Ruby Andrews: Gem Among Giants
by David Ma
The second time she walked by Stevie Wonder, he remembered her perfume from earlier. One night, she hid with the Funk Brothers in the middle of the night so Barry Gordy’s spies wouldn’t see them recording outside of Motown. In Milwaukee, where she met James Brown, he rented an entire hotel floor to be—in her words—a “stupid show-off.”
Born Ruby Stackhouse, later known as Ruby Andrews, her voice propelled her into a heyday rich with ridiculous stories and towering figures; a time when the greatest of the greats, the Marvins and the Arethas, were either in full stride or about to be. Ruby knew them all during her ascendance, and they also knew her as a performer, a dexterous singer who’d flutter over delicate arrangements or belt over drums with bombast. Her run on Zodiac Records—sixteen singles and two LPs—is a glowing marriage of catchy hooks and soul stompers.
Ruby was just a teenager at the start of it all, cutting a few records with the Vondells before moving onto to her solo career. Her scope of work at first was unfairly huge; in addition to performing each night, she was essentially also a tour manager, dealing with venues, accommodations, bookings, handled the money—all of it. “I was just a bit underpaid for everything I did on those early tours,” she says, laughing.
At one point in her career, she was called the “Female James Brown” for her onstage energy, after all she was a nightclub dancer for many years in between. And later, like Brown, she dabbled in disco and kept the industry side close to her even when performance work was paltry. She now owns Genuine Ruby Records, a pleasant and fitting bookend after decades of work on both sides of the music business.
She doesn’t sound as forceful these days as she did on “Casonova (Your Playing Days Are Over).” Nor is she punchy as she was on “You Made a Believer (Out of Me),” an elating single Q-Tip subsequently sampled for “Won’t Trade.” But the business acumen and fire behind the little girl who orchestrated full-on tours never waned. Says Ruby: “I never saw a penny from anybody for using that song. Cool, Q-Tip, but where’s my money?”
Now, 72, Ruby punctuates her sentences with light, warm laughs. A lifetime in the music game, a career that began in her teens, she eventually learned legalities behind music licensing in order to collect past-due funds rightfully owed to her. Here, Ruby Andrews walks us through her history and recalls stories from her incredibly charmed life and career.
You originally debuted as your real name, Ruby Stackhouse. Why the name change?
It was just a professional thing. I was always teased about Stackhouse, and people would always get it wrong; Stuckhouse, Stickhouse, on and on. [laughs] I saw Julie Andrews on TV and really loved her and felt she had class and style. So I thought I’d take her last name.
Years later, I was in St. Louis and there was a journalist who came up to me and said, “Do you have an uncle named Houston Stackhouse from Mississippi?” I asked my mom and she said yeah. And his grandson years later met me at a music blues festival, and it was great. A simple name change can do so much.
How long had you been in Mississippi before moving to Chicago? How old were you then?
I guess, I was around four, because I think we got there before ’52. I was leading the senior choir at church at age three. My whole family sang except one sister; actually, she howls. [laughs] My mom sang in church; my brother joined the choir as soon as he left the air force.
You didn’t just sing but led the choir?
Yes. I must’ve been singing in the womb. It was ’61 or ’62, and I was singing in high school in a thing called “Senior Variety,” and I was in the choir with Minnie Riperton. People swam and did activities but we mostly sang. We were sort of the loners. [laughs]
Tell us about your relationship with Minnie.
I was the boisterous one, and she was the quiet one. There’s a place called the Southern Inn Lounge, and we used to sneak in there to see Curtis Mayfield and Redd Foxx. And we got to hang out with them too, which was very exciting for a couple of high school–aged girls.
Talk about your time working with the Vondells and how that all came about.
We were fantastic. A guy named Bill Cody took us on and taught us choreography, but I couldn’t sing and dance at the same time. [laughs] In fact, I talk to many members of the Vondells. But Bill was the one who introduced me to them.
Your first records were for the Kelmac label. What do you remember about “Please Tell Me,” and how old were you when you cut that record?
Oh you know how teenagers are. [laughs] I was actually dating the drummer! He came up with the music. I had a small band and doing things around Chicago to kind of get started.
Talk about your time at Zodiac, which probably produced your most popular material. How did that relationship start?
One of the DJs from WBON in Chicago was playing some of my records at a club called the Club De Lisa. They were still teaching me to be graceful onstage and showing me how to ballroom dance and stuff. My manager brought in a guy named Rick Williams, and it started there. Maybe a half a year later, we got with Jo Armstead. Jo also wrote for Ashford and Simpson. She sat down and wrote “Casanova” in about five minutes. From there, we went to Detroit and met Mike Terry, who was the arranger who got the Funk Brothers and the Brothers of Soul.
One of your biggest hits was “Casanova.” Talk a bit about that and what went into the recording.
I still have the same feeling when I hear it. I hear remakes of it and think they should leave it alone! It’s a classic! But around here in Chicago, you can still hear it on the radio, and that makes me very happy.
