• From “Race Music” To “Rhythm & Blues”

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    Little Richard

    jump — 1. to spring free from the ground, to move suddenly or involuntarily. 2. a form of R&B music that places emphasis on strong rhythm, exciting solo work especially by saxophones, and vocals in a shout-blues manner.

    R & B (rhythm & blues) – a kind of music developed by African-Americans that combines blues and jazz, characterized by a strong backbeat and repeated variations on syncopated instrumental phrases.

    R&B was originally defined as the specifically African-American pop music of its day.  Jerry Wexler, who was later to help shape the sound of soul music as the producer of Aretha Franklin, was a writer for Billboard magazine in 1949. That year he coined the term R&B, as a name for the magazine’s black music chart.  “Rhythm and Blues” replaced the term “race music”, which records intended for distribution in African-American communities had been called since the early days of sound recording.  With the big band swing era coming to a close at the end of World War II, many of the big dance bands turned to be-bop, a new approach to improvisation that many people found inscrutable and undanceable.  During the Second World War, the mass migration from the South of African-Americans headed to work in Northern defense industries brought with them a taste for rural blues.  Both country and city blues began to fuse with riff-based remnants of big-band jazz and led to an alternative to bop that was both highly danceable and hugely popular, called “jump.” Another form of R&B was primarily vocal, with instrument backing varying from full orchestra to none at all.  Usually performed by a group, the style employed close harmonies and was nearly always performed in a subdued and medium-to-slow tempo.  The influence of the African-American church was evident, the lead voice tended to the upper register and often performed over the wordless chords of the other voices or engaged them in call-and-response.  Groups like the Ink Spots exemplified this style, which was a direct precursor to doo-wop.

    Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five was one of the most popular groups of the R & B era, and the beat and personality of Jordan’s horn-driven combo set the stage for rock and roll before there was even a name for it.  When big bands were all the rage, Jordan outsold them all with a small combo, as most rock musicians later did. He was one of the first to join electric guitar and bass with horns, and his over-the-beat spoken monologues are a prototype of rap music.  Chuck Berry, Little Richard and other first generation rock and rollers  — who were often also R&B artists themselves — included Louis Jordan among their most important influences.
    The music that DJ Alan Freed first called ”rock and roll” on his Cleveland radio show in 1952 was actually R&B.  All of the artists who performed at Freed’s 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball, identified as the first rock and roll concert, were R&B artists.  “Rock and roll” was a term that had existed in African-American venacular since the turn of the 20th Century as a euphemism for sex.  The term had cropped up in numerous blues, jazz and R&B hits from the Twenties through the Fifties, and Freed latched onto the term to identify the music he played on his wildly popular and influential radio show, perhaps perversely to disguise the music’s black origins to his growing white audience even as he imitated black DJs in his jive-laced on-the-air patter.

    Early rock and roll hits were often faithful imitations of, or actual R&B songs recorded by white performers, like Bill Haley & the Comets’ Number Seven pop remake of Big Joe Turner’s Number One R&B hit, “Shake, Rattle & Roll.”  The crossover success of black music on the pop charts by groups like the Dominoes, Moonglows and Orioles in the Forties and Fifties did not inspire a warm welcome to black artists on white record labels and pop radio playlists, but instead prompted white artists to raid the R&B charts for material — The McGuire Sisters’ 1955 remake of the Moonglows’ “Sincerely” being a prime example.  The Moonglows’ R&B hit reached Number One in December, 1954, and had begun an assent on the pop charts when the McGuire Sisters’ version was released in January, 1955.  The McGuire Sisters’ version topped the pop chart for ten weeks while the Moonglows’ original version made a slow climb to Number 20, at that time an almost unbelievable success for black artists on the pop charts. Pat Boone’s early career was based almost entirely on recording bloodless but commercially successful versions of R&B hits, like Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruiti” and “”Long Tall Sally.”   Elvis Presley, the crowned “King of Rock and Roll,” found early success with songs previously recorded by black artists, like Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” and Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 hit “Hound Dog.”  Elvis embodied the fulfillment of record producer and Sun Records owner Sam Phillips’ dream of a white artist who could sing with “the sound and feel of a black man.”

    – Meredith Rutledge for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

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