Dr. Steven Lewis, curator of the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, has a uniquely broad-based understanding of musical culture’s evolution and context. We asked him to guide us through the history of R&B and help us understand the political, racial and social underpinnings of its development.

What is R&B?
R&B — rhythm and blues — is a very broad umbrella term encompassing the Black popular music that emerged after World War II. It’s everything from the small jump-blues combos of the late 1940s to the funk bands of the 1970s to New Jack Swing in the late ’80s and early ’90s and beyond. Very generally speaking, you could say that R&B is African-American dance music from the beginning of the mid-20th century to the present.

There’s enormous variety under the heading, which is related to its role as a replacement for the designation “race records,” itself a very broad umbrella term for Black popular music. So originally, the label “R&B” had more to do with the people the music was meant to connect with—black audiences—than the music itself.

How would you characterize the transition from the swing era to this period of jump blues? It constellated around the juke joints and bars and clubs where it was being played as dance music, right?
The transition was the result of the war’s effect on African-American social life. You have men being drafted; it becomes harder to keep a big band of 12 or 15 pieces together, so you have smaller ensembles. At the same time, you have the closure of the large dance halls that characterized the swing era, so you have smaller venues.

The big bands branched off in a couple of different directions. On the one hand, you have the rise of modern jazz or bebop, a style based on the combo, and you have the growth of jump blues. For instance, Louis Jordan played saxophone with Chick Webb’s swing orchestra in the 1930s and later founded his own small combo that specialized in a fusion of jazz and blues.

Is it fair to say the music became more earthy?
The themes were meant to be accessible and relatable, like we’ve seen in the blues in earlier periods. The songs were bold and fun as well as catchy. Louis Jordan is a good example here, too; if you look at his music, there are references to things like fish fries [“Saturday Night Fish Fry,” 1949] and a strong element of humor. You had ballads and slower, more romantic songs, but the emphasis was definitely on more upbeat material.

This was also a precursor to rock.
“Rock and roll” was first and foremost a marketing term used to sell R&B to white consumers. So yes, what has become known as rock ’n’ roll grows out of this same combination of jazz and blues, this African-American dance music that emerged in the mid-1940s. The artists who became popular in the 1950s, like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, served as inspiration for the white groups that came over during the British Invasion. People like The Beatles, for example, were very much influenced by the Black R&B acts that preceded them.

And it isn’t long after rock’s first big spike that you have the arrival of Motown.
When we talk about rock ’n’ roll, we’re talking about R&B as a form that by the 1950s had become a crossover music, which often meant diluting the connection to African-American culture to make it more accessible—you could say less threatening—to white audiences. What Motown did that was really exciting and really original was to take that crossover approach but reassert the African-American fundamentals of the music at the same time.

You have this excellence in songwriting, these sophisticated, really catchy songs, and you also have a strong focus on the backbeat—the incorporation of things like handclaps and tambourines that come out of the African-American church—the combination‚Ä®of which had the kind of mass appeal that furthered the crossover popularity of the music.

These records are proudly Black.
Proudly Black and universally appealing, the sound of young America.

Though if you compare them to Memphis soul records, they’re much more demure.
“Demure” is a good word for it. The gritty sound you get from Memphis, which is most closely associated with Stax, is something white audiences didn’t really embrace until a few years later.

How did Motown figure into the conversation about civil rights?
Berry Gordy used the label to amplify the message of the movement. In the museum, we have a copy of a recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “‘The Great March to Freedom,’ which he gave in June 1963 at Detroit’s Cobo Hall,” which was released on the Gordy imprint.

You have this enormously successful African-American entrepreneur, who has developed this incredible formula for making music with universal appeal, using that success to support the most important social and political movement affecting African-Americans at that time. He’d built an enormous platform by the mid-’60s, which he leveraged to play a crucial role in advancing civil rights.

As you said, a few years later we see the growth of soul. Can you talk a little bit about how the convergence of Saturday night and Sunday morning is reflected in the music?
Right, the fusion of the secular and the sacred. The boundary between them has always been permeable. In African-American music at least as far back as the 1920s, you have people like Blind Willie Johnson, who’d perform gospel songs in a blues style. This is important to the development of R&B because whereas from the mid-1940s through the late 1950s you have a style based around small combos playing jazz and blues with vocal harmonies stemming from the Black barbershop-quartet tradition, by the ’60s you have the increasing importance of the gospel influence in Black popular music.

