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The term "rhythm and blues" emerged as the most acceptable designation for the music that had developed out of pre-World War II blues styles, for the most distinctive new element in this genre was the addition of a dance beat. The expression first appeared in formal usage in the late 1940s as the name of RCA's division that served the American audience; other alternatives at the time included "ebony" (MGM) and sepia" (Decca and Capitol). Prior to the rise of rock 'n' roll, r & b had already evolved into a wide variety of subgenres, including:

(1) the self-confident, assertive dancehall blues which, in turn, encompassed (a) big band blues (e.g., Lucky Millinder, Tiny Bradshaw); (b) shout, scream, and cry blues (e.g., Wynonie Harris, Joe Turner, Big Maybelle, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Roy Brown); and (c) combo blues or jump blues. Combo blues had a number of regional strains in addition to the cosmopolitan style exemplified by Louis Jordan: West Coast (e.g., Roy Milton, Amos Milbern, T-Bone Walker), Mississippi Delta (e.g., Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm), New Orleans (e.g., Fats Domino, Professor Longhair), and Eastern Seaboard (e.g., Chuck Willis, Wilbert Harrison).

(2) The quieter, more despondent club blues (e.g., Charles Brown, Cecil Gant, Ivory Joe Hunter).

(3) The country-tinged bar blues (usually centered in either the Mississippi Delta or Chicago). Chief exponents included Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and John Lee Hooker.

(4) Vocal group singing, which was subdivided into (a) the cool style (e.g., The Orioles, the Cardinal, the Spaniels); (b) the dramatic style (e.g., the Moonglows, the Flamingos, the Platters); (c) the romantics (e.g., the Harptones); (d) the cool style with a strong blues emphasis (e.g., the Clovers, the Drifters); and (e) the song-along novelty approach geared to mainstream pop acceptance (e.g., the Crows, the Penguins, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers).

(5) Gospel-based styles, which possessed three major strains: (a) spiritual singing, with the focus upon the quality of the voice (e.g., Mahalia Jackson); (b) gospel singing, with its concentration on the interplay between voices, which were often deliberately coarsened to stress the emotional conviction of the singers (e.g., Rosetta Tharpe, the Dixie Hummingbirds); and (c) preacher singing, with its tendency to speak the message in an urgent near-shout which often revealed the phrasing and timing of singing minus the melodic dimension.

It soon became evident, musically speaking, that "rhythm and blues" was a less than satisfactory name for at least two of the most important stylistic innovations of the 1950s, the various vocal group styles and the gospel-based styles, which were to become increasingly popular as rock 'n' roll began to siphon off the unique spirit of previous r & b forms. For instance, the new vocal groups invariably based their approach on the style of two black ballad-singing aggregates who had long been successful with the easy listening audience, the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. Both groups sang in the close harmony "barbershop" style, accompanied by a light rhythm section. They were similar in the ease with which they timed their harmonies, and the purity of their voices.

Of course, these characteristics were a far cry from those comprising the classic r & b style. Therefore, the term "rhythm and blues" became most useful as a market designation; i.e., an indication that the performer was black, recording for the black audience. As noted noted by Charlie Gillett, author of The Sound of the City (1970), there was ample justification--at least until 1956--for classifying the black market separately. The black audience was interested almost exclusively in African American performers; only five recordings by white acts reached the r & b Top Ten between 1950 and 1955, and three of those were rock 'n' roll records (Bill Haley's "Dim the Lights" and "Rock Around the Clock," and Boyd Bennett's "Seventeen"). Few white singers had either the interest or the cultural experience necessary to appeal to the black audience's taste--until rock 'n' roll changed the equation, resulting in a new type of white performer.

Motown Records played a pivotal role in the development of r & b into a mainstream genre. The product of the vision of one man, owner and founder Berry Gordy, the label sculpted a mainstream pop sound out of gospel and blues roots which reflected the vision of upward mobility and wholesome fun held by African American youth in the 1960s. Motown's stars were groomed to offend no one; the songs they sang had romantic lyrics that could appeal to practically anyone; and the music itself was rarely demanding, or even aggressive in the tradition of Southern soul.

