What could be more perplexing today than trying to define rhythm and blues?
Record company executive Jerry Wexler is credited with creating the term, using it to define the music popularized by African-Americans living in metropolitan areas during the 1940s.
It made perfect sense at the time, with Chicago serving as a prime example. Jazz and the blues were already embedded in the local culture, having been imported by those who migrated from the Mississippi Delta in search of a better life through greater employment opportunities.
Looking back, it appears to have been a natural progression.
The styles would inevitably blend together and continue to evolve, retaining the basic elements of both. By adding a rhythm section, consisting of electric guitars, pianos, drums, horns, and background vocalists, traditional blues was easily transformed into rhythm and blues.
But, the traditional definition falls far short of describing what’s considered rhythm and blues today.
It remains a predominantly African-American style of music, although musicians worldwide recognize it as a major influence. Like jazz, it’s a truly American invention. However, it’s literally begun to defy definition, which has only added to the confusion.
Perhaps, the best definition was penned by writer and producer Robert Palmer, not be confused with the singer/songwriter.
Rhythm & blues is a catchall term referring to any music that was made by and for black Americans.
Billboard Magazine, considered the music industry’s bible in regard to sales, didn’t begin charting rhythm and blues until 1942, with Decca, Capitol, and Bluebird records producing most of the talent.
Louis Jordan dominated the top five listings with three songs. Two of the top five were based on the boogie-woogie rhythms that were becoming increasingly popular. Jordan’s band, the “Tympany Five” consisted of him on saxophone and vocals, along with musicians on trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums.
And, believe it or not, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” topped the chart in December of 1942. No wonder it remains the best-selling single of all-time. It could be considered the original crossover hit.
As a result, from 1948 to 1958, multiple charts had to be used to rank the best sellers, according to Billboard Magazine. However, it remained an acquired taste, limited to African-Americans until the 1950s.
That’s when white teenagers took a liking to the style.
It’s also when the term R&B began to be used to refer to the “electric blues,” which was the result of the up-and-coming style known as rock and roll.
Ironically, it took the so-called British Invasion of the early 1960s to rejuvenate the style and bring in into the mainstream. A host of British musicians, having been heavily influenced by American rhythm and blues records, repackaged it and returned it to sender. In fact, the Rolling Stone’s debut album consisted mainly of covers of classic rhythm and blue’s tunes. Songs by Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Slim Harpo and Jimmy Reed play alongside the Motown hit “Can I Get a Witness.”
In 1969, rhythm and blues was officially recognized by the Grammys, with Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” christening the category.
During the 1970s, rhythm and blues became synonymous with soul, funk, and even disco. Among the mix were Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “The Tears of a Clown,” Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia,” the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster,” and Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hip-hop arrived on the scene, making it harder and harder for R&B to be heard let alone be sold . Some adopted a hip-hop image and allowed themselves to be marketed in that fashion, with rappers often appearing on their songs. As a result, artists such as Usher, R. Kelly, TLC, Beyonce, and Mary J. Blige, rose to prominence.
That led to Billboard changing the name of the R&B chart to the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The term R&B is now preferred to the term rhythm and blues, and use of the term usually refers to contemporary rhythm and blues.
Re-enter the Rolling Stones, who have brought things full circle with the recent release of their album “Blue and Lonesome.”
The 12 tracks, recorded in three days at London’s British Grove Studios, all cover songs by classic bluesmen, including Howlin’ Wolf (“Commit a Crime”), Little Walter (“I Gotta Go”) and Jimmy Reed (“Little Rain”). Eric Clapton guests on the group’s cover of Little Johnny Taylor’s “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” and Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby.”
The album debuted at #4 in the United States and #1 in the United Kingdom on their respective Billboard charts.
“It sees the band going back to the blue-inspired sound that dominated their early days and doubles as a nod to the band’s formative years, when the band would play covers by their favorite blues artists,” according to Rolling Stone Magazine.
Perhaps, Robert Palmer’s definition of R&B needs an adjustment.
Rhythm & blues is a catchall term referring to any music that was made by and for black Americans, but don’t tell the Rolling Stones.
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