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History of Rhythm and Blues

Jim Josselyn
Artistic image of a rhythm and blues singer

Rhythm and blues is a microcosm of the story of American music itself. This genre encompasses artists from Louis Jordan, one of its most prolific stars and originators, through icons such as James Brown, Prince and Michael Jackson, to current stars like Bruno Mars, John Legend, Pharell Williams, and Alicia Keyes.

The 1940s - The Birth of Rhythm and Blues

Louis Jordan was among the first to pare down the standard 16-piece big band to a smaller ensemble of five to nine players and focus on the swing dance beat. Using humor, irony, and showmanship, his music took the sadness and sorrow reflected in the standard blues songs of the day and turned them into miniature urban odes to joy. Early hits like The Chicks I Pick Are Slender, Tender And Fine, Five Guys Named Moe, Saturday Night Fish Fry, and Let The Good Times Roll spoke to the good time feeling of the music. Jordan's leaner ensemble, his Tympany Five, paved the way for early rock and roll groups and being the lead singer at the same time as leading the band was revolutionary in the 40s.

From 1942 to 1951, Louis Jordan had a simply astonishing 54 songs in the top ten of the R&B charts. Other artists and songs of note from the 40s include The Hucklebuck by Paul Williams, Good Rockin' Tonight by Wynonie Harris, and Ain't Nobody's Business by Jimmy Witherspoon. The template for the music was established in the 40s: a hard charging eighth-note dance beat, risque or humorous lyrics replete with double entendre and innuendo, and a sleek, crisp small band sound.

The 1950s - The Music Crosses Over

As always, art is a great force in bringing disparate groups of people together and breaking down the fault lines of social barriers. R&B music exploded in the 50s as it spread beyond the African American community and made its way into the suburbs as white teenagers began to enjoy the vibrant, new sound.

The list of the stars that came to prominence in the 50s reads like a who's who of American music legends as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ruth Brown, and Ray Charles emerged on the scene, and the social and cultural landscape of the country was changed forever. Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed is credited with coining the phrase rock and roll in 1951, and many of these top artists were prominent on both the R&B and pop charts.

Categorizing the music and how it's referred to is important, as when R&B emerged in the 40s it was called race music and was tracked on the race charts. As the country came together after World War II, people realized race music was an offensive term, and the phrase rhythm and blues came about, coined by now legendary producer Jerry Wexler at Billboard magazine.

In the 50s as the music was simply ubiquitous, there were many sub-genres that were referred to as R&B, including straight ahead rock and roll, jump blues, swing, novelty songs, and doo wop. As a case in point, Jerry Lee Lewis's rock and roll version of Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, an R&B cover, reached number one on the R&B, pop, and country and western charts simultaneously.

One great artist who emerged in the 50s, the inimitable guitarist and singer songwriter Bo Diddley, had a sound so unique they named a beat after him. He took the Latin beat known as the 3-2 clave and wrote numerous hits with this Bo Diddley Beat. His third hit, Pretty Thing, was the first to utilize it. Crackin' Up, Crawdad, You Can't Judge A Book By It Cover, Hey Good Lookin', and Who Do You Love were among his many other hits that used his famous beat. His songs and sound have been covered by artists as diverse as Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, The Who, U2, Tom Petty, and George Michael.

The 1960s - Soul Music, the Motown Sound, and the British Invasion

Entire books can and have been written about R&B in the 1960s. In the early part of the decade, the gospel influence appeared in the vocal stylings of Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and James Brown, also known as the hardest working man in show business. The music began to combine the sacred and spiritual sounds of gospel music with lyrics reflecting the worldly desires of love and success.

Ray Charles' smooth version of the standard Georgia On My Mind, the crooning of Sam Cooke and vocal groups like the Drifters and the Shirelles marked a softer approach to the music in the early part of the decade, and the term soul music emerged. By 1960, songwriter Berry Gordy had started Tamla Records, which would eventually become Motown. Smokey Robinson and his group The Miracles formed along with Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and others. Motown emerged as the major player in the music of the decade with a seemingly endless run of hit songs.

