Rhythm and blues, often abbreviated to R&B, is a genre of popular African American music that originated in the 1940s. The term was originally used by record companies to describe recordings marketed predominantly to urban African Americans, at a time when "urbane, rocking, jazz based music with a heavy, insistent beat" was becoming more popular.
The term has subsequently had a number of shifts in meaning. In the early 1950s and beyond, the term rhythm and blues was frequently applied to blues records. Starting in the 1950s, after this style of music contributed to the development of rock and roll, the term "R&B" became used to refer to music styles that developed from and incorporated electric blues, as well as gospel and soul music. By the 1970s, rhythm and blues was used as a blanket term for soul and funk. In the 1980s, a newer style of R&B developed, becoming known as contemporary R&B.
HistoryThe migration of African Americans to the urban industrial centers of Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the 1930s created a new market for jazz, blues, and related genres of music, often performed by full-time musicians, either working alone or in small groups. The precursors of rhythm and blues came from jazz and blues, which overlapped in the 1930s through the work of musicians such as The Harlem Hamfats, with their 1936 hit "Oh Red", as well as Leroy Carr, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and T-Bone Walker. There was also increasing emphasis on the electric guitar as a lead instrument, as well as the piano and saxophone
In 1948, RCA Victor was marketing black music under the name "Blues and Rhythm"
. In that year, Louis Jordan dominated the top five listings of the R&B charts with three songs, and two of the top five songs were based on the boogie-woogie rhythms that had come to prominence during the 1940s. Jordan's band, the Tympany Five (formed in 1938), consisted of him on saxophone and vocals, along with musicians on trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums. Lawrence Cohn described the music as "grittier than his boogie-era jazz-tinged blues". Robert Palmer described it as "urbane, rocking, jazz based music with a heavy, insistent beat". Jordan's cool music, along with that of Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Billy Wright, and Wynonie Harris, is now also referred to as jump blues. Also in 1948, Wynonie Harris' remake of Roy Brown's 1947 recording "Good Rockin' Tonight" hit the charts in the #2 spot, following band leader Sonny Thompson's "Long Gone" at #1.
In 1949, the term "Rhythm and Blues" replaced the Billboard category Harlem Hit Parade. Also in that year, "The Huckle-Buck", recorded by band leader and saxophonist Paul Williams, was the #1 R&B tune, remaining on top of the charts for nearly the entire year. Written by musician and arranger Andy Gibson, the song was described as a "dirty boogie" because it was risque and raunchy. Paul Williams and His Hucklebuckers' concerts were sweaty riotous affairs that got shut down on more than one occasion. Their lyrics, by Roy Alfred (who later co-wrote the 1955 hit "(The) Rock and Roll Waltz"), were mildly sexually suggestive, and one teenager from Philadelphia said "That Hucklebuck was a very nasty dance". Also in 1949, a new version of a 1920s blues song, "Ain't Nobody's Business" was a #4 hit for Jimmy Witherspoon, and Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five once again made the top 5 with "Saturday Night Fish Fry". Many of these hit records were issued on new independent record labels, such as Savoy (founded 1942), King (founded 1943), Imperial (founded 1945), Specialty (founded 1946), Chess (founded 1947), and Atlantic (founded 1948).
Early to mid 1950sJohnny Otis, who had signed with the Newark, New Jersey-based Savoy Records, produced many R&B hits in 1951, including: "Double Crossing Blues", "Mistrustin' Blues" and "Cupid's Boogie", all of which hit number one that year. Otis scored ten top ten hits that year. Other hits include: "Gee Baby", "Mambo Boogie" and "All Nite Long". The Clovers, a vocal trio who sang a distinctive sounding combination of blues and gospel, had the #5 hit of the year with "Don't You Know I Love You" on Atlantic Records. Also in July 1951, Cleveland, Ohio DJ Alan Freed started a late-night radio show called "The Moondog Rock Roll House Party" on WJW-AM (850). Freed's show was sponsored by Fred Mintz, whose R&B record store had a primarily African American clientele. Freed began referring to the rhythm and blues music he played as "rock and roll".