Although the assembly-line approach employed by Motown led to criticism for monotony, the label released a remarkably diverse array of recordings, varying in sound, arrangement and feel. This diversity--reinforced by Motown's mainstream commercial success-- proved to be the launching pad for many of the black music styles that evolved after the mid-1960s.

A host of regional independent labels producing soul music in the 1960s sought to control production values and nurture available talent with an eye to the long-term payoff, including Vee-Jay and Chess/Checker (Chicago), Stax/Volt/Enterprise, Goldwax, and Hi (Memphis), Philadelphia International, Philly Groove, and Avco (Philadelphia), and Fame (Muscle Shoals, Alabama). Funk, disco, and the dance-oriented styles of the 1980s such as go-go music also owed much to Motown.

The rich diversification of styles and comparatively rapid rate of change characteristic of African American popular music in the post-World War II era stands in bold contrast to the chief white-dominated genre indigenous to the United States, country music. Gillett offers the following rationale for this situation:

This is partly because several white southern styles have never been widely popular

with the national American audience, so that singers did not continually have to

invent styles that would be special to their local audiences--those invented [sixty

or seventy] years ago were still special to a local area, or to the white south. In

contrast, almost every black southern style has proved to have universal qualities

that attract national and international audiences, and this situation has placed

continual pressure on singers to come up with new styles that are not already

widely known and that the local audience can feel to be its own. And invariably,

musicians and singers have responded positively to such pressure.


This predisposition for change has proven to be at once a strength and a weakness. It has enabled African American music styles to remain dynamic, ever responsive to the needs and interests of its core audience. However, it has also tended to discourage participation on the part of the uninitiated, who are confused by the rapid succession of fads and fashions.


A Rhythm and Blues Chronology:


1946. Billboard begins charting the sale of records in the "Negro" market, employong the heading, "Harlem Hit Parade." The weekly listing is eventually renamed "Race Records."

1948. Atlantic Records is formed. The label has shown a flair for assessing performing styles and audience tastes that has been unmatched in the post-World War II era of popular music. Signing a succession of performers from various sources and with various styles, Atlantic's mid-1950s rosters included Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Ray Charles, Chuck Willis, Ivory Joe Hunter, The Cardinals, The Clovers, The Drifters, The Coasters, and Bobby Darin. With these performers the company's share of the r & b market grew from three Top Ten records in 1950 to seventeen (out of eighty-one) in 1956. Though no longer an independent, Atlantic continues to thrive as part of the WEA family.

June 17, 1949. Billboard, without any editorial comment, begins employing the term "rhythm and blues" in reference to the black charts.

March 6, 1959. "There Goes My Baby" is recorded by the Drifters (Atlantic #2025). It is considered the first high-profile r & b disc to use a string accompaniment. Its combined artistic and commercial success inspired an upsurge in the development of sophisticated recording techniques for African American music, culminating in the "Golden Age of Soul" (1964-1968).

March 12, 1960. Cash Box combines its pop and r & b charts. In an editorial appearing on the front page of that issue, the magazine justifies this decision by noting the similarity between the pop and r & b charts; that is, the r & b listing was at the time almost ninety percent pop in nature. Cash Box evidently had second thoughts about this policy, and reinstated the separate r & b compilation on December 17, 1960 ("Top 50 in Locations"). Billboard used the same reasoning in deleting its r & b singles charts between November 23, 1963 and January 30, 1965. On the latter date, Billboard ultimately returned to the two-chart system.

February 16, 1961. The Miracles' "Shop Around" (Tamla #54034) reaches number one, remaining three weeks. It was Motown's first major hit.

August 26, 1961. The Mar-Keys' "Last Night" becomes the first Stax production to reach number one. Stax--and later in the decade, the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio headed by Rick Hall--both offered a rawer, more spontaneous, gospel-influenced alternative to the Motown Sound. The Mar-Keys (whose rhythm section also recorded as Booker T. & the MGs) backed most of the label's artists, including Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, and Johnnie Taylor.

May 26, 1962. Ray Charles' country-influenced "I Can't Stop Loving You" (ABC #10330) begins the first of its eleven consecutive weeks at the top of the r & b charts. The song typified--in dramatic fashion due to its incredible commercial success--the inclination of talented black performers to favor sweet and sentimental sounds over personal expression in order to achieve mainstream pop impact. Similar career moves were taken by Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Brook Benton, and others. By the late 1960s, however, African American singers like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin were able to attain pop music success while remaining true to their cultural roots.

October 12, 1963. "Cry Baby," by Garnett Mimms and the Enchanters (United Artists #629) begins the first of two weeks at number one. "Cry Baby" was among the earliest--and certainly the most success- commercially--of the gospel-styled songs to have an accompaniment that was not slightly adapted from some other genre of music. Unlike most records, with their slow, gentle, lilting arrangements, "Cry Baby" offered an uncompromising expression of ecstasy. On other "gospel revivalist" records, the strong rhythms meant that the impact was absorbed physically by the listener and not on a purely emotional level as was the case with the Mimms track. In short, the song possessed all the prime ingredients characterizing the classic soul genre.

March 11, 1967. Dyke and the Blazers' "Funky Broadway" (Original Sound #64) enters the r & b charts, remaining there 27 weeks, peaking at number 11. The word "funk" didn't become part of the legitimate radio jargon until the song had "bubbled under" for so long that disc jockeys were forced to play it and say the word. Though nobody knows who coined the term, "funk" simply was not a word used in polite society. "Funky Broadway," however, changed all that.

March 11, 1967. Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man" (Atlantic #2386) reaches number one, remaining there for seven weeks. In a kind of soul-waltz time, the record built up from a quiet but dramatic opening organ figure into a hammering, screaming, but always firmly controlled yell of delight, as a brilliantly organized band fed more and more to support the singer's emotion. It was the first of Franklin's eighteen number one songs on the r & b charts, more than any other artist between 1960 and 1985. Noteworthy commercial success combined with impeccable artistry earned her the sobriquet, "Queen of Soul."

February 10, 1968. Sly and the Family Stone's first hit, "Dance to the Music" (Epic #10256) enters the r & b charts, eventually peaking at number three. The song shook off the assumptions about the separate roles of voices and instruments as sources of rhythm and harmony, alternating them and blending them yet never losing either melody or dance beat. The adventurousness of the sound was mainstream critics who had tended to deride soul arrangements as being overly simple. As Sly began employing increasingly personal lyrics, the social consciousness school of funk was created.

October 12, 1968. "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" (King #12715) by "Soul Brother Number One," James Brown, tops the charts. "Say It Loud" was merely the most successful of the wave of political slogan songs exploiting black pride.

August 23, 1969. Billboard declares rhythm and blues officially dead by renaming its chart for that market "Best-Selling Soul Singles." Ironically, there was every sign that the new euphemism for "black"--which had been widely used during most of the 1960s-- would soon be musically outdated, and its successor defied prophesy.

June 9, 1973. Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" (Atlantic #2971) enters the r & b charts, eventually reaching the Top Twenty. Recorded by an African in Paris, "Soul Makossa" was imported into the U.S. when its enormous popularity in discos made domestic release seem like a good business proposition, Thus, the first disco pop hit was born.

July 29, 1978. "Soft and Wet," the first hit by Prince (Warner #8619), enters the charts, eventually reaching number nine. Prince's combination of street-level hipness and musical inventiveness propelled him to the vanguard of black music in the 1980s. He helped span a new genre, funk punk, and nurtured many exponents of that sound (e.g., The Time, Vanity, Andre Cymone, Sheila E.).

