Rhythm and Blues

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Rhythm and Blues

The term rhythm and blues was a product of the post-World War II music industry's effort to find a new word to replace the category that had been known for several decades as "race records." First used by Billboard magazine in 1949, rhythm and blues was intended to describe blues and dance music produced by black musicians for black listeners, so that rhythm and bluesoften abbreviated R&Bwas more a marketing category than a well-defined musical style. In effect, R&B reflected the confluence of jazz, blues, gospel, and vocal-harmony group music that took place in cities such as New York, Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, Philadelphia, and New Orleans after World War II. In the 1950s, successful marketing efforts that targeted white listeners made rhythm and blues, and the related category of rock and roll, the most popular music not only in the United States but in the rest of the world as well. Although much rhythm-and-blues music was produced by small, white-owned record labels such as Savoy, Atlantic, and Chessin the 1960s Motown would be an exceptionand was aimed at a multiracial market, rhythm and blues has always drawn its core influences from African-American culture.

The Roots of Rhythm and Blues: Jazz

The most obvious ancestor of rhythm and blues was jazz, which in the 1920s and 1930s was black America's popular music, produced mostly to accompany dancing. In the 1940s many big bands featured "honking" tenor saxophonists who played in a bluesy, at times histrionic style that drove dancers to ever more frenzied steps and tempos. Lionel Hampton's (19092002) "Flyin' Home" (1943), with its famous solo by Illinois Jacquet (19222004), was the model for such performances. Many tenor saxophonists followed Jacquet's model, including Bill Doggett (19161996), Arnett Cobb (19181989), Ike Quebec (19181963), Hal "Cornbread" Singer (1919), and Willis "Gatortail" Jackson (19281987). Important recordings in this style include "Juice Head Baby" (1944)

and "Deacon's Hop" (1948) by Big Jay McNeely (1929) and "The Hucklebuck" (1949) by Paul Williams (19152002).

Another jazz influence on rhythm and blues was the jump bands that were popular starting in the mid-1940s. These midsized ensembles, named for their buoyant tempos, combined the extroverted solo style of the honking tenors with the relentless momentum of shuffle and boogie-woogie rhythms of pianists Albert Ammons (19071949), Meade "Lux" Lewis (19051964), and Pete Johnson (19041967), whose "Roll 'Em Pete" (1938) with vocalist Big Joe Turner (19111985) was one of the first great rhythm-and-blues performances. Tiny Bradshaw (19051958), Slim Gaillard (19161991), and Johnny Otis (19211984), the latter a white musician whose bands were largely black, all led jump ensembles. The greatest of the jump band leaders was saxophonist and vocalist Louis Jordan (19081975). His biggest hits, including "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" (1944), "Let the Good Times Roll" (1945), "Caldonia" (1945),"Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" (1946), and "Saturday Night Fish Fry" (1940), were novelty numbers suffused with earthy humor. Jordan was a masterful saxophonist in the jazz tradition, yet most of his records were carefully composed, and his rejection of jazz improvisation became a major characteristic of rhythm and blues.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, the relationship between jazz and rhythm and blues was sometimes reversed, with musiciansespecially the pianist Horace Silver (1928), who recorded "Opus de Funk" in 1953drawing inspiration from rhythm and blues. In the 1960s, Jimmy Smith (19202005), Cannonball Adderley (19281975), David "Fathead" Newman (1933), Eddie Harris (19341996), King Curtis (19341971), Stanley Turrentine (19342000), and Ramsey Lewis (1935) all performed in the bluesy, funky style known as soul jazz. Herbie Hancock (1940), a groundbreaking avant-garde jazz pianist in the 1960s, went on to experiment with funk music in the 1970s and rap in the 1980s.

