Always with an upbeat attitude and sharp sense of humor, Ruby Glover worked for more than 50 years to keep jazz alive in Baltimore. Her work continued long after many of the city's greatest musicians left to find fame and fortune elsewhere.
Not only was Glover a witty performer with an impeccable sense of timing and rhythm, but she also was a tireless educator and mentor to the city's burgeoning jazz artists. She conceived and helped establish the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition, taught a jazz-appreciation course at Sojourner-Douglass College and led tours along the fabled stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue that featured clubs and bars where Glover honed her craft in the 1940s.
"She always shared what she had learned. She never came off as threatened by younger talent," says Baltimore singer-actress Lea Gilmore. She met Glover 21 years ago at Arena Players on Eutaw Street, where the young performer was a cast member of Ain't Misbehavin'.
"She was always in my corner, telling me, 'Girl, you can do this.' She's the reason I have the nerve to sing in public."
Those who knew Glover - who died Saturday afternoon after having a stroke onstage at East Baltimore's Creative Alliance Friday night - says she wouldn't have wanted to go any other way. During the show benefiting the House of Ruth, Glover suddenly turned her back on the audience. She and her backing trio - longtime pianist Charlie Etzel, bassist Ernie Barnes and guest drummer Kent Gregory - had just finished the second number, the swinging "Day By Day."
Then, the hand Glover held the mike with started to tremble. She mumbled something out the side of her mouth before collapsing. Two audience members near the front of the stage rushed up and caught her.
Paramedics took her to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. She died there the next afternoon, surrounded by family and friends singing "This Little Light of Mine." Glover was 77.
"Those people in the audience were privileged to have seen her perform for the last time," says Baltimore jazz veteran Ethel Ennis. As jazz-singing upstarts in the late 1950s, she and Glover became good friends. "Spiritually, we were very, very close. And I know that's the way Ruby would have wanted to go - right there on stage. You talk about a life performance? Well, that was it."
Since Glover's mother, Inez Edwards Bell, was also a singer and regular performer in Baltimore in the 1920s and '30s, the artist's childhood on the city's east side was filled with music. Famed musicians - Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Sparrow - were frequent neighborhood visitors. As a teen, Glover started performing on Pennsylvania Avenue. Recording opportunities came. Columbia Records - the same mighty label that released hits of Sarah Vaughan, Glover's idol - showed interest in the late '50s. But Glover was never comfortable leaving home for long. Although she shaped her craft for years, she was a dedicated mother of five and proud grandmother of nine.
"She traveled a lot when we were growing up, but family was first," says Glover's youngest son, Aaron Perkins, a detective in the arson unit of the Baltimore Police Department. "She was my hero, my mentor, my confidant. She was a magnitude of inspiration."
He says he's amazed at how his mother was able to juggle so many duties. Besides performing and teaching, she worked for 30 years as an administrator for Johns Hopkins Hospital. Two weeks ago, Glover served for a second year as a judge at The Sun's UniSun Gospel Celebration at Morgan State University.
Twice-divorced, Glover raised Perkins and his four siblings (Carla Logan, an educator with Baltimore's public schools; Ira Glover, a chef and singer; Toni Glover, who works for a medical billing company; and Dana Perkins, a cosmetologist in Ohio) mostly with the help of their maternal grandmother.
"My mother was the woman of steel. You didn't think anything could happen to her," Aaron Perkins says. "But she always made sure we had what we needed, including hot meals. She could whip up a stew in no time, and I loved her coconut cake."
The singer's strong maternal instinct extended to her fellow musicians.
"She would oftentimes donate her fee but made sure her musicians were compensated," says Barnes, Glover's bassist for 12 years. "She was always cognizant of her 'babies,' as she called us."
"She showed no signs of slowing," Barnes said. "Up until the very end, she was the consummate professional, this wonderful light. You can't replace Ruby Glover."