Sunday, March 14, 2004

Ruby Wright will live on in the echoes of her music

Cincinnati 101

Cliff Radel

She sang the perfect Christmas song. That's what thousands of Cincinnatians thought.

The carol is a slow, wistful piece of longing called "Let's Light the Christmas Tree." The singer - Ruby Wright.

She died Tuesday, two months and one day after her 90th birthday.

"Mother always wanted to live to 90," said Susie Reisenfeld, the eldest of her four daughters. "She got her wish."

Wright sang of holiday wishes in "Let's Light the Christmas Tree."

She started the tune in a clear, flowing tone: "Soon the Christmas bells will ring throughout the world again."

Her smooth, soothing vocal contained a few overtones of Doris Day, a bit of Ella Fitzgerald and a whole lot of Ruby Wright.

Wright's recording of this ballad sold 250,000 copies in 1958. Back then, those were phenomenal figures. Forty-six years ago, a local record was a big hit if it sold 50,000 copies.

"Let's Light the Christmas Tree" was no ordinary local record. The tune was written by Ruth Lyons and appears on the album Ten Tunes of Christmas, reissued on CD in 1995 as The Christmas Music of Ruth Lyons. The disc is still available via WVXU-FM, (513) 731-9898.

Lyons was a legendary Cincinnati broadcaster. She ruled the local airwaves with a brand of programming that was live and lively, unscripted and original. Reaching a wide swath of the Midwest, she interviewed everyone from celebrities to farmers and hawked everything from soap to singers on her noontime variety show, the 50-50 Club.

Wright sang on the 50-50 Club for 20 years. From 1958 on, she closed the first holiday show of every season with "Let's Light the Christmas Tree."

"No one could do that song like Ruby," said Mickey Fisher, the retired coordinator of the Ruth Lyons Children's Christmas Fund. "She made it her own."

Lyons wrote the song in 1943. She composed it driving on Central Parkway on her way to work.

One line from the wartime song resonates today, with American troops in harm's way around the world, just as it did in 1943. Wright flavored that line with a bittersweet feeling as she sang:

"Somewhere across the snow, hearts can still be lonely, longing for those they love, for those so far away."

Wright never talked with her daughters about this song.

"Mom didn't talk about her approach to singing," said Cindy Hoeffel, the singer's youngest daughter. "She just sang."

Wright sang on TV and in the house. Mornings, she woke her girls with "God Bless America."

Some may see in Wright's passing only a fading from view of a memorable era in Cincinnati.

Look again.

That era and Wright's memory live on. As long as there is a song to sing. And a Christmas tree to light.


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