Singing In Memphis and Touring the World
In Memphis she first sang at The Other Place on Airways Blvd. In 1976, Dave Clark was looking for talent in Memphis. He found Ruby Wilson and offered her a chance to record her first record. She went to Jackson, MS to Malaco Records and recorded “A Man and a Baby Boy”. To-date, Ruby has recorded 10 records. Her latest record “The Best of Ms. Ruby Wilson, The Queen of Beale Street” was released in 2009. The CD was released with sales proceeds benefitting Ms. Ruby’s recovery from a stroke suffered earlier that year. Also in 2009 she released her most recent studio recording “A Song For You.” Her producer (Putnam) helped and inspired Ruby to record the CD.
I asked Ruby if anyone mentored her Blues career, or if any Blues musicians influenced her. She said her determination and will to sing made her career. Muddy Waters and B.B. King were major influences. Ruby said “I love Bobby Rush because he never changes, he’s a phenomenal man.” Blues music took Ruby around the world. Ruby said “I ran with the best, done the best and sang the best Blues music, and I’m not tired yet.” Some of the musicians she’s performed with include B.B. King, Isaac Hayes, Ray Charles, The Four Tops, Al Green and Willie Nelson. Throughout her career she’s performed in numerous groups including: Hot Cotton Jazz Band, Buck Bubbles Express, The Unknown Band, The King Beez, B. B. King All Stars, Ms. Ruby’s Band and Detroit People’s Band.
On Beale Street she first sang at Club Handy. While Beale Street was undergoing urban renewal, she continued there. After the rebirth of Beale Street in the mid-1980s, she sang at Rum Boogie Cafe, followed by Club Royale. She then sang at Mallard’s (Peabody Hotel). In 1992, she started singing at B.B. Kings Blues Club when it opened on Beale. She remembers Albert King performed that evening at the grand opening. Ruby first sang there with the Unknown Band, the first house band that played at the club. She sang with the group for about 4 years. She then sang with the King Beez, then the B.B. King All Stars at the club. In Memphis she’s also sung at Itta Bena, Alfred’s, Silky ‘O Sullivan’s, The Blues Room, In The Alley on Beale, Neil’s, Bosco’s, 50/50 Tower, The Spot, The Other Place, Beale Street Blues Club, Elvis Presley’s (on Beale), Calvary Church, New Daisy and Old Daisy Theatres. On the Casino circuit she’s performed at Sam’s Town and Harrah’s in Louisiana. In Mississippi she’s performed at Silver Star, Harrah’s, Fitz, Horseshoe, Grand, Greenville, Isle of Capri, Hollywood, Biloxi and Gold Strike. Most recently she sang at the Bobby Rush 80th birthday party during the 4th annual Red White and Blues Jam and the 17th Annual W.C. Handy Heritage Awards in Memphis. Ruby has also performed at many private and corporate parties.
Outside of Memphis and the mid-south she’s toured across the United States and been around the world seven times. Some of the many shows she’s performed include New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (2008, 2011, and 2012), Kansas City Chiefs/Royals games, Rance All Tour, Cruise Ship Shows (1982-2008) and Elvis Presley Cruises (2010, 2012). She told me about seeing reindeer in Scandinavia, an 18-day river cruise on the Amazon River and singing at a venue on a mountaintop in the Swiss Alps. Ruby said she had to take a gondola lift to the mountaintop. The altitude was so high, the gondola stopped on the way up to get oxygen for the guests. She recalls seeing a miniature town sculpted out of ice in the cave where they were singing.
An Unforgettable Night in the Mountains
In the 1970s, Ruby and her band Buck Bubbles Express found themselves on a tour van at night driving through the Appalachian Mountains, on their way back to Memphis. The band was made up of eleven white men, half Jewish. One of the guys Barney Dippolito from New York City had a big red afro. Ruby wore a wig of long hair. The van generator went out and there were no headlights to guide the bus on the winding mountain roads. They parked the bus and walked to look for help. They came across a church they thought was for regular black folk. They walked up, opened the doors to go in and to their surprise they saw a full house of white robes and hoods. They had stumbled into a Klu Klux Klan meeting. Ruby told Barney “I hope they don’t turn around and see us. I’m a white girl with long hair and a tan, and you’re a black boy, I can represent you. At the count of 1, 2, 3 we’re going to turn around and run.” With all their “hair” they turned around and ran like lightning back to the bus. Ruby says “We were young, dumb and full of it!” Luck was with them though; they weren’t followed by the KKK. Back at the bus, an army man from Millington (TN) stopped to help. He asked them to follow him closely while he guided them down the mountain road. Ruby says “It’s the most exciting experience I’ve had when it comes to excitement.”