Vocal Groups

The vocal harmonizing groups of the 1940s helped develop the heavily rhythmic backing of passionate vocals that characterize rhythm and blues. Some of these groups were called doo-wop groups, after the wordless, nonsense-syllable accompaniments they often sang. The Ink Spots, formed in 1934, were among the earliest important rhythm-and-blues vocal groups, although the group's smooth approach on songs such as "If I Didn't Care" (1939), "To Each his Own" (1946), and "The Gypsy" (1946) was less influential in the development of rhythm and blues than the more heavily rhythmic performances of the Mills Brothers, who had hits with "Paper Doll" (1942) and "You Always Hurt the One You Love" (1944). After World War II, dozens of important vocal groups, starting with the "bird groups," drew heavily from the gospel tradition and dominated black popular music. Groups such as the Ravens ("Ol' Man River," 1946), the Orioles ("Crying in the Chapel," 1953), the Platters ("Only You," 1955; "The Great Pretender," 1956), the Dominoes ("Sixty Minute Man," 1951), and the Clovers ("Fool, Fool, Fool," 1951; "Good Lovin'," 1953; and "Love Potion Number Nine," 1959), and the 5 Satins ("In the Still of the Night," 1956) used simple arrangements and minimal instrumental accompaniment to highlight their passionate, gospel-style vocals. The Penguins ("Earth Angel," 1954) were notable for their juxtaposition of high falsetto with deep bass voices. The Coasters had a more raucous and humorous style than other doo-wop groups, evidenced on "Riot in Cell Block No. 9" (1954) and "Charlie Brown" (1959). The Drifters were hugely popular throughout the 1950s and early 1960s ("Money Honey," 1953; "Save the Last Dance for Me," 1960; "Up on the Roof," 1962; "On Broadway," 1963; and "Under the Boardwalk," 1964).

In the 1950s and 1960s impromptu, street-corner doo-wopstyle singing was an essential part of African-American urban life. Solo rhythm-and-blues singers who drew on gospel, vocal harmony, and doo-wop traditions were among the most popular recording artists of the era. An early member of the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter (19331972), topped the R&B and pop charts with "Without Love" (1956), "Long Lonely Nights" (1957), and "A Lover's Question" (1958). Jackie Wilson (19341984), another falsetto tenor and Drifters alumnus, had a huge following for his "To Be Loved" (1958), "Lonely Teardrops" (1958), and "Higher and Higher" (1959). Ben E. King (1938) also worked with the Drifters before recording "Spanish Harlem" (1960) and "Stand by Me" (1960). Frankie Lymon (19421968) and the Teenagers achieved great popularity with songs such as "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" (1956), "The ABCs of Love" (1956), and "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent" (1956). A doo-wop group that came to prominence relatively late was Little Anthony Gourdine (1940) and the Imperials, whose "Tears on My Pillow" was a hit record in 1958.

Gospel music was a direct influence on many important R&B singers. Sam Cooke (19351964) sang gospel with the Soul Stirrers starting in 1950 and eventually recorded such secular songs as "You Send Me" (1957), "Chain Gang" (1960), and "Another Saturday Night" (1963). Solomon Burke (1936), who recorded "Just Out of Reach" (1960) and "Got to Get You off My Mind" (1965), also sang in a gospel-influenced R&B style. The vocals and even the themes of Curtis Mayfield (19421999) and the Impressions' "I'm So Proud" (1964) and "People Get Ready" (1965) both have strong connections to black sacred music. Al Green (1946), a child gospel sensation later known for soul recordings such as "Let's Stay Together" (1972) and "Take Me to the River" (1973), returned to the church in the late 1970s and has since concentrated on gospel music.


The urban blues styles of the late 1940s and early 1950s, with loud, amplified guitars, anguished vocals, and churning rhythms, are also direct descendants of rhythm and blues. Perhaps the best examples of this influence are Muddy Waters (19151983), Howlin' Wolf (19101976), and B. B. King (1925), all of whom were prominent on the rhythm-and-blues charts in the 1950s. Bo Diddley (1928; "Who Do You Love," 1955; "Bo Diddley," 1955; "I'm a Man," 1955) and Screamin' Jay Hawkins (19292000), who had a 1956 hit with "I Put a Spell on You," represent a less pure blues style that was nonetheless equally influential in creating rhythm and blues. Big Joe Turner (19111985), whose "Roll 'Em Pete" with pianist Pete Johnson is considered one of the founding songs of rhythm and blues, was known in the 1950s for his shouting renditions of "Chains of Love" (1951) and "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (1954), both of which are considered classic examples of a time when rock and roll was virtually synonymous with rhythm and blues. Another early rhythm-and-blues figure was Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup (19051974), a guitarist and singer who was popular throughout the 1940s but was best known for writing "That's All Right" (1946), which became a hit for Elvis Presley (19351977) in 1954.

