Rhythm and blues

From New World Encyclopedia
Revision as of 21:53, 10 July 2015 by Rosie Tanabe (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)

Rhythm and blues (aka R&B or RnB), a popular music genre combining jazz, gospel, and blues influences, is a musical term for post-war musical chart listings which mainly encompassed the rich and varied folk music of the African Americans as well as other Americans. First performed by African American artists, rhythm and blues became the biographical mirrors of work songs, ballads or lyrics from minstrel shows, church hymns and gospel music, and some of the secular music of America in the 1900s. The combination of rhythm and blues brought forth the manifestation of particular emotions by the singer or lead instrument in reflections of the very melodic and soulful "blues" with an accompaniment of "rhythmic" concentration and force.

Cultural Background

As rhythm and blues combined the elements of jazz, gospel music and the blues, it thus created a very personalized form of melody and rhythm which has become known as one of the outstanding styles of American music. From jazz and its combination of African black folk music blended with European folk and pop music, rhythm and blues incorporated the syncopated beats supported by colorful chordal combinations to mirror the emotions and experiences of the composer and singer/musician. Such rhythm and blues sounds also derived from the religious music of the African black churches, especially in the southern and midwestern regions of the United States. As the ministers encouraged their church members to freely "testify" about their faiths, the spontaneity of such testimonies gave rise to the rhythm and blues lyrics and melodies which related the stories of very personal experiences in song. Moreover, rhythm and blues sometimes imitated the black African folk songs using a "call" and "response" to organize the group work unit and to lighten their tasks by singing. As this vocal method grew in the United States, it evolved to a solo presentation and answer rather than using the many voices needed for the earlier "call" and "response" folk songs. Through all of this musical diversity, rhythm and blues has become one of the great musical achievements in American music.

The term was coined as a musical marketing term in the United States in 1949 by Jerry Wexler at Billboard magazine. It replaced the term race music (which was deemed offensive), and the Billboard category Harlem Hit Parade in June 1949. The term was initially used to identify the rocking style of music that combined the 12 bar blues format and boogie-woogie with a back beat, which later became a fundamental element of rock and roll. In 1948, RCA Victor was marketing black music under the name Blues and Rhythm. The words were reversed by Wexler of Atlantic Records, the most aggressive and dominant label in the R&B field in the early years. By the 1970s, rhythm and blues was being used as a blanket term to describe soul and funk. Today the acronym R&B is almost always used instead of the full rhythm and blues, and mainstream use of the term refers to a modern version of soul and funk-influenced pop music that originated at the demise of disco in 1980.

In its first manifestation, rhythm and blues was one of the predecessors to rock and roll. It was strongly influenced by jazz, jump blues and black gospel music. It also influenced jazz in return. Rhythm and blues, blues, and gospel combined with bebop to create hard bop. The first rock and roll hits consisted of rhythm and blues songs like Rocket 88 and Shake, Rattle and Roll, which appeared on popular music charts as well as R&B charts. Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, the first hit by Jerry Lee Lewis, was an R&B cover song that reached #1 on pop, R&B and country and western charts.

Musicians paid little attention to the distinctions between jazz and rhythm and blues, and frequently recorded both genres. Numerous swing bands (i.e, Jay McShann's, Tiny Bradshaw's, and Johnny Otis's) also recorded rhythm and blues. Count Basie had a weekly live rhythm and blues broadcast from Harlem. Even a bebop icon Tadd Dameron arranged music for Bull Moose Jackson and spent two years as Jackson's pianist after establishing himself in bebop. Most of the R&B studio musicians were jazz musicians, and many of the musicians on Charlie Mingus' breakthrough jazz recordings were R&B veterans. Lionel Hampton's big band of the early 1940s—which produced the classic recording Flying Home (tenor sax solo by Illinois Jacquet)—was the breeding ground for many of the bebop legends of the 1950s. Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson was a one-man fusion; a bebop saxophonist and a blues shouter.

The 1950s was the premier decade for classic rhythm and blues. Overlapping with other genres such as jazz and rock and roll, R&B developed regional variations. A strong, distinct style straddling the border with blues came out of New Orleans, and was based on a rolling piano style first made famous by Professor Longhair. In the late 1950s, Fats Domino hit the national charts with Blueberry Hill and Ain't That a Shame. Other artists who popularized this Louisiana flavor of R&B included Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Frankie Ford, Irma Thomas, The Neville Brothers and Dr. John.

