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  • 11/19/2006

The R&B History

Rhythm and Blues was and still is a term used for a number of post-war American popular music forms. The term is credited to Jerry Wexler when he was editing the charts in Billboard magazine (1947). The term was used in the chart listings from 1949 onwards and the charts in question encompassed a number of contemporary forms that emerged around that time.

John Lee Hooker

R&B clearly has its origins in the secular folk music of the American black musician - the Blues. For me, the Blues is essentially about emotional expression and is predominantly a vocal medium - although there are many examples of blues instrumentals to refute this assertion, it is the singer who expresses the feelings of the blues; and there are a number of vocal techniques which are used to create the desired effects. There are of course a range of blues instruments which accompany the central vocal performance (the bending of guitar strings, the classic bottleneck of so many of the great blues guitarists, the harmonica imitating the idioms of the human voice etc. etc.) and which clearly help to create the unique blues performance.

Although much has been written on the blues, the origins of the music are not particularly well documented. It is clearly influenced by the work songs of the deep South, ragtime, church music, minstrel shows and folk, even some forms of white popular music. The earliest and most frequently cited references to the form are to be found in the early 1900s and one of the early musical reference points is the W.C. Handy composition "Memphis Blues".

Rural blues developed mainly in the three key regions of Georgia, Texas and Mississippi. Excellent examples of the Georgia style include Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller, highly melodic and less intense than the Mississippi stylists such as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines.

Interestingly however, perhaps the first real blues recordings were made in the 1920s by the women of the blues, artists such as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox and the wonderful Bessie Smith. At this stage the performances were still largely based on their stage backgrounds, backed by the leading jazz players of the day.

Muddy Waters

One of the critical external factors which moved the blues form forward was the economic migration from the American South to the cities of the North by millions of black southern workers. The blues went with them, adapting to a more sophisticated urban environment. The themes of blues songs understandably became more urban, the solo bluesman was joined by a number of other musicians and the blues combo was born. The piano, harmonica, bass and drums and, most importantly of all, the electric guitar became the cornerstone of a sound of increasing rhythmic intensity.

Some of the major urban conurbations included Atlanta, Memphis and St. Louis but there are critical milestones to be found in any number of places. John Lee Hooker found a home in Detroit, the great T-Bone Walker established a following on the West Coast and Chicago exerted an influence of real significance - Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin" Wolf, Elmore James and Otis Spann were all based there.

The Blues has influenced just about everything musically which subsequently developed. Not least of which was the emergence of what came to be known as Rhythm and Blues.

Rhythm and Blues is perhaps most commonly understood as the term used to describe the sophisticated urban music that grew out of the urbanization of the blues which began in the 1930s. The single and most renowned exponent of this development is Louis Jordan who, originally with a relatively small band, began to make blues based records with humorous lyrics and a rhythm owing as much to boogie woogie as to the more traditional classic blues form. Jordan, Amos Milburn, Floyd Dixon, Charles Brown and even the great Joe Turner were all leading practitioners of what came to be known as jump blues. What distinguished many of these artists was the sheer breadth of material played - straight 12 bar, instrumentals, blues ballads and straight pop songs were all part of the scene at that time.

Howlin" Wolf

Within this R&B mix, there was plenty of room for different band formations - and many of the bigger bands were led by singers whose previous experience had been with the great bandleaders such as Count Basie and Lucky Millinder. Both Turner and Jimmy Witherspoon had spells with Count Basie. The smaller groups relied more on individual soloists taking the spotlight, many of the solos being taken by the alto and tenor sax players in the group. It is also worth noting that the electric guitar, having played such a prominent part in the urbanization of the blues, was here often relegated to an accompanying role - listen to Charles Brown records for example and you"ll hear virtually all the solos played by Brown at the piano. This is not universally the case of course. Some of the greatest "jump blues" came from T-Bone Walker, with his unique and highly influential guitar work very clearly to the fore.

The early centre of recorded rhythm and blues tended to be

Los Angeles, usually via a series of small independents such as Modern, RPM and Specialty. One of the major advances for the genre was the development of an R&B roster within Atlantic Records, where Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, along with engineer Tom Dowd, proved instrumental in shifting R&B to a wider audience. They showcased some of the great female names in R&B, including Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker and, of course, they recorded one of the greats of modern black American music - the wonderful Ray Charles.

Atlantic also worked closely with the likes of Clyde McPhatter and Chuck Willis throughout this period and such artists, along with the aforementioned Ray Charles, can now be seen as the clear links between the blues and R&B of the 1940s and 50s and the classic soul of the 1960s and early 70s. And let"s not forget the even smaller independents, such as Duke/Peacock, all of whom played pivotal roles in the spread of R&B and the evolution of the music into what became known as soul; and of course the Duke label was also responsible for recording the great Bobby Bland at the height of his not inconsiderable vocal powers.

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