Along with the Chicago blues style, a different kind of blues, at once more derived from jazz and country music but with the same reliance on electric instruments, exerted a strong influence on early rhythm and blues. T-Bone Walker (19101975), a singer and guitarist who successfully negotiated the boundary between blues and jazz on "Stormy Monday" (1945), had several hit rhythm and bluesinfluenced records in the early 1950s, including "Strolling with Bones" (1950) and "Street Walkin' Woman" (1951). Wynonie Harris (19151969), a blues shouter with a strong Louis Jordan influence, recorded "Good Rocking Tonight" (1948) and had several hits in the mid-1940s. A mellower approach was represented by Roy Brown (19251981), Amos Milburn (19261980), and Lowell Fulson (19211999), whose "Every Day I Have the Blues" (1950) later became B. B. King's signature tune.

An even more restrained, elegant blues vocal style, used by the "Sepia Sinatras," also gained a large following among rhythm-and-blues audiences in the 1940s and 1950s. Nat "King" Cole (19191965) started out as a jazz pianist but achieved his greatest acclaim as a singer, starting in 1950 with "Mona Lisa." Other singers in this genre included Cecil Gant (19151951) and Charles Brown (19221999).

Ray Charles (19302004) is often grouped with blues singers, but his synthesis of many early rhythm-and-blues influences, in particular the melding of sacred and secular black music traditions, is unique. Starting in the mid-1950s, he combined a smooth, almost country singing style on ballads with infectious gospel inflection and solid jazz rhythms on both slow and up-tempo numbers, including "I Got a Woman" (1955), "Drown in My Tears" (1955), "What'd I Say?" (1959), "Georgia on My Mind" (1960), and "Hit the Road, Jack" (1961).

Female blues singers often landed on the rhythm-and-blues charts in the 1950s. Ruth Brown (1928), who worked with Lucky Millinder (19001966) and Blanche Calloway (19021978) in the late 1940s, sang in a jump blues style on "Teardrops from My Eyes" (1950), "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" (1952), and "Wild Wild Young Men" (1954). LaVern Baker (19281997), a niece of the blues singer Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas, 18971973), recorded "Jim Dandy" (1956) and "I Cried a Tear" (1958), both of which were hits on the R&B chart. Etta James (1938), who sang blues for Chess Records, recorded "Something's Got a Hold on Me" in 1962, a song that made her reputation in a rhythm-and-blues vein. Dinah Washington (19241963) had considerable success as a jazz singer before entering the rhythm-and-blues market with such records as "Baby Get Lost" (1949). Washington later crossed over into the pop field with the ballad "What a Difference a Day Makes" (1959).

New Orleans rhythm and blues almost constitutes its own genre, no doubt because of the city's unique confluence of African-American and Creole cultures. Fats Domino (1928), whose first hit was "The Fat Man" (1949), became an archetypal crossover success, whose gently rocking voice and piano-playing on "Ain't That a Shame" (1955), "Blueberry Hill" (1956), "I'm Walkin'" (1957), "I Hear You Knockin'" (1958), and "I'm Ready" (1959) appealed to a large white audience. Other important New Orleans rhythm-and-blues musicians include Dave Bartholomew (1920), Huey "Piano" Smith (1934), Allen Toussaint (1938), Irma Thomas (1941), the Meters, and the Neville Brothers.

Rock and Roll

In the early 1950s, rock and rolloriginally a euphemism for sexwas virtually synonymous with rhythm and blues. By the mid-1950s, as more and more white teenagers began to listen to rhythm and blues, the scope of the term rock and roll expanded and was primarily applied to white musicians such as Elvis Presley (19351977), Buddy Holly (19361959), Roy Orbison (19361988), or Bill Haley (19251981), whose music copied aspects of rhythm-and-blues styles but was aimed at white audiences. However, black musicians remained crucial to the development of rock and roll even after the term was being applied mostly to white musicians. Chuck Berry (1926), whose country-influenced, bluesy tunes were extraordinarily successful with white audiences, exemplified the adolescent themes, rebellious sound and look, and aggressive guitar-playing of early rock and roll. His "Maybellene" (1955), "Johnny B. Goode" (1958), and "Sweet Little Sixteen" (1958) became rock standards almost immediately. This was also true of Little Richard (1932), whose "Tutti Frutti" (1955), "Long Tall Sally" (1956), and "Good Golly Miss Molly" (1958) brought to early rock and roll a frenetic, updated version of New Orleans piano styles.