At the start of their careers in the 1960s, British rock bands like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and the Spencer Davis Group were essentially R&B bands.

Contemporary R&B

It was not until the 1980s that the term "R&B" regained ordinary usage. During that time, the soul music of James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone had adapted elements from psychedelic music and other styles through the work of performers like George Clinton. Funk also became a major part of disco, a kind of dance pop electronic music. By the early 1980s, however, funk and soul had become sultry and sexually-charged with the work of Prince and others. At that time, the modern style of contemporary R&B came to be a major part of American popular music.

R&B today defines a style of African-American music, originating after the demise of disco in 1980, that combines elements of soul music, funk music, pop music, and (after 1986) hip hop in the form known as contemporary R&B. In this context only the abbreviation "R&B" is used, not the full expression.

Sometimes referred to as "urban contemporary" (the name of the radio format that plays hip hop and R&B music) or "urban pop," contemporary R&B is distinguished by a slick, electronic record production style, drum machine-backed rhythms, and a smooth, lush style of vocal arrangement. Uses of hip hop inspired beats are typical, although the roughness and grit inherent in hip hop are usually reduced and smoothed out.


Contemporary R&B singer Mary J. Blige performs on the National Mall during the “NFL Kickoff Live 2003” Concert.

With the transition from soul to R&B in the early to mid-1980s, solo singer Luther Vandross and new stars like Prince (Purple Rain) and Michael Jackson (Off the Wall, Thriller) took over, and dominated the primary schools throughout the 1980s. Jackson's Thriller, which repopularized black music with pop audiences after a post-disco backlash among United States mainstream audiences, was the best-selling album of all time worldwide.

Female R&B singers like Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson gained great popularity during the last half of the decade; and Tina Turner, then in her 50s, came back with a series of hits with crossover appeal. Also popular was New Edition, a group of teenagers who served as the prototype for later boy bands such as the New Kids on the Block, The Backstreet Boys, and others.

In 1986, Teddy Riley began producing R&B recordings that included influences from the increasingly popular genre of hip hop music. This combination of R&B style and hip-hop rhythms was termed new jack swing, and artists such as Keith Sweat, Guy, Jodeci, and BellBivDeVoe (featuring former members of New Edition) were featured. Another popular, but short-lived group, with more pronounced R&B roots was Levert, whose lead singer, Gerald Levert, was the son of O'Jays lead vocalist Eddie Levert.

In the early 1990s, R&B group Boyz II Men repopularized classic-soul inspired vocal harmony, and several similar groups (among them Shai, Soul for Real, and Dru Hill) would follow in their footsteps. Boyz II Men, and several of their competitors, benefited from lush ballads from producers such as Babyface and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who brought Michael Jackson's sister Janet Jackson to fame during the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a solo artist, Babyface and contemporaries such as Brian McKnight eschewed prominent hip hop influences, and recorded in a smooth, soft style of R&B termed quiet storm.

In the early 1990s, alternative rock, adult contemporary, and gangsta rap ruled the charts, and R&B artists began adding even more of a rap/hip hop sound to their work. New jack swing had its synthesizer-heavy rhythm tracks replaced by grittier East Coast hip hop inspired backing tracks, resulting in a genre labeled "hip hop soul" by Sean "Puffy" Combs, producer for Mary J. Blige. Blige and other hip hop soul artists such as R. Kelly, Montell Jordan, Brandy, and Aaliyah, more than their slicker new jack swing predecessors, brought hip hop slang, style, and attitudes to R&B music. The subgenre also includes a heavy gospel influence with vocal inflections and sounds. The style became less popular by the end of the 1990s, but later experienced a resurgence. The hip hop soul sound continues to be heard in the work of artists such as Jaheim, Ashanti, Amerie, and Keyshia Cole.

During the mid-1990s, highly successful artists such as Mariah Carey, girl group TLC and the aforementioned Boyz II Men brought contemporary R&B to the mainstream. Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey recorded several Billboard Hot 100 number-one hits, including "One Sweet Day," a collaboration between both acts which became the longest-running number-one hit in Hot 100 history. In addition, both Boyz II Men and TLC released albums in 1994, II and CrazySexyCool, respectively, that sold over ten million copies, earning them diamond certification from the Recording Industry Association of America. Other top-selling R&B artists from this era included singer Toni Braxton, singer/songwriter/producer R. Kelly, and girl group En Vogue.

