Building on the foundation laid by early purveyors of gospel, blues, and jazz, rhythm and blues emerged in the years immediately following the end of WWII and signaled the dawn of a new cultural era for African Americans and the country at large. R&B, as the genre would eventually be known (the term itself coined by record producer Jerry Wexler, replacing “race music”), rests at the heart of every popular American musical genre–from rock, soul, funk, pop, and hip-hop, to house, techno, and dance. R&B’s naissance not only marks the beginnings of a pivotal moment in American pop culture, but more importantly, sets the stage for one of the most significant social and political developments in history: the Civil Rights Movement.

NMAAM’s One Nation Under a Groove gallery is dedicated to exploring the story of R&B’s origins and tracing its evolution into the 21st century.

To understand how R&B became R&B, though, one must go back a bit further to the late 1930s, when artists like Louis Jordan began adding heavy, persuasive drum beats, intoxicatingly rhythmic piano, blaring brass and woodwinds, and searing electric guitars to their performances. Originally dubbed “jump blues,” this variation brought people to the dance floor and opened up more opportunities for musicians who’d previously played in big bands. As the genre continued to transform and take shape through the 1940s, by the early ‘50s artists such as Big Joe Turner and Ruth Brown became some of the first R&B stars. R&B’s skyrocketing popularity led to the emergence of independent record labels and AM radio stations devoted to this new sound and specifically to Black audiences. Juke boxes and 45 rpm records also pushed R&B further into critical spaces, quickly catching fire among young listeners who wanted no parts of their parents’ 78s and the outdated tunes they played. 

By the 1950s, rhythm and blues had already secured a foothold among African Americans, but was gaining traction among white listeners. Once it became clear that R&B would permeate the invisible but omnipresent and ardently enforced borders separating Black and white America, a new category evolved to market R&B to white audiences: Rock n roll. Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and many others were swept up under the rock n roll banner. The irony, of course, is that the term “rock and roll” had long been present in R&B song lyrics; Alan “