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R&B: A LOVE STORY, PART 1

We proudly present the first installment of writer Miles Marshall Lewis' sprawling narrative of R&B in the 20th century, the core of our recently published Black Music Month special.

Overture

H.E.R. accepted her golden statuette for Best Original Song at the 2021 Academy Awards draped in a purple cape-and-hood ensemble, paying homage to Prince circa 1985. He’d worn a sequined cowl in his signature color when accepting his own Oscar, for Original Song Score for Purple Rain, looking beautifully, beatifically Prince. In a year still heavily beset by the coronavirus, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences relegated H.E.R.’s scintillating performance of Judas and the Black Messiah’s “Fight for You” to the pre-show telecast. But the win for her protest song spoke volumes about Black Lives Matter, its ties to the ’60s liberation movement of the Black Panther Party and the never-ending vitality of what we still call R&B.

On social media at any given moment, you may come across a clip of Stephanie Mills and Teddy Pendergrass setting “Feel the Fire” aflame in a sensual duet or Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin behind a piano on Soul Train singing “Ooo Baby Baby” and—depending on your age—regret that today’s R&B doesn’t impart the same feels. The truth is, from the jump blues of Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)” to the hypnagogic vibe of The Weeknd’s After Hours and all points in between, rhythm and blues has restlessly, relentlessly evolved. Point to a prime example of the genre—say, Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”—and there will be another, equally R&B song that sounds nothing like it, such as Frank Ocean’s “Nike.”

Charting the grand progression of R&B over its approximately 80-year history means visualizing the sweaty brows of Baptist preachers of the 1940s and the Chitlin’ Circuit genesis of rock in the ’50s; the secular pulpit of Ray Charles’ piano; the satiny sophistication of Nat King Cole and Motown; the psychedelic sartorial style of Sly & the Family Stone and Labelle; the pan-African regality of Isaac Hayes; the gender-fluid androgyny of Little Richard, Sylvester and Prince; the Afrofuturistic adornments of Erykah Badu; and much, much more.

What cultural politics and musical mashups laid the foundation for rhythm and blues in its youngest days? The earliest R&B song I remember jumping out at me from FM radio as a child was most likely “ABC” by The Jackson 5. But is there any consensus on what constitutes the earliest R&B song ever? Is it possible to draw a through line from the juke-joint jams turned out by small combos in the post-war era to the bedroom bops now blowing up streaming services? Can we truly just know R&B when we hear it? Or is the whole genre categorization actually rooted in an arbitrary, caste-based labeling arrangement from forever ago?

In the immortal words of D’Angelo, “We gon’ see what the deal.”

From the Jump

Understanding these United States from my vantage as an African-American, I’d personally assume that the origin of the term “rhythm and blues” stems from racial separation. Even without the help of Google or something authoritative like Nelson George’s The Death of Rhythm & Blues, an educated guess presumes that record labels, radio and record stores needed a way to demarcate white music from Black music back in the days of legalized segregation. If the newfangled music of Elvis and Bill Haley & His Comets was going to mean big money from the disposable income of a newly lucrative teenage demographic, the genre would need a safe enough distance from what Ike Turner and Bo Diddley were doing. From what I know of this country, America naturally would have called one music “rock ’n’ roll” and the Black-fronted other something else—even if they weren’t two sides of the same coin but the exact same coin. So, “rhythm and blues,” then.

As it happens, that’s an accurate enough capsule history right there.

So-called “race” records date back to the 1920s. Marketed and promoted to African-Americans by the white-owned likes of Okeh Records and RCA Victor, they ran the gamut of gospel, blues, jazz, even comedy for and by Black people. Billboard charted the success of these releases on its Race Records Juke Box chart starting in 1945 (a refresh of its Harlem Hit Parade chart, launched in ’42). Rhythm and blues truly entered the lexicon when Jerry Wexler, who would one day be a massively influential producer and label exec but was then a Billboard scribe, suggested further renaming the chart with “a label more appropriate to more enlightened times,” as he wrote in his memoir, Rhythm and the Blues. But R&B had been around; Billboard had mentioned the phrase in reference to vaudeville as early as 1943.

But what was it? Before “rock ’n’ roll” became a thing, R&B meant music by African-American musicians playing boogie-woogie grooves, adding electric guitar and bass to sax-and-piano ensembles smaller than jazz’s big-band model, with lead singers bending and blending blues- and gospel-style vocals.

Sociologists have long argued (to largely deaf ears) that race is a social construct, a human-invented classification system made up to benefit white supremacy. Well, R&B as a classifier is literally the invention of a music-industry publication, a term that morphed into a radio format on stations like Atlanta’s WERD and WGST in the late ’40s and has been with us ever since. In the fall of 2020, Justin Bieber complained on Instagram that his album Changes was nominated in the Grammys’ pop categories instead of R&B. And so, even in the present moment, R&B remains code for Black music by Black people.

Musically, forerunners of the style are legion. Note especially Wynonie Harris, whose 1948 #1 “Good Rockin’ Tonight” remained on Billboard’s race chart for 25 weeks.

No one looms larger in this context, however, than Louis Jordan, peerless purveyor of jump blues. Little Richard honed his stagecraft singing “Caldonia” on the Chitlin’ Circuit. James Brown also put his stamp on the song. “Caldonia” is Louis Jordan. B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and countless others have kept “Let the Good Times Roll” in the public consciousness as the celebratory rave-up it’s been since 1946. “Let the Good Times Roll” is Louis Jordan. Latchkey kids from the ’70s (like me), babysat by Tom & Jerry cartoons, would act out “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)” in the sandbox, recreating the episode where Tom seduces his favorite pussycat, Toodles. “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)” is Louis Jordan.

