Wed | Oct 28, 2020

The Music Diaries | Rhythm & Blues' impact on popular music

Published:Thursday | August 16, 2018 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Toni Braxton
Louis Jordan (right) and The Tympany Five in performance.
Chuck Berry


Rhythm and Blues (R&B), which has been around since the 1940s, is widely regarded as the earliest and most influential music genre to have had an impact on popular music.

The term resurfaced and dominated musical headlines in the 1980s and '90s when a number of recordings appeared under that banner. Reminiscing on the musical trends of those two decades, it's hard to forget names like Tevin Campbell's Can We Talk and Tell Me What You Want Me To Do; Toni Braxton giving us Unbreak My Heart; R Kelly's I Believe I Can Fly; Whitney Houston belting out I Will Always Love You; Teddy Pendergrass' Love T.K.O., and Baby Face's Every Time I Close My Eyes, among others.


Modern R&B


These were all slow pieces, with a distinct bounce that placed them in an exclusive category that I would choose to call Modern R&B. But a closer look at the musical developmental trends in the 1980s and 1990s reveals that almost everything that was devoid of a melody, but had some kind of a beat, was referred to as R&B by musicologists and chart compilers in the United States. Some even group several disco and funk recordings under this banner.

The confusion is further compounded when we come to the realisation that R&B in its earliest state sounded and resembled nothing like that being offered today. Rhythm and Blues, as it was then, was fast up-tempo blues with a strong rhythm, laced with rich horns, piercing cymbals, and pounding drums and bass. Rhythm and Blues' earliest influences came from the church. It was influenced and driven by the black revivalist, handclapping, foot-stomping, churchgoers in the deep southern American states during the late 1940s. Black artistes such as Roscoe Gordon, Joe Turner, and Louis Jordan were cited as the main catalysts in the push to establish the genre.


The Father of R&B


Jordan, dubbed 'The father of R&B', pioneered the use of the jumping shuffle rhythms in a small combo context, which involved an experiment with an idea he earlier conceptualised. It saw him utilising percussive-heavy instruments, while bringing his up-tempo tenor saxophone to the forefront of the music, thus creating a music that was never heard before.

Born in Brinkley Arkansas, in the United States in 1908, Jordan first played the clarinet before learning and switching to the saxophone. He further honed his musical talents as a singer and saxophonist while attending music school, and soon promoted himself as a wacky musical comedian with a humorous jive that mesmerised and drove audiences to the verge of hysteria.

After playing with a few local bands and combos in the mid-1930s, he formed his own group The Tympany Five - at the end of the decade, and his recording career began in earnest shortly thereafter. Between 1942 and 1951, Jordan scored an astonishing 57 R&B best-sellers, all of which he wrote. His comedic side was brought to the fore in recordings like Ain't Nobody But Us Chickens and Have You Got The Gumption in which he related the plight of a drunken motorist named Pete.

"Whenever sponge-nosed Pete, met the cop on the beat,

he was higher than a fly on a spray any day.

When Pete knew he was booked,

at the policeman he looked,

and defending his virtue,

you could hear him say.

Have you got the gumption,

to make the assumption,

that I am inebriated?"


R&B and Rock 'n' Roll


The R&B of the 1950s also provided the foundation for Rock'n'Roll later in the decade. Rock'n'Roll stars like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard depended heavily on the R&B of Jordan, Professor Longhair, Roscoe Gordon, and others for their creations. The link between both genres was so close that at times, they (R&B and Rock'n'Roll) were used interchangeably. In the following decade, rock stars like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were also influenced by R&B.

Jamaica did not escape the influence of R&B. Some of the most prominent R&B cuts were staples in Jamaican dance halls of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Commercially, they kept the business of dancehall promoters alive by attracting massive crowds to dance hall venues to listen to their favourite R&B songs.

Roscoe Gordon's slow-tempo R&B songs No More Dogging and Going Home Tomorrow - also influenced the beat of a number of Jamaican tunes, including Theophilus Beckford's Easy Snappin and Laurel Aitken's Boogie In My Bones. However, the hard core New Orleans Blues a subgenre of blues music that developed in the 1940s and '50s and featuring Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Professor Longhair, James 'Sugar Boy' Crawford, Johnny Adams, Guitar Slim, Champion Jack Dupre, and others - were popular draws in Jamaican dance halls during the late 1950s. They sounded very much like some of Jordan's creations but had very strong jazz and Caribbean influences.