A President, Vice President and Royalty
Princess Diana once gave Ruby a vase. She’s had opportunities to sing for President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. She also sang for Queen Elizabeth of England, the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Prince Rainier III of Monaco & his son (current prince) Albert II. Ruby said she was playing at B.B. Kings Blues Club one evening and Albert II came in. He told Ruby he came to Memphis to find the St. Jude Children’s Hospital and her. He said he walked to the club from his hotel just to see her, he didn’t drive. Ruby was taken aback by this. She danced with Albert II in the club and out on Beale Street that evening.
Ruby told me her most unforgettable show was in Auckland, New Zealand. Leading up to that show, in 1995 Ruby was at Mallards and saw an exquisitely dressed lady. She told her she looked like a cute little queen. She joked and again told her she looked like a cute little queen. To Ruby’s surprise, the lady said she was the Queen of New Zealand. They talked for a while and the queen asked Ruby to come to New Zealand to sing for her. The queen noticed Ruby had an eye on a jade ring she was wearing. The queen asked Ruby if she liked the ring and she said she did. The queen told her she could have the ring. She said this is my promise to you. “I’ll give you this ring if you’ll come to New Zealand and sing for me.” The following year, the queen called Ruby about the trip. On the phone Ruby said “Are the short little lady I saw at the club?” Yes. After a 29 hour flight (including an 8 hour rest in Hawaii), she arrived. While in New Zealand, she was given a car, a driver, a house and a servant that made all of her meals, and took care of the house. During the trip, Ruby said she got cold. The queen told the house servant “Take this woman shopping until she’s satisfied.” New Zealand is a country with 30 million sheep. She found a full length lamb coat she wanted, however she felt the coat cost too much. The house servant told Ruby “You’re to be taken shopping until you’re satisfied.” Ruby put on the coat, and it fit just right. She said I’ll take this. The coat cost $5000. Ruby said “Okay, alright!” She toured the beautiful country, met local New Zealanders and tribal dancers and sang at a Command Performance for the Queen.
In school Ruby was shy and never wanted to be called to the front of the class. She would take an “F” rather than get in front of the class. On more than one occasion she tore holes in her hose so she wouldn’t have to go on stage to sing with a band. Her shyness kept her away from acting in school. She never had training to be an actress. The lure of money and prestige drew her to an acting profession though. In the 1980’s, Blues singer Ms. Linda Hopkins took Ruby to live in Los Angeles. She introduced Ruby to many stars including Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ruby was a regular on the LA strip. She first performed there in a show with Bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon. Later she regularly opened a show with comedian Joan Rivers. Ruby also performed a lot with actress Sharon Glass (Cagney & Lacey). She lived in Los Angeles for 3-4 years, for which most of that time she housesat in a Malibu home owned by the Rolling Stones. Her next door neighbor was Dick Clark; Madonna lived up the street. She thought to herself, “I’d like to keep living in a house like this.” She lived in the house until a strong storm came through and took the back porch off the house. L.A. authorities gave Ruby 3 days to repair the house. The Rolling Stones lived overseas and the long distance from California prevented them from repairing the porch quickly. The home was condemned; Ruby left L.A. and returned to Memphis. On the flight back to Memphis Ruby remembers taking 6 Fat Burgers (L.A. burger chain) with her for friends and family. The burger aroma filled the jet that day.
Ruby’s first opportunity to act in a movie came in 1983. She traveled to Nashville for a casting call for the film “Marie”, which was a story about Governor Ray Blanton. When she got her turn at the casting call, she was asked who sent her, she said B.B. King. They asked who her agent was, she said B.B. King. They asked who represented her, she said B.B. King. She was given the part acting as the wife of a convicted drug dealer. Her part was filmed entirely on location in a prison. The film starred Sissy Spacek and Morgan Freeman. To date, she’s acted in over 10 major films.
- Mystery Man
- Who Killed the Church
- Delta Rising: A Blues Documentary (2008)
- Streaker (2007)
- Black Snake Moan (2006)
- Cookies Fortune (1999)
- The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
- The Chamber (1996)
- The Client (1994)
- Separated by Murder (1994)
- The Firm (1993)
- Heart of Dixie (1989)
Ruby says her favorite acting role was playing Mayella in “Black Snake Moan” starring Samuel L. Jackson. She likes the movie because she could cuss in it. Memphis Director Craig Brewer auditioned her for the role at the bar in B.B. Kings Blues Club. Craig asked if she could cuss. He asked her to say several expletives. He then asked her to say the words in a nasty tone. She did and got the role.
Setbacks and Recovery
In 2009 Ruby suffered a stroke after a New Year’s Eve performance at the Golden Moon Casino in Philadelphia, MS. Afterwards she went through a long recovery and rehabilitation process. She couldn’t talk for 4 months. Although she couldn’t talk, she started writing poems. Each day she wrote a poem based on an occurrence that day; a phone call; listening to someone, etc.
