The History of Rhythm and Blues


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This Primer is dedicated to promoting Rhythm and Blues, but it's clear to anyone with a passing interest in the music that it really doesn't stick to any clear definition of the genre.
As a Primer, it's an attempt to illustrate the music, the labels and the artists of a particular style but it cannot lay claim to be a theoretical, academic or scholarly treatise. This is primarily because I am ill-equipped to do it well and there are others who are far better qualified to deliver a definitive history of the form.
So what you'll find below is an emotional and historically flawed account of the music that the Primer promotes, designed to provide a background and context for what you'll find in the real world..
John Lee Hooker

Rhythm and Blues was and still is a term used for a number of post-war American popular music forms. The term is credited to Jerry Wexler when he was editing the charts in Billboard magazine (1947). The term was used in the chart listings from 1949 onwards and the charts in question encompassed a number of contemporary forms that emerged around that time.

R&B clearly has its origins in the secular folk music of the American black musician - the Blues. For me, the Blues is essentially about emotional expression and is predominantly a vocal medium - although there are many examples of blues instrumentals to refute this assertion, it is the singer who expresses the feelings of the blues; and there are a number of vocal techniques which are used to create the desired effects. There are of course a range of blues intrumentations which accompany the central vocal performance (the bending of guitar strings, the classic bottleneck of so many of the great blues guitarists, the harmonica imitating the idioms of the human voice etc. etc.) and which clearly help to create the unique blues performance.

Although much has been written on the blues, the origins of the music are not particularly well documented. It is clearly influenced by the work songs of the deep South, ragtime, church music, minstrel shows and folk, even some forms of white popular music. The earliest and most frequently cited references to the form are to be found in the early 1900s and one of the early musical reference points is the W.C. Handy composition 'Memphis Blues'.
Rural blues developed mainly in the three key regions of Georgia, Texas and Mississippi. Excellent examples of the Georgia style include Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller, highly melodic and less intense than the Mississippi stylists such as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines.

Interestingly however, perhaps the first real blues recordings were made in the 1920s by the women of the blues, artists such as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox and the wonderful Bessie Smith. At this stage the performances were still largely based on their stage backgrounds, backed by the leading jazz players of the day.

Muddy Waters

One of the critical external factors which moved the blues form forward was the economic migration from the American South to the cities of the North by millions of black southern workers. The blues went with them, adapting to a more sophisticated urban environment. The themes of blues songs understandably became more urban, the solo bluesman was joined by a number of other musicians and the blues combo was born. The piano, harmonica, bass and drums and, most importantly of all, the electric guitar became the cornerstone of a sound of increasing rhythmic intensity.

Some of the major urban conurbations included Atlanta, Memphis and St. Louis but there are critical milestones to be found in any number of places. John Lee Hooker found a home in Detroit, the great T-Bone Walker established a following on the West Coast and Chicago exerted an influence of real significance - Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James and Otis Spann were all based there.

The Blues has influenced just about everything musically which subsequently developed. Not least of which was the emergence of what came to be known as Rhythm and Blues

Rhythm and Blues is perhaps most commonly understood as the term used to describe the sophisticated urban music that grew out of the urbanisation of the blues which began in the 1930s. The single and most renowned exponent of this development is Louis Jordan who, originally with a relatively small band, began to make blues based records with humorous lyrics and a rhythm owing as much to boogie woogie as to the more traditional classic blues form. Jordan, Amos Milburn, Floyd Dixon, Charles Brown and even the great Joe Turner were all leading practitioners of what came to be known as jump blues. What distinguished many of these artists was the sheer breadth of material played - straight 12 bar, intrumentals, blues ballads and straight pop songs were all part of the scene at that time.

Howlin' Wolf

Within this R&B mix, there was plenty of room for different band formations - and many of the bigger bands were led by singers whose previous experience had been with the great bandleaders such as Count Basie and Lucky Millinder. Both Turner and Jimmy Witherspoon had spells with Count Basie. The smaller groups relied more on indivdual soloists taking the spotlight, many of the solos being taken by the alto and teno sax players in the group. It is also worth noting that the electric guitar, having played such a prominent part in the urbanisation of the blues, was here often relegated to an accompanying role - listen to Charles Brown records for example and you'll hear virtually all the solos played by Brown at the piano. This is not univerally the case of course. Some of the greatest "jump blues" came from T-Bone Walker, with his unique and higly influential guitar work very clearly to the fore.

The early centre of recorded rhythm and blues tended to be Los Angeles, usually via a series of small independents such as Modern, RPM and Specialty. One of the major advances for the genre was the development of an R&B roster within Atlantic Records, where Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, along with engineer Tom Dowd proved instrumental in shifting R&B to a wider audience. They showcased some of the great female names in R&B, including Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker and, of course, they recorded one of the greats of modern black American music - the wonderful Ray Charles.
Atlantic also worked closely with the likes of Clyde McPhatter and Chuck Willis throughout this period and such artists, along with the aforementioned Ray Charles, can now be seen as the clear links between the blues and R&B of the 1940s and 50s and the classic soul of the 1960s and early 70s. And let's not forget the even smaller independents, such as Duke/Peacock, all of whom played pivotal roles in the spread of R&B and the evolution of the music into what became known as soul; and of course, Duke was also responsible for recording the great Bobby Bland at the height of his not inconsiderable vocal powers.


Lavern Baker

As early as the mid 1950s, it was unclear whether the term R&B could really be ascribed to any one particular form. More appropriately perhaps, it came to be associated with black popular music that was not overtly aimed at the teenager, distancing itself from the the newly emerging rock'n'roll. Such divisions were often arbitrary however, with artists such as Hank Ballad assigned a rock'n'roll status largely on the strength of one record ('The Twist') when clearly the majority of his output was firmly in the R&B camp. Equally, the divisions weren't hard and fast, with many performers issuing recordings which fit into both categories and others, such as Dinah Washington, hitiing the R&B charts despite later establishing jazz singer credentials.

