R&B, Rock & Roll, and Integration

As Little Richard’s drummer, Charles Connor, who later played with James Brown, put it, rock and roll is really just “rhythm and blues played with a fast beat.”

Now, however, black artists were sharing spaces formerly reserved for white artists, and were at the forefront of American popular culture.

In spite of the efforts of segregationists to ban this “licentious jungle music,” especially in the Jim Crow south,

a curious thing started to happen: Rock & roll shows became so boisterously biracial that it was sometimes impossible for officials to fully segregate them. Some recall the cops simply throwing up their hands. “A lot of places had the line when we first walked in, and after we started playing, they let them cross the line,” the Coasters’ [Leon] Hughes says. “It was beautiful.”

At the height of Jim Crow, young whites and blacks found ways to breach the separation. “After the first intermission, the kids were all dancing together,” [rock and roll singer Lloyd] Price says. “I just kept playing my music and the kids kept coming….They were rebelling through dance, through a beat I’d created….They start realizing we’re all human.” In his authorized 1985 biography, Little Richard gives himself credit for single-handedly bringing segregated audiences together. “We were breaking through the racial barrier,” he wrote. Richard’s producer, H.B. Barnum, recalled, “When I first went on the road there were many segregated audiences….And most times, before the end of the night, they would all be mixed together.”

The record companies were paying attention. So as to capitalize on the success of early (black) rock and roll, and to quietly influence white parents to lift their unofficial restrictions on the lucrative teen record-buying market, white artists were enlisted to cover songs first recorded by black artists.

The Chords, “Sh-Boom”:

The Crew Cuts, “Sh-Boom”:

Etta James, “Wallflower”:

Georgia Gibbs, “Wallflower”:

Little Richard, “Tutti Frutti”:

Pat Boone, “Tutti Frutti”:

Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog”:

Elvis Presley, “Hound Dog”:

 

 

A First-Stream Rhythm and Blues Primer

citizens council

Handbill distributed by the Citizens’ Council of New Orleans.

Early rhythm and blues was essentially what its name says: an uptempo version of the blues, with a strong emphasis on the kind of driving, propulsive beat popularized by jazz. It was marketed to black urban record-buyers as “race music,” until journalist Jerry Wexler (who later became a well-known producer) christened it “rhythm and blues” in Billboard magazine in 1949.

Some early examples.

Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” (1947):

John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillun” (1949):

Lonnie Johnson, “Tomorrow Night,” an R&B ballad (1947):

Wynonie Harris, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1947) — a song that was one of the first to use the term “rock” to describe a musical style:

Harris’s recording became a #1 hit on the rhythm and blues charts in 1948; a few years later, it would become a #1 hit on the pop charts for another artist:

Another feature of rhythm and blues was group vocals, a style borrowed from gospel quartets like the Jubilaires:

The group sound was adopted by male vocal harmony groups like the Ink Spots and the Orioles. Note the romantic, extremely emotionally-vulnerable vocal style of the Ink Spots’ Bill Kenny and the Orioles’ Sonny Til:

As Orioles member Diz Russell explained it, after World War II

People wanted to become close. Their loved ones were coming back from the war . . . The theme was trying to get close to each other. You can’t get close to nobody on the dance floor, jitterbugging, so ballads were the best medium . . . it put you in [the] frame of mind . . . to fall in love.

Jitterbugging:

Slow dancing to Sam Cooke in the 1950s:

Another male singing group, The Dominoes, with the uptempo “Have Mercy Baby” (1951):

Another Orioles song, “Crying in the Chapel,” consciously married gospel and R&B, both in musical style and in the text:

Faye Adams joined female gospel vocal style with secular love lyrics (“Shake a Hand,” 1951):

Rhythm and blues emerged at the same time that jazz, with bebop and hard bop, was becoming music for connoisseurs and intellectuals. R&B stepped into jazz’s former position as the defining genre of popular black urban music. In a few short years, the crossover between R&B and the concurrent emerging style of rock and roll would be complete.

As Sam Cooke said in a 1964 interview:

When a kid is young he expects a lot out of life. Rhythm ‘n’ blues is the most fervent sound in pop music. When a person gets older he understands there’s only so much to be gotten out of life. He doesn’t have to have excitement all the time. He can take things with less intensity, hence his appreciation of jazz.