Rhythm & Blues
From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The Rhythm & Blues chapter was written by Ian Hoare and John Collins
The history of modem pop and rock music consists essentially of the eruption of black styles into the white-dominated entertainment industry. It is not a question of black forms ‘influencing the mainstream’, as some accounts would have it. In an aesthetic if not a commercial sense, the black popular tradition is in itself better described as the mainstream.
Blacks in America have, of course, been heavily influenced by the majority musical cuIture for three centuries. But because they have generally had to absorb and re-create those influences in the context of exclusion from or repression by white society, mixing the ‘European’ elements with what had been retained from Africa, their music developed a separate identity; and as particular styles were adopted by, and adapted for, the mass entertainment market, the black audience continued to demand that its own distinctive tastes were satisfied.
This was clearly the case in the 1950s. Records from the ‘rhythm & blues’ field were promoted to a young white audience as ‘rock & roll’, and white performers began to make use of the black styles. For a short time, an interaction took place which led to the rhythm & blues charts becoming unprecedentedly similar to the national pop charts. But as older show-business values reasserted themselves, rock & roll lost much of its appeal for blacks, and the rhythm & blues category had regained its importance by the end of the decade.
The concern of this chapter is to look briefly at the main kinds of black music which gave birth to the rock & roll phenomenon, at music which survived with black audiences during the rock & roll era but made little impression on the pop market at the time, and at the new kinds of rhythm & blues which came to prominence after rock & roll had lost its momentum, and which paved the way for the rise of soul music.
Between the two world wars, black music had at first tended to develop according to the distinction, which evolved around New Orleans, between self-accompanying singers and dance or march bands. To put it crudely, on the one hand there was the multitude of styles known as the blues, and on the other hand there was jazz. But there were also band blues of various kinds, which gradually drifted further from jazz as amplification arrived, taking over its dance function. Furthermore, solo country blues performers who moved to the bigger towns and the cities were often forming their own instrumental groups.
The development of this heritage in the rhythm & blues era was profoundly affected by new social and economic conditions. The migration to the cities accelerated rapidly during the forties; as many blacks left the South then as in the previous thirty years. This shift was accompanied by the establishment of dozens of small, independent record labels specializing in music for the Negro community, and a similar mushrooming of black radio stations. National, as against regional, distribution of black records began to get underway in 1945, and the following year the trade magazine Billboard introduced its ‘race music’ chart, changing the title to ‘rhythm & blues’ three years later. By 1950 the latest black music was available to an extent not imagined previously,and its commercial exploitation was primarily in the hands of people outside the major record companies.
The music itself was in ferment, although a number of basic styles and regional characteristics can be distinguished. Performers moving up from the Mississippi Delta via Memphis to Chicago – such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James – played what became known as ‘bar blues’, using amplification to transform the patterns of soloists like Robert Johnson and Son House into a raucous, aggressive combo sound. In sharp contrast was the predominantly restrained, melancholy approach of the club bluesmen and balladeers, including Percy Mayfield, Cecil Gant, Charles Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter and the early Ray Charles, who were particularly prominent on the West Coast.
Other blues performers played in the country’s dance-halls in a wide variety of overlapping styles. In the immediate post-war years, several big blues-based touring bands, such as Buddy Johnson’s, were popular, one of the last to emerge being the Johnny Otis Show. Most of these bands died out in the early fifties, although their singers and saxophonists frequently carried on as attractions with smaller groups. It was against this background that many of the city blues ‘criers’ and ‘shouters’ came to the fore, Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Faye Adams, Roy Brown, B. B. King, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker and others, few of whom achieved commercial success among whites.
The handful of established rhythm & blues artists who did cross over into rock & roll were mainly from the so-called jump combos. These groups took their cue chiefly from Louis Jordan, whose novelty and boogie material secured him considerable success in the forties. Elsewhere, Ike Turner, Jimmy McCracklin, Jimmy Reed, Wilbert Harrison and Chuck Willis all made their contributions. But the most important source of inspiration, innovation and popular success in this field was the dance blues of New Orleans. Bandleader Dave Bartholomew was the key figure here. The musicians who gathered round him, men like drummer Earl Palmer and tenor saxist Lee Allen, laid the foundations for the careers of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Larry Williams, Lloyd Price and Shirley and Lee, among others. New Orleans rhythm & blues continued to develop on its own terms after rock & roll hysteria had subsided, notably from 1960 under the influence of composer/arranger Allen Toussaint on the Minit label.
The term ‘rhythm & blues’ was not inappropriate for most of these styles, but it was a rather misleading label for two other vital strands in the popular black music of the time, the vocal groups and gospel.
A large number of black vocal harmony groups were successful in the rhythm & blues market in the late forties and the fifties. Usually taking the Inkspots as their basic model, their trend was towards sweet ballads of innocence and vulnerability, sung with delicacy. It was hardly the ‘jungle music’ which the white music establishment saw to its horror in rock &roll; yet the groups appealed almost exclusively to blacks until The Orioles broke into the pop charts in 1953 with the country song ‘Crying In The Chapel ‘. The Orioles never repeated that success, but other black group records, The Chords ‘ ‘Sh-Boom’, for example – were hits soon afterwards, though the performances remained relatively unobtrusive. The group sound went on to become a vital current in rock & roll in its own right, but its initial significance lay in preparing the mass audience for the more decidedly alien music that was to come.