April 10, 1982. Cash Box first employs a new term for the black charts, "Top 100 Black Contemporary Singles." The term gained nearly universal acceptance during the 1980s, encompassing the full range of African American pop music (jazz fusions, dance music, easy listening, and so forth) as well as white releases expected to appeal to the black audience. By the 1990s, however, the trade charts had reverted back to the term "rhythm and blues."


Top R & B Hits*

(1) Joe Liggins and His Honeydrippers--"The Honeydripper" (1945)

(2) Louis Jordan--"Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" (1946)

(3) Louis Jordan--"Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" (1947)

(4) Lionel Hampton--"Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop" (1946)

(5) Charles Brown Trio--"Trouble Blues" (1949)

(6) Paul Williams--"The Hucklebuck" (1949)

(7) The Dominoes--"Sixty-Minute Man" (1951)

(8) Erskine Hawkins--"Don't Cry, Baby" (1943)

(9) Charles Brown--"Black Night" (1951)

(9) Louis Jordan--"Boogie Woogie Blue Plate" (1947)

(11) Guitar Slim--"Things That I Used to Do" (1954)

(12) Bill Doggett--"Honky Tonk (Parts 1 & 2)" (1956)

(13) Joe Liggins and His Honeydrippers--"Pink Champagne" (1950)

(14) The Coasters--"Searchin'" (1957)

(15) Julia Lee and Her Boyfriends--"Snatch and Grab It" (1947)

(16) Louis Jordan--"Saturday Night Fish Fry (Part I)" (1949)

(17) Fats Domino--"Ain't That a Shame" (1955)

(18) Ruth Brown--"Teardrops From My Eyes" (1950)

(19) Fats Domino--"Blueberry Hill" (1956)

(20) Ella Fitzgerald/Ink Spots--"Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" (1944) (20) Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters--"Money Honey" (1953)

(22) The Platters--"The Greater Pretender" (1956)

(23) Chuck Berry--"Maybellene" (1955)

(24) Marvin Gaye--"Sexual Healing" (1982)

(25) King Cole Trio--"Straighten Up and Fly Right" (1944)

(26) Faye Adams--"Shake a Hand" (1953)

(27) The Dominoes--"Have Mercy Baby" (1952)

(28) Johnny Ace--"Pledging My Love" (1955)

(28) Bobby Lewis--"Tossin' and Turnin'" (1961)

(30) Dinah Washington and Brook Benton--"Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" (1960) (31) Ray Charles--"I Can't Stop Loving You" (1962)

(32) Julia Lee and Her Boyfriends--"King Size Papa" (1948)

(33) Michael Jackson--"Billie Jean" (1983)

(34) Little Esther/Johnny Otis Orchestra--"Double Crossing Blues" (1950) (35) Stevie Wonder--"That Girl" (1982)

(36) Johnny Ace/The Beale Streeters--"My Song" (1952)

(36) Fats Domino--"I'm in Love Again" (1956)

(38) The Charms--"Hearts of Stone" (1954)

(39) Four Tops--"I Can't Help Myself" (1965)

(40) Al Green--"Let's Stay Together" (1972)

(41) Brook Benton--"It's Just a Matter of Time" (1959)

(42) Brook Benton--"Kiddio" (1960)

(43) Louis Jordan--"Buzz Me" (1946)

(44) Savannah Churchill--"I Want to Be Loved (But Only By You)" (1947) (44) Mtume--"Juicy Fruit" (1983)

(44) Joe Turner--"Honey Hush" (1953)

(47) The Drifters featuring Clyde McPhatter--"Honey Love" (1954)

(48) Larry Darnell--"For You, My Love" (1949)

(49) Earth, Wind and Fire--"Let's Groove" (1981)

(50) Roy Hamilton--"You'll Never Walk Alone" (1954)

(50) Little Walter and His Night Cats--"Juke" (1952)

(50) Lucky Millinder--"Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well?" (1945)

(50) Prince--"When Doves Cry" (1984)

*Based upon weeks in the number one position on the Billboard R & B singles chart. Ties were broken by comparing total weeks charted.