Have you ever wondered where rhythm & blues music comes from? How did this genre develop over time? What was its impact on other genres? Is it true that R&B developed in America and then spread around the globe?
R&B began as early as the late 1920s and has become one of the most influential styles of popular music. The roots of rhythm & blues lie in gospel music, jazz, swing, and boogie-woogie. Some of the earliest recordings include songs by the likes of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Leadbelly.
Asianpokerlive.com states that the first modern recording artists emerged in Philadelphia where they were influenced by their hometown heroes, such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan. Although these artists recorded for labels like Okeh Records, Vocalion Records, Perfect, and Bluebird, none became so commercially successful until after World War II when Atlantic Records started signing black performers to record contracts.
These performers included Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Little Richard, James Brown, and many others. At first, the artists who signed with Atlantic were not given much financial support or promotion – but the label’s owner Ahmet Ertegun saw potential in these young talents and gave them the opportunities they needed.
History of Rhythm and Blues
In the 1960s, the popularity of rhythm & blues grew exponentially due to a mixture of social change, drug use, rock ‘n’ roll, and soulful singing. Motown, which originated in Detroit, Michigan, had the biggest influence on pop music at the time. Its success would inspire acts as big as David Bowie and Madonna to sing about love, sex, drugs, rebellion, and urban life.
Later in the decade, disco exploded onto the scene and took major market share away from R&B. But the 1980s brought an end to that trend and the 1990s marked the beginning of an era dominated by hip hop and rap music. Today, however, there is no denying that rhythm & blues is alive and well. As seen through the eyes of legendary musicians such as Eric Clapton, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, and Michael Jackson, we’ll take a look at the evolution of rhythm & blues.
The Great Migration
During the 1930s, African Americans migrated en masse out of the South and into northern cities where they found better jobs and more opportunity. This migration greatly impacted the development of rhythm & blues music. These new arrivals brought their unique style of music with them and created a blend known as “race” music.
Over time, this combined musical style evolved into what we know today as rhythm & blues. However, the term ‘rhythm & blues’ does not appear anywhere in the lyrics or compositions of early race records — only in the titles. Early race artists used the terms ‘race music’ or ‘jungle music’ instead.
Recorded Music Before Race Records
The history of recorded music begins long before any race records were made. Prior to 1927, all music was performed live. In order to capture the song, it had to be played over and over again, slowly improving each time. It wasn’t until sound recording technology finally caught up with the idea that the sounds could be captured and stored that real progress was made.
Early Recorded Songs
Before the invention of recorded music, people had to play instruments live in order to make a sound. They also sang while they played. If you listen to the original recordings of some of these pre-recorded songs, you will see that they are nothing close to the finished product that would eventually emerge.
The very first recorded song was composed by Blind Willie Johnson in 1908. He wrote and performed Black Patti, his own version of Blind Tom and John Henry. It has been said that he may have also written the words for Robert Johnson’s famous song, Come On Let’s Go Tonight.
Songs for Sale
In 1910, Blind Willie wrote a second song called My Son the Engineer. This came after hearing another artist sing, and he wanted to write something similar. He didn’t intend to sell the song, but when someone heard him perform it, they asked if he would release it under his name.
Another popular song that was released around this time was Blues Breakdown. It was released by Blind Blake, a blind musician who was considered one of the greatest guitar players in the world during the 1920s. His signature lick is still played by countless guitarists today.
Tin Pan Alley
The Tin Pan Alley movement began in 1912 when William Jerome started publishing sheet music for sale. He quickly established himself as the most successful publisher of sheet music. By 1926, he owned three companies that published nearly 200 different styles of music. Popular composers like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Hoagy Carmichael were among his clients.
After the turn of the century, jazz became increasingly popular throughout the United States. Jazz was often referred to as the ‘American music.’ The popularity of jazz increased rapidly, especially when it was added to other types of music. Artists like Louis Armstrong (who was originally from New Orleans), James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, and Ella Fitzgerald were all part of this new musical movement.