Chuck Berry and Little Richard were enormously influential in England. In fact, the biggest rock groups of the 1960s, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, rebelled against the bland, staid sounds of white pop rockers like Pat Boone (1934) and Paul Anka (1941) and began their careers by performing mostly cover versions of black rock-and-roll songs. Other rhythm-and-blues musicians who played an important role in the development of rock and roll include Junior Parker (19271971), who recorded "Mystery Train" (1953), "Next Time You See Me" (1957), and "Sweet Home Chicago" (1958), as well as Ike Turner (1931), Jackie Brenston (19301979), Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton (19261984; "Hound Dog," 1953), the Isley Brothers ("Shout," 1959; "Twist and Shout," 1962), and Chubby Checker (1941; "The Twist," 1960). During the late 1960s, relatively few black musicians remained involved in rock and roll, notable exceptions being Richie Havens (1941) and Jimi Hendrix (19421970), who had performed as an accompanist with Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and Ike and Tina Turner (1939) before leading a popular rock ensemble.


By 1964 black popular music had acquired a new name: soul music. There is no clear chronological or stylistic division between rhythm and blues and soul music, but there are some important differences. Soul music displayed a more pronounced gospel influence, whether in up-tempo, unrestrained shouting or in slower, more plaintive styles. Furthermore, soul's general rejection of extended instrumental soloing marked the continuing retreat of jazz as the popular music of the black middle class. Finally, even though most soul music consisted of solo singing with vocal backgrounds, the influence of carefully arranged close harmonies also waned.

It is no coincidence that soul flourished alongside the black pride movement. The music was made almost exclusively by blacks, at first almost exclusively for blacks, and was part of a rising black middle-class culture that celebrated black values and black styles in hair and clothing. In addition, soul's secular stance allowed the music to directly confront political issues central to African-American culture in the 1960s. James Brown (1933), who had been a successful recording artist throughout the 1950s and achieved great popularity in the 1960s with live performances and recordings of songs such as "I Got You" (1965) and "I Feel Good" (1965), forever linked soul music and the Black Power movement with "Say It Loud, I'm Black and Proud" (1968).

Two record companies, Atlantic and Motown, dominated the soul-style rhythm-and-blues markets starting in the late 1950s and defined two major approaches. Atlantic and its Stax subsidiary often concentrated on funky instrumentals. Wilson Pickett (1941) sang with a thrilling gospel feeling on songs such as "In the Midnight Hour" (1965) and "Mustang Sally" (1966). Otis Redding's (19411967) brief career included "These Arms of Mine" (1962), "I've Been Loving You Too Long" (1965), "Try a Little Tenderness" (1966), and "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" (1967). Ballad singer Percy Sledge (1941) recorded "When a Man Loves a Woman" (1966) for Stax. Sam and Dave specialized in energetic, shouting vocals on hits such as "Hold On, I'm Coming" (1966), "Soul Man" (1967), and "I Thank You" (1968). Booker T. Jones (1944) and the MG's personified the Memphis rhythm-and-blues sound on their instrumental hits for the Stax label, including "Green Onions" (1962) and "Hip Hug-Her" (1967). Aretha Franklin (1942) reached her prime at Atlantic in the mid-1960s, when her white producer, Jerry Wexler (1917), encouraged her to return to her gospel roots. She responded by creating perhaps the defining performances of the soul genre. Her majestic, emotional voice made songs such as "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" (1967), "Respect" (1967), "Chain of Fools" (1967), and "Think" (1968) bona fide soul masterpieces.

If Stax and Atlantic musicians cultivated a funky, gritty sound, the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy Jr. (1929), encouraged a sweeter sound, one that came to represent the classic soul sound even more than Atlantic or Stax. Those efforts produced dozens of hits during Motown's peak years in the 1960s by figures such as Marvin Gaye (19391984), Stevie Wonder (1950), Mary Wells (19431992), and Gladys Knight (1944). Important vocal groups included Smokey Robinson (1940) and the Miracles, the Jackson Five featuring Michael Jackson (1958), the Four Tops, the Temptations, and the Supremes with Diana Ross (1944).

