Classic R&B Songs

Classic R&B Songs

Well it’s time to explore the genre of R&B. For me that means the older traditional stuff, so if you are looking for Drake or Bieber, Beyonce or Rihanna you’ve come to the wrong place. I’ve discussed Rhythm and Blues music in my past posts, particularly the ones on Rock and Roll History and the Delta Blues. So where did the the term come from? Jerry (Gerald) Wexler was a music Journalist working for Billboard Magazine in 1947 and the current terminology being used to describe the music coming from the African American community was racist and demeaning. “Race Music” was perhaps the biggest offender, aslo ‘Harlem Hit Parade” and other terms such as “Sepia” although I found an Atlanta based African American publication still using that term. So Wexler was tasked with coming up with a new term and he landed on ‘Rhythm and Blues’. Now just referred to as R&B, and as a genre is the most popular music in the world. Of course it has long outgrown the tradition definition and styles of music using the then new title, which first officially charted in 1949. Rhythm & Blues charts would last from June 25, 1949 to November 30, 1963. Later R&B would fall under many different chart names including “Hot R&B” to what is now “Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs”.

Technically speaking R&B is a subgenre of the Blues and contains many many sub sub genre. But in modern terms R&B has become its own major genre as many subsets of musical styles have roots here. To simplify we refer to it in the same context as Rock & Roll, Country or Jazz as they have also evolved in a myriad of sub genre. Under the R&B umbrella we have the fastest growing and conjoined segment, “Hip Hop” which has separated itself from its close cousin of “Rap” Music. So it appears to me the branches of the tree of genre definition has come to the point of these technical definitions of R&B/Hip Hop and Rap standing alone rather than being thought of as a subgenre.

All that aside we find the influence of R&B in several other genre which makes identifying any song a bit of a challenge at times, nevertheless I will get to some music examples in a moment. Just to point out that Jerry Wexler went on to have great influence in the music business including leading Atlantic Records to huge success including his association as a producer (among other things) with legends such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin. But he did not invent Rhythm and Blues, he just coined the term to more accurately describe music that was already in existence.

Louis Jordan

So if we go back and try to find the early influencers that led to blending the traditional blues with more rhythm, there is mention of some of these pioneers in many past posts such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, T-Bone Walker and of course Louis Jordan. In particular after his move to Los Angeles, Jordans early “Jump Blues” hit song “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (Ma’ Baby)” was written with pianist Billy Austin and is a prime example of what was to come. R&B was really starting to take hold at this time. First released in 1943 it was in the wartime movie “Follow the Boys” (1944) and later as the ‘B’ side to “G.I. Jive” on a single release that would chart #1 on the Folk/Country chart as well as making it on the other R&B (precursor) charts.

Just an aside here as I take you back a bit through a part of my musical journey. I was first introduced to “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” (as titled) when I bought Joe Jackson’s album ‘Jumpin’ Jive’ in 1981, which is a great example of how far the influence of this music spread as he covered many great R&B as well as Blues and Jazz songs. The following year I attended his concert in the ‘Alumni Hall’ at Western University (then called the University of Western Ontario or U.W.O). My buddies and I were all Joe Jackson fans and the concert tour was in support of this new Jazz oriented album, ‘Night and Day’ but of course he did all his great songs from his previous records. During the show a very annoying heckler was not happy about the ‘new’ songs, which marked a significant shift in Jacksons previous ‘new wave’ stylings such as “Is She Really Going Out with Him?

ticket photo from the impressive blog

We still talk about Jackson’s response (which grows more grandiose during our “glory days” chats) that may or may not have included the word F*ck. Eliciting a small cheer from the crowd, he had already admonished a couple people but I can only imagine this particular hecklers tail between his legs after that tongue lashing laid out by an English lad who grew up in a “working class” dock town. Himself the object of bullying when growing up. And now back to our regularly scheduled program…

