Ella Ruth Piggee was a beautiful girl with a strange name, but it was her smoky, belting Blues that made her a favorite lounge act. She was a song temptress, an entertainer through and through, and she was just beginning to hit it big when she passed away in 1988 from colon cancer. At the time, she was living in San Diego, California, where she had just begun work with Fattburger. Her golden throat, which she proudly modeled after Aretha Franklin, was captured one last time on the band’s 1987 release, Good News. These are a few of the things Ella Ruth’s brother, James Piggee, remembers.
Fellow classmate and eventual musical collaborator, George Davis (IBHOF, 1999) also has quite a few memories. “She was part of Success Records,” Davis says, explaining that, back in the early 1960s, a couple of KIOA disc jockeys formed a record label and agency for local acts. “One of the first groups she sang with was The Martinels,” Davis says. “She sang with Gail Ashby, the mother of one of the girls in TLC. She did a lot more of the Bluesy stuff, kinda raspy-voiced,” Davis recalls. “One of my favorites was ‘Baby Think It Over’.”
Davis missed the years his longtime friend had participated in The Blyn Tones and The Extensions. “I was drafted for Vietnam,” he says. “But when I got back, we sat down and had this conversation. I’d asked her how long she thought she would stay in the business? She said, ‘Until I’m 45 or so.’ We figured if we hadn’t made it by that time, it was probably time to look into something else.” That was about the time Ella Ruth died.
More inclined to play lounge acts solo or with another pianist, Ella Ruth had long been singing before her older brother started paying attention. “I was probably 21, 22, the first time I saw my baby sister sing,” James says. “I had to get up, go to the bathroom. I had tears comin’ outta my eyes. It was so beautiful.”
Although Ella Ruth had always been involved in church and school choirs, when she matured she became a prominent figure on Center Street. “She liked playing the smaller clubs,” Davis says, adding that she favored the more refined side of Blues. “One song she really liked to play and sing was an old song by Ray Charles, ‘Drown in My Tears’.”
“Boy, she had IT,” James adds.
Ella Ruth is survived by her brother James, mother Doris and sister Arvene. Older brother Claude passed away three months ago.
– Sarah Hankel
As published in the Des Moines CityView · 1/16/2002
www.dmcityview.com – reprinted with permission