Rhythm and blues
- 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initially used by Billboard to replace the term ‘Race records’, which had become unacceptable and had already been replaced by some record companies by the term ‘Sepia series’.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....