Your voice has been described as “powerful” and “aggressive,” but you can also be soft and subtle. How did you initially find your range?
I always tried to put emotion into the song. If it’s a smooth track, I’ll be smooth; if it’s rough, I’ll be rough. And if it’s jazz, I’ll be a bit jazzy on it. So it’s about matching the track. I wouldn’t be all rough on top of a smooth track. I think that’s a good thing to be able to switch up your vocals like that. Sometimes, I don’t even think I sound like myself. [laughs] I love ballads. Before I started R&B, I sang jazz. But there wasn’t any money in it. [laughs]
What’s your personal preference, belting out vocals or singing softly?
It’s all about the gig or the track. I love Wes Montgomery and Coltrane and all those cats, so I love to sing jazz, although I don’t as much anymore. I also love blues, and singing at blues festivals is always fun.
Other memorable Zodiac recordings were “Everybody Saw You” and “You Made a Believer Out of Me.” What do you remember about the making of those songs?
“Everybody Saw You” was written by Robert [Eaton and Rick Williams], and they all portrayed a time in my life. My boyfriend at the time thought he was a little pimp, [laughs] and people would tell me all the time that they had saw him with other girls. What I remember most about the song was that I was stuck in Detroit because the Funk Brothers couldn’t leave town. So a bunch of us artists just stayed around the spot where I also stayed at. Mike Terry was there. Don Davis was there. George Clinton was there. This was the 20 Grand Hotel where the Motown cats would hang out at. Joe Tex, the Supremes, all those people. We just hung there and didn’t have to go anywhere.
Talk about “You Made a Believer Out of Me.”
I was just too old to believe anyone at that point. [laughs] Just kidding. I had been with Robert [Eaton] for eight years by then. And at the end of this Palmolive dish detergent commercial, the lady would say, “You made a believer out of me,” and that’s where we got it from. I stayed in Detroit for a while because everyone was there, and we were having so much fun. Robert wrote that one for me while we hung around the piano.
It was later sampled, notably by Q-Tip. Have you heard his version?
Nobody told me, because when I was on MySpace, Q-Tip wrote “Thank You Ruby” on my page and I thought, “Who the hell is this?” His face wasn’t on MySpace, just a picture of his sampler. Then people started saying on MySpace that they wouldn’t have known about the song if it weren’t for Q-Tip. I haven’t seen a penny from anyone for using that song. When I saw it, I thought, “Okay, cool, Q-Tip, but where’s my money?”
Did you eventually get any royalties?
Nothing. As a matter of fact, I ran into this website called WhoSampled and it said the song has been sampled like twenty times in various genres. I guess Q-Tip had told some industry cats that he thought I was dead. But I thought, why didn’t he just check it out beforehand? Because if I was dead, maybe I had an estate? C’mon, guy!
Tell folks who the Funk Brothers were and your experience with them.
They played behind Marvin, the Supremes, everyone who was on Motown. They were the house band. But they would sneak out and do other things when Barry was asleep. [laughs] That’s why all of our sessions were at two in the morning! Barry didn’t want anyone taking his Motown sound, so a lot of the stuff I did with the Brothers was behind Barry’s back! Barry would send out spies to check on us, and the engineer would come to the door and tell them no one was there. We’d peak out the window and start up again as soon as he left. That was great. [laughs] I was about eighteen or nineteen at that time, and it was just so much fun.
Did you know how important what you were doing at the time was? Or were you just a kid having fun?
I was hanging with the guys all the time so I would sit there and listen to them speak about the industry, and I was the only girl. So I would sit and learn. I took all that in, and when I was on the road with the band, I worked with the booking agent and took care of all that business stuff on the road. It was hard work but it was also wonderful.
How was working for Zodiac? You made incredible recordings there that remain some of your most beloved stuff.
It was okay, but no one made any money. [laughs] They all brainwashed us and said, “You only made money on the road and not off the records,” and we believed them. Of course, that isn’t true. These labels all ran business like Barry, but no one really knew. Mel Collins was an owner who did the same thing with his Giant label. But Mel lost it all because he didn’t have the right licenses. And Rick Williams was the same way. We had hit records like Barry, but we didn’t make a single dime.
It’s like that when you’re young and don’t know better. And the people running it don’t even really know! We were just kids out of school who wanted to have fun. No one cared about cash from distributors or anything like that. I know all those things now. If you came out the womb knowing everything, that’d be great!
Talk about your LP Black Ruby and the track “Just Loving You,” which later became a “northern soul” favorite.
I trusted Robert Eaton on this record and ended up singing a lot of stuff I didn’t really like. I could relate to some of the music, just didn’t like it as much as the others. I think we did that record down in Memphis, and Jerry Butler was there. “Just Loving You” was a B-side, and I don’t even know what the record on the other side was! I was with Barbara Acklin there in Memphis, and the record was huge. I didn’t even have the lyrics memorized too well, and they put a mic in my hand and I just kind of sang it [live], and people went nuts! That was the first time I knew how big that record was.
