Rhythm & Blues: Definition, History, Artists & Songs

Instructor: David White
Throughout the mid-20th century, rhythm and blues music dominated the music charts and dramatically altered race relations in the United States. Through this lesson, you will explore the origins of the genre and learn about some of the artists that contributed to the style.

What Is Rhythm and Blues?

When it comes to things with long and complex histories (like music), we tend to forget just how strongly the present has been influenced by the past. Today, pop music is diverse and draws from many different genres, but many of these present day styles wouldn't exist without the strong influence of the rhythm and blues music from the mid-20th century.

Rhythm and blues (sometimes called R&B) is a style of American music that emerged from the various sub-genres of jazz and blues that were popular throughout the first half of the 20th century. Like all styles of music, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where and when it began, but rhythm and blues has deep roots in a variety of African American styles. Gospel music, with its rhythmic style and religious or spiritual call-and-response vocal arrangements, was particularly important for R&B musicians.

During the 1930s and 40s, urban cities like Chicago, New York, and Detroit became hotbeds of new musicians like Cab Calloway, a swing bandleader, and T-Bone Walker, a jump-blues guitarist. Unlike jazz, which can have complicated orchestrations and accommodates improvisation, the swing and jump-blues played by artists like Calloway and Walker had a more stripped down, uncomplicated sound. Moreover, some artists, like Walker, placed a greater emphasis on the electric guitar, which led to the popularization of the electric blues, or Chicago blues.

Given the nuanced and intersecting nature of musical styles, there is a certain degree of subjectivity when it comes to assigning these musicians of the '30s and '40s to the category of 'rhythm and blues.' By the late 1940s, however, this diverse collection of African American groups and musicians was labeled as 'rhythm and blues' by Billboard Magazine writer Jerry Wexler.

The 1950s

By 1951, rhythm and blues had become established as a formal genre, and artists like Ruth Brown scored hits with songs like 'Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean'. These early records stayed true to the genre's roots with simple arrangements, minimal production, and strong, almost gospel vocal deliveries. Sensing that there was money to be made on the growing trend, labels like Atlantic Records and Savoy began to shift their focus away from jazz and started signing rhythm and blues singers and groups.

When Jerry Wexler left Billboard Magazine in 1953 to become a partner at Atlantic Records, the label began producing records that have since become genre defining. With the signing of acts like Ray Charles and the Drifters in the previous year, Atlantic had a strong hold over the rhythm and blues music charts during the first half of the '50s with songs like Charles' 'What'd I Say', Big Joe Turner's 'Shake, Rattle, and Roll', and the Drifters' 'Such a Night'.

Ray Charles, 1969.
ray charles

Despite the fact that these records are now considered classics by diverse audiences, in the early years R&B was largely marketed towards African American audiences. In fact, prior to being termed 'rhythm and blues', the genre was more commonly referred to as 'race music' or 'negro music.' When these songs did finally reach white audiences in the late 1950s and early '60s, it was usually through white performers like Elvis Presley recording their own versions of R&B songs.

This paradigm began to shift when disc jockeys like Alan Freed began playing the original African American recordings on their radio shows. Having discovered that they had been hearing white versions of the songs, white teenagers developed a curiosity about the originals. At a time when much of the country was still struggling with racial tensions, the rising popularity of African American music with white audiences was a remarkable turning point for American race relations.

The 1960s

During the late 1950s and into the 1960s, rhythm and blues was a major cultural force in the United States. With the genre being increasingly enjoyed by white audiences, many artists began to move away from the strong gospel and blues influences of the previous decade and towards a style influenced by 'pop' music.

It's important to note that 'pop' is more of a marketing term than it is a musical style. 'Pop' music implied songs that could accommodate radio play, have a familiar verse/chorus/verse format, and otherwise appeal to wide audiences. Adding these elements to R&B moved the genre a bit further away from its roots as an expression of African American life, weakening the influence of jazz and gospel music.

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