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Rhythm and Blues

Rhythm and blues is a form of music formulated by African Americans after World War II in the early 1960s. It was a time when jazz was a prominent music form. Rhythm and Blues is merely the amalgamation of soul and hip hop music. Though it started off as a southern trend, it soon spread across many states of America. Aimed at urban audiences, R&B was considered blues music till the 1950s and then with the addition of a backbeat, became rhythm and blues. This was also the time when rock and roll developed. By the 1970s it became a national phenomenon known as contemporary R&B. An ancillary form of Rhythm and Blues is British R&B, which developed in the 1960s during the Cold War. Although there was little jazz involved in this music form, there was singing mixed with more classic rock beats. It was prevalent mainly in London and Liverpool, where bands would play in underground tunnels and hideaway spots in order to entertain the poorer crowds. Some famous R&B artists in Britain include the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, who adapted their music to the style of R&B. Later R&B artists in Britain were not really well known. ‘The Who’ is a modern day band which has adapted its music to the R&B style. Although British R&B has been criticized for many reasons, it is still quite popular. Most British Rhythm and Blues bands cater to public tastes and play the kind of music the public enjoys. It was through this form of music that the progressive and hard rock genres also evolved.

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Willie Dixon, an American blues musician.

Etymology

Rhythm and Blues was known as ‘race music’ due to its ethnic origins. Jerry Wexter renamed it rhythm and blues to give it a less controversial connotation, and to protect the sentiments of the African Americans. It was developed by African Americans in order to overcome the Great Depression, which hit the country in the 1940s. Before it was called R&B, it was called “soul singing”. According to Writer and Palmer, this form of music catered exclusively to the African American genres of music. With gospel choir overtones, this music differed from Jump Blues, and was simply a faster version of jazz. R&B featured many wind instruments, like the trumpet and trombone. It also gave rise to the ‘boogie woogie’ genre. Lawrence Cohn disagrees with the term “rhythm and blues” being a genre-specific form of music. He says, in fact, that it includes all kinds of music except for religious and classical music. An R&B band generally has many instruments and voices, with no particular emphasis on an individual. New Orleans was, and still is, the place to get a taste of original rhythm and blues music. It was the place also where jazz originated and is the home town of many famous Jazz and R&B artists.

Early History and Origins

Rhythm and Blues served as a precursor to many music forms like Rock, Boogie, Woogie, Jazz and Hip Hop. Its humble beginnings from gospel and soul music to a worldwide phenomenon is a story worth telling. Starting in the early 19th century, rhythm and blues went on to become one of the most popular music forms in the modern day. A music form in which anecdotes and personal experience play an important role, it started off in churches, but went on to become so popular among African Americans in the country and the world, that it became an international music form which gave rise to rock, funk and hip hop in later years. The first popular R&B musician was Louis Jordan, who was closely followed by Paul Williams. Both these musicians had bands which had an electric guitar, a saxophone and a back up vocalist. Little Richard, Mick Jagger and Chuck Berry were huge names in the 1950s, and they mixed rhythm and blues with classic rock beats and won over the hearts of many people. Rhythm and Blues also pervaded the Southern United States, and contributed to the birth of rave parties. Elvis Presley was the first musician that took rhythm and blues and adapted it to the preferences of white audiences. After Presley, Sam Cooke, who is now known as the King of Soul, decided to take back rhythm and blues to its original form and relive the days in which the music had been made for its original audience.

Influences

The change in the United States post World War II caused the advent of R&B. The growth of the music form was supplemented by the electric guitar and the tape recorder, both of which came into prominence in the 1940s. Many record companies which started in the United States did not buy much into rhythm and blues, since back then it was not a popular music form. A lot of radio stations were also sold at the time, since the owners feared that the advent of television would lead to the death of the radio. The influence of R&B spread far and wide, from the United States to the United Kingdom and gave rise to the Jump Blues, Hip Hop, Funk Soul and Jazz. Louis Jordan took the forms of Jump Blues and Jazz and adapted it to the modern day rhythm and blues music form.  Every modern day R&B artist has had his or her inspiration from this man.  Even the 1950s concept of ‘doo wop’ was simply an extension of rhythm and blues and jazz music. In the later half of the 19th century, artists began to direct their music towards generation Y and not the older crowds. “Doo wop” was a term coined because of the lyrics the artists put to the music. They had no significance and made no sense but since people enjoyed them, doo wop became popular.  Motown Soul music was another form influenced by rhythm and blues. Motown music had inspirational lyrics that appealed to the inner struggles of the African American community, and was popular till the 1970s.

Themes

In the early years, rhythm and blues was performed by African Americans for African Americans. It also had its roots in the music form of swing , boogie woogie and funk. Although a mixture of jazz and soul, its unique nature comes from the lyrics. Artists like Beyonce, R Kelly and Usher have taken their influences from earlier artists and adapted them to younger crowds. Drums and bass were prominent instruments in blues and R&B bands in the earlier days. The saxophone, which had a gospel-like sound was also prominent as it drew in the audiences.  Doo wop, an ancillary form of rhythm and blues also supplemented a dance form, and emphasized on background music rather than the lyrics, which seemed to resemble a church choir.  A lot of rhythm and blues songs depict struggle; the fight for freedom of the African Americans, the oppression and apartheid. Apartheid was prominent in the early days of rhythm and blues. It was the genre that gave musicians some solace and peace while penning down these lyrics. It spoke volumes about freedom, being oneself and inspiration. It gave hope to the African American people. During the Great Depression, the rhythm and blues developed a distinct taste of inspiration as a result of which many artists had quite a few hits. The African American community felt uplifted and this form of music encouraged them to go and make something of themselves and get employed in the city. Modern day rhythm and blues music is more like slow rap music, mainly based on personal anecdotes and experience. It talks about hardship and how one can easily overcome them with hard work.

