Rhythm & Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Introduction

In 1945, jazz was still the most popular form of music in America. It had risen to prominence in the 1920s, remained popular through the 1930s, and was still going strong by the early 1940s.

However, around this time, jazz musicians began playing a new style called bebop, which was a fast, rude, and aggressive form of swing. Swing was a type of jazz marked by smooth, danceable sounds. It had sparked dance crazes and sold millions of records during the 1930s and 1940s.

Unlike swing, selling records and sparking dance crazes was not bebop’s forte. The main reason why is that it was far too fast and chaotic for most listeners.

Listen to Duke Ellington’s “C-Jam Blues” for an example of swing; then, listen to Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” for an example of bebop.Which would you rather dance to?

Bebop’s fast and chaotic nature was intended to please the musicians, not the listeners.

Bebop was born in late-night jam sessions where top-flight soloists vented their anger and frustrations about playing swing music under dictatorial bandleaders for white audiences. They were especially frustrated by the limited opportunities afforded to them by their bandleaders to improvise.

Typically, bandleaders only gave their soloists eight or sixteen bars to improvise per night. For a player like Charlie Parker, who could improvise perfectly formed lines ad infinitum, playing swing music in a big band for white audiences was profoundly unsatisfying.

Bebop provided players like Parker a medium for artistic expression that was not available in the typical swing band. However, the cost of this artistic expression was the alienation of jazz listeners and the destruction of the jazz style.

For a short time during the mid-1940s, record companies devoted significant resources to promoting bebop. But listeners did not respond. The style was simply not listenable or danceable. Consequently, bebop killed the popularity of jazz.

Into this vacuum swept rhythm and blues (R & B), which was an urbane and rocking form of music that was perfect for dancing. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, listeners and record companies responded favorably to the new style. As a result, rhythm and blues usurped jazz in popularity.

Musically, rhythm and blues bore many similarities to swing music: It featured rhythm sections, horn sections, and bandleaders. Indeed, the earliest permutations of R & B could accurately be described as a type of swing music.

Rhythm and blues soon sparked its own variant in the mid-1950s: rock ‘n’ roll. This style was like rhythm and blues, only louder, more sexualized, and with more emphasis on the electric guitar.

Unlike rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll was embraced by white bands and listeners. Therefore, the styles eventually diverged along racial lines.

The rest of this blog post explores the early years of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll. It defines the essential attributes of both styles, and it introduces several important musicians.

Rhythm and Blues

Rhythm-and-blues, n. a folk based but urbanized form of black popular music that is marked by strong, repetitious rhythms and simple melodies and was developed in a commercialized form, into rock ‘n’ roll (Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary).

Rhythm and blues (R & B), like jazz before it, was a combination of several African American idioms. It featured aspects of blues, gospel, and jazz, and it was ready-made for dancing. R & B’s most prominent musical characteristics were heavy backbeats, major-key melodies, simple chord structures, and repeated instrumental phrases.

The typical R-&-B band featured a lead singer (or a lead instrument) being accompanied by a rhythm section, a horn section, and background singers. The instrumentation of the typical R-&-B band included bass, drums, piano, guitar, saxophone, and trumpet—basically, the same instruments as a swing band. And, just like swing, the repertoire of songs played by R & B bands were derived from twelve-bar blues or from thirty-two-bar pop.

Figure 1: The typical rhythm and blues band features drums, bass, guitar, piano, saxophone, and trumpet. Depicted here is Louis Jordan circa 1950 and his band. He is widely regarded to be one of the first rhythm and blues artists. (Photo by JP Jazz Archive/Getty Images)

In the late 1940s, record companies began using the term rhythm and blues instead of “race records” to describe blues, gospel, and other predominantly black styles. R & B was black music geared towards black listeners and was principally designed for dancing. Although the style often featured singing, there was little emphasis placed on the quality or value of the lyrics. Indeed, the words were sometimes impossible to decipher. What was decipherable, however, were the heavy beats and the powerful rhythms. These were the qualities that mattered most to R & B listeners and dancers.

For a sufficient understanding of this topic, you must know the definitions of the following terms: scales, blues, backbeat, major keys, chords, and twelve-bar blues.

