Although Jerry Wexler of Billboard magazine is credited with coining the term "rhythm and blues" as a musical term in the United States in 1948, the term was used in Billboard as early as 1943. It replaced the term "race music", which originally came from within the black community, but was deemed offensive in the postwar world. The term "rhythm and blues" was used by Billboard in its chart listings from June 1949 until August 1969, when its "Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles" chart was renamed as "Best Selling Soul Singles". Before the "Rhythm and Blues" name was instated, various record companies had already begun replacing the term "race music" with "sepia series". In 2010 LaMont Robinson founded the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame Museum.
Writer and producer Robert Palmer defined rhythm & blues as "a catchall term referring to any music that was made by and for black Americans". He has used the term "R&B" as a synonym for jump blues. However, AllMusic separates it from jump blues because of its stronger, gospel-esque backbeat. Lawrence Cohn, author of Nothing but the Blues, writes that "rhythm and blues" was an umbrella term invented for industry convenience. According to him, the term embraced all black music except classical music and religious music, unless a gospel song sold enough to break into the charts. Well into the 21st century, the term R&B continues in use (in some contexts) to categorize music made by black musicians, as distinct from styles of music made by other musicians.
In the commercial rhythm and blues music typical of the 1950s through the 1970s, the bands usually consisted of piano, one or two guitars, bass, drums, and saxophone. Arrangements were rehearsed to the point of effortlessness and were sometimes accompanied by background vocalists. Simple repetitive parts mesh, creating momentum and rhythmic interplay producing mellow, lilting, and often hypnotic textures while calling attention to no individual sound. While singers are emotionally engaged with the lyrics, often intensely so, they remain cool, relaxed, and in control. The bands dressed in suits, and even uniforms, a practice associated with the modern popular music that rhythm and blues performers aspired to dominate. Lyrics often seemed fatalistic, and the music typically followed predictable patterns of chords and structure.
The migration of African Americans to the urban industrial centers of Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s created a new market for jazz, blues, and related genres of music, often performed by full-time musicians, either working alone or in small groups. The precursors of rhythm and blues came from jazz and blues, which overlapped in the Late-1920s,1930s through the work of musicians such as the Harlem Hamfats, with their 1936 hit "Oh Red", as well as Lonnie Johnson, Leroy Carr, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and T-Bone Walker. There was also increasing emphasis on the electric guitar as a lead instrument, as well as the piano and saxophone.
In 1948, RCA Victor was marketing black music under the name "Blues and Rhythm". In that year, Louis Jordan dominated the top five listings of the R&B charts with three songs, and two of the top five songs were based on the boogie-woogie rhythms that had come to prominence during the 1940s. Jordan's band, the Tympany Five (formed in 1938), consisted of him on saxophone and vocals, along with musicians on trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums. Lawrence Cohn described the music as "grittier than his boogie-era jazz-tinged blues". Robert Palmer described it as "urbane, rocking, jazz-based music with a heavy, insistent beat". Jordan's cool music, along with that of Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Billy Wright, and Wynonie Harris, is now also referred to as jump blues. Already Paul Gayten, Roy Brown, and others had had hits in the style now referred to as rhythm and blues. In 1948, Wynonie Harris' remake of Brown's 1947 recording "Good Rockin' Tonight" hit the charts in the #2 spot, following band leader Sonny Thompson's "Long Gone" at #1.
In 1949, the term "Rhythm and Blues" replaced the Billboard category Harlem Hit Parade. Also in that year, "The Huckle-Buck", recorded by band leader and saxophonist Paul Williams, was the number 1 R&B tune, remaining on top of the charts for nearly the entire year. Written by musician and arranger Andy Gibson, the song was described as a "dirty boogie" because it was risque and raunchy. Paul Williams and His Hucklebuckers' concerts were sweaty riotous affairs that got shut down on more than one occasion. Their lyrics, by Roy Alfred (who later co-wrote the 1955 hit "(The) Rock and Roll Waltz"), were mildly sexually suggestive, and one teenager from Philadelphia said "That Hucklebuck was a very nasty dance". Also in 1949, a new version of a 1920s blues song, "Ain't Nobody's Business" was a #4 hit for Jimmy Witherspoon, and Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five once again made the top 5 with "Saturday Night Fish Fry". Many of these hit records were issued on new independent record labels, such as Savoy (founded 1942), King (founded 1943), Imperial (founded 1945), Specialty (founded 1946), Chess (founded 1947), and Atlantic (founded 1948).
