Presenting the second installment of Miles Marshall Lewis' chronicle of an extraordinary, protean musical genre.


In addition to race and the relative sway of the spiritual realm, also consider age when trying to distinguish among R&B, soul and rock ’n’ roll. Ed Ward, co-author of Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, has written that by the mid-1960s, “rhythm and blues had come to mean black popular music that was not overtly aimed at teenagers, since the music that was becoming known as rock ’n’ roll sometimes featured lyrics that concerned first love and parent-child conflict, as well as a less subtle approach to rhythm.”

Still, race inevitably colors everything in this country. By Ward’s estimation, The Jackson 5 should have been considered rock ’n’ roll for overtly targeting a teenage market with singles like 1969’s “I Want You Back” and 1970’s “ABC,” both #1 pop hits. Instead, they were immediately labeled “bubblegum soul.”

Motown founder Berry Gordy nevertheless called his famous label’s music “the sound of young America” from its beginning. Teenagers as an age-defined market, with disposable income for advertisers to exploit, emerged in the 1950s. What this means for R&B is that crowds of screaming bobby-soxers, fresh off their Frank Sinatra fixation, were primed for the next big thing. Those new movements were R&B and, a heartbeat later, rock ’n’ roll.

Soul Stirring

Ray Charles represents a flashpoint in the birth of rhythm and blues. In his early 20s, when his first Atlantic singles started heating up Emerson radios, the blind, Southern-bred pianist devised his style by converting sacrosanct gospel into fun-loving R&B. The effect might be lost on young believers accustomed to Kirk Franklin & the Family, who took hip-hop’s hooks back to church, bringing the process full circle. But Brother Ray pretty blatantly based 1958’s “Leave My Woman Alone” on the gospel standard “Let That Liar Alone.” He practically sampled The Southern Tones’ “It Must Be Jesus” for “I Got a Woman,” no less obviously than Kanye West sampled Charles’ song on “Gold Digger” decades later. In the ’50s, Ray Charles sounded sacrilegious to conservatives who preferred that their sacred songs be left alone.

Teenagers, however, loved Ray Charles. “What’d I Say,” his first song to land in the pop Top 10, shook the walls of Hamburg clubs when The Beatles performed it night after night before their big break. Rock ’n’ roll acts like Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Darin and Elvis all covered the song. Charles wouldn’t be pinned down to soul, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll or, remarkably for the time, country music (see his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music—both volumes). But in this case, the genre-hopping began right as the genres were being established in the first place. R&B? Rock ’n’ roll? Depends on the radio station, or even the DJ at that station.

In the midst of Charles’ 1950s success came Mississippi-born gospel singer Samuel Cook, of The Soul Stirrers. Known by 1957 as Sam Cooke, the 26-year-old baritone behind “You Send Me” had first tested the waters of worldly music under the pseudonym Dale Cook, remaking the gospel standard “Wonderful” as “Lovable” in 1956. As one of eight kids of the Reverend Charles Cook, he’d grown up well aware of the stigma surrounding “the devil’s music” played on popular radio. It didn’t stop him from floating his golden voice in the mainstream on “Cupid,” “Having a Party,” “Twistin’ the Night Away” and his posthumously released civil rights anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Sam Cooke popularized the afro when African-American doo-wop outfits like The Five Satins were still sporting the (chemically straightened) conk. He refused to perform before segregated audiences. He pioneered a Black-ownership business model in 1961 with his SAR Records. (A 1964 cover of “It’s All Over Now,” first limned by SAR’s Bobby Womack-led Valentinos, gave The Rolling Stones their first #1 hit.) One could even interpret “Chain Gang” as a pop-radio Trojan horse raising consciousness about the American penal system. But even more significantly, Sam Cooke’s music soundtracked the youthquake of the period as much as that of white contemporaries like Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, or two of the greatest architects of rock ’n’ roll: Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

Rock’s Founding Fathers

As gospel cast its broad silhouette over this earliest era of R&B, enter Macon, Ga.’s own Richard Penniman, aka Little Richard. Watching the Grammys on our boxy living room TV set every year was a family tradition when I was growing up. By 1988, at age 17, I’d learned Little Richard’s hits on the oldies station as well as anybody: “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” etc. But when he playfully announced himself as the winner of Best New Artist at the 30th annual awards show, Richard gave everybody watching an education. “I am the architect of rock ’n’ roll and they never gave me nothing. I am the originator!” he claimed. And, #facts.

