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date: 17 February 2020


  • Howard Rye


A term coined in 1949 to describe music marketed primarily to African-Americans. It was initially used by Billboard to replace the term “race records,” which had become unacceptable (some record companies had already substituted the term “sepia series”). Labels devoted to rhythm-and-blues and the rhythm-and-blues series of the major record companies, like the race and sepia catalogues which preceded them, encompassed the whole spectrum of African-American music – blues, jazz, gospel music, popular vocal groups, and comedians. However, as there was by this time a wider market available for many types of jazz, jazz recordings in the rhythm-and-blues catalogues tended to be those aimed especially at African-American dancers and party-goers and which placed a particular stress on overt swing and blues feeling. As a catch-all term for the African-American catalogues, rhythm-and-blues was supplanted in 1969 by soul.

The term is also applied to certain characteristic African-American musical styles prominent during the late 1940s and the 1950s. Critical opinion has never coalesced as to whether rhythm-and-blues in this sense is a genre of jazz, a genre of blues, a hybrid of the two, or a separate musical idiom. Its most immediate antecedent in jazz is the music played by the blues-based big bands which came to prominence in the early 1940s, such as those of Jay McShann, Lucky Millinder, Erskine Hawkins, and Buddy Johnson, and the jump bands which flourished in the later swing era. These bands found that survival in the marketplace required increasing emphasis on an insistent beat, on blues and blues-ballad singing, and on solo work emphasizing overt emotion and rhythmic excitement. To some extent, this was a conscious reaction to the direction being taken by the jazz avant garde of the day, the creators of bop. The singer and alto saxophonist Louis Jordan later said: “I wanted to play for the people, not just a few hep cats.” Bands working in this style included those already mentioned, as well as those of Roy Milton, Joe Liggins, Tiny Grimes, and Johnny Otis....

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