African American music began incorporating Afro-Cuban rhythmic motifs in the 1800s with the popularity of the Cuban contradanza (known outside of Cuba as the habanera). The habanera rhythm can be thought of as a combination of tresillo and the backbeat.
For the more than quarter-century in which the cakewalk, ragtime and proto-jazz were forming and developing, the Cuban genre habanera exerted a constant presence in African American popular music. Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton considered the tresillo/habanera rhythm (which he called the Spanish tinge) to be an essential ingredient of jazz. There are examples of tresillo-like rhythms in some African American folk musics such as the hand clapping and foot stomping patterns in ring shout, post-Civil War drum and fife music, and New Orleans second line music. Wynton Marsalis considers tresillo to be the New Orleans "clave" (although technically, the pattern is only half a clave). Tresillo is the most basic duple-pulse rhythmic cell in Sub-Saharan African music traditions, and its use in African American music is one of the clearest examples of African rhythmic retention in the United States. The use of tresillo was continuously reinforced by the consecutive waves of Cuban music, which were adopted into North American popular culture. In 1940 Bob Zurke released "Rhumboogie," a boogie woogie with a tresillo bass line, and lyrics proudly declaring the adoption of Cuban rhythm:
Harlem's got a new rhythm, man it's burning up the dance floors because it's so hot! They took a little rhumba rhythm and added boogie woogie and now look what they got! Rhumboogie, it's Harlem's new creation with the Cuban syncopation, it's the killer! Just plant your both feet on each side. Let both your hips and shoulder glide. Then throw your body back and ride. There's nothing like rhumbaoogie, rhumboogie, boogie woogie. In Harlem or Havana, you can kiss the old Savannah. It's a killer!
Although originating in the metropolis at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans blues, with its Afro-Caribbean rhythmic traits, is distinct from the sound of the Mississippi Delta blues. In the late 1940s, New Orleans musicians were especially receptive to Cuban influences precisely at the time when R&B was first forming. The first use of tresillo in R&B occurred in New Orleans. Robert Palmer recalls:
New Orleans producer-bandleader Dave Bartholomew first employed this figure (as a saxophone-section riff) on his own 1949 disc "Country Boy" and subsequently helped make it the most over-used rhythmic pattern in 1950s rock 'n' roll. On numerous recordings by Fats Domino, Little Richard and others, Bartholomew assigned this repeating three-note pattern not just to the string bass, but also to electric guitars and even baritone sax, making for a very heavy bottom. He recalls first hearing the figure – as a bass pattern on a Cuban disc.
In a 1988 interview with Palmer, Bartholomew (who had the first R&B studio band), revealed how he initially superimposed tresillo over swing rhythm:
I heard the bass playing that part on a 'rumba' record. On 'Country Boy' I had my bass and drums playing a straight swing rhythm and wrote out that 'rumba' bass part for the saxes to play on top of the swing rhythm. Later, especially after rock 'n' roll came along, I made the 'rumba' bass part heavier and heavier. I'd have the string bass, an electric guitar and a baritone all in unison.
Bartholomew referred to the Cuban son by the misnomer rumba, a common practice of that time. Listen: "Country Boy" by Dave Bartholomew (1949). on YouTube Fats Domino's "Blue Monday," produced by Bartholomew, is another example of this now classic use of tresillo in R&B. Listen: Fats Domino's "Blue Monday" (1956). on YouTube On Bartholomew's 1949 tresillo-based "Oh Cubanas" we clearly hear an attempt to blend African American and Afro-Cuban music. The word mambo, larger than any of the other text, is placed prominently on the 45' label.