At the same time, young people across the pond in England were tuned in to the music on a grand scale. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Animals, and the great guitarists of the classic rock era Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck to name but a few were all heavily influenced by American jazz, blues, and R&B music. Time Is On My Side, Come On, All Over Now, and many other R&B standards were among the Rolling Stones' first hits. Before the Beatles were the prodigious and prolific songwriters they would become, they covered songs by Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Motown stalwarts Luther Dixon and Brian Holland. In a twist of irony, as American audiences moved away from the country's indigenous music, the British bought it back.

The 1970s - Music Grows Up

As in the 50s, where the term R&B covered many styles, by the 1970s, R&B was the blanket term given to funk, disco, and soul. Jazz musicians looking to broaden their audiences and wallets took rock and R&B beats, as well as the simpler and more repetitive harmonic structures found in R&B and had commercial success.

Miles Davis, as was often the case, lead the way with 1972's On The Corner. Eddie Harris, Grover Washington Jr., Herbie Hancock, Sly and the Family Stone, and Parliament Funkadelic were among the leaders of the jazz funk sound. James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder's music evolved and became not only more musically advanced but also instrumental in raising awareness of social and civil rights issues. Marvin Gaye's What's Going On was a landmark 70s record. The concept album spoke to the problems in post-Vietnam America and the issues of poverty, racism, drug abuse, and the environment.

In addition to the renaissance of music's established artists, the 70s also marked the emergence of new voices like Bill Withers, Donnie Hathaway, Chaka Khan, George Benson, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, and many more. Rock and pop artists of the day who were also heavily influenced by the music included Hall and Oates, Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers. and Michael McDonald.

The 1980s to Today - MTV, Technology, and The Hip-Hop Influence

The early 1980s marked two changes in music: MIDI technology and MTV. MIDI, which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is the technology that allows instruments to communicate with computers and each other. This technology allowed the music to become as much of a producer's medium as it was an artist's medium. With various keyboards, synthesizers, and drum machines they could easily program, the recording studio itself became an instrument. The benefits of that to the music is debatable, as entire recordings could be done in step time as opposed to real time. Instead of a group of skilled musicians playing live in a room and feeding off each other, a programmer could arrange all or most of the instruments and parts.

The advent of MTV in 1981, which is coincidentally the same year MIDI was introduced, made music a visual medium as much as it was an aural medium. Again, the merits of this evolution are debatable. With these changes and advances in the music industry, R&B music ushered in an entirely new group of artists who were now video stars. Michael Jackson left his brothers and went on his own. Whitney Houston, Prince, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, and Sade were among the new faces on the scene.

Rappers like LL Cool J and Run DMC brought rap into the mainstream in the mid 80's. In 1986, rap and rock had its first crossover hit as Run DMC collaborated with the classic rock band Aerosmith to remake their 70s hit Walk This Way. This song, with the accompanying video in heavy rotation on MTV, became the first hip-hop song to make it to number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The influence of R&B, funk, and hip-hop has come so far it has even found a home on the Broadway stage. Rent, Dreamgirls, Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, In The Heights, and the omnipresent Hamilton include and feature various forms of the music.

The Future of the Music

With recording technology becoming smaller, more portable, and easier to use combined with the proficiency of young people with computers and the advent of social media, new R&B artists are creating and producing their own music and distributing it on their own every day. Anyone can send videos of their music to the world via YouTube, and that's a good thing. The artist is in complete control of his or her art and product and are judged by their audience instead of a gatekeeper at a record company or talent agency. Ultimately, the elements that made R&B great from the beginning of the music are still what make it great today: terrific songs with compelling and provocative lyrics and that irresistible rhythm and blues beat.

History of Rhythm and Blues