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History of Rhythm and Blues

Rhythm and blues was considered strictly black music. Although I am not part of the American culture, I consider my cultural heritage to be somewhat related to this culture. The black culture is a phenomenal subject representing the life style, imagination and accomplishments of people. One of the most outstanding and unique characteristic that makes this culture one of a kind is the music it has produced. Music has a common characteristic that is unique to all cultures throughout the world. However, the music’s form, or style, every culture in history includes music as an important part of everyday life. The four most popular categories of Black music are Blues, Jazz, Gospel, and Rhythm and Blues. Blues is an African American music that transverses a wide range of emotions and musical styles which is expressed in songs that verse injustice or express longing for a better life and lost loves, jobs, and money. Jazz is music that consists of musical instruments such as saxophones, flutes, and clarinets. Gospel music refers to African American Protestant vocal music that celebrates Christine Doctrine in emotive. Rhythm and Blues is a combination of the swinging rhythm of jazz and other “race” music with the lyrical content, sonic gestures, and with the format of the blues. Today I want to focus on Rhythm and Blues and the influence it has made on the black culture, and discuss the three major forms that made Rhythm and Blues distinguishable, and how it has change from jazzy/blues to hip hop/rap.

Rhythm and Blues music or R&B has a variety of different types of music. It is produced and supported primarily by blacks around the world. Beginning in the early 1940s, rhythm and blues music embraced genres as jump blues, club blues, black rock, and roll, doo wop, soul, Motown, funk, disco, and rap. It was first coined in 1949 by Jerry Wexler, who became prominent with Atlantic Records. Wexler used the term rhythm and blues as a synonym for black rock and roll in the early and mid 1950s. R&B provided the single greatest influence on popular music worldwide for much of the second half of the 20th century. The influence was traced in forms of rock music, country and western, gospel music, and jazz as well as in a variety of non western form of music known as worldbeat.

According to Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney in their book The Enjoyment of Music, Rhythm and blues is known for its predominantly vocal genre, featuring a solo singer accompanied by a small group including piano, guitar, acoustic bass, drums, and tenor saxophone. Its harmonies and structure are drawn from twelve bar blues and thirty two bar pop song form. As the name implies, the style is characterized by a strong, driving beat, usually in a quadruple meter. As the influence of various styles of Rhythm and Blues, black urban values have permeated a wide variety of other cultures, most notable of contemporary Euro American youth. (599)

According Christopher Handyside’s book Soul and R&B. Handyside states that Rhythm and Blues (R&B) was a name given to a fast paced style of music that was influenced by blues, gospel, and jazz. Handyside states that R&B also owed its style to “jump blues.” Jump blues was popular in the 1930s and 1940s, and was usually played by a large band that featured drums, saxophone, and trumpet, stand up bass, guitar, and other horns as well as a singer. By the late 1940s, jump blues had developed into R&B which took the form of shorter, catchier songs. Whereas jump blues often extended the songs with improvisation, R&B tended to use smaller bands that featured drums, piano, guitar, and bass to generate the same energy and excitement as a larger band. One of the most significant characteristics shared by both jump blues and R&B was the importance of a strong vocal singer. Handyside also states in the late 1940s than writer for the music magazine Billboard, Jerry Wexler, coined up the name “rhythm and blues” when he was editing the charts at the trade journal Billboard and found that the record companies issuing black popular music considered the chart names to be demeaning. The magazine changed the chart's name in its June 17, 1949, issue, having used the term rhythm and blues in news articles for the previous two years. Although the records that appeared on Billboard's rhythm and blues chart thereafter were in a variety of different styles, the term was used to encompass a number of contemporary forms that emerged at that time. (4-5)

Handyside states the origins of rhythm and blues originated from the sociological, industrial, and technological changes that took place in the Unites States just prior to and during World War II. Among theses changes was a widespread shift in American demographics. Popular music and new styles were created to meet the changing tastes of the demographic group, which lead to the development of urbane sounds of R&B. These sociological changes of the World War II period were accompanied by two significant technological developments, the invention of the electric guitar in the late 1930s and the newly relatively affordable discovery of the German invented tape recorder. With these two inventions it simplified the recording process. Enterprising individuals were able to start independent record companies, since the major record companies in the United States had little interest in R&B music. Newly formed independent companies began such as Atlantic, Chess, Specialty, and Modern were crucial for the production and distribution of R&B recordings.