In his composition "Misery," New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd) plays a habanera-like figure in his left hand. The deft use of triplets is a characteristic of Longhair's style.
Gerhard Kubik notes that with the exception of New Orleans, early blues lacked complex polyrhythms, and there was a "very specific absence of asymmetric time-line patterns (key patterns) in virtually all early-twentieth-century African American music . . . only in some New Orleans genres does a hint of simple time line patterns occasionally appear in the form of transient so-called 'stomp' patterns or stop-time chorus. These do not function in the same way as African time lines." In the late 1940s this changed somewhat when the two-celled time line structure was brought into the blues. New Orleans musicians such as Bartholomew and Longhair incorporated Cuban instruments, as well as the clave pattern and related two-celled figures in songs such as "Carnival Day," (Bartholomew 1949) and "Mardi Gras In New Orleans" (Longhair 1949). While some of these early experiments were awkward fusions, the Afro-Cuban elements were eventually integrated fully into the New Orleans sound.
Robert Palmer reports that, in the 1940s, Professor Longhair listened to and played with musicians from the islands and "fell under the spell of Perez Prado's mambo records." He was especially enamored with Afro-Cuban music. Michael Campbell states: "Professor Longhair's influence was . . . far reaching. In several of his early recordings, Professor Longhair blended Afro-Cuban rhythms with rhythm and blues. The most explicit is 'Longhair's Blues Rhumba,' where he overlays a straightforward blues with a clave rhythm." Longhair's particular style was known locally as rumba-boogie. In his "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," the pianist employs the 2–3 clave onbeat/offbeat motif in a rumba boogie "guajeo" (below). 2–3 clave is written above the piano excerpt for reference.
The syncopated, but straight subdivision feel of Cuban music (as opposed to swung subdivisions) took root in New Orleans R&B during this time. Alexander Stewart states that the popular feel was passed along from "New Orleans—through James Brown's music, to the popular music of the 1970s," adding: "The singular style of rhythm & blues that emerged from New Orleans in the years after World War II played an important role in the development of funk. In a related development, the underlying rhythms of American popular music underwent a basic, yet generally unacknowledged transition from triplet or shuffle feel to even or straight eighth notes. Concerning the various funk motifs, Stewart states: "This model, it should be noted, is different from a time line (such as clave and tresillo) in that it is not an exact pattern, but more of a loose organizing principle."
Johnny Otis released the R&B mambo "Mambo Boogie" in January 1951, featuring congas, maracas, claves, and mambo saxophone guajeos in a blues progression. Listen: "Mambo Boogie" by Johnny Otis (1951). on YouTube
Ike Turner recorded "Cubano Jump" (1954) an electric guitar instrumental, which is built around several 2–3 clave figures, adopted from the mambo. Listen: "Cubano Jump" by Ike Turner (1954). on YouTube The Hawketts, in "Mardi Gras Mambo" (1955) (featuring the vocals of a young Art Neville), make a clear reference to Perez Prado in their use of his trademark "Unhh!" in the break after the introduction. Listen: "Mardi Gras Mambo" by the Hawketts (1955). on YouTube
Ned Sublette states: "The electric blues cats were very well aware of Latin music, and there was definitely such a thing as rhumba blues; you can hear Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf playing it." He also cites Otis Rush, Ike Turner and Ray Charles, as R&B artists who employed this feel.
The use of clave in R&B coincided with the growing dominance of the backbeat, and the rising popularity of Cuban music in the U.S. In a sense, clave can be distilled down to tresillo (three-side) answered by the backbeat (two-side).
The "Bo Diddley beat" (1955) is perhaps the first true fusion of 3-2 clave and R&B/rock 'n' roll. Watch: "Hey Bo Diddley" performed live by Bo Diddley (1965). on YouTube Bo Diddley has given different accounts of the riff's origins. Sublette asserts: "In the context of the time, and especially those maracas [heard on the record], 'Bo Diddley' has to be understood as a Latin-tinged record. A rejected cut recorded at the same session was titled only 'Rhumba' on the track sheets." Johnny Otis' "Willie and the Hand Jive" (1958) is another example of this successful blend of 3–2 clave and R&B. Watch: "Hand Jive" performed by Johnny Otis. The Johnny Otis Show. on YouTube Otis used the Cuban instruments claves and maracas on the song.
