’m gonna hang on in there for as long as it takes to make it.”

1 comment:

  1. I live in Milwaukee where Ruby started out. I would love to find her album, Sweet Country Lady. donaldewert80@gmail.com