According to online data form Encarta, another important industrial change was the rise of television in the United States in the late 1940s. For fear that television would make radio stations obsolete, many owners sold their radio stations. The new radio station owners turned to urbanized black Americans. These emergent black oriented radio stations allowed the new independent record companies to air the sounds of Rhythm and Blues to a black urban audience. Although the sounds of black urban music were being performed throughout the United States, the recordings of R&B began on two coasts. Big band jazz musician Louis Jordon formed a small ensemble in 1938, which he eventually named the Tympany Five. Jordon recorded primarily in the up tempo beat using the horn driven style of the jump blues. The jump blues style he originated rapidly spread among black musicians, with distinctive regional variants emerging in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Memphis, Tennessee. Jordon influenced every R&B artist in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. There were two other styles of R&B that were popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was the instrumental strain on jump blues and featuring a coarse, honking tenor saxophone sound. (Encarta)

In the early1950s the strains of Rhythm and Blues began to be directed towards teenagers instead of adults. The vocal group style of the 1940s had given way to the 1950s doo wop. As Handyside states Rhythm and Blues vocal groups or doo wop groups, were becoming more and more popular. It was called Doo wop because of the nonsense syllables the vocalists would often use. It featured close harmony singing at slower tempos. Artists such as the Five Keys, the Coasters and the Drifters, sang songs with lyric themes that voiced concerns of American teenagers. (13)

Motown soul music in the 1960s saw three important styles of R&B; the Chicago soul, which was influenced by gospel music songs, the Motown sound, which combined songwriting with a straightforward vocal, and southern soul, which was the most gospel influence style of R&B. Chicago soul was epitomized by the work of singer and songwriter Curtis Mayfield with the group the Impressions. Mayfield wrote songs of faith and inspiration which featured several different lead singers trading vocal lines in the call and response fashion.

In 1959 the Motown record company was founded by former boxer turned musician Berry Gordy Jr. Gordy was so successful at developing a recognizable sound for Motown that the company name quickly began to be a designation for a genre of music. The music he produced had its roots in gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues, but with the Mo-town Sound. Its success was also due in part to the songwriting efforts of Lamont Dozier and brothers Eddie and Brian Holland. Motown represented the sound of American youth through most of the 1960s and for an independent record company, achieved unprecedented success. The Motown artist of the 1960s included Diana Ross with vocal group the Supremes, the one and only, singer and songwriter Smokey Robinson with the group the Miracles, and the Temptations. The majority of Motown artist were vocal groups that updated the doo wop style of the 1950s with a heavy, even beat.

Southern soul was originated by James Brown and Ray Charles. On many of the early soul records, Charles would take a traditional religious song and transform it into a secular paean to love. Handyside states Rhythm and Blue’s first true superstar and all around musical innovator was Ray Charles. It is not often that one can point to a single song and claim that it invented a new genre, but this was the case with Charles. In 1954 Charles hit song “I Got a Woman” was the popular notion of “soul” music. He took the gospel song “I Got Religion” and changed the lyrics from a song about God to a song about a woman. The music’s bouncing feel was straight out of church and had a strong sense of syncopation. By adding a gospel flavor to the music, Charles had reconnected R&B with the spiritual roots and rhythms of African Americans. (11)

Handyside states James Brown was a contemporary of Ray Charles. Browns innovations in soul music, style, and live performance had earned him the nickname “The Godfather of Soul.” Brown had a raspy, soulful voice that he combined with his fancy dance moves. By the mid 1960s he was taking soul in a whole new direction. He laid the ground work for what would be called funk music. Southern soul had remained a significant presence in popular music throughout the 1970s. (19)

In the late 1960s at the height of soul music’s popularity, there were significant changes and cultural views began to be articulated by many black Americans. By the end of the 1970s, the soul/R&B sound had been eclipsed by the music it had influenced, disco and funk. With the help of James Brown, funk music began to emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Funk was a looser form of soul music. It was based around the groove of the bass guitar, funk songs would stretch out well past the usual three to four minutes of a soul song. According to Handyside, funk’s appeal was limited, and in the late 1960s, rock artist improvised and broke the rules they were also stretching their songs out into extended “jams.” Funk de-emphasized melody and harmony, bringing rhythm, it often had loud horn sections, scratchy guitar rhythms that extended into wild guitar solos, and was short on lyrical content. Funk musicians tended to favor one line sayings. This style was adopted by a number of artists. Musicians synthesized the funk style with elements from white rock music. (33)