Afro-Cuban music was the conduit by which African American music was "re-Africanized," through the adoption of two-celled figures like clave and Afro-Cuban instruments like the conga drum, bongos, maracas and claves. According to John Storm Roberts, R&B became the vehicle for the return of Cuban elements into mass popular music. Ahmet Ertegun, producer for Atlantic Records, is reported to have said that "Afro-Cuban rhythms added color and excitement to the basic drive of R&B." As Ned Sublette points out though: "By the 1960s, with Cuba the object of a United States embargo that still remains in effect today, the island nation had been forgotten as a source of music. By the time people began to talk about rock and roll as having a history, Cuban music had vanished from North American consciousness."
At first, only African Americans were buying R&B discs. According to Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, sales were localized in African-American markets; there was no white sales nor white radio play. During the early 1950s, more white teenagers started to become aware of R&B and to purchase the music. For example, 40% of 1952 sales at Dolphin's of Hollywood record shop, located in an African-American area of Los Angeles, were to whites. Eventually, white teens across the country turned their music taste towards rhythm and blues.
Johnny Otis, who had signed with the Newark, New Jersey-based Savoy Records, produced many R&B hits in 1951, including: "Double Crossing Blues", "Mistrustin' Blues" and "Cupid's Boogie", all of which hit number one that year. Otis scored ten top ten hits that year. Other hits include: "Gee Baby", "Mambo Boogie" and "All Nite Long". The Clovers, a vocal trio who sang a distinctive sounding combination of blues and gospel, had the #5 hit of the year with "Don't You Know I Love You" on Atlantic Records. Also in July 1951, Cleveland, Ohio DJ Alan Freed started a late-night radio show called "The Moondog Rock Roll House Party" on WJW (850 AM). Freed's show was sponsored by Fred Mintz, whose R&B record store had a primarily African American clientele. Freed began referring to the rhythm and blues music he played as "rock and roll".
In 1951, Little Richard Penniman began recording for RCA Records in the jump blues style of late 1940s stars Roy Brown and Billy Wright. However, it was not until he prepared a demo in 1954, that caught the attention of Specialty Records, that the world would start to hear his new, uptempo, funky rhythm and blues that would catapult him to fame in 1955 and help define the sound of rock 'n' roll. A rapid succession of rhythm and blues hits followed, beginning with "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally", which would influence performers such as James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Otis Redding.
Ruth Brown on the Atlantic label, placed hits in the top 5 every year from 1951 through 1954: "Teardrops from My Eyes", "Five, Ten, Fifteen Hours", "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and "What a Dream". Faye Adams's "Shake a Hand" made it to #2 in 1952. In 1953, the R&B record-buying public made Willie Mae Thornton's original recording of Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog" the #3 hit that year. Ruth Brown was very prominent among female R&B stars. Ruth Brown's popularity most likely derived because of "her deeply rooted vocal delivery in African American tradition" That same year The Orioles, a doo-wop group, had the #4 hit of the year with "Crying in the Chapel".
Fats Domino made the top 30 of the pop charts in 1952 and 1953, then the top 10 with "Ain't That a Shame". Ray Charles came to national prominence in 1955 with "I Got a Woman". Big Bill Broonzy said of Charles' music: "He's mixing the blues with the spirituals... I know that's wrong."
In 1954 The Chords' "Sh-Boom" became the first hit to cross over from the R&B chart to hit the top 10 early in the year. Late in the year, and into 1955, "Hearts of Stone" by The Charms made the top 20.
At Chess Records in the spring of 1955, Bo Diddley's debut record "Bo Diddley"/"I'm A Man" climbed to #2 on the R&B charts and popularized Bo Diddley's own original rhythm and blues clave-based vamp that would become a mainstay in rock and roll.
