Allow me to submit that I am among the last generation of mixtape makers. I am twenty-seven, and I've logged the necessary hours at the foot of a stereo, notebooks and CDs and records and other cassette tapes spread on the carpet before me. I believe that mix-making, like sausage-making or woodwork, is an apprenticed skill. If you don't agree, try listening to the iPod playlist of a person who has never hovered over a "dub" button before.
I learned from masters—that is, usually (older) young men with better breadth of taste, or young women who were more earnest or experimental; I've even inherited mixtapes, recordings that were never meant for me. I can count on one hand the most influential mixes I've received, starting at age sixteen. Luckily, none of these were curated by boyfriends—just by masters.
I still make mixes, but because my time has come too late, I don't even use CDs anymore. I make easily downloadable .zip files, simple creations whose very name betrays the swiftness of their export. All the same, I take great care in making them, with file-prefixed sequencing and hand-selected artwork. Yes, I want you to look at your iTunes display and see a picture of the girl in the unicorn tanktop with her boob hanging out because I put it there. Because, for you, this song will forever be inextricable from that boob; it is my stamp of ownership.
When I make you a mix, I am telling you everything I know about you. I'm presenting a record of our best conversation, our most awkward kiss, and, sometimes, the unconfessable sins I've committed. The things dark and so heart-gaspingly honest, I find I'm unable to describe them with my own facile language.
On that note, frankly, it's hard for me to tell you about Ruby Andrews. In a way, she has served, of course without her knowing, as my muse and my interlocutor. When I accepted this assignment, I realized that I would have to cradle the phone against my ear and bear witness to the normal, unglamorous story of a person whose career I didn't really want to know about, because it was an intangible something about her that I admire. You see, every mix has at least one gem—it has the one jewel of obscurity or ecstasy that the rest of the mix revolves around. Ruby was mine.
Ruby Andrews was born Ruby Stackhouse in Hollandale, Mississippi, the daughter of a scoundrel-seeming man from New Orleans and a rural Mississippi girl. She was raised by a sympathetic aunt and uncle, with whom she moved to Chicago in about 1952.
She attended Hyde Park High School and didn't sing much, despite having learned how in church, as many of us do. One of her classmates, Geraldine Hunt, was already in show business, with a hit record. This is the only hint Ruby gives as to her early music-career envy. Apparently, she acted on it, by insisting on performing in the Senior Varieties, a talent show the school held every spring. She won a standing ovation.
After stints sneaking into the famous Sutherland Hotel with a young pre-pop-starlet Minnie Riperton, go-go dancing, and singing jazz, Ruby was introduced to the producer of Zodiac Records, Ric Williams, while dancing at the Club DeLisa in Chicago's South Side. This was 1966. She renamed herself after her favorite actress, Julie Andrews. She cut "Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over)," penned by fellow Mississippi refugee Jo Armstead, which, in reaching No. 9 on the r&b charts, became her biggest hit. She temporarily relocated to Detroit to record for Zodiac, and this is where her best body of work as we know it hit acetate.
The majority of her Zodiac sides are credited to Fred Bridges, Richard Knight, and Robert Eaton, known as The Brothers of Soul, though Ruby says it was really all the work of Robert Eaton. They're complex and, at times, unusually structured ballads. The drunken-funk quagmire of "You Ole Boo Boo You" is one of these. The earnest orchestral exclamation "Just Lovin' You" is another one. And the empowered-woman Dear John-jam "Tit for Tat" is also one from this era.
According to Ruby, the backing band on those Zodiac discs is the legendary Motown house band, The Funk Brothers. Ruby would spend her days at the illustrious industry-hangout The 20 Grand Club, and around two or three in the morning, head down to the studio to cut some clandestine singles. Reason being, Berry Gordy was so protective of his patented Northern Soul sound that he refused to allow The Funk Brothers to sit in with anyone else. Occasionally, Ruby says, there would be Gordy-dispatched spies who would come and patrol the studio in the middle of the night, and the band would shut off all the lights while the engineer greeted the spy with "What are you doing here? Nothing's going on"; waiting until he drove off. Then they'd get back to business.
A Brothers of Soul original, "You Made a Believer (Out of Me)," is a study in compact power and perhaps the strongest demonstration of her voice. It's a hearty voice without being exactly sexy, oaky in the way that some frivolous people might describe a whiskey. It's not a seduction song as much as a howl of irrepressible joy. A commandment.