During her recovery she signed a Power-of-Attorney agreement with a local Memphis lawyer to pay her bills. When she was able to return to her home, she found the home had been in foreclosure for 4 months. The lawyer had used Ruby’s money to pay his bills, but none of Ruby’s. The lawyer was nowhere to be found. She lost her home. To this day, the lawyer has not been located.
At this point in her recovery, Ruby says she was crying all the time. She felt sorry for herself knowing where she came from and what she’d been through during her recovery. She would recall the times when she was strapped in a device for two hours at a time in a standing position while she looked out a window and watched cars go by. This was done to help her gain strength in her legs. Whenever she tried to speak, she stammered and couldn’t get any words out. She then cried. She went to the church where Reverend Kenneth Whalum, Jr. preaches. There she received voice lessons from speech therapist Tracy Betha. She had to speak a bible verse without stammering. With training, it took her thirty days to do this. If she ever stammers now while talking she’s been taught to place her finger on a nerve on her chin. This allows Ruby to talk without a stammer. Ruby also went to school for public speaking; she graduated and received a certificate from Reverend Whalum.
Ruby was friends with Sammy Davis Junior’s wife, Altovise Davis. She had a stroke the same day that Ruby did. However she passed away several months later from complications from the stroke. Ruby says she’s blessed that she survived her stroke and with the successful recovery she’s had. She’s now an ambassador for the American Stroke Association. Ruby is currently coaching Ann Peebles and Jackie Johnson, who are recovering from strokes.
After her recovery period Ruby got back to acting. She had roles in “Mystery Man” and the blues documentary “Delta Rising” with Morgan Freeman. She also started singing at Itta Bena restaurant on Beale. She’s now been singing at Itta Bena for 4 years. Ruby is still recovering from her stroke. Her heath doesn’t restrict travel or her ability to sing. She drives everywhere herself. She won’t let anyone drive for her. Ruby says “If I drive my own car and wreck it, I’m responsible. Nobody’s name is on my insurance policy.”
Thoughts about Memphis
I asked Ruby what her favorite thing about Memphis is. She replied “The people and the food. They’re never the same thing. The people are always changing in Memphis. If it’s not here already it’s on the way.” Ruby also said “They (people) come here to learn about me and my fellow musicians (especially females). They come for an education, then they take the music with them, and won’t acknowledge where it came from.”
The Present (2013)
Ruby’s most requested song to sing is her version of “At Last” by Etta James. Ruby has twin sons, Ken & Keith and two daughters Lisa & Stacy. At home she likes to listen to Jazz music on Sirius Radio. Recently Ruby sang at the 4th Annual Red White and Blues Jam. There she honored Bobby Rush and his 80th birthday. She now can be seen signing with pianist Raishene Webb every Thursday evening, at Itta Bena restaurant (above B.B. Kings Blues Club) on Beale Street. On December 28, 2013 she’s performing in Houston, TX with the B.B. King All Stars. With the Creative Aging organization, she sings several hours each week for Sr. Citizens at locations around the mid-south, including the Spring Gate Rehab & Health Care Center. The Sr. Citizens inspire Ruby. She’s currently acting in a role for a local movie titled “Donald”. If successful, it could turn into a series. She also recorded a new single “Sneakin’ Around”. I had the honor of attending the W.C. Handy Heritage Awards on Nov 17, 2013. The highlight of the evening was Ruby Wilson receiving a lifetime achievement award. On the subject of retirement, I asked Ruby if she ever thinks about it, she said “Retiring is quitting, a quitter is a quitter.”
A Quote to Live By
I asked Ruby if she has a motto she lives by: “There are many roads we must travel. In order to accomplish success don’t try just one, check out all of them. You never know what you might find. But while you’re traveling don’t walk in front of me, because I might not follow you. Don’t walk behind me because I’m not a leader. Walk beside me and be my friend. If you walk with me we’ll get there together. You won’t be two steps ahead of me and I don’t plan to be three behind you. We can be side by side. And side by side we’ll get there together.”
Awards & Honors:
- Queen of Beale Street (began 1992)
- Memphis Sound Award for Best Entertainer
- Authentic Beale Street Musician Award
- St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Supporter’s Award
- African American Hall of Fame
- Pace car driver for the Komen Race for the Cure in Memphis
- The Blues Ball Award: Special Achievement (2004)
- K.T. Whalum Jr. School of Public Speaking (2009)
- Ms. Ruby Wilson Day, February 29, 2010
- Afro-American Walk of Fame, Lemoyne Owen (2010)
- The Blue Room (Kansas City, MO), Outstanding Achievement (2010)
- Westwood High School, Thanksgiving Day Celebration, Give Out Food and Sing (2010-2012)
- American Cancer, Heart and Stroke Association, Ambassador (2011-2012)
- 25 Year Community Service, Silver Star News (2011)
- Delta Sigma Sorority, Outstanding Achievement (2011)
- The Trumpet Awards, Atlanta, GA (2011)
- Star Challenge Awards, Outstanding Achievement (2011-2012)
- The History Makers (Chicago, IL), The Story of My Life (2011-2013)
- Special Award from the King Beez, Outstanding Achievement (2012)
- Willie Mitchell Jus Blues Award (2012)
- The Arc of the Mid-South Community Leader Award (2012)
- Oakshire Elementary School, Outstanding Achievements (2012)
- The Stone Awards, Lifetime Achievement (2012)
- Black History Month Outstanding Achievement, Bishop Al Green (2013)
- Networking for Memphis Community Service (2013)
- W.C. Handy Heritage Awards: Lifetime Achievement (2013)
- Member of the Memphis-Shelby County Film & Tape Commission (1995-present)
- The George Klein Show (2010- 2013)
- Ruby Wilson Museum, 4384 Stage Rd., 3rd Floor
- American Stroke Association Ambassador
Ruby Wilson Museum inside AJE Dreamland Productions
Ruby Wilson has collected many items throughout her career. In 2012 Anner J. Echols, a friend (and founder, CEO of AJE Dreamland Productions) offered her space inside Dreamland to setup a museum where she could display some the items she’s collected. On September 21, 2012 the Ruby Wilson Museum opened. Ms. Echols recently invited me to tour Dreamland, the museum and to talk with her about both.
AJE Dreamland Productions “Where Dreams are made Real” has been in business for 26 years. Their motto is “We must impress those who do have a name, and inspire those who don’t.” The company teaches and prepares members for the next level of their entertainment career. Members from teens to adults are coached in production, choreography, stage readiness and image. For musicians, recording services can be available through connections with Ecko Records and Reality Records. Musicians can be coached for all genres of music including Blues. Some of the Blues musicians that have supported or benefitted from Dreamland include: Ruby Wilson, Bluesman EZ Street, Booker Brown, Clara Moore, Dulaa, Jewel J., Lachelle Rea, Lil Howlin’ Wolf, Preston Shannon, Sweet Angel and Toni Green. Other entertainers include Ann Peebles, George Klein, Glen Jones, singer/songwriter Josh Driver, child rapper Lil’ P-Nut, Lily Rubio, jazz musician Mark Baker, Temmora and actor Wendell Kinney. CD release parties are often held at Dreamland.
At Dreamland there is a Theater Room (35-50 people capacity); Production Dream Room; Hall of Dreams; Studio Dream Room and the Ruby Wilson Museum. As you walk through Dreamland you’ll see photos in the Hall of Dreams of those who have had their dreams made real including stars of the past, present and future. In the Production & Studio Dreams rooms you can see photos and memorabilia of the many patrons and entertainers that have visited, supported or been a Dreamland member. Silky ‘O Sullivan was an avid supporter and his photos can be seen in the Theater Room. The last room of the tour is the Ruby Wilson Museum. Inside is 50+ years of her life’s treasures. You can see photos, awards, outfits and other items. The room holds only a portion of her collection.
Ms. Echols also hosts a Dreamland television show locally on Comcast cable TV every Friday evening. The 30-minute show has been on the air for 8 years. Dreamland is looking for entertainers to audition and for entertainment dreams to feature on the show. To audition, or for a chance to have a dream featured on an upcoming TV show contact Dreamland. (See the contact information below).
Some upcoming events at Dreamland include: A day out at Dreamland and Where the Queen Lives (Ruby Wilson).
The Ruby Wilson Museum, inside Dreamland is located at the Raleigh Professional Building, 4384 Stage Rd., Suite 312, Memphis, TN 38128. 1 hour tours of the museum and Dreamland can be reserved Monday through Friday 9am-Noon & Saturdays 10am-5pm. Other tour hours including evenings are available upon request. Dreamland is actively looking for sponsors, partners & supporters. To audition, submit a dream, learn more about Dreamland or to schedule a tour call 901-650-4955, send a message to e-mail address: email@example.com or visit the website: http://www.ajedreamland.co/dreamlandtours.htm. AJE Dreamland is also on Facebook.
On-Line Pages for Ruby Wilson
- Ruby Wilson, Greenville, MS, Delta Blues Festival (2011)
The interview for this story took place November 13, 2013 at the Piccadilly restaurant.
© 2013 Mark E. Caldwell, All Rights Reserved.