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History of Rhythm and Blues

a saxophonist and a guitarist performing on the stage

Rhythm and blues, also called rhythm & blues or R&B, is a type of music genre predominantly performed in the African communities during the 1940s. Rhythm and blues was also responsible for developing subsequent genres, notably rock and roll, doo-wop, disco, and hip hop or rap music, among many others.

Where did the term “rhythm and blues” come from?

The term “rhythm and blues” entered the American lexicon during the 1940s. Billboard magazine created it for use as a marketing term. Jerry Wexler, a music journalist working for Billboard at the time, is widely credited with coining the term “rhythm and blues.”

Wexler found that record labels issuing “black” popular music found the chart terms in use at the time, such as “sepia series” or “race music,” too offensive. Billboard changed the chart’s name in its June 17, 1949, issue.

In the 1950s, the term “rhythm and blues” was associated with the black youths in honky-tonk bars and after-hour dance clubs. Rhythm and blues was rather considered a lowbrow counterpart to jazz’s highbrow type of black music and form of black expression. As rap and hip hop rose and began to dominate the black music scene a few decades later, the term “rhythm and blues” came to a different meaning – a bunch of love songs or sentimental songs.

Rhythm and blues – the early days

Let’s go back to the early days of rhythm and blues – there were many big and small R&B groups then. The big R&B groups consisted of singers who had experienced in big bands and were usually hired employees of bandleaders like Lucky Millinder or Count Basie. The small R&B groups, on the other hand, typically consisted of five to seven members and counted on individual musicians to take turns in the limelight. For example: in a band led by the late R&B drummer Roy Milton, he played drums and sang, his bandmate Camille Howard played piano and sang, and his saxophonists would be featured at least once.

Another hallmark of small R&B groups is the relegation of the guitar (if there was any, indeed), from solo to accompanying status. The reason was that guitar soloing was seen as too “country” and unsophisticated. Most solos in R&B groups at the time were usually handled by the pianist.

Independent record labels, particularly the ones based in Los Angeles, California, issued some of the earliest-known R&B recordings. In 1947, Atlantic Records was founded by Ahmet Ertegun, the son of a Turkish ambassador to the US and a jazz lover, and Herb Abramson, a music industry professional. Atlantic Records eventually earned a reputation for specializing in black music, particularly jazz, R&B, and soul.

Atlantic Records introduced some of the top R&B singers at the time, most notably Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker. It also signed Ray Charles and helped him find a new musical direction, eventually transitioning into soul. Other record labels, such as Chess and Vee Jay labels in Chicago, Illinois; King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio; and Duke/Peacock Records in Houston, Texas also played pivotal roles in bringing R&B and other black music forward.

Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee also played an important role in spreading R&B before turning its attention to rockabilly music. One of its artists, a young aspiring singer named Elvis Presley, set rockabilly and rock and roll ablaze and eventually became one of its brightest and most important stars

Rhythm and blues in the 1950s

The growing popularity of R&B was not only limited among African-American markets anymore. By the early 1950s, more whites had become aware of R&B and started to purchase R&B records. Eventually, more white teens across the country shifted their previous musical tastes to R&B and other “black” music.

By the middle of the decade, rhythm and blues had come to define popular black music that was not necessarily aimed at teenagers. The music that came to be known as rock and roll sometimes featured lyrics about first love, parent-child conflict, and rebellion against authority. It was also presented as having a less subtle approach to rhythm. Many doo-wop groups, such as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and other performers like Little Richard, therefore, were also considered rock-and-roll acts. Since the distinction between R&B and rock and roll wasn’t based on strict rules, most black performers released records that fit both categories.

In addition, some vocalists who were considered jazz artists, such as Dinah Washington, also appeared on the R&B charts. Saxophone-led instrumentals that firmly followed the tradition of rhythm and blues were also considered rock and roll numbers and were often aired on rock and roll radio stations.

The division based on the age of black popular music’s intended audience also meant that, by the middle of the 1950s, much of the guitar-heavy electric blues from Chicago and Memphis, in particular, were also considered rock and roll since it attracted older buyers. Thus, artists such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King came to be regarded as rhythm and blues performers.

Rhythm and blues in the 1960s and beyond

As the 1960s loomed, rhythm and blues, if not declined, found itself aging with its audience. Artists such as Charles, Washington, and Ruth Brown were now performing at nightclubs more frequently than in revues in which they had found fame. Although a new wave of younger artists, like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, clearly owed their musical style to the previous R&B performers, they were otherwise evolving into soul artists just like Ray Charles.

Significantly, Billboard, once again, changed its chart name from “rhythm and blues” to “soul” in its August 23, 1969 issue. Although “soul” became the more preferred term at the time, many quarters still used “rhythm and blues” to describe black popular music in the postwar era.

However, the term “rhythm and blues” was defined once again, thanks to British Invasion groups that came to the U.S. soon after the Beatles became an overnight sensation. Most of these British groups, notably The Rolling Stones, were influenced by Chicago electric blues and black rock and roll and defined their own music as rhythm and blues.

Another famous 1960s British group The Who, although quintessentially a “mod” band, promoted their early performances as “maximum R&B” to attract audiences.

By the 1970s, “rhythm and blues” became the umbrella term for black popular music, such as disco, funk, and soul.

In the 1980s and 1990s, new “black” music genres like hip hop and rap became popular among young audiences. As a result, R&B artists found some difficulty in promoting their music, or even just making music at all, because of the rise of hip-hop and rap. However, some of the R&B artists adopted a “hip hop” image and were marketed by their respective record labels as “R&B and hip-hop” artists. Their records often feature hip-hop artists or rappers. Artists like Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, and Destiny’s Child enjoyed success.

LaFace Records (based in Atlanta, Georgia) was responsible for some of rhythm and blues’ biggest successes, with artists such as Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton, TLC, and Usher dominating both Billboard R&B and pop charts. But by the mid-2000s, R&B sales had declined. However, some hip-hop groups have started to incorporate traditional R&B and adopt a softer, smoother approach, with artists such as Drake opening an entirely new door for the genre.

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