Disco rivaled funk’s popularity in the early 1970s and surpassed it by the middle of the decade. Hanydside states, like funk, disco was a dance oriented style. It was born out of funk, mixed with the slick Philly Soul. It was named not for any particular characteristic of its music, but after the places where it was originally played, the discotheques. (38) By the mid 1970s funk’s grooves had been smoothed over to help create disco. In contrast to funk, disco was dominated by arrangements featuring strings and synthesizers to boost the important beats. Disco was viewed by many as a substantial treat to rock music. It gave rise to a handful of highly original ensembles, as Earth, Wind & Fire and the Fatback Band. Although the craze for disco eventually waned, it was an important source of rhythms and sounds in hip hop, techno and house music. (39)

According to online data from Encarta, in the late 1980s and 1990s disco gave way to other genres like hip hop and rap music. By the early 1990s, hip hop had become a major force in music. Hip hop began when DJs such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Africa Bambaataa would mix beats or “breaks” of funk and disco records so that people could dance to the beat continuously. In 1991 Mary J. Blige teamed up with producer Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and added the hip hop attitude to R&B. Blige was one of the first artists to blend urban, contemporary R&B singing with hip hop beats, rhymes, and attitude.

Machlis and Forney states that after a while people began to rhyme or “rap” over these beats. The first rap recording was “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugarhill Gang in 1979. The technological developments of the early 1980s, including the use of synthesizers and other electronic devices, paved the way for rap, a highly rhythmic style of musical patter that had been popular with New York audiences in the 1970s and later developed wider appeal. Run DMC was largely responsible for the commercialization of rap, their collaboration with Aerosmith on the cover recording of the 1977 hit song Walk This Way introduced the style to white audiences. A year later, conscious rap found its prominent voice in the group Public Enemy. Public Enemy produced several highly influential rap albums. Rap in its diversified forms has continued as one of the most popular types of African American music. (606-607)

In the late 1980s rap’s controversial subgenres, gangsta rap raised with the debut album Straight Outta Compton. (Encarta) Machlis and Forney states gangsta rap of the 1990s has further disseminated the style through graphic descriptions of inner city realities. The violent shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and Notorious B.I.G in 1997, has highlighted the violence associated with this musical style. (607)

Rhythm and blues did more than just influence other music. It allowed African Americans to sing about their own experiences in their own style and in their own words. Today it is still here in dance parties on Saturday night’s and in churches on Sunday morning. Rhythm and Blues and soul continue to thrive now even more so than rock ‘n’ roll, which dominated the mainstream for so many years. From the classic soul singing of artists such as D’Angelo and Maxwell, to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, to the eclectic experiment of Andre’ of the hip hop group Outkast. These musicians carry on the tradition of earlier innovators such as Ray Charles, Prince, and Michael Jackson. R& B has by far taken over in the 21st century. Although Rhythm and Blue was considered strictly black music, it is loved today by people of all races.

One thing we all know is that music of all kinds is the expression of emotion. From folk songs, to religious chants; the range and diversity of music is almost incomprehensible. It has been said that the best way to learn about the people, and its culture, is to observe and listen to their music. Music is all powerful because it stimulates, manipulates and dissipates our moods through the emotions. Music, in our culture, functions in many ways; it can make work more enjoyable, create a fraternity among men, encourage a spirit of worship, and be an expression of emotion. Music can make hard work seem easier, or rather, make it tolerable. If you don’t believe me next time you drive past a house that is undergoing construction or anywhere people are doing hard manual labour, stop and listen for music. Quite often there is a radio blasting.

Rhythm and blues music in the 21st century has been used to encourage a spirit of worship and to communicate with God. Many churches today begin their services with some form of worship music, whether it’s all through song or just playing of the Organ. In some form it’s designed to gear people’s minds to hear a word from God. My Church in particular has one hour of worship before the service begins.

Although rhythm and blues is not a favorite listen to music by many, we can all agree that its style is the most powerful on earth depending on your age. It can make you fall in love, strike down an enemy, or weep for lost friends. Its style is also a source of reconciliation, exhilaration, and hope that never fails” I thank God for blessing many musicians with the gift of music, If it hadn’t been for one particular song I might be married to my husband today. Without music in everyday life, the world would be an extremely hostile and maybe even an ugly place to be. Music has become the most powerful freedom given by God.

Works Cited

  • Handyside, Chris. A History of Soul and R&B. A history of American music. Oxford: Heinemann Library, 2006.
  • Machlis, Joseph, Kristine Forney, The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
  • Rhythm and blues. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 17  May  2008. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9063492.
  • Rhythm-and-Blues Music, Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 http://encarta.msn.com 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation.

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