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date: 20 February 2020

Rhythm and bluesfree

  • Howard Rye

A term coined in 1949 to describe music marketed primarily to African-Americans, initially used by Billboard to replace the term ‘Race records’, which had become unacceptable and had already been replaced by some record companies by the term ‘Sepia series’. Like the Race and Sepia catalogues which preceded them, labels devoted to rhythm and blues and the rhythm and blues series of the major record companies encompassed the whole spectrum of African-American music, including 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 records in the rhythm and blues catalogues tended to be those especially aimed at African-American dancers and party-goers, and placing a particular stress on overt swing and blues feeling. As a catch-all term for the African-American catalogues, rhythm and blues was supplanted by soul in 1969.

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 on whether rhythm and blues in this sense is a genre of jazz or of blues, a hybrid of the two, or a separate musical idiom. Its most immediate jazz antecedents are 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 market place required increasing emphasis on an insistent beat, on blues and blues-ballad vocals, 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 vocalist 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 various groups led by Johnny Otis.

As the style developed, there was a particular tendency to emphasize saxophone solos in which honking and screaming effects were used to whip up excitement. Tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet was an early exponent and Big Jay McNeely an extreme example, but elements of this style are found in the work of many saxophonists of the period including Earl Bostic, Tab Smith, Eddie Chamblee, Willis Jackson, Al Sears and the much-recorded West Coast session musician Maxwell Davis. In the early 1950s increasing use was made of the electric organ by practitioners such as Wild Bill Davis, Doc Bagby and Bill Doggett. Out of these trends there developed in the later 1950s the style known as ‘soul jazz’, which reintegrated many rhythm and blues instrumentalists into the mainstream of jazz.

A further strand in rhythm and blues developed from the blues shouters featured by many bands of the late swing era. Indeed, Joe Turner contrived to record for the African-American market while retaining credibility with jazz critics. Other prominent artists in this idiom, such as Jimmy Witherspoon, Wynonie Harris, Roy Hawkins and Eddie Vinson played to more narrowly-defined audiences. Vinson also played alto saxophone in a style influenced by Charlie Parker and was one of the first musicians to begin incorporating elements of bop into the swing tradition, anticipating the soul jazz movement by some years.

A style of blues-ballad singing developed on the West Coast alongside the blues shouters and sometimes categorized as ‘club blues’; this was influenced by the work of the King Cole Trio, although Nat King Cole himself had largely moved into popular music before the rhythm and blues era. Singers like Cecil Gant, Roy Brown, and Charles Brown were sometimes dubbed ‘Sepia Sinatras’, no doubt alluding to their popularity with young women rather than their musical idiom, which remained firmly anchored in their blues roots. This style spawned a major disciple in Ray Charles who, in the 1950s, transformed the idiom by incorporating elements of black American gospel music into his work. This development was already implicit in the work of a number of female rhythm and blues singers, such as Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker.

In New Orleans, local musical conditions led to the development of a distinctive local form, characterized by a swinging shuffle beat. The bands of Dave Bartholomew and Paul Gayten were the leading practitioners, and from this tradition the singer and pianist Fats Domino became one of the first and most comprehensively successful of African-American artists to make the crossover to the mass popular market. Records made in the continuing Southern blues traditions and down-home blues records made in the northern ghettos were marketed under the rhythm and blues umbrella, but are not normally regarded as examples of rhythm and blues style. However, blues singer-guitarists who worked with jazz and jump-oriented groups usually are. The key innovator in this style was T-Bone Walker, whose playing was influenced by Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. Later players such as B.B. King and Ike Turner placed an ever-growing emphasis on guitar solo work. This idiom has continued to attract new performers into the 1990s, whereas most rhythm and blues styles are kept alive only by surviving artists and overtly revivalist groups formed by white enthusiasts.

Rhythm and blues is also a term sometimes applied by writers on popular music to the African-American vocal group style Doo-wop, which developed in the early 1950s. These groups were often accompanied by instrumentalists active in other areas of rhythm and blues.

Many of the styles embraced by the term rhythm and blues played a part in the development from the mid-1950s of rock and roll as a new mass-market commercial idiom aimed at teenagers. In the early years of rock and roll many African-American artists adapted by simplifying their music and by eliminating adult themes from the lyrics. At this stage, as in the music of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, musical distinctions between the two idioms are often small. They became greater as rock and roll became more definitely a hybrid between rhythm and blues and country music, whose stars were drawn from the latter and performed in conformity with the values of the general popular music industry.

Bibliography

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