The Queen of Beale Street has died. Ruby Wilson — R&B singer, Memphis nightclub fixture, and Bluff City Media personality — died Friday afternoon at Methodist South Hospital. She was 68.
Ms. Wilson had suffered a heart attack on Saturday evening, according to her manager, Rollin Riggs of the Resource Entertainment Group.
"Ruby had an extraordinary gift that entertained hundreds of thousands of people. She left an indelible impression whether you saw her perform for three minutes or three hours or 30 years," said Riggs. "She had a fan base that is literally worldwide. She was always so proud to represent the blues and represent Memphis and its great musical contributions."
"I think Ruby was one of the greatest ambassadors for the renaissance of Beale Street starting in the early '90s to today," said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitor' Bureau. "She was truly the Queen of Beale. She welcomed visitors and locals alike with such a sense of passion, enthusiasm and really captured the soul and what makes Memphis so special."
Born in 1948 in Ft. Worth, Texas, Ms. Wilson began singing at age 7 in her church choir. She got her professional start backing gospel legend Shirley Caesar during a summer tour as a teenager. Ms. Wilson eventually moved to Memphis in 1972 to further her career.
Although she would go on to record 10 albums during her career — including projects for Mississippi R&B label Malaco — Ms. Wilson largely established herself asa live performer at various venues in and around Beale. "She played The Peabody for years, Club Handy, Club Royale, the Hawaiian Isle," said Riggs. "But when B.B. King's Blues Club opened up on Beale in 1991, that really became her home."
Ms. Wilson would become a beloved presence at B.B. King's and its sister restaurant, Itta Bena. Her work on Beale and exposure to international tourists would help take her around the world. Ms. Wilson would tour Asia, be given residencies at venues in Switzerland and New Zealand, and appear at festivals in Italy and Ireland.
"It never mattered what gig she did or where it was," said fellow singer and Beale Street performer Susan Marshall. "Ruby's strength was in reading the audience and reaching out to them and inviting them to be part of the show. That's why people always had a great time listening to her. She really knew how to involve the audience and bring them into the experience. That's why she was the Queen."
In addition to her musical career, Ms. Wilson appeared in a number of films over the years, with small parts in "The Chamber," "The People vs. Larry Flynt," "Cookie's Fortune," "The Client," and "Blacksnake Moan," among others. She also appeared in several television commercials.
In 2009, Ms. Wilson suffered a stroke, but she recovered and returned to performing the following year. In 2010, she was inducted into the Black Business Directory's African-American Hall of Fame. Ms. Wilson was also given a brass note on the Beale Street Walk of Fame and a W.C. Handy Heritage Award for
Lifetime Achievement, among other honors.
“I am saddened by the death of my friend Ruby Wilson,” U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn, said in a statement. “Ruby was a sweetheart of a human being. She was always smiling, upbeat and caring for others in addition to being a fabulous talent who sang of, for and about Memphis. She had a phenomenal life.”
Ms. Wilson leaves four children, Shallisa Alexander, Stacey Ragston, Keith Moseley, and Kenneth Moseley; a sister, Hattie Davis; four brothers, Earnest Wilson, Charles Wilson, Ocie Wilson Jr. and Herman Wilson; 12 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren