Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Genre of black popular music emerging in the 1940s, the most important element in rock'n'roll and still informing white pop today. In earlier decades black music included jazz; the country blues of Bessie Smith, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and many others; also vaudeville 'hokum' (double-entendre lyrics of Georgia Tom etc), the folk-blues of Big Bill Broonzy etc. The blues of Leroy Carr ('In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down') already had a smoother urban style '30s. The great black bands of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson etc were enormously popular (it was only called the 'Big Band Era' after that style also dominated white pop from 1935). As that era decayed, both black and white acts shrank in size; pop singers took over in white music and two strands of blues and party-pop succeeded jazz in the black: the evolution of the Lucky Millinder band from full-sized 'swing band' to a smaller group illustrates the process. Louis Jordan typified the emergence of the jump band '40s, a rocking small band playing party music with humorous lyrics; both Jordan and Jack McVea had hit versions of 'Open The Door, Richard' '47 (written by McVea). Bill Doggett, Earl Bostic, Jimmy Forrest, Tab Smith and many other jazzmen led popular combos; Dexter Gordon accompanied Etta James; the 'Swingtets' recording for Blue Note were influential (see Ike Quebec, and Illinois Jacquet).

Rhythm and blues was a magpie music; anything that was fun was thrown in. The screaming sax came directly from the decaying Swing Era; Bo Diddley's beat ('shave-and-a-haircut, six-bits') came from the Caribbean, and soon turned up on rock'n'roll records; a quintessential bass riff (Fats Domino's 'Blue Monday', Lloyd Price's 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy') was borrowed by producer Dave Bartholomew from Cuban music (see Son); the harmonies of the vocal groups (see Doo-Wop) were essentially barbershop harmonies (and there is evidence that that too was invented by blacks: vaudevillian Billy McClain recalled that in the 1880s 'about every four dark faces you met was a quartet', and barbershop's diminished seventh chords had found their way into Scott Joplin's ragtime). As in white pop the vocalists began to take over; as the jazz element decreased the electric guitar made inroads and the drummer's backbeat became stronger, but the saxophone remained important, a showmanship element emphasized by Big Jay McNeely; rocking solos on hits were played by Hank Crawford, David Newman, (Alvin) Red Tyler (d 3 April 1998 in New Orleans aged 72), Lee Allen, Noble 'Thin Man' Watts (whose own first album was Return Of The Thin Man '87 reissued on Alligator) and others. As the bands got smaller the electric guitar became more important: the country blues (a guitar-based music) had come to town, adding itself to the mixture, and the electrified guitar could be heard in noisy taverns. Blues were electrified and urbanized by T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, B. B. King, Muddy Waters and many others, but still with a strong traditional element; on the West Coast small combos led by pianists/vocalists Amos Milburn, Roy Brown and others sang a smoother bar-room style; Roy Milton gave smoothness to white audiences and a different style in black clubs (as did Sam Cooke later).

After the ASCAP strike against the broadcasters '40 resulted in the formation of Broadcast Music Inc (see BMI), and when blacks had more disposable income from jobs in wartime industries, new record labels sprang up to serve the developing R&B market. Leon and Otis René were songwriters, originally from New Orleans; Leon wrote 'When It's Sleepy Time Down South' '31 (which became Louis Armstrong's theme) and 'When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano' '40, a world-wide hit. But during the Depression they couldn't sell anything to white labels, so they formed the Exclusive and Excelsior labels to promote their wares; in the '40s they expanded, recording Herb Jeffries (a big-voiced balladeer who had sung with Duke Ellington), Johnny Moore's Three Blazers and the Basin Street Boys: they were trying to sell to the white market when they had one of the biggest R&B hits of all time with Joe Liggins's 'The Honeydripper' '45. (In the late '50s Leon's Class label had hits in the pop chart '57-9 with Bobby Day; see Day's entry.) Meanwhile Apollo was formed c.1942 in NYC by Ike and Bess Berman to record gospel music, soon diversifying into jazz and rhythm and blues (though another story is that Apollo was formed by Teddy Gottlieb and Hi Siegel from their Rainbow Music Store; maybe that was another label). Savoy was formed in Newark, New Jersey by Herman Lubinsky, another record retailer. National was formed by A. B. Green in Manhattan '44, with Herb Abramson as its A&R director (soon to be a co-founder of Atlantic). Syd Nathan left the department store business to form King in Cincinatti '45, serving both R&B and country music; DeLuxe was formed c.1944 in Linden, New Jersey by Jules Braun and his brothers; Fred Mendelsohn formed Regent '47, DeLuxe was sold to King and the Brauns and Mendelsohn formed Regal '49. (Mendelsohn formed Herald in 1952, and ended up succeeding Lubinsky at Savoy.) On the West Coast, Specialty was formed '44 by Art Rupe, Black and White '45 by Paul and Lillian Reiner, Modern by Jules, Saul and Joe Bihari (soon to include subsidiaries Kent, Crown and Flair); and Philo at about the same time by Leo, Edward and Ida Mesner, changing its name '46 to Aladdin. Phil and Leonard Chess took over Aristocrat in Chicago '46-7, which soon became Chess. Mercury had been formed in Chicago '45-6 (see Polygram); Excello was formed in Nashville; Don Robey formed Peacock in Houston '49, with Exclusive one of the first black-owned labels since Black Swan, and more 'indie' labels followed in the early '50s. The United and States labels were run by Lew Simpkins and Leonard Allen '51-4; shortlived due to Simpkins's death, the labels recorded Forrest, Tab Smith, Memphis Slim, Roosevelt Sykes, Walter Horton, guitarist Robert Nighthawk, vocal group the Four Blazes etc in excellent sound which is still fresh (CD reissues on Delmark).