To summarize the development of R&B one can say it is a collection of styles that has roots in traditional blues, electric blues, jazz, boogie woogie and others. Bands started adding horn sections with electric guitar and fast moving piano and suddenly you get some rhythm going. While it was a slow burn to really catch on by the late 1940’s is was nothing new. Here is an example going back to 1938, one could certainly classify this as R&B. “Roll ‘Em Pete” was written by Pete Johnson and Joe Turner. Pete with his lightning fast “Boogie Woogie” piano was a pioneer along with legends of the style such as Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. Add in some great vocals from Turner to turn out an early dose of both the R&B and R&R beat. For some this is song is as close as you can get to ‘ground zero’ in the development of both the above mentioned genre, while I can cite other examples this is one great tune to demonstrate the roots of these styles. One can see this influence in artists such as the great Fats Domino with “The Fat Man” (1949) written with Dave Bartholomew.

I promised a blog on Ray Charles and it will come. I talked about how he  influenced the start of Soul Music, but I can’t write about the beginnings of R&B either without bringing him up. “Mess Around” (1953) was written by Ahmet Ertegün who was a key figure in the music business, not just R&B. The song was inspired by the aforementioned Pete Johnson and Charles vocal and piano performance is pure gold.

Here are a few more early (pre 1960) R&B greats that I have not mentioned in past posts (so no Aretha, Etta, etc.)

Ruth Brown’s “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’ ” only hit #24 in 1958 but this is a favorite of mine from the diverse artist, thought at one time to be strictly a “torch singer” (ballads) she did straight up Blues, R&B, R&R and Jazz Ballads with equal ease. “Teardrops from My Eyes” (1950) “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1953) and Lucky Lips” (1956).

A discovery of Ruth Brown was Faye Adams “I’ll be True” was a #1 hit in 1953.
And a great example of a R&B ballad, “Shake a Hand” also from 1953.

LaVern Baker with “Jim Dandy” from 1956, it would be her only hit #1 on the R&B chart. “Tweedlee Dee” (1954).

Larry Williams had a big fan in John Lennon, but his first and only #1 was “Short Fat Fannie” in 1957 and later he would hit with only one top ten, somewhat ironically titled “Bony Moronie“. In 1958 “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy” which hit #69 on the Pop chart and did not chart at all on the R&B chart but clearly struck a chord with The Beatles (1965). Sadly his song “Short, Boney and Dizzy” did not chart either, …just joking!

But for his death due to peritonitis at age 32 Chuck Willis may have produced many a #1 hit as he did so unfortunately only posthumously with the A&B side duo of “What am I Living for” and “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” in 1958. His version Ma Rainey’s  “C.C. Rider”  hit #12 in 1957. Thanks to Dick Clark and American Bandstand, he was also known as ‘The King of the Stroll’, “Betty and Dupree“(1957). Of course the original song “The Stroll” about the dance craze was sung by the Canadian group, The Diamonds (1957).

Too many more songs to talk about but I must mention Joe Liggins. I referred to his influential younger brother Jimmy Liggins in Rock and Roll Part 3. Well Joe with his famous ‘Honeydrippers’ are legends in Big Band music, the song titled “Honeydripper” was a huge hit in 1945/6. However he also had a #1 R&B single in 1950 with “Pink Champagne“. Speaking of the “Honeydripper”, this was actually also the nickname for Roosevelt Sykes (January 31, 1906  to July 17, 1983) the legendary blues singer and Boogie Woogie pianist. Robert Plant would borrow this name for his band in the 1980’s, who would have the hit “Sea of Love” a cover of ‘Phil Phillips with The Twilights‘ (1959).

Trivia. What was the top R&B hit for 1964? ___________. There were actually no R&B or related charts for that entire year. Why? The story as I understand it is that there were too many non-black songs charting at the top of the R&B list and therefore not very representative. This of course did not stop black artists from making great music as Motown and others would have a banner year with many Billboard, UK and worldwide hit songs.

Spotify playlist


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