During the later part of the decade, neo soul, which added a 1970s soul music influence to the hip hop soul blend, arose, led by artists such as D'Angelo, Lauryn Hill, and Maxwell. Several artists, most notably Missy Elliott, further blurred the line between R&B and hip hop by recording in both genres simultaneously.

During the late-1990s and early 2000s, the influence of pop on R&B could be heard in the work of several pop musicians, most notably Jennifer Lopez and the later recordings of *NSYNC and the early recordings of 98 Degrees. *NSYNC's lead singer Justin Timberlake went on to make several solo recordings that showed heavy influences from both R&B and hip hop music. Other pop stars who perform heavily R&B influenced pop music (sometimes referred to as "dirty pop," "urban pop," or a modern definition of "hip pop") include Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, and Pink.

In the United Kingdom, R&B found its way into the UK garage subgenre of 2Step, typified by R&B-style singing accompanied by breakbeat/jungle rhythms. Among the most notable 2Step artists is Craig David, who crossed over to American R&B audiences in the early 2000s.

R&B in the 2000s

By the 2000s, the cross-pollination between R&B and hip hop had increased to the point where, in most cases, the only prominent difference between a record being a hip hop record or an R&B record was whether its vocals were rapped or sung. Mainstream modern R&B has a sound based more on rhythm than hip hop soul had, and lacks the hardcore and soulful urban "grinding" feel on which hip-hop soul relied. That rhythmic element descends from new jack swing. R&B began to focus more on solo artists rather than groups as the 2000s progressed. As of 2005, the most prominent R&B artists include Usher, Beyoncé (formerly of Destiny's Child), and Mariah Carey whose music often blurs the line between contemporary R&B and pop.

Soulful R&B continues to be popular, with artists such as Alicia Keys, John Legend, Toni Braxton and American Idol winner Fantasia showcasing classic influences in their work. Some R&B singers have used elements of Caribbean music in their work, especially dancehall and reggaeton.

Quiet storm, while still existent, is no longer a dominant presence on the pop charts, and is generally confined to urban adult contemporary radio. Most of the prominent quiet storm artists, including Babyface and Gerald Levert, began their careers in the 1980s and 1990s, although newer artists such as Kem also record in the quiet storm style. Its influence can still be seen in singles such as Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together."

In addition, several producers have developed specialized styles of song production. Timbaland, for example, became notable for his hip hop and jungle based syncopated productions in the late-1990s, during which time he produced R&B hits for Aaliyah, Ginuwine, and singer/rapper Missy Elliott. By the end of the decade, Timbaland's influences had shifted R&B songs towards a sound that approximated his own, with slightly less of a hip hop feel. Lil' Jon became famous for a style he termed "crunk & B," deriving its influences from the Southern hip hop subclassification of crunk music. Jon gave his main R&B artist, Ciara, the title of "The First Lady of Crunk & B," and Brooke Valentine and Usher have also recorded R&B songs with strong crunk influences.


In summary, rhythm and blues, although a term for a designation of African American music encompassing the blues while being supported by definite rhythmic cadences, tends to defy a clearly defined genre because of its combination of blues, gospel, minstrelsies, work songs, and secular music. Yet, rhythm and blues is a significant type of musical expression which brought out the feelings of the composer to be related to the public through a sophisticated rhythmic setting.

Sound samples

  • Download sample of Ray Charles' What'd I Say, the most well-known hit from Charles, a noted R&B and soul singer.
  • Download sample of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools," one of the Franklin's biggest hits.
  • Download sample of The Delfonics' Ready or Not Here I Come (Can't Hide From Love) from The Sound of Sexy Soul, one of the pioneering recordings of Philly soul
  • Download sample of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, a hit track that transformed the soul genre from single-led pop music to cohesive albums with socio-political lyrical content.
  • Download sample of D'Angelo's Untitled (How Does It Feel) from Voodoo. D'Angelo is one of the most renowned male artists of the neo soul genre.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Govenar, Allen. The Early Years of Rhythm & Blues. Schiffer Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0764319833
  • Groia, Phillip. They All Sang on the Corner: A Second Look at New York City's Rhythm and Blues Vocal Groups. P. Dee Enterprises; 2nd Rev, ed. 1983. ISBN 0961205806
  • Miller, Jim (ed) (1976). The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York: Rolling Stone Press/Random House. ISBN 0394732383. (Chapter on "Soul," by Peter Guralnick, 194-197.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.