Did you hear the dance version of “Casonova” by Coffee released in 1980 on De-Lite Records?
It’s an oversees group, if I remember correctly. I don’t know what I think of it. Lolita Halloway did a cover of it too. I think it was powerful, maybe too powerful for what the song stood for. The song is tailor-made for me, so you got to be careful what you’re covering. People don’t cover the Dells or Gene Chandler, so that just tells me, if you can’t cover it, and if you can’t do it better, don’t cover it. [laughs] These days, even I can’t do my old songs right, so I think it’s best if others leave ’em alone.
Talk about your post-Zodiac years and your brief stint with ABC Records.
Overall, ABC record was fine. It allowed me to work with Holland-Dozier-Holland again, so that was fun. It was great. I really found out through them what it was like to be a star again. They had a limo and a personal driver. I met the president and vice president of the company and was invited to all the ABC Records release parties. I also ended up working with Ronnie Dunbar, who wrote “Band of Gold” for Freda Payne.
You eventually married a member of the Chi-lites, is that correct?
When the industry crashed, I was still looking for a decent deal. This was between 1992 and 2003 and I had two deals then. And, yes, during this time I ran into my husband, who was part of the Chi-Lites. And he said, “I’ve been stalking you for forty years.” We married in 2003, and we were together until his death. He was the light-skinned good-looking one. [laughs]
Tell people about Genuine Ruby Records. How did that start and how it is running a label these days.
It’s something I got while I was with ABC. There was an LP called Genuine Ruby, and this stemmed from that. With Tommy Hunt, we got a first single, and I produced it. I’m still getting the project together. So I’m waiting on publishing, the barcode, and all that stuff. I’m glad I learned all this stuff when I was younger; that’s why I know what I do now about making records.
Through the years, were there any incidents that you would say stalled your career? Any setbacks you can recall?
Rick blackballed me. No one knows about this, but the distributor here was one of the biggest in the Midwest. And a lot of stuff came through Chicago. Then one day, the IRS came looking for me, and I said, “Do you see how I’m living?” I started pointing fingers and told them exactly who they should go after—not me. I was able to close down some of these distributors, but a lot of companies blackballed me as a result.
What would you say is the highpoint of your career?
When “Casonova” was released and I heard it on the radio for the first time. I was lying on the floor half asleep and it came on. And from there I started working right away at the Howard Theatre in Washington. There, I met so many other artists and friends—James Brown, Aretha [Franklin], Joe Tex, Marvin Gaye, Stevie [Wonder]. That was the very highest and happiest point of my life.
Share with us some stories of what else was going on around this time in your life.
There are so many! But I remember learning a lot from them. I would stand and watch. Aretha once said, “Are you watching?” and I said “Yep!” I worked with Stevie and Marvin too. The Madlads, Marvelletes, Gladys Knight, and Marvin was in the show with me too.
There was an afterparty one night in the hotel that the label put together. Some guys came down to me and said, “Stevie wants to meet you.” And I joked, “Have him come to me!” So I met him and he asked if I’m coming to the party; I said yeah. As I walked in, he was sitting at the bar, which was kind of by the door. I walked right pass and he said, “Ruby, come here!” I said, “How did you know?” And he said, “I smelled your perfume.” We always had banter. Those kinds of things is what I loved about that time—just great relationships.
I eventually went to California because I wanted to leave ABC and go to MCA. I found the lawyers and wanted to be released from my contract. I didn’t want to stay. Everyone, Bobby Bland, Chaka [Khan], and B.B. King went to MCA, and I didn’t want to be stuck there.
What do you remember most about James Brown? What were your interactions like?
We worked together in Milwaukee. Him being the stupid show-off he was, he rented the entire floor of the hotel! He sent his valet down to get me, and I remember being blown away that he did that. He said, “We gotta be comfortable while we workin’.” I learned a lot from James. I was actually called “The Female James Brown” by Billboard that year. I always liked to dance and was a dancer at one time. So when we met that day in Milwaukee, he said, “So you think you’re me, huh?” That’s how we communicated. Lots of jokes and banter. James was like a brother and mentor.
How do you think you compare to your peers? Who else were you a fan of?
I’ve been asked that before, and I don’t think anyone needs to be comparing anything. We all had our own styles. You just go up there and do what you do. No one had to emulate anyone. The only thing I ever directly took from another artist was Nancy Wilson. She taught me how to take a bow. I guess she saw me take bow after a show and I was awkward or something. [laughs] Stuff like that we’d take and learn from each other, but stylistically, vocally, performance-wise, we were all our own.
What’s the most important thing you would say you learned through your career?
Business. What I learned then I use now. My work was with EMI one day, with Sony the next, and you don’t know what’s going on half the time. But I eventually knew exactly what was going on because of all the stuff I went through. It’s because I was young and having so much fun that I never had to look much into it. I always figured that as long as I could record, travel, sing, and bring back a couple hundred bucks, I was straight. I always took care of my brothers and sisters, so I always had phone bills, rent, and real life to work for. I guess, learning to be independent in this life is what I learned most.
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