It was primarily through vocal groups that church singing became an important source of popular styles. Although there were traces of gospel in the work of several city blues performers, particularly Roy Brown, it seems that the first conscious attempt to make hits with a religious feel came from Billy Ward’s Dominoes, formed in 1950. Their lead singer, Clyde McPhatter, went on to get together his own group, the Drifters, in 1953, and recorded a series of brilliant rhythm & blues hits for Atlantic which straddled the gap between sacred and secular.
The demand among blacks for the powerful emotional expressiveness of the gospel-tinged performers grew steadily during the second half of the fifties. But it wasn’t until 1959 that the record companies began to market the church based styles to whites with any notable conviction or success. This was done through the development of ‘uptown rhythm & blues’, in which the new rhythm & blues vocal sounds were packaged in a manner apparently intended to be acceptable to both black and white radio stations. Producers Leiber and Stoller, Phil Spector, Bert Berns took control, sometimes working with the new ‘factory’ song-writers,such as Goffin and King, Burt Bacharach or Mann and Weil, And Bob Crewe demonstrated that the desired effect could even be achieved using a white act, the Four Seasons. The genre was dominated by groups, but the same period saw gospel-based solo singers – including Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, presented in a variety of orchestral settings, usually to their detriment. The writing was on the wall, however. The early sixties rhythm & blues hits of James Brown and Motown pointed to a far more integrated approach to accompaniment and production. Soul was in the making.
The spirit of fifties rhythm & blues has survived, nevertheless. The funk-jazz of the seventies arguably has more in common with the black dance combos of that time than with the classic soul of the sixties. And the recent comeback by veteran cityblues artist Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson as a disco star provided exceptionally startling evidence of the continuity of black pop.
Essential Rhythm & Blues Singles
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
A seminal New Orleans rocker, with Fats Domino’s piano and the Bartholomew band accompanying a pleading blues vocal.
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters
Work With Me Annie
The beginning of the Annie sequence, which established Ballard’s intense style among black audiences, but was too risque for the pop market. (Ballard’s other rhythm & blues hits included the 1958 original of ‘The Twist’, which was basically the Drifters’ ‘What’cha Gonna Do’ with new words.)
Pledging My Love
This plaintive ballad of disarming simplicity and directness hastened the mass acceptance of black styles. Ace killed himself playing Russian roulette in December 1954.
One of the best-remembered vocal group hits, perfectly evoking the gentle side of rock & roll.
Little Willie John
A much-covered performance by one of the singers most responsible for bringing gospel depth and weight into rhythm & blues. He died in prison in 1968 serving a sentence for manslaughter.
A singer with a remarkable expressive range, LaVern Baker was dogged by cover versions and mediocre material until this song made her a top Rock & Roll act.
C. C. Rider
Willis was a fine blues, rock and ballad singer who died in 1958 after making some fifteen rhythm & blues hits. This subtle performance was a pop
Wilson, who replaced Clyde McPhatter in the Dominoes, had a dazzling vocal technique and stage act, but he frequently seemed illsuited to his material and arrangements, lurching from wild rockers to quasi-operatic ballads. This double-sided hit shows the latter approach in ‘Night’, while ‘Doggin’ Around’ gives a better indication of his soul potential.
Love Potion Number 9
As well as raw harmony ballads, the Clovers’ long run of fifties rhythm & blues hits for Atlantic included novelty dance numbers, culminating in this Coasters-style smash. It became a British beat standard.
This seemingly effortless yet compelling version of the Leiber-Stoller song was a huge hit for Harrison, who is a durable and highly distinctive performer.
Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs
This group, previously known as the Gladiolas, faded away after cutting the original of ‘Little Darling’ in 1957, until the inimitable ‘Stay’, with its wailing falsetto lead, soared to Number 1.
Will You Love Me Tomorrow
A summit of pop rhythm & blues, produced by Luther Dixon, with Goffin and King’s most touching and graceful composition ideally suited to Shirley Owens’s wistful lead vocal.
The Phil Upchurch Combo
You Can’t Sit Down
One of the most exciting instrumental hits, suggesting a line of descent from the raunchy fifties playing of Bill Doggett to seventies jazz-funk.
Watch Your Step
An explosive gospel-blues rocker which led to the Beatles’ guitar intro on ‘I Feel Fine’ but left Parker in obscurity until his death in 1973.
Ben E. King
Stand By Me
King’s best solo record and a vital link between uptown rhythm & blues and the soul era.
Duke of Earl
The sound of the streets at its most coarse, gimmicky and magnetic – with a future soul star taking the lead.
Hi Heel Sneakers
A classically straightforward blues which has become a rock standard – although no version has matched the original’s warmth, or its brilliant guitar work.
He’s So Fine
One of the most infectious uptown girl-group hits, this topped the charts in 1963 and was recognized seven years later to be the source of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’.
Baby Scratch My Back
The southern Louisiana bluesman, whose ‘I’m A King Bee’ was covered by the Rolling Stones, achieved considerable pop success with this lazy, gritty novelty.
Ike and Tina Turner
Goodbye, So Long
‘It’s Gonna Work Out Fine’ (1961) and ‘River Deep Mountain High’ (1966) are perhaps the most lauded of the Turners’ many records, but this ferociously paced boogie is straight from the molten core of rhythm & blues.