The life of Louis Thomas Jordan is ripe for an Ava DuVernay biopic. It must not be forgotten, certainly not when recounting the history of rhythm and blues. A bona fide superstar in the 1940s, Jordan made movies and did TV cameos, performed duets with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and was crowned King of the Jukebox for dominating the race chart and crossing over to white audiences. His producer, Milt Gabler, transplanted the lifeblood of Jordan’s music to Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”—the song that delivered rock ’n’ roll to the mainstream once and for all.

Pinpointing the first R&B song is surely an exercise in futility, but look no further than Louis Jordan for the genre’s first guiding light. Born in Brinkley, Ark., in 1908, Jordan was raised by his father (a music teacher and bandleader), his grandmother and an aunt. Playing saxophone with his dad’s band as a teenager, he was a professional musician by the late 1920s. After singing and blowing horn with Chick Webb’s orchestra, he founded the Tympany Five, infusing their infectious music with boogie-woogie, jazz and jump blues. The group’s songs would inspire the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to induct Jordan in 1987 as both the Father of Rhythm & Blues and the Grandfather of Rock ’n’ Roll. Louis Jordan died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 1975 having influenced a generation of singers and musicians who changed the course of music worldwide with the earliest sounds of R&B.

The sobriquets bestowed upon Jordan by the Rock Hall speak to his vaunted position straddling R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. “To my recollection, Louis Jordan was the first that I heard play rock ’n’ roll,” reads a quote from Chuck Berry that appears in David Hajdu’s book Love for Sale: Pop Music in America. In a 1950s TV interview, Fats Domino said, “Rock ’n’ roll is nothing but rhythm and blues, and we’ve been playing it for years down in New Orleans.” So what’s the difference between R&B and rock ‘n’ roll? Was there ever really any?

Joyful Noise

 The answer probably lies with soul.

It’s no accident that so many of the greatest R&B performers of all time—Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Whitney Houston—came out of the African-American church. Where the term “R&B” might have been fabricated, “soul” is plainly eternal. As a religious music, Black gospel was popularized outside of Baptist and Pentecostal Christian churches in the 1920s and ’30s by singers like Arizona Dranes, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (whose electric and electrifying guitar would profoundly influence countless rock players) and the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson. The sanctified inflections and sacred expressions of Black spirituals included moaning, humming, handclaps, foot stomps, call-and-response, passionate melisma and sometimes inexact vocal phrasings borne straight from the spirit. It’s the wooo! of Little Richard, the uhn! of James Brown. That delivery has always separated African-American music from its more saccharine imitations—we all know the difference between The Jackson 5 and The Osmond Brothers.

In the award-winning 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, singer-songwriter Ben Harper asserts that Motown was America’s introduction to soul music. This is certainly true. But the Detroit-born label wouldn’t emerge until 1960. Before then, The “5” Royales, out of Winston-Salem, N.C., segued from a gospel quintet into what Billboard was calling R&B by the early ’50s, with hits like “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Think” (both covered, to even wider acclaim, by The Mamas & the Papas and James Brown, respectively). Other soulful singers—like Sam Cooke—abandoned gospel for the more popular secular  music market. Cooke’s debut post-gospel single, 1957’s “You Send Me,” topped both the R&B and pop charts, launching his short-lived career making a joyful noise unto both Black and white America and claiming his scepter as the King of Soul—which, sadly, he would soon brandish only in the hereafter; he died in 1964 of a gunshot wound at the age of 33.

Speaking of soul royalty, the legendary Ruth Brown, Queen of R&B, also grew up singing gospel hymns. At 22, she was already known for the 1950 cut “Teardrops From My Eyes,” the first of five #1 hits she’d land on the R&B chart. New Jersey-born Faye Adams, discovered and hand-delivered to Atlantic Records by Ruth Brown, transitioned from harmonizing spirituals with her sisters on local Newark radio to scoring her own gospel-inflected 1953 hit, “Shake a Hand.”

Black gospel, then, had a massive hand in the creation of rhythm and blues. The enormous influence of Ray Charles—perhaps the ultimate musical modifier of gospel—plainly deserves its own section in any history of R&B. Not to mention the legacy of “Mr. Excitement,” Jackie Wilson, without whose master showmanship in the 1950 and ’60s there might have been no Michael Jackson.

Simply stated, the category of soul music is freely interchanged with R&B, which is essentially understood as a catch-all term for Black people’s popular music. The difference, if any, lies in soul’s greater emphasis on its spiritual roots. David Ritz (the co-author of memoirs by Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and others) has written: “If rock ’n’ roll, represented by performers such as Elvis Presley, can be seen as a white reading of rhythm and blues, soul is a return to African-American music’s roots—gospel and blues.”

Notably, in August 1969 Billboard changed its Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart to the Best Selling Soul Singles chart. Songs as diverse (and decidedly secular) as Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” and War’s “Low Rider” sat at the top at various points, until Billboard finally dropped “soul” from the name altogether in 1982.

Coming up in Part 2: Rock 'n' roll and the blues. In the meantime, check out the first of our R&B playlists (and prepare to cut a rug).

 

 

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