Atlantic and Motown were by no means the only producers of soul music. Aside from James Brown, perhaps the most important, independent soul musicians of the 1960s were Tina Turner and her husband, Ike Turner, who had led his own groups and backed the blues guitarist El-more James (19181963) in the early 1950s. The duo had a string of influential hits in the 1960s, including "A Fool in Love" (1960), "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" (1961), and "River Deep, Mountain High" (1966).

In the 1970s, soul-style vocal groups remained popular, although the high lead vocals of the early vocal-harmony groups were backed with sleek, electrified rhythms. These groups included the Chi-Lites, the Stylistics, Harold Melvin (19411997) and the Bluenotes, the O'Jays, the Spinners, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. Solo singers in the soul idiom in the 1970s included Roberta Flack (1939), Barry White (19442003), Al Green (1946), and Teddy Pendergrass (1950), all of whom created slow, emotional ballads and love songs. In the 1980s and 1990s, Whitney Houston (1963) and Luther Vandross (19512005) have continued the tradition of the gospel-influenced singing style that characterizes soul.


In the mid-to-late 1960s a new style known as funk, derived from the black vernacular term for anything with a coarse, earthy smell, began to dominate the rhythm-andblues charts. James Brown, who had been so influential in the 1950s and early 1960s in pioneering soul music, once again broke new ground, this time with stripped-down, forceful rhythms and simple, melodic riffs on "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (1965). This style was picked up by Sly Stone (1944) on "Dance to the Music" (1968), "Everyday People" (1968), "Hot Fun in the Summertime" (1969), and by George Clinton's (1941) work with his groups Parliament and Funkadelic in the 1970s. Other R&B musicians who adopted the funk style included Isaac Hayes (1942), who recorded the soundtrack for the movie Shaft in 1971, and Curtis Mayfield (19421999), who recorded "Super Fly" in 1972. Disco music by 1970s figures such as Donna Summer (1948), Gloria Gaynor (1949), Kool and the Gang, and Rick James (19482004) drew directly on funk's interpretation of rhythm and blues.

Although the category of rhythm and blues, created by white music-industry executives to describe a range of musical styles, has undergone dramatic transformations, the term continues to express the essential characteristics of African-American popular music. In the 1980s and 1990s, musicians such as Prince (1958), Lenny Kravitz (1964), and Living Color took inspiration from Little Richard, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix, while groups of younger musicians, such as the group Boyz II Men, updated the close-harmony vocal ensemble sound of the 1940s and 1950s. Black popular musicincluding funk, rock, rap, and pop-gospel balladscontinued to freely borrow and mix jazz, blues, and gospel, validating rhythm and blues as the common ground of modern African-American popular music.

In 1988 the Rhythm & Blues Foundation was founded in New York as a nonprofit service organization dedicated to the historical and cultural preservation of R&B music. It also provides financial support, medical assistance, and educational outreach programs to support the artists of the 1940s to the 1970s. The foundation's Pioneer Awards Program has recognized more than 150 artistsboth individuals and groupswhose contributions have been instrumental in the development of R&B. Past recipients include such legends as Etta James, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, Cissy Houston (1932), Martha Reeves (1941) & the Vandellas, James Brown, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Jackie Wilson, and Dionne Warwick (1940).

With that range of variety in the past, how does one decide who is an R&B singer in the twenty-first century? Do the late Aaliyah (19792001) and the monomonikered singers Ashanti, Beyoncé, Brandy, Monica, Mya, and Tweet conform to R&B standards? And what of such male counterparts as Babyface, D'Angelo, Maxwell, and Usher? R. Kelly and Keith Sweat? Are Natalie Cole, Anita Baker, and Jill Scott soul divas? Do Alicia Keys and Cassandra Wilson belong in the jazz category? Where does one put the adventurous vocal stylings of Mary J. Blige, Macy Gray, Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu? Perhaps, with R&B, one just knows it when one hears it.

See also Blues, The; Gospel Music; Jazz; Music


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