The division and categorisation based on the age of the intended audience also meant that during this period much of the guitar led electric blues coming out of Chicago or Memphis was now considered R&B, since it clearly appealed largely to the older age group. All of these factors helps to explain why the Primer attempts to cover the range of artists it does, rather than rely on too narrow a definition of what might constitute Rhythm and Blues!!!
So, artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King (who often used a horn section and owed much to the sounds of Louis Jordan) were now treated as Rhythm and Blues performers

By the early 1960s rhythm and blues, in its narrowest sense, was an ageing and waning genre, certainly from the perspective of straight record sales. But as we now know, rightly or wrongly, the Primer doesn't hold to any highly restrictive definition of the term and as R&B evolved, like the blues had before it, the golden age of 60s soul was born.

Soul was the term adopted to describe black popular music as it evolved from the 1950s into the heady heights of the 60s and through to the early 70s. There are those who saw it as simply a new term for Rhythm and Blues but this interpretation does miss one of the most important facets of the soul era - many of the great performers of the soul period did much to redefine R&B and black popular music in general, radically reinterpreting the sounds of the rhythm and blues pioneers. Critically many, though not all, found success with the white record buying public in a way that would have been unrecognised by the R&B pioneers of the 30s, 40s and even the 50s.

Staple Singers
Very simplistically put, if rock'n'roll can perhaps be seen as a white artist interpretation of rhythm and blues, then soul was quite clearly a return to the roots of black music - to the blues and in particular gospel and the church. The style retains similarities with the blues; the emotional honesty, the vocal intensity, the use of call and response. Ray Charles may well have been the first to secularise pure gospel songs, but it reached full maturation in the work of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Atlantic Records were again at the fore of black music evolution, first producung Aretha in 1967 ('I Never Loved A Man') at the start of one of the greatest series of soul recordings of all time. But even before the work of Aretha, soul music had broken through in the work of a range of southern artists on southern oriented labels such as the legendary Stax Records.

Stax (based in Memphis) was built on an unshakable belief in the quality of straight ahead soul. Singers of the stature of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and the Staples produced vocal performances of such intensity they took you straight back to the blues shouters of the 30s and 40s. Atlantic used southern recording environments such as Fame Studios and Muscle Shoals to produce wonderful material from the likes of Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke as well as Aretha. The arrangements were always relatively sparse and often spontaneous, with incredibly strong horn lines supported by a rock solid rhythm section.
Other artists, frequently already successful, looked to the southern studios to regenerate their careers. Etta James recorded the great 'Tell Mama' in Muscle Shoals and Percy Sledge's 'When A Man Loves A Woman', recorded nearby in Sheffield, became the first southern soul song to reach number one on the straight pop charts (and has hardly been out of the charts since!!)

There were of course a number of different approaches to the soul musical form and the Motown sound from Detroit has divided opinion and stimulated debate amongst soul commentators and historians since the mid 60s.
It's lighter, more pop oriented approach and its determined effort to appeal to as broad an audience as possible have led many commentators to dismiss its output as the light, less authentic alternative to the Stax / Atlantic southern soul ideal. This is largely ill founded for two reasons, the most important of which is that alongside the poppier material from artists such as the Supremes the label produced artists and material with real gospel grit - the early Contours material, classic early Marvin Gaye, the superb vocal performances of the Temptations, it all goes straight back to the church and the gospel heritage. Motown was often regarded as inferior simply because it packaged its material so well, and in so doing managed to appeal to the white teenage audience as well as the traditional black market place.
The second reason? Take a listen to a Motown Box Set, especially the first six CD box set which covers the glory days of the label - incredibly high quality soul from start to finish, a huge variety of style and material, some of the best vocalists in soul music singing material from the finest songwriters!

Percy Sledge

Soul wasn't just about the southern states and Detroit either. Chicago followed up on its influence on electric blues with its fair share of soul successes. One of the greatest exponents was Curtis Mayfield, who added his own distinctive social consciousness to the soul music movement. The Chess label also followed its blues and R&B hits with a range of soul music successes, including material from the very wonderful Dells and superb stuff from the likes of Mitty Callier, Theola Kilgore and Fontella Bass. And in New Orleans, you could listen to an altogether different sound - funky, expressive and full of the undeniably feel good factor of Louisiana. And the music continued to evolve, with the Philadelphia sound of Gamble and Huff virtually reinventing the genre in the 70s through the music of groups such as the O'Jays, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes and the underrated Spinners.

Soul has become a permanent part of the language of American popular culture, although much of what it now defines has little in common with what's overviewd in these pages. The underlying virtues of the music described in the Primer are direct emotional delivery, a pride and artistic integrity, a feeling within the music which transmits itself to the listener - you can call it blues, R&B or soul, but it has to have those ingredients to truly succeed.
So, by and large, with a few notable exceptions, this is the music on which the Primer concentrates. All of it glorious, in turn uplifting and heartwrenching, sometimes beautiful or achingly sad. Always true to a spirit, an emotional honesty, that is hard for other genres to match.

And there is plenty of it to be found in today's music scene. Don't be fooled into thinking that this music has no currency in the 21st century. There are any number of great artists flying the flag. It could be an original great such as B.B. King still producing the goods, others like 'Keb 'Mo imbuing the tradition with a modern feel and commercial sheen and some, such as Mighty Sam McClain, proving that high quality deep soul is still being produced and appreciated by the record buying public.

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