A Genre In The Making
The phrase Rhythm & Blues is one of the many things about American popular music that we owe to the great producer and Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler. In 1949, while working at Billboard, he suggested the term as a substitute for “Race Records,” the name then given to the charts for disks by African-American performers. The period following the end of World War II had seen an explosion of records by black performers that not only found an audience in their own community but also crossed over onto the pop charts. The string of hits by the vocalist & saxophonist Louis Jordan (“Caledonia,” Saturday Night Fish Fry” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t”) led the way, while other acts like the pianist Cecil Gant (“I Wonder”) and bandleader Joe Liggins (“The Honeydripper”) followed in his wake. These songwriters were unable to pass the restrictive membership requirements of ASCAP.
BMI reached out to provide a home for them. As Jerry Wexler states, BMI was “the mechanism that released all those primal American forms of music that fused and became rock & roll. . . . Before BMI the ranks were closed. After BMI the ranks were open.”
Many of these records were to be found on jukeboxes, but the major avenue by which they reached the public was radio. This was the beginning of the heyday of the DJ, as both black and white announcers across the country spun records by these and other artists. A number of stations, like the 50,000 watt Nashville-based WLAC, possessed sufficient power to be heard across a broad segment of the nation, and their DJs were pied pipers to the young people who were discovering this music. BMI was a major influence in the success of this growth of the genre. The company, on a weekly basis, licensed more than 90% of the R&B radio hits.
Little Davids Battle Big Goliaths
Another vital development of the period was the growth of the independent record labels. Companies sprang up across the country in response to the public excitement over the music. Some of the major firms and their cities of origin include Chess (Chicago), King (Cleveland), Specialty and Modern (Los Angeles), Sun (Memphis) and Savoy (Newark, New Jersey). These companies signed artists who were by and large ignored by the major record labels. In the process, they helped the development of forms of musical expression that the mainstream industry had abandoned or did not know existed. These new labels were themselves ignored by the mainstream performance licensing organization. They therefore turned to BMI to set up publishing firms.
Singing On The Street Corner And Crossing Over To The Mainstream
One of the phenomena of the period was the seemingly innumerable vocal groups that sang the style known as doo wop. With names that often conjured up birds (Crows, Flamingos) or cars (Cadillacs, El Dorados), these ensembles combined a dance beat with elaborate vocal gyrations. Hits like “Earth Angel” (Penguins), “In The Still of the Night” (Five Satins) and “Book of Love” (Monotones) raced up the charts.
In addition to the many groups, a number of star performers also emerged, most notably vocalists and songwriters Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. Like many R&B singers, Cooke emerged from the Gospel community, having been a member of the legendary Soul Stirrers. He crossed over to the pop domain with his first hit, “You Send Me,” in 1957. Many more followed until his untimely death in 1964. His success with hits like “Chain Gang” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” bankrolled his establishment of a publishing company, Kags Music, as well as a record label, SAAR.
A similarly broad vision of success marked the early career of Ray Charles. Like Cooke, he wrote as well as performed, and his recordings like “I Got A Woman,” “What I’d Say” and “Drown In My Own Tears” masterfully combined blues, gospel and jazz styles. His success led to the establishment of Tangerine Records, distributed by ABC Paramount, and a career that to this day marks him as one of the giants of American music.
The Sound Of Young America Meets The Memphis Sound
The 1960s saw R&B take off even more, primarily due to two independent record labels that specialized in the genre: Motown and Stax. Founded in 1959 by the songwriter Berry Gordy, Motown was, as the company put it, “the sound of Young America.” Its many artists attracted a national audience due to the talents of the singers, the skills of the house band and the prodigious output of the songwriters who penned many hits. BMI songwriters like Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong were among the creators who helped make artists like the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Martha and the Vandellas, among others, household names.
Further South in Memphis, Tennessee, the team brought together at Stax Records created an equally strong roster of successful artists who created what became known as “The Memphis Sound.” Like Motown, the label cultivated a number of writers, many of whom also were performers. The hits that flowed from the pens of Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Steve Cropper, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and William Bell are among the most successful in the genre. Cropper, master guitarist and member of the legendary Booker T. & the MGs, says of BMI, “BMI was always helpful in letting me know what my future looked like. . . . BMI always kept a better tab on your whole catalog and was not always just concerned with your current hits.”
Funking Into The Future
The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of R&B or Soul music, as it now was often called. The genre proliferated across the country. Chicago gave us Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions; Memphis, Al Green; Nashville, Joe Tex; Philadelphia, the work of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, whose songs was performed by the O’Jays, Spinners and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. The genre became more and more diverse as it fused with rock and other forms of music in work of Sly and the Family Stone and the Parliament-Funkadelic ensemble. Throughout the period, the work of R&B veterans continued to reach the top of the charts as evidenced by the hits of James Brown and Aretha Franklin among others.
Honoring Our Ancestors
As the 1970s drew to a close, R&B gave way to funk and then to disco. Some artists produced work in these fields while others remained true to their roots and hold onto their fanatic followers to this day by doing what comes naturally. Contemporary audiences have become reacquainted with the heritage of R&B through the significant amount of reissuing that arose in the wake of the compact disc. Virtually any artist or group, well known or obscure, can be found. It is even more likely, however, that they first heard a classic R&B song in an advertisement or a motion picture soundtrack. Certain popular filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarrantino, possess personal affection for this music and therefore feature it in their work.
The organization that is seeing to it that the heritage of this music is honored and its performers receive the credit that many did not heretofore acquire is the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. Since 1989, it has annually paid tribute to individuals, groups, songwriters, sidemen and industry professionals that made the genre what it is. Grants are also made to individuals who have fallen on hard times and need assistance. BMI has actively supported the Foundation from the start, and to date 87% of the recipients are BMI songwriters. The most recent figures honored by the organization with the annual Pioneer Award include the Impressions, the Chi-Lites, publishers & songwriters Clyde Otis and Sylvia Robinson, New Orleans groundbreaker Huey “Piano” Smith and the legendary record producer Ahmet Ertegun.
For more information, contact:
The R&B Foundation
1555 Connecticut Avenue NW #401
Washington, D.C. 20036-4111
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