Ms. Ruby rules karaoke scene

Singing: At age 89, Ruby Steinbach revs up devoted crowds with her spirit and her rendition of `Born to be Wild.'

July 04, 2000|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The Queen of Karaoke was holding court at the Coyote CafM-i, waiting for "The Hit Man," Eddie Hitt, to set up his music machine and play the first chords of "Wild Thing."

It's the cue for the queen's son to escort her to the front of the Gambrills bar, where Hitt switches tunes and Ruby Steinbach belts out the lyrics telling how she was "Born to be Wild."

And that was 89 years ago.

"It's my theme song," she says, breaking into one of those grins that has padded her legendary status on the Anne Arundel karaoke circuit.

The Steppenwolf biker-rock classic has been her trademark for about five years, since she and son Bob, 69 (who is more partial to singing Prince's "Purple Rain"), added karaoke to their near-nightly music outings.

As for her song, Steinbach says, she just liked it and picked it up. It is the only song she does, and she's been heading down the highway with it - sometimes three times a week at county karaoke hot spots - ever since.

And the queen brings the house down.

"It wouldn't be Friday night if Ruby wasn't here," said Carol Morales, manager of the Coyote CafM-i along Route 3. "All the ladies go, `What does she have that we don't?'"

Steinbach - in her high-necked pink silk shirt, pearl earrings and neat silver hair - doesn't need to work for her standing as the most sought-after woman in the bar. They flock to her.

She sat surrounded on a recent weekly Friday appearance in Coyote country by the people in their 20s and 30s who follow karaoke night, and sometimes Steinbach, from bar to bar all week.

She loves it. "You don't want to be around all old people," she says, sipping a ginger ale.

She reached over to Andrew Cohen, a follower less than half her age who had just walked into the bar.

"I need some smoochin' from you," she said to him, grinning.

Cohen beamed. He had just moved to New Jersey but was back in town for the week and had made sure to stop by the Coyote CafM-i for karaoke night and Steinbach.

"Hey, honey," he said.Cohen joined the table, ordering a pitcher and kissing "Ms. Ruby."

"She's a trip," he said. "I'll be in a group of people, and I'll tell a dirty joke, and she's the only one who'll get it. I didn't even know she could hear, and she'll be sitting over there laughing."

Ruby and son Bob have been hitting the town together for about 10 years, ever since his last marriage went south and the two realized they had a shared taste for nightlife. So pretty much every night Bob drives from his rooming house in Suitland to Temple Hills, where his mother lives with his brother and sister-in-law. And then the two head to the bars.

"We both like the same thing," he said, smiling at his mother. "We like nice people, good food."

Karaoke was a natural step. Both love music, and Bob lists the local bands the two will travel miles for. His mother has been singing since she was a child. She remembers when her father, a printer at the Library of Congress, took her to sing for the president - Woodrow Wilson. She was 5 years old.

She never sang professionally, or tried to, but she would do it here and there, at home or wherever she could go where the music was good and the people were friendly.

She sang through the years as a waitress, as a mother and, since 1977, as a widow.

The crowd has loved it. So much so that a few years ago, she raked in $71 for a performance. (She was wearing a garter that night and had some big fans in the audience.)

"The girl next to me said, `I worked all weekend and didn't get that much,'" said Steinbach, with a laugh that rose above the Coyote CafM-i racket.

A couple of younger women had joined the table, cooing over Ms. Ruby - who was known as Ravishing Ruby before age grayed her auburn hair - and talking about the time she made a Marine blush, or the time some band members kept coming over and dancing with her.

Manager Morales stopped by and asked whether she remembered her birthday cake a couple years back, the one the folks at the Coyote had made for her, with decorative motorcycles.

Soon Hitt came by to perch by her left arm, starting the karaoke evening by crooning a country rock declaration of love to the queen. It was pushing 11 p.m., a little later than the usual starting time, and folks like Ms. Ruby need to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

Like 2 a.m.

"She doesn't get up until noon," Bob said.

Then the chords of "Wild Thing" blast out of the Hit Man's karaoke kit.

"If there are any of you here who ain't seen Ms. Ruby do this, you ain't seen nothin'," Hitt trumpeted. "Here is the queen, the grande dame herself."

And to the cheers and hollers of those in their 20s and 30s who had put down their pitchers and pints to applaud, Steinbach walked up to the microphone and showed like a true nature's child just how she was born.

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