SOUL AND RHYTHM AND BLUES MUSIC

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SOUL AND RHYTHM AND BLUES MUSIC

R&B, an abbreviation for rhythm and blues, is a style that arose in the 1930s and 1940s. Early R&B consisted of large rhythm units “smashing away behind screaming blues singers who had to shout to be heard above the clanging and strumming of the various electrified instruments and the churning rhythm sections”.   R&B was not extensively recorded and promoted because record companies felt that it was not suited for most audiences, especially middle-class whites, because of the suggestive lyrics and driving rhythms. Bandleaders like Louis Jordan innovated the sound of early R&B, using a band with a small horn section and prominent rhythm instrumentation. By the end of the 1940s, he had had several hits, and helped pave the way for contemporaries like Wynonie Harris and John Lee Hooker. Many of the most popular R&B songs were not performed in the rollicking style of Jordan and his contemporaries; instead they were performed by white musicians like Pat Boone in a more palatable mainstream style, which turned into pop hits. By the end of the 1950s, however, there was a wave of popular black blues rock and country-influenced R&B performers like Chuck Berry gaining unprecedented fame among white listeners.

Soul music is a combination of rhythm and blues and gospel which began in the late 1950s in the United States. It is characterized by its use of gospel-music devices, with a greater emphasis on vocalists and the use of secular themes. The 1950s recordings of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and James Brown are commonly considered the beginnings of soul. Charles’ Modern Sounds (1962) records featured a fusion of soul and country music, country soul, and crossed racial barriers in music at the time. One of Cooke’s most well-known songs “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964) became accepted as a classic and an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. There had been reports that James Brown was critical, through “the gospel-impassioned fury of his vocals and the complex polyrhythms of his beats”, in “two revolutions in black American music. He was one of the figures most responsible for turning R&B into soul and he was, most would agree, the figure most responsible for turning soul music into the funk of the late ’60s and early ’70s.”   The Motown Record Corporation of Detroit, Michigan became highly successful during the early and mid-1960s by releasing soul recordings with heavy pop influences to make them palatable to white audiences, allowing black artists to more easily crossover to white audiences.

Pure soul was popularized by Otis Redding and the other artists of Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. By the late 1960s, Atlantic recording artist Aretha Franklin had emerged as the most popular female soul star in the country. Also by this time, soul had splintered into several genres, influenced by psychedelic rock and other styles. The social and political ferment of the 1960s inspired artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield to release albums with hard-hitting social commentary, while another variety became more dance-oriented music, evolving into funk. Despite his previous affinity with politically and socially-charged lyrical themes, Gaye helped popularize sexual and romance-themed music and funk, while his 1970s recordings, helped develop the quiet storm sound and format. One of the most influential albums ever recorded, Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971) has been considered among the first and best examples of the matured version of funk music, after prototypical instances of the sound in the group’s earlier work. Artists such as Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets practiced an eclectic blend of poetry, jazz-funk and soul, featuring critical political and social commentary with Afrocentric sentiment. Scott-Heron’s proto-rap work, including “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1971) and Winter in America (1974), has had a considerable impact on later hip hop artists, while his unique sound with Brian Jackson influenced neo soul artists.

During the mid-1970s, highly slick and commercial bands such as Philly soul group The O’Jays and blue-eyed soul group Hall & Oates achieved mainstream success. By the end of the ’70s, most music genres, including soul, had been disco-influenced. With the introduction of influences from electro music and funk in the late 1970s and early 1980s, soul music became less raw and more slickly produced, resulting in a genre of music that was once again called R&B, usually distinguished from the earlier rhythm and blues by identifying it as contemporary R & B.

The first contemporary R&B stars arose in the 1980s, with the dance-pop star Michael Jackson, funk-influenced singer Prince, and a wave of female vocalists like Tina Turner and Whitney Houston. Michael Jackson and Prince has been described as the most influential figures in contemporary R&B and popular music because of their eclectic use of elements from a variety of genres. Prince was largely responsible for creating the Minneapolis sound: “a blend of horns, guitars, and electronic synthesizers supported by a steady, bouncing rhythm.” Jackson’s work focused on smooth balladry or disco-influenced dance music; as an artist, he “pulled dance music out of the disco doldrums with his 1979 solo debut, Off the Wall, merged R&B with rock on Thriller, and introduced stylized steps such as the robot and moonwalk over the course of his career.”

Janet Jackson collaborated with former Prince associates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on her third studio album Control (1986); the album’s second single “Nasty” has been described as the origin of the new jack swing sound, a genre innovated by

Teddy Riley. Riley’s work made new jack swing a staple of contemporary R&B into the mid-1990s. New jack swing was a style and trend of vocal music, often featuring rapped verses and drum machines. The crossover appeal of early contemporary R&B artists in mainstream popular music, including works by Prince, Michael and Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Anita Baker and the Pointer Sisters became a turning point for black artists in the industry, as their success “was perhaps the first hint that the greater cosmopolitanism of a world market might produce some changes in the complexion of popular music.”

The use of melisma, a gospel tradition adapted by vocalists Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey would become a cornerstone of contemporary R&B singers beginning in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Hip hop came to influence contemporary R&B later in the ’80s, first through new jack swing and then in a related series of subgenres called hip hop soul and neo soul. Hip hop soul and neo soul developed later, in the 1990s. Typified by the work of Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly, the former is a mixture of contemporary R&B with hip hop beats, while the images and themes of gangsta rap may be present. The latter is a more experimental, edgier and generally less mainstream combination of ’60s and ’70s-style soul vocals with some hip hop influence, and has earned some mainstream recognition through the work of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill. D’Angelo’s critically acclaimed album Voodoo (2000) has been recognized by music writers as a masterpiece and the cornerstone of the neo soul genre.

Rock and roll developed out of country, blues, and R&B. Rock’s exact origins and early influences have been hotly debated, and are the subjects of much scholarship. Though squarely in the blues tradition, rock took elements from Afro-Caribbean and Latin musical techniques. Rock was an urban style, formed in the areas where diverse populations resulted in the mixtures of African American, Latin and European genres ranging from the blues and country to polka and zydeco. Rock and roll first entered popular music through a style called rockabilly, which fused the nascent sound with elements of country music. Black-performed rock and roll had previously had limited mainstream success, but it was the white performer Elvis Presley who first appealed to mainstream audiences with a black style of music, becoming one of the best-selling musicians in history, and brought rock and roll to audiences across the world.

Kathy Kiefer

 

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