Rhythm and blues sparked many new record companies that specialized in the new style. Examples included Chess, Stax, King, Vee-Jay, Okeh, Motown, and others. Rhythm and blues also sparked many black radio stations that featured black disc jockeys spinning black records. (Ewen 542).  Indeed, the popularity of R & B helped precipitate the civil rights movement and the shift towards mainstream acceptance of black culture in America.

Figure 2: Chess Records was a Chicago-based record company started in 1950 that specialized in blues and rhythm & blues, which were musical forms historically categorized as “race records.”

Louis Jordan (1908 – 1975) is widely regarded to be the first R & B musician. He was a blues singer and saxophonist who played jazz during the 1940s with big-named bandleaders like Chick Webb and Earl Hines.

Later, while fronting his own band called Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, Jordan began cultivating a nascent version of rhythm and blues that diverged from jazz. His music often included comedy schtick featuring black caricatures, which he performed on stage and on record. One of these records was “Caldonia,” which was released in 1945 on Decca records and sold over a million copies.

Jordan’s music is sometimes described as jump blues, which is a fast style of blues featuring horn and rhythm sections. The song, “Caldonia,” predates the term rhythm and blues and was categorized by the record companies as a “race record.” Therefore, it’s probably more accurate to categorize Jordan’s music as a transitional form that exists somewhere between jazz and rhythm and blues. Despite this ambiguity, his music did feature the strong, pulsing rhythms and gritty blues tones that came to characterize the R & B style (“Caldonia” para 1, 2, and 3).

Another early example of R & B was “Night Train,” which is a song with many songwriters and versions, each with their own take on the tune. However, the most famous version was recorded in 1951 by Jimmy Forrest (1920 – 1980). Forrest was a tenor saxophonist and professional musician from St. Louis, Missouri. “Night Train” is an instrumental in the twelve-bar-blues format. It features some hallmarks of jazz, like stop-time rhythms, and some hallmarks of rhythm and blues, like simple melodies over a heavy beat. It is a good transitional piece between the styles of swing and rhythm and blues (“Night Train” par. 1 and 2).

Yet another early example of a rhythm and blues song was “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner (1931 – 2007), which came out in 1951. The song was originally credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, but Brenston was just the saxophonist in Turner’s band who happened to be taking the lead vocal on this song.  The track was supposed to be credited to Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm featuring Jackie Brenston. The mistake was blamed on Sam Phillips, the producer on the track. In any case, the song is about a car, an Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight, and it reached number one on Billboard’s R & B chart. The song is also notable for featuring the first distorted guitar sound (“Rocket 88” para. 1, 2, and 3).

Rock ‘n’ Roll

rock ‘n’ roll, n. A form of popular music arising from and incorporating a variety of musical styles, especially rhythm and blues, country music, and gospel. Originating in the United States in the 1950s, it is characterized by electronically amplified instrumentation, a heavily accented beat, and relatively simple phrase structure (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language fourth edition).

In the mid-1950s, the most popular form of music shifted from something called rhythm and blues to something called rock ‘n’ roll.

The distinction between the two genres was vague, however—existing largely in name only. What had traditionally been called rhythm and blues just began to be called rock ‘n’ roll. However, despite the similarities between the styles, there were some distinctions. Namely, rock ‘n’ roll featured electronically amplified instruments (especially the electric guitar) and more sexualized lyrics.

Figure 3: The electric guitar was a primary feature of the new rock ‘n’ roll style.  (Jump, Brian. “Grote Semi-Hollow Body Electric.” 2019. JPEG.)

Around this time, Billboard magazine stopped using the term rhythm and blues on its hit parade and began using the term rock ‘n’ roll.[1] However, the consolidation did not last long because deviations, eccentricities, and sub-genres began to emerge within the style.

For example, white musicians like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley imposed significant changes upon the style. Under their influence, rock ‘n’ roll adopted an amped-up and countrified aesthetic marked by twangy guitars, fast tempos, and greasy hair. This version of rock ‘n’ roll is sometimes called rockabilly.

Because of the white influx, black bands reverted to a more traditional form of R & B. The new/old form of rhythm and blues was marked by a blues-meets-gospel approach that is sometimes called soul. Famous soul musicians include James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles.