Ray Charles was fusing the two as early as the mid-’50s, and he got a lot of pushback; it was controversial at the time. No one had presented the fluidity between the secular and the sacred as explicitly as Ray Charles, actually borrowing from sacred music and using it in a secular context. And you have Sam Cooke, who starts out as a gospel musician, with The Soul Stirrers, and becomes a secular artist but never loses the church influence.

So the influence of artists like Charles and Cooke in the late ’50s and early ’60s leads to a sub-genre of African-American popular music with a very pronounced gospel influence. And then of course you get people like Aretha Franklin, who comes out of the church and becomes a mainstream star but like Cooke, never loses touch with her gospel roots and, in fact, continues to make gospel records.

If you look at gospel music of the period, you also see that melding; with the 1967 recording of “Oh Happy Day” by The Edwin Hawkins Singers, you see the coming together of the secular and the sacred in a very deliberate and open way, whereas before it was more implicit.


How did these currents continue into the 1970s?
In the ’60s you primarily had independent labels like Motown and Stax catering to Black Americans. But with the crossover success of African-American artists, the major labels developed divisions specifically targeted to African-American markets. This results in a relative homogenization of the music, a flattening of the cultural elements we associate with R&B. Some artists, I think unfairly, were labeled “sellouts,” criticized for not having the same grounding in the tradition. This is more a reflection of commercial pressures than the integrity of the musicians; the pressure to sell records to this very broad audience leads to decisions being made for commercial, not artistic, reasons.

This continues into the 1980s with accusations of not being Black enough, a charge leveled at Whitney Houston, for example. Again, it was unfair, but she and artists like Lionel Richie who’d had that crossover success are examples of how the major labels were able to cash in on popularizing this music.

Then there’s another transition, with digital technology changing the process of making music.
Yes, you see R&B adapting to hip-hop, which is something that continues to the present day. Beginning in the mid- to late ’80s with New Jack Swing, there is an increased blending of technology like sampling and drum machines into R&B.

Which leads to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and the rise of Janet Jackson, who can be viewed as a spiritual predecessor of SZA, Jhené Aiko, Summer Walker, Jazmine Sullivan…
… and H.E.R. These are young women artists writing about things that are very personal but also very relatable. That confessional quality is something you can trace further back, all the way to the blues. Though what’s happening now in R&B remains inseparable from the relationship it’s developed with hip-hop. So you have this music that is connected to these earliest traditions, which imparts a timeless quality, but very much of the moment.

How does the museum approach all of this?
We have a gallery called One Nation Under a Groove, the largest in the museum, in which we cover enormous musical and historical ground. As we talk about the development of R&B, we also explore the music’s relationship to key issues and moments in Black history. We talk about the role musicians like Sam Cooke played in the Civil Rights Movement; we talk about the early crossover of R&B and how the music was co-opted via cover records; we talk about white-supremacist anxieties about the popularity of the music among white teenagers. All the way to the growth of African-American broadcasting companies like BET and Urban One, both of which cater to African-American audiences and are marketing this Black popular music in a Black-led framework, and beyond. We touch on many, many different areas while talking about how the music developed over the decades from the post-war years to today.

If you had to pick one artist in the R&B tradition who’s especially meaningful to you, who would it be?
Curtis Mayfield is really special to me because he’s one of my mom’s favorites. When I was growing up, R&B was the ambient music in the house because both my parents were in their twenties in the ’70s; this was the music of their youth. I vividly remember hearing “It’s All Right,” which Curtis Mayfield wrote when he was lead singer for The Impressions… Then, when I was a teenager, I sought out his other work and really enjoyed the soundtrack to Superfly, which is a classic, of course… Later I got heavily into jazz as I was kind of figuring myself out, but I’ve never lost my affection for the stuff I heard when I was a kid. My mom and I are close and I always associate Curtis with her. For that reason, he’s probably my favorite R&B artist. But there are so many greats…

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