Pre 90’s Rhythm and Blues

Popular American music was not only influenced by bands like Def Leppard and Aerosmith, but also, in the Southern United States, was dominated by African American musicians.  The blues scene is America was never better. It was a combination of folk music mixed with electric guitar, and inspirational lyrics about the struggles the African Americans went through to achieve status quo in the United States. Traditionally, the blues were played in the red light areas where people did not dare to venture. Popular musicians of the time included Blind Willie, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. It was also a time when many female musicians, such as Bessie Smith, flourished. The blues moved along with the African Americans down south.  While the Blues are generally associated with soft jazz from Louisiana, it may be surprising to know that even Detroit and Chicago had an equally popular affinity towards the genre. In the 1950s, R&B tried to distinguish itself from classic rock beats, which is why it was known as gospel music. Since a lot of the music focused on tastes of an older crowd, it was not known as rhythm and blues but simply blues, jump blues or jazz.

90’s Rhythm and Blues

It was in the 90s when hip hop and rhythm and blues merged. This was a prominent time for boy and girl pop bands, who fancied themselves as great R&B singers. Their music catered to the popular tastes of the younger generation. Boyzone, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears were counted as some of the chart toppers during this time.  This was also the time when artists like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson were at the peaks of their respective careers, with many influences of rhythm and blues mixed with pop music. It was at this time that the urban contemporary genre, a radio format that plays tunes from the 1970s and features styles like rock, hip hop, reggae, rhythm and blues and dubstep, came into prominence. Influenced by the popularity of gospel music and rhythm and blues and aimed at the cities which have the maximum African American population, the genre also features some Latin music. Many top charts play music from all these genres. In the 90s, rhythm and blues took a new name and form, featuring many rap artists. Since this form of music was aimed towards the new generation, a new format called urban adult contemporary, which did not feature any rap or pop on the playlists, and instead conforming itself to more traditional music as enjoyed in those times, became more popular. New Jack Swing originated as a result in New York, and featured a lot of rap, but still remained a large source of entertainment to many people till the late 1990s.  It was an amalgamation of the expectations of the younger crowd, as well as the older crowd, mixing the sounds of electronic instruments like guitars and drums with soul singing as it used to exist down south in the 1960s.

Modern Day Rhythm and Blues

These days rhythm and blues is far from what it used to be. Though some artists still do stick to traditional themes and sing about hardships and inspiration, the genre has drawn heavily from the 1960’s pop, rock and funk influences. This new form of R&B became more popular than the original music form and grabbed the attention of youngsters, rather than generation X towards which it was aimed. A form of music called Memphis Soul was formed as a result, which tried to stick to the original blues sounds, using the saxophone, horns and trumpets. It was not as popular as R&B, but it did quite well for a while. Another form of adaptation to R&B is known as British Pub Rock.  It is also known as progressive music. Rhythm and Blues typically graduated in later years to playing at upscale nightclubs whereas British pub rock was for the middle classmen who could not afford such luxuries. R&B is generally played to a live audience, with excessive sounds and background vocals, and this is what the British hoped to emulate.  Along with British Pub Rock came the concept of Pop Music. Coming from the term “popular music”, the genre includes many styles from the older as well as the newer generation of R&B.

Rhythm and Blues Around The World

The Cuban influence on Rhythm and Blues resulted in a style called Habenera.  In the Caribbean, they did not rely on electric guitars, but more on sounds like whistles, handclapping and humming. This was also infused into the Reggae genre, and was then called Tressilo. The Rhumboogie is a combination of salsa, boogie and rhumba which went well with jazz music. This is when dance clubs began to gain popularity. Hard Rock, too, is a genre of music which originated from rhythm and blues and then progressed to a grittier, louder version of the original. It had the components of a blues band, supplemented by keyboards and other loud instruments.  Bands like Aerosmith, Deep Purple and other hard rock bands gained immense popularity in the 1970s. However, it is a very unrefined style of music with more emphasis on the instrument rather than on the voice, as with R&B. Another form of music that has been influenced with rhythm and blues is known as psychedelic rock.  It differs from death and heavy metal in that it has lyrics and a strong backbeat, but plays on the mind’s experiences and gets one to think about unrealistic situations, similar to being under the influence of drugs and alcohol.  

Well Known Artists

Rhythm and Blues started off as a form of jazz and gradually turned into pop and rap. From the 1940s onwards, it was a form of music which gave the African Americans solace from the discrimination they were facing. Some famous artists include Bing Crosby who had hits like “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St Mary’s”. He also sang a duet with Ingrid Bergman and became an international superstar as a result. Other artists include Paul Whiteman, who had hits like “Wonderful One” and “Rhapsody in Blue”. Earl Hines and Andy Kirk were also popular names in the 1940s R&B scene. When blues came into the making, artists like B.B King and Louis Armstrong sang along the same themes as their predecessors with hits like “What a Wonderful World”, also a chart topper and still one of the most popular old jazz songs.  The El Dorados were a doo wop group that specialized in dancing music and played more or less happy tunes, rather than singing about personal struggles. Ben E King is another popular rhythm and blues artist who has had many hits. KC and the Sunshine band is a pop group from the 1970s who took their musical influence from the traditional rhythm and blues style. Today rap artists like Usher, R Kelly, and Snoop Dogg call themselves R&B artists. With the soulful backbeats their songs possess, one might say that they have been influenced by traditional R&B as well.

References

1. The Rhythm and Blues Foundation http://www.rhythm-n-blues.org/

2. A brief history of Rhythm'n'Blues http://www.scaruffi.com/history/rb.html

3. Rhythm and Blues Music: Overview http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/rhythm-and-blues-music-overview

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