As with many – if not all – of the proto-genres investigated as part of this series’ mission objective, rhythm & blues was not actually known by that name during its “period of innovation” (approx. 1944-46). It wasn’t until 1947 that record producer and music journalist Jerry Weller coined the term to describe the new evolution in black dance music, and the description wouldn’t become commonplace until the end of the decade, when Billboard changed the title of their black music chart from “race records” to rhythm & blues (RCA Records had also began using “Blues and Rhythm” as a catch-all term for marketing their black artists by this point).
So while rhythm & blues – as a slightly less-discriminatory replacement for “race” – was mostly an umbrella for an assortment of black dance and pop styles – and much later would be popularised as a badge for the white, English, transatlantic music of The Rolling Stones and The Animals – it did also become retrospectively assigned to the transition of big-band jump blues to smaller, electrified outfits.
The first rhythm & blues record can probably be regarded as Cecil Gant’s 1944 release I Wonder/Last Goodbye, though Gant was working in a piano blues format here that contrasted with the more boogie woogie-driven freight-train chug of most later rhythm & blues.
This style was more adroitly typified the following year by Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers two-part signature tune, The Honeydripper:
The Honeydripper holds the joint record for the longest-ever stay at the top of the Billboard rhythm & blues chart. It’s co-champion was a 1946 tune by the name of Choo Choo Ch’Boogie, recorded by none other than the star of last week’s column, jump blues innovator Louis Jordan!
Jordan’s influence permeates rhythm & blues, and he thrived during this new period of innovation (in a way that many innovators throughout this series failed to do once their sound became appropriated and mutated). However, Choo Choo Ch’Boogie was actually composed by three white, hillbilly songwriters – Denver Darling, Vaughan Horton and Jordan’s regular producer, Milt Gabler.
Gabler would later rerecord the song with Bill Haley, completing the hillbilly-‘race’ fusion of rock ‘n’ roll, but if we compare what was going on during this period of jump blues and rhythm & blues to the contemporaneous and increasingly chug-worthy dancification of country known as honky tonk, we can see that the two demographics were already on-track for a head-on collision:
Both honky tonk and rhythm and blues adapted the pummelling rhythm of boogie-woogie into a more structured 12-bar format, though while honky tonk persisted with the western swing band instrumentation of guitar, fiddle, string bass and steel guitar, rhythm & blues bands typically had piano, saxophone, bass, drums, one or two guitars and – occasionally – backing singers.
Unlike the mostly-improvised meanderings of boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues eschewed spontaneity and was rehearsed to the point of perfection – a honing process that critics attribute to the casual, impeccably “cool” delivery of the rhythm & blues singers and musicians.
And unlike big band, swing, some jump blues and other derivatives of jazz, rhythm and blues stripped away the importance of individual instruments and virtuosity – the focus was on the interplay of simple component parts rather than soloing.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for rhythm & blues, for instance, notes that – unlike honky town – guitars were relegated to a simple time-keeping status in rhythm & blues bands, “because guitar soloing was considered ‘country’ and unsophisticated.”
Nevertheless, as rhythm & blues clacked along the line to its inevitable destiny as rock ‘n’ roll, the electric guitar would be an increasingly prominent piece of instrumentation.
But before rock ‘n’ roll there was rhythm & blues, and before Elvis there was Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.
“If I had any ambition,” the jumpsuited one was reported to have said, “it was to be as good as Arthur Crudup.”
Elvis’ first single was a rendition of Crudup’s 1946 side That’s All Right, and he also covered other Crudup tunes including My Baby Left Me and So Glad You’re Mine.
Crudup worked in a more traditional blues idiom than many modern rhythm & blues stars. Like Robert Johnson, his recordings would involve tracking several different versions of a tune, each with different lyrics pulled from the “grab bag” of phrases and rhymes that had been passed around from bluesman to bluesman.
Some of That’s All Right’s lyrics, for instance, are traditional verses that could be traced back to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1920s output (and almost certainly predated those recordings and that artist). In the same session, Crudup also cut I Don’t Know – an almost-identical track that again featured a different grab-bag of verses.
Interestingly, when That’s All Right was issued as RCA single in 1949, it appeared on bright orange vinyl – a super early instance of this now-ubiquitous vinyl fad for coloured vinyl!
(Interesting side note: when RCA first introduced the 7″ 45 rpm vinyl single in 1949, they came in a range of eight colours that were colour-coded according to genre. )