The son of a church deacon father and Baptist mother, Little Richard entered the field of entertainment at 14 as an impromptu opening act for Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the Macon City Auditorium. Equally inspired by the piano playing of Ike Turner, the vocal force of Louis Jordan, the impassioned high range of gospel’s Clara Ward Singers and the pompadour haircut and showmanship of jump-blues singer Billy Wright, Little Richard carved out his own genre in 1955 with “Tutti Frutti.” That genre was rock ’n’ roll, not R&B. But tell that to Billboard; the song reached #2 on the Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles chart early the following year. With its 12-bar progression, “Tutti Frutti” also qualifies as warp-speed blues.

Little Richard’s smash innovation appeared six months after a wily, Missouri-born guitarist named Chuck Berry released “Maybellene.” It’s impossible to overstate Berry’s role as the Father of Rock ’n’ Roll. His signature fusion of jazz guitarist Charlie Christian’s style with those of bluesmen T-Bone Walker and Carl Hogan (of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five) created a sound that was totally new to the planet. He sang mainly of school, music, cars and love; the subject matter of monsters like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven” seemed tailor-made for teenagers—Black and white.

Before performing a duet with him on The Mike Douglas Show in 1972, John Lennon said that in the ’50s, Berry “was writing all kinds of songs with incredible meter to the lyrics, which influenced [Bob] Dylan and me and many other people” and stated, “He’s the greatest rock ’n’ roll poet.” Eric Clapton, in the 1987 documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, testifies, “There’s not a lot of ways to play rock ’n’ roll other than the way Chuck plays it. He’s really laid the law down for playing that kind of music.”

Of course the magnitude of Chuck Berry isn’t limited to his prominence in the gaze of white rock gods like Lennon and Clapton, or that of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who recorded cover versions of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” or The Beach Boys, whose “Surfin’ U.S.A.” appropriated Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” all the way to the top of the pop chart. Chuck Berry already meant something monumental to the Black community, and R&B has as much claim to his legacy as rock ’n’ roll does. The pop hit “Maybellene” also ascended to #1 on the R&B chart. “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode” and others were Top 10 R&B hits in addition to their high positions on Billboard’s Hot 100. Rock ’n’ roll swiftly became identified as a genre dominated by white artists, but as bears repeating, its progenitors were unmistakably African-American and its most popular initial singles were successful R&B songs.

The Wellspring

In fact, the “B” in R&B merits even more credit here. The opening riff of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” belongs to Louis Jordan’s 1946 jump-blues hit “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do It Every Time).” Berry’s “No Money Down” gets its life from the signature riff of Muddy Waters’ ubiquitous 1954 version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Musically, R&B consists of its own characteristic sounds… by one definition. But again, from another, R&B means African-American popular music. And from the beginning, the blues rose to the top of the R&B chart as much as any other form.

Bluesman Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield), raised on the Stovall Plantation in Clarksdale, Miss., learned guitar and harmonica as a teenager by emulating legends like Robert Johnson and Son House. One of the marquee artists of Chicago’s Chess Records from the mid-’40s onward, he recorded instant blues classics: “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Mannish Boy,” “You Need Love.” Muddy Waters’ blues sat right next to Little Richard and Chuck Berry’s music atop the R&B chart, also inspiring as many rock cover versions and outright plagiarism.

Howlin’ Wolf received similar treatment. Discovered performing in West Memphis by Ike Turner, a 6’3”, 300-pound bull of a man, Howlin’ Wolf (né Chester Arthur Burnett) became Waters’ rival at Chess in 1956 with “Smokestack Lightning,” the most influential of his charted R&B singles. Also scouted by Turner, Little Walter—a harmonica-playing vocalist from Marksville, La.—rounded out the Chess roster. His 1952 instrumental “Juke” (recorded for Chess subsidiary Checker) was the first of several Chicago-flavored blues hits of the decade. It topped the R&B chart.

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