At the urging of Leonard Chess at Chess Records, Chuck Berry had reworked a country fiddle tune with a long history, entitled "Ida Red". The resulting "Maybellene" was not only a #3 hit on the R&B charts in 1955, but also reached into the top 30 on the pop charts. Alan Freed, who had moved to the much larger market of New York City in 1954, helped the record become popular with white teenagers. Freed had been given part of the writers' credit by Chess in return for his promotional activities; a common practice at the time.
In 1956, an R&B "Top Stars of '56" tour took place, with headliners Al Hibbler, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and Carl Perkins, whose "Blue Suede Shoes" was very popular with R&B music buyers. Some of the performers completing the bill were Chuck Berry, Cathy Carr, Shirley & Lee, Della Reese, the Cleftones, and the Spaniels with Illinois Jacquet's Big Rockin' Rhythm Band. Cities visited by the tour included Columbia, SC, Annapolis, MD, Pittsburgh, PA, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, NY, into Canada, and through the mid Western US ending in Texas. In Columbia the concert ended with a near riot as Perkins began his first song as the closing act. Perkins is quoted as saying, "It was dangerous. Lot of kids got hurt. There was a lot of rioting going on, just crazy, man! The music drove 'em insane." In Annapolis 70,000 to 50,000 people tried to attend a sold out performance with 8,000 seats. Roads were clogged for seven hours. Film makers took advantage of the popularity of "rhythm and blues" musicians as "rock n roll" musicians beginning in 1956. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner, The Treniers, The Platters, The Flamingos, all made it onto the big screen.
Two Elvis Presley records made the R&B top five in 1957: "Jailhouse Rock"/"Treat Me Nice" at #1, and "All Shook Up" at #5, an unprecedented acceptance of a non-African American artist into a music category known for being created by blacks. Nat King Cole, also a jazz pianist who had had #1 and #2 hits on the pop charts in the early 1950s ("Mona Lisa" at #2 in 1950 and "Too Young" at #1 in 1951), had a record in the top 5 in the R&B charts in 1958, "Looking Back"/"Do I Like It".
In 1959, two black-owned record labels, one of which would become hugely successful, made their debut: Sam Cooke's Sar, and Berry Gordy's Motown Records. Brook Benton was at the top of the R&B charts in 1959 and 1960 with one #1 and two #2 hits. Benton had a certain warmth in his voice that attracted a wide variety of listeners, and his ballads led to comparisons with performers such as Cole, Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Lloyd Price, who in 1952 had a #1 hit with "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" regained predominance with a version of "Stagger Lee" at #1 and "Personality" at #5 for in 1959.
The white bandleader of the Bill Black Combo, Bill Black, who had helped start Elvis Presley's career and was Elvis's bassist in the 1950s, was popular with black listeners. Ninety percent of his record sales were from black people, and his "Smokey, Part 2" (1959) rose to the #1 position on black music charts. He was once told that "a lot of those stations still think you're a black group because the sound feels funky and black." Hi Records did not feature pictures of the Combo on early records.