In 1951, Little Richard Penniman began recording for RCA Records in the jump blues style of late 1940s stars Roy Brown and Billy Wright. However, it wasn't until he prepared a demo in 1954, that caught the attention of Specialty Records, that the world would start to hear his new, uptempo, funky rhythm and blues that would catapult him to fame in 1955 and help define the sound of rock 'n' roll. A rapid succession of rhythm and blues hits followed, beginning with "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally", which would influence performers such as James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Otis Redding.
Ruth Brown on the Atlantic label, placed hits in the top 5 every year from 1951 through 1954: "Teardrops from My Eyes", "Five, Ten, Fifteen Hours", "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and "What a Dream". Faye Adams's "Shake a Hand" made it to #2 in 1952. In 1953, the R&B record-buying public made Willie Mae Thornton's original recording of Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog" the #3 hit that year. Ruth Brown was very prominent among female R&B stars. Ruth Brown’s popularity most likely derived because of “her deeply rooted vocal delivery in African American tradition”  That same year The Orioles, a doo-wop group, had the #4 hit of the year with "Crying in the Chapel".
Fats Domino made the top 30 of the pop charts in 1952 and 1953, then the top 10 with "Ain't That a Shame". Ray Charles came to national prominence in 1955 with "I Got a Woman". Big Bill Broonzy said of Charles' music: "He's mixing the blues with the spirituals... I know that's wrong."
In 1954 The Chords' "Sh-Boom" became the first hit to cross over from the R&B chart to hit the top 10 early in the year. Late in the year, and into 1955, "Hearts of Stone" by The Charms made the top 20.
At Chess Records in the spring of 1955, Bo Diddley's debut record "Bo Diddley"/"I'm A Man" climbed to #2 on the R&B charts and popularized Bo Diddley's own original rhythm and blues beat that would become a mainstay in rock and roll.
At the urging of Leonard Chess at Chess Records, Chuck Berry had reworked a country fiddle tune with a long history, entitled "Ida Red". The resulting "Maybellene" was not only a #3 hit on the R&B charts in 1955, but also reached into the top 30 on the pop charts. Alan Freed, who had moved to the much larger market of New York City, helped the record become popular with white teenagers. Freed had been given part of the writers' credit by Chess in return for his promotional activities; a common practice at the time.
In 1956, an R&B "Top Stars of '56" tour took place, with headliners Al Hibbler, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and Carl Perkins, whose "Blue Suede Shoes" was very popular with R&B music buyers. Some of the performers completing the bill were Chuck Berry, Cathy Carr, Shirley & Lee, Della Reese, the Cleftones, and the Spaniels with Illinois Jacquet's Big Rockin' Rhythm Band. Cities visited by the tour included Columbia, SC, Annapolis, MD, Pittsburgh, PA, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, NY, into Canada, and through the mid Western US ending in Texas. In Columbia the concert ended with a near riot as Perkins began his first song as the closing act. Perkins is quoted as saying, "It was dangerous. Lot of kids got hurt. There was a lot of rioting going on, just crazy, man! The music drove 'em insane." In Annapolis 70,000 to 50,000 people tried to attend a sold out performance with 8,000 seats. Roads were clogged for seven hours.
Film makers took advantage of the popularity of "rhythm and blues" musicians as "rock n roll" musicians beginning in 1956. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner, The Treniers, The Platters, The Flamingos, all made it onto the big screen.
Two Elvis Presley records made the R&B top five in 1957: "Jailhouse Rock"/"Treat Me Nice" at #1, and "All Shook Up" at #5, an unprecedented acceptance of a non-African American artist into a music category known for being created by blacks. Nat King Cole, a former jazz pianist who had had #1 and #2 hits on the pop charts in the early 1950s ("Mona Lisa" at #2 in 1950 and "Too Young" at #1 in 1951), had a record in the top 5 in the R&B charts in 1958, "Looking Back"/"Do I Like It".
In 1959, two black-owned record labels, one of which would become hugely successful, made their debut: Sam Cooke's Sar, and Berry Gordy's Motown Records. Brook Benton was at the top of the R&B charts in 1959 and 1960 with one #1 and two #2 hits. Benton had a certain warmth in his voice that attracted a wide variety of listeners, and his ballads led to comparisons with performers such as Cole, Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Lloyd Price, who in 1952 had a #1 hit with "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" regained predominance with a version of "Stagger Lee" at #1 and "Personality" at #5 for in 1959.
The white bandleader of the Bill Black Combo, Bill Black, who had helped start Elvis Presley's career, was popular with black listeners. Ninety percent of his record sales were from black people, and his "Smokey, Part 2" (1959) rose to the #1 position on black music charts. He was once told that "a lot of those stations still think you're a black group because the sound feels funky and black." Hi Records did not feature pictures of the Combo on early records.
1960s and laterSam Cooke's #5 hit "Chain Gang" is indicative of R&B in 1960, as is Chubby Checker's #5 hit "The Twist". By the early 1960s, the music industry category previously known as rhythm and blues was being called soul music, and similar music by white artists was labeled blue eyed soul. Motown Records had its first million-selling single in 1960 with The Miracles' "Shop Around", and in 1961, Stax Records had its first hit with Carla Thomas' "Gee Whiz! (Look at His Eyes)". Stax's next major hit, the Mar-Keys' instrumental "Last Night" (also released in 1961) introduced the rawer Memphis soul sound for which Stax became known.
British rhythm and bluesBritish rhythm and blues developed in the early 1960s, largely as a response to the recordings of American artists, often brought over by African American servicemen stationed in Britain during the Cold War, or merchant seamen visiting ports such as London, Liverpool, Newcastle on Tyne and Belfast. Many bands, particularly in the developing London club scene, tried to emulate black rhythm and blues performers, resulting in a "rawer" or "grittier" sound than the more popular "beat groups". Initially developing out of the trad jazz, skiffle and folk club scenes, early artists tended to focus on major blues performers and standard forms, particularly Alexis Korner, who acted as a mentor to members of The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, the Graham Bond Organisation and The Kinks. Although this "purist" interest in the blues would have an impact on major British rock musicians, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green and Jimmy Page, other artists adopted an interest in a wider range of rhythm and blues styles.
Most successful were the Rolling Stones, whose first eponymously titled album in 1964 largely consisted of rhythm and blues standards. They soon established themselves as the second most popular UK band (after The Beatles) and led a second wave of the "British Invasion" of the US pop charts. In addition to Chicago blues numbers, the Rolling Stones also covered songs by Chuck Berry and Bobby and Shirley Womack, with the latter's "It's All Over Now", giving them their first UK number one in 1964. Blues songs and influences continued to surface in the Rolling Stones' music in later years. Other London-based bands included the Yardbirds, the Kinks, Manfred Mann and the Pretty Things, beside more jazz-influenced acts like the Graham Bond Organisation, Georgie Fame and Zoot Money. Bands to emerge from other major British cities included The Animals from Newcastle on Tyne, The Moody Blues and Spencer Davis Group from Birmingham, and Them from Belfast. None of these bands played exclusively rhythm and blues, but it remained at the core of their early albums.
The British Mod subculture was musically centred on rhythm and blues and later soul music, performed by artists that were not available in small London clubs around which the scene was based. As a result a number of bands emerged to fill this gap, including Small Faces, The Creation, and most successfully The Who. The Who's early promotional material tagged them as producing "maximum rhythm and blues", but by about 1966 they moved from attempting to emulate American R&B to producing songs that reflected the Mod lifestyle. Many of these bands enjoyed national success in the UK, but found it difficult to break into the American market.
The British R&B bands produced music which was very different in tone from that of African American artists, often with more emphasis on guitars and sometimes with greater energy. They have been criticised for exploiting the massive catalogue of African American music, but it has also been noted that they both popularised that music, bringing it to British, world and in some cases American audiences, and helping to build the reputation of existing and past rhythm and blues artists.Most of these bands rapidly moved on from recording and performing American standards to writing and recording their own music, often leaving their R&B roots behind. Many helped pioneer psychedelic, and eventually progressive and hard rock, having a major influence of the nature and sound of rock music and meaning that rhythm and blues would be a major component of that sound. Influence
In Jamaica, R&B influenced the development of ska.
By the 1970s, the term rhythm and blues was being used as a blanket term for soul, funk, and disco. Around the same time, earlier R&B was an influence on British pub rock and later, the mod revival. Now the term R&B is almost always used instead of the full rhythm and blues, and mainstream use of the term usually refers to contemporary R&B, which is a newer version of soul and funk music that originated as disco faded from popularity