I was introduced to this song through the emcee Q-Tip's 2008 solo album, The Renaissance. His track "Won't Trade" practically recaps the entire first verse, though awkwardly truncated in parts to accommodate his flow. I found the unadulterated Ruby version on a Brooklyn-based DJ's blog. The song itself is such a treasure that from the very first listen, I began waiting for the right mix to wield its power.
Not long after this introduction, I became romantically interested in someone I'd known for many years. We began a fairly dedicated long-distance e-mail flirtation and I eventually decided to make him a courtship mix. I was going to offer a little sweet grade-school-style gift to him, hoping, at the very least, to catch him off guard. The only problem was, well, he was one of those aforementioned mixtape masters. I was his apprentice.
When Zodiac floated in the early 1970s, Ruby went abroad for a while to perform in a stage show in Paris. She traveled through Detroit around 1976 and met some producers who persuaded her to record a disco record with ABC. Ruby's reaction, even now, to her disco record is tepid at best. She wasn't too into the sound, but she wanted the work. The arrangement yielded Genuine Ruby, which really is a fine disco album, with her looking all pensive and willowy on the cover, like a black Marlene Dietrich in a polyester chemise. ABC Records folded within a year.
After that, Ruby discoed some years away in California, then found herself returning to Chicago. She cut a blues album with the madman/virtuoso-producer Swamp Dogg in the early '90s, though their sessions were fraught with miscommunication and ego clashes—Swamp Dogg told me she's been mad at him for fifteen years. When I ask her why, Ruby laughs her gauzy laugh and says, "Oh, I get mad at everybody. Swamp Dogg's a genius." The collaboration yielded at least one regional hit: Ruby says whenever she plays the Carolinas, all they want to hear is her bawdy aubade, "Footprints on the Ceiling."
She doesn't return much to Mississippi. She's booked a few shows there but never stays overnight. She went back once to see an ill aunt, and says she only felt safe because she had seven men in tow. As a young child in Hollandale, she would sneak out on the porch at night and see crosses burning in the distance. As implausible as this might sound, I invite you to take a moment and consider Hollandale, Mississippi. There was a race-related murder, committed by Klan-affiliated men, as late as 1973. And, disputing the woman's memory or not, she's onto something when she says that she doesn't like journeying there primarily because "there's so much blood in the soil."
Of course, Ruby was upset with Q-Tip when The Renaissance came out. She wants her money like everyone else. I ask if it's at least brought her a new audience, and she says excitedly that it has. She did an interview with a DJ at a West Coast radio station where they claimed young people have been calling up to request her songs. She thinks kids these days turn back to the old stuff because they're seeking a certain romance—they want to express themselves through songs like they did when she was young. As Ruby explains it, if you were mad at your man, you played a record saying "I know that you haven't been doing me right," and if you were in love, you played a record that said, "I'm so into you."
Naturally, I agree with her. "You Made a Believer (Out of Me)" was the third track on my courtship mix. I'm not one known for subtlety. This was an especially, albeit self-consciously, enchanting mix, one that included whispery twee, some charmingly cryptic Arthur Russell, a sultry Gilberto Gil track, and every other intoxicating tone I could find. But Ruby was my rock. About her, this gentleman said specifically, succinctly: "Just terrif."
But did my masterful wooing mix work? Not exactly. There were many reasons this particular liaison wouldn't pan out, not last of which was my devolution into a neurotic teenager, as manifested in my frantic mix-making. I could talk to him about everything, but found it impossible to tell him what I really wanted him to know in any form of communication other than a mix. But, I'm afraid, as makers of mixes, we manage to fool ourselves into thinking that our unburdening is somehow the ultimate seduction. What it's really about, for each of us, is the mania of perfection, and the hunger to be loved for it. Here, I offer you this token I've fashioned with every resource I've got. I've pulled out all the stops. Hear my pleas, feel my voice, let these things move you.
Ruby, for one, changes styles. She sings soul when they want soul, blues in South Carolina when they want the blues, disco in California. Who accepts her for what she's already got? Who is going to love her for just being a voice of rich affirmation, like the voice of a wholly devoted lover? The choice is yours, ultimately, and that's a thing we gift-makers can't control, the most maddening part about it. When will you love us? And—worst of all—if you stopped to love us, would we then stop making gifts?
But, clearly, we have no control over ourselves. I will continue to make mixes and send them out to possibly sympathetic ears at least as much as Ruby Andrews will continue to perform mightily for audiences who may only request one song. Thus is our sad symbiosis. That's right—we depend on each other in this way, the obsessive mix-maker and the obscure soul goddess. After all, there is only one voice that can express what I want to say in exactly the way I need to say it. I needed you, Ruby, and you didn't fail me.