Rhythm & Blues (R&B)

Unlike gospel, whose roots can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century, rhythm and blues (also called R&B) is a purely 20th century phenomenon. The style started in the late 1930s, but the term didn’t exist until 1949, when Jerry Wexler, who would eventually become president of Atlantic Records, coined it. That same year, Billboard began using it as a replacement for the term “race music,” which was generally used to describe music by black artists or aimed at black audiences.

Several factors contributed to the growth of R&B: the move of many black Americans to major cities in search of wartime employment, the invention of the electric guitar, and the discovery of the German-invented tape recorder by the music industry, which greatly simplified and improved the recording process. The rise of television in the late 1940s also helped, since it caused many radio station owners, who believed the new medium would make radio obsolete, to sell their stations at bargain prices to owners who geared their programming to urban blacks.

natkingcole.jpg – 6699 BytesRhythm and blues grew mainly out of blues from the Mississippi Delta and Chicago, but was also influenced by gospel music and Tin Pan Alley songs. Another big influence was the “jump blues” style of swing bands, particularly saxophonist Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, which he founded in 1938. A typical R&B ensemble consisted of a solo singer, whose style was modeled after the old-style “blues shouter,” a rhythm section (usually drums, bass and organ or piano) and a horn section, and in the late 1940s and early 50s it was also common to hear instrumental ensembles with a lead saxophone. In the Midwest and South the style was coarser, influenced by country blues, and featuring the guitar. And pianists such as Nat “King” Cole developed a smoother, ballad-oriented style that came to be known as “club blues.”

In the 1950s, although solo singers continued to be popular, R&B recordings began increasingly incorporating doo-wop, a type of close harmony vocal style, and the music began to be aimed at teenagers instead of adults. Chuck Berry and Little Richard were especially popular for the songs they wrote about subjects that reflected their audience’s realities and fantasies, like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”and “School Days.”

Although initially intended for black consumers, R&B recordings proved so popular with whites that eventually record companies began to promote the music to white audiences as well. By 1963, however, so much crossover had occurred between that category and other forms of popular music that Billboard discontinued the R&B chart and combined it with the one for pop music.