Most of these indies were formed by Jews, who in those days did not find it easy to make their way in mainstream business in the USA (Laura Z. Hobson's best-selling novel about genteel American anti-Semitism, Gentleman's Agreement, was filmed '47, unfortunately a dull movie). The Jews who formed all those classic indie labels in the '40s lived and worked in black neighbourhoods, and knew and understood the music better than anyone at a major label could (with the possible exception of Jack Kapp at Decca, who did record a lot of minority music); if they hadn't taken the risks and done the work, the Lester Youngs on Aladdin and much more (the indies were also the first to record bop) to say nothing of legendary rhythm and blues hits would not exist. It was a colourful and freewheeling time: King not only recorded the music but manufactured their own records and printed their own sleeves; Lubinsky was famous for never paying any royalties; the Chess brothers visited distributors and disc jockeys, hauling records around in the car; they were also tight-fisted, but they looked after their artists (see entry for Etta James). Influential producers and bandleaders included Bartholomew, Johnny Otis, Ralph Bass, Paul Gayten, Bumps Blackwell and Allen Toussaint. Billboard changed the designation of the 'Race Records' chart to 'Rhythm and Blues' '49 at the suggestion of Jerry Wexler, who later became a legendary producer at Atlantic. (See also entries for Atlantic, Imperial, Sun, Delmark, Capitol.)

By the mid-'50s all this had resulted in a kind of gloriously uninhibited party music, exemplified by hits like Shirley and Lee's 'Let The Good Times Roll'. R&B lyrics were often more fun (and more honest) than in white pop; it was also danceable music, and white kids began to buy black hits, which threatened to cross over to the pop chart, and finally did just as the explosion of rock'n'roll itself was caused largely by the influence of R&B. (For the rest of that story and more on R&B see the entry for Rock.) Some of the best R&B never crossed over: Bo Diddley had only one top 40 hit, and urban blues never made the pop chart, but UK bands gave new meaning to the word 'cover' in the '60s, mining the mother lode with affection: great black artists like Waters, Professor Longhair, B. B. King, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins and many others became international stars '60s-70s thanks largely to homage paid them by British rockers. As the dominant genre in black pop, R&B was succeeded by soul in the '60s, which became the new name of the Billboard black chart in '69, but the R&B feeling still lives in clubs and neighbourhoods: R&B like all musics nowadays is repertory music, but any self-respecting bar band still needs roots in it.

The best books include Rhythm And Blues In New Orleans '74 by John Broven (aka Walking To New Orleans) and Honkers And Shouters: The Golden Years Of Rhythm And Blues '78 by Arnold Shaw. Every southern city had 'the Stroll', a street in the black neighbourhood where the working class could howl on Saturday night; The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll 2011 by Preston Lauterbach celebrated the personalities and the birthplaces of R&B. Joe Bihari (b 30 May 1925, Memphis; d 28 November 2013, Los Angeles) was the last surviving Bihari sibling; his memories of the rhythm and blues business helped wonderfully to inform Broven's work, including his Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock'n'Roll Pioneers, published in 2010.