R&B Music Facts

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Rhythm and blues music (R&B) means many things to many listeners. Contemporary R&B music is very different from the R&B music of the 1940s, but its foundation actually began in the early urban communities of Georgia, New York, and Illinois. R&B music became prominent at a time when popular music was on the decline with both black and white audiences, and World War II had left Americans longing for a new cultural direction.


Rhythm & blues music was one of the most popular genres of music in the African-American community from the 1940s to the 1960s. Because of the enormous job growth that took place during World War II, a younger black audience rapidly moved from rural towns to urban communities. In 1949, Billboard magazine renamed its "race records" chart to "rhythm and blues," as the social and economic landscape began to change for African-Americans.


Early R&B music originated in Atlanta, Georgia where black-owned radio stations and theatre venues helped the music to thrive. Artists like Ray Charles, Little Richard, and James Brown became known as some of the most important and influential R&B performers of all time. Charles was a talented pianist, singer, and arranger; Little Richard calls himself "the originator, the emancipator, and the architect of rock n' roll"; and Brown was nicknamed "The Godfather of Soul" for his soulful vocals and raspy voice.


R&B music broke away from the more traditional "big band formula" of earlier years, and R&B artists began performing in small, musical combos. The music tended to emphasise blues-style vocals and song structures. As in the bands of the big band era, saxophone and piano were still present, but electric guitar and bass started to add a different power and electricity to the music, which translated well to radio and jukebox play.

Expert Insight

According to Piero Scaruffi, author of A Brief History of Popular Music, rhythm & blues music "changed the profile of the audience" as it eventually became immensely popular among people of all ethnic backgrounds, rather than among black people only. Scaruffi also suggests that R&B music was emancipated from the "clich├ęs of blues and jazz music," and paved the way for many other, future musical genres like rock n' roll.


In his chapter on rhythm & blues, Scaruffi outlines the specific kinds of R&B music to come out of various U.S. cities at the inception of the genre. New York saxophonist Louis Jordan established "jump blues," and while "sophisticated blues" originated in Los Angeles, Chicago artists like Muddy Waters (originally from Mississippi) represented a more aggressive kind of R&B. Female artists like Dinah Washington, whose roots were in gospel music, began to emerge as "roaring divas" who offered a new take on vocally-driven R&B music.

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