Saturday, October 1, 2022

Goodbye to the Queen of Beale Street

Ruby Wilson, Queen of Beale Street succumbed to heart attack August 12th 2016. Leaves city of Memphis and the blues world in mourning.
Ruby Wilson, Queen of Beale Street succumbed to heart attack August 12th 2016. Leaves city of Memphis and the blues world in mourning.

*It’s just one of the days I never thought I would see.  Although she was fabulous, but weak the last time I saw her, she mentioned that doctors told her that she had a bad heart.  Still there was a trace of wit, and vigor as she anticipated her benefit concert, which was just two weeks away.

Her music that day was a dozen or so CD’s in a bag, much too modest for a diva of her statue to possess.  It’s the irony of her greatness, that one so exquisitely talented could also be so humble and gracious to make the best of things.

On many occasions over the years when I went to see her perform, I would needle through crowds of people from everywhere in the world.  She had made them feel so good with songs like “Let The Good Times Roll,” “Hootchie Cootchie Woman,” “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” or my all time favorite Ruby Wilson rendition of “Down Home Blues.”  When I finally got back stage to hug my mama Ruby, often times the dressing room accommodations were a far cry from where you would expect to see anyone who had earned the royal distinction of a “Queen.”

Some months ago I was appalled that she was searching for  a place to park her car prior to her arrival for her standing gig at Itta Bena’s upstairs from B.B. Kings on Beale Street.  Surely I had heard her wrong when she told me that the new management had re-assigned her parking spot close to the building and door and non-existent ramp accessible for the handicapped.  Mama Ruby still got around, but with assistance from her walker after rebounding from a stroke a few years prior.  When it was show time, she never disappointed.  Ruby performed all around the world as the undisputed Queen of Beale Street.  Her 5 octave range entranced audiences with her wide repertoire of blues, R&B, pop, gospel & jazz. Her humor & commanding stage presence has captivated music fans from the White House to Auckland, New Zealand.  Her voice won her over 25 awards and she also made a splash on television and in films such as Delta Rising, The People vs. Larry Flint and Delta Rising: A Blues Documentary.

It stands to reason that Beale Street will never be the same.  I lament that even more people did not yet know about Ruby Wilson. She could stand with the greatest of the greats, effortlessly.  Now it is probable that she will finally get that permanent place on Beale Street.  My hope is for a statue to be erected in her honor, and maybe an endowment from the city that properly subsidizes the income of Memphis’ music royalty once they have reached their senior years.  Ruby Wilson’s gentle and approachable persona is juxtaposed to many of the so called divas of the day.  This diva was kind, loving and loyal, not scathing of others whose talent paled in comparison to hers. Ruby Wilson was a big encouragement to me as I scaled through one contest after another while representing Memphis in the 1980’s for many organizations.  The most noted were Miss Black Memphis, Miss Black Tennessee World and Miss Black World.  She claimed me as her child and I accepted her as my showbiz mama! Ruby was among the delegation of elite visionaries (Kenneth Porter, George Barnes, Jordan Bobby Brown, Chuck Scruggs, Chuck O’Bannan, Karen Moore, Lulah Hedgeman, the Ford family, Erma Clanton & Bernard Roberson) who shaped my being and sent me off to Hollywood with the tools to succeed.  I will never be the singer that mama Ruby was, no one can.  But her music, her grit and effervescence rings in me.  Amidst working in digital media, business and education, I will try to echo whatever I can when it’s time to showcase my sultry jazz style.  I wrote a song in her honor and the other matriarchs that have shaped my life.  Should you hear “Mothering Spirit” (L. Shelby & W. Daniels), she is the “Ruby” who is named in the song.

Consider yourself blessed and lucky if you ever had a chance to witness this woman in action.  So on the occasion of my last visit with mama Ruby, it was at Starbucks at the Memphis & Mississippi state line.  Just off the highway we met there just days after the burial of my four tiny baby cousins in a case that cut to the core of Memphis.  She cried tears from her heart as she sat before a beautiful huge bouquet of mixed flowers left over from the 4 little angels.  I insisted on sharing them with someone in the land of the living, while they could smell them. As my cousin Kay and I were helping her back into her SUV, folding the walker into the back seat, a young Caucasian woman recognized her and beamed with joy as she asked Miss Ruby to pose for a picture.  We hugged and off I went with fliers for her upcoming benefit concert.  Little did I know that this would be our very last time together. I did not want to believe it at first, and I certainly did not want to hear any of the usual responses from well meaning friends at a time like this.

It seems that Queen Ruby Wilson has indeed left the land of the living.  Her passing on Friday, August 12th 2016 made the news in the New York Times, The LA Times, Billboard, The Root and more.  Ruby Wilson is a real unsung hero in the music business, a legend, a vocalist, a blues dynamo and an entertainer who could stand on par with Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle and any other star among us.  The city of Memphis mourns, and on Friday, August 19th after her funeral services at Mount Vernon Church Westwood, a parade down Beale Street occurred in her honor.  When you heard Ruby Wilson sing, you just did not want the show to end.  As it is now, she always left us wanting more, just one more song, one more curtain call, but alas, the Queen of Beale Street is gone.

To her children, grandchildren, managers, band members and countless friends and fans, thank you for the gift of such a wonderful being who showed us by how she lived just how to let the good times roll. She has truly left this reporter in the mood named by her first single on Malaco Records, “Bluer Than Blue.” She mentored many artists, often calling them up on stage with her.  Surely I have been groomed by one of the best.  On this day, I am in Canada where the show must go on, but surely with Mama Ruby being gone, I’ve right a right to sing the blues.

More history on Ruby Wilson is noted by the Memphis Blues Society and The History Makers.

There is a Ruby Wilson Museum, inside Dreamland 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 or visit the website: Dreamland is also on Facebook.


LaRita Shelby
LaRita "Jazzy Rita" Shelby is a broadcast media & marketing professional. She serves as VP of Business Development & Special Projects at Additionally she is an actress, singer/songwriter who has appeared on TV and in film. LaRita has an undergrad degree from LMU in Los Angeles and an M.A. in Media & Communications Psychology from Touro University Worldwide.




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