Sam Cooke's #5 hit "Chain Gang" is indicative of R&B in 1960, as is Chubby Checker's #5 hit "The Twist". By the early 1960s, the music industry category previously known as rhythm and blues was being called soul music, and similar music by white artists was labeled blue eyed soul. Motown Records had its first million-selling single in 1960 with The Miracles' "Shop Around", and in 1961, Stax Records had its first hit with Carla Thomas' "Gee Whiz! (Look at His Eyes)". Stax's next major hit, The Mar-Keys' instrumental "Last Night" (also released in 1961) introduced the rawer Memphis soul sound for which Stax became known. In Jamaica, R&B influenced the development of ska. In 1969 black culture and Rhythm and blues reached another great achievement when the Grammys first added the Rhythm and Blues category, giving academic recognition to the category. This category was created 10 years after the first Grammy Awards took place. "
By the 1970s, the term rhythm and blues was being used as a blanket term for soul, funk, and disco. Around the same time, earlier R&B was an influence on British pub rock and later, the mod revival. Now the term R&B is almost always used instead of the full rhythm and blues, and mainstream use of the term usually refers to contemporary R&B, which is a newer version of soul and funk-influenced pop music that originated as disco faded from popularity.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hip-hop started to capture the imagination of America's youth. R&B started to become homogenized, with a group of high profile producers responsible for most R&B hits. It was hard for R&B artists of the era to sell their music or even have their music heard because of the rise of hip-hop, but some adopted a "hip-hop" image, were marketed as such, and often featured rappers on their songs. Newer artists such as Usher, R. Kelly, TLC, Aaliyah, Beyoncé, and Mary J. Blige, enjoyed success. L.A. Reid, the CEO of LaFace Records, was responsible for some of R&B's greatest successes in the 1990s in the form of Usher, TLC and Toni Braxton. Later, Reid successfully marketed Boyz II Men. In 2004, 80% of the songs that topped the R&B charts, were also on top of the Hot 100. That period was the all-time peak for R&B and hip hop on the Billboard Hot 100, and on Top 40 Radio. From about 2005 to 2013, R&B sales declined. However; since 2010 Hip-Hop has started to take from the R&B sound choosing to adopt a softer smoother sound incorporating that of traditional R&B with rappers such as Drake and Fetty Wap who have opened an entire new door for the genre. This sound has gained in popularity and created great controversy for both Hip-Hop and R&B in how to identify it
British rhythm and blues developed in the early 1960s, largely as a response to the recordings of American artists, often brought over by African American servicemen stationed in Britain during the Cold War, or merchant seamen visiting ports such as London, Liverpool, Newcastle on Tyne and Belfast. Many bands, particularly in the developing London club scene, tried to emulate black rhythm and blues performers, resulting in a "rawer" or "grittier" sound than the more popular "beat groups". Initially developing out of the trad jazz, skiffle and folk club scenes, early artists tended to focus on major blues performers and standard forms, particularly Alexis Korner, who acted as a mentor to members of The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, The Graham Bond Organisation and The Kinks. Although this "purist" interest in the blues would influence major British rock musicians, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green and Jimmy Page, other artists adopted an interest in a wider range of rhythm and blues styles.
Most successful were the Rolling Stones, whose first eponymously titled album in 1964 largely consisted of rhythm and blues standards. They soon established themselves as the second most popular UK band (after The Beatles) and led a second wave of the "British Invasion" of the US pop charts. In addition to Chicago blues numbers, the Rolling Stones also covered songs by Chuck Berry and Bobby and Shirley Womack, with the latter's "It's All Over Now", giving them their first UK number one in 1964. Blues songs and influences continued to surface in the Rolling Stones' music in later years. Other London-based bands included the Yardbirds, The Kinks, Manfred Mann and The Pretty Things, beside more jazz-influenced acts like the Graham Bond Organisation, Georgie Fame and Zoot Money. Bands to emerge from other major British cities included The Animals from Newcastle on Tyne, The Moody Blues and Spencer Davis Group from Birmingham, and Them from Belfast. None of these bands played exclusively rhythm and blues, but it remained at the core of their early albums.
The music of the British Mod subculture grew out of rhythm and blues and later soul, performed by artists that were not available to the small London clubs where the scene originated. As a result, a number of bands emerged to fill this gap, including Small Faces, The Creation, and most successfully The Who. The Who's early promotional material tagged them as producing "maximum rhythm and blues", but by about 1966 they moved from attempting to emulate American R&B to producing songs that reflected the Mod lifestyle. Many of these bands enjoyed national success in the UK, but found it difficult to break into the American market.
The British R&B bands produced music which was very different in tone from that of African American artists, often with more emphasis on guitars and sometimes with greater energy. They have been criticized for exploiting the massive catalogue of African American music, but it has also been noted that they both popularized that music, bringing it to British, world and in some cases American audiences, and helping to build the reputation of existing and past rhythm and blues artists. Most of these bands rapidly moved on from recording and performing American standards to writing and recording their own music, often leaving their R&B roots behind. Many helped pioneer psychedelic, and eventually progressive and hard rock, having a major influence on the nature and sound of rock music; making rhythm and blues a major component of its sound.