Because of the increasing distinction between rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, Billboard Magazine reinstated R & B as a separate category on their hit parade in 1964 (Ewen 676).

Music historians have not been able to agree on the first rock ‘n’ roll song. Some proclaim it was Ike Turner and his 1951 song called “Rocket 88.” Some suggest it was Bill Haley and the Comets, who recorded the song “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955. Still others suggest that the first rock song was Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” which also came out in 1955. In my view, “Rocket 88” and “Rock Around the Clock” are in the R & B style and “Maybellene” is in the rock ‘n’ roll style—so, Chuck Berry was the first rock ‘n’ roller on Earth.

Unlike the ambiguity that exists about the first rock ‘n’ roll song, there is no ambiguity about the first use of the term, rock ‘n’ roll. The first use was by Billboard magazine columnist, Maurie Orodenker, who described the song “Rock Me” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe as “rock-and-roll spiritual singing,” in 1942. Another early use of the term was by Cleveland disc jockey, Alan Freed, who called his rhythm-and-blues radio show, “Moon Dog’s Rock and Roll Party” in 1951 (“Rock and roll,” Terminology,  para. 3).

The etymology of the term is a little more complicated. Rock ‘n’ roll was traditionally used to describe an up-and-down movement experienced aboard an ocean-going ship, it was used to describe a rollicking, song-filled ceremony encountered in black churches, and it was used to describe a movement experienced during sexual intercourse.

Figure 4: Chuck Berry is one of the first rock ‘n’ roll musicians. His song “Maybellene” is sometimes referred to as the first rock ‘n’ roll song. Berry’s aggressive guitar playing codified the style as a guitarists’ medium.

Chuck Berry’s (1926 – 2017) “Maybellene” is widely regarded to be one of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll songs, if not the first rock ‘n’ roll song. It featured all the hallmarks of the style: It had a heavy back beat, loud electric guitars, and lyrics about cars and sex. It was a massive hit under several of Billboard’s categories, including rhythm and blues, country and western, and pop (“Maybellene” para 1, 2, 3, and 4).

Elvis Presley (1935 – 1977) is perhaps the most authentic white performer of rock ‘n’ roll. Whereas other white rockers stripped away much of the explicit sexual content, Presley never did. His version of Tutti Frutti, originally recorded by Little Richard, displays his deft understanding of the style, especially when compared to the watered-down version of this song recorded by Pat Boone. In any case, Elvis Presley’s rockabilly take on rock ‘n’ roll was hugely popular.

One of his earliest hits was “Don’t Be Cruel,” which was recorded in 1956. This record is peculiar because it contains hallmarks of the rock ‘n’ roll style, like a heavy back beat and sexualized lyrics, and hallmarks of the rhythm and blues style, like a walking bass line and four-part background singing. The implication being that this song, like many others that came out in the mid-1950s, is transitional music that illustrates the shift from rhythm and blues to rock ‘n’ roll.

Quiz

Test your knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues by watching the following video:

Listening

Below are links to the music mentioned above:

Caldonia” (1945) by Louis Jordan

Night Train” (1951) by Jimmy Forrest

Rocket 88” (1951) by Ike Turner

Don’t You Know” (1957) by Ray Charles

Try Me” (1958) by James Brown

I Never Loved a Man” (1967) by Aretha Franklin

Maybellene” (1955) by Chuck Berry

Rock Around the Clock” (1955)

Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard (1955)

Don’t Be Cruel” (1956) by Elvis Presley

I Saw Her Standing There” (1963) by The Beatles

Notes

[1] A hit parade is a ranked list of popular songs. Today, it’s called the Hot 100.

Works Cited

“Caldonia.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Feb. 2020.

Cooper, Michael. “It’s Official: Many Orchestras Are Now Charities.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Nov. 2016.

Ewen, David. All the Years of American Popular Music. Prentice-Hall, 1977.

“Chuck Berry.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Feb. 2020.

“Maybellene.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Feb. 2020.

“Night Train.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Feb. 2020.

“Rock and Roll.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Feb. 2020.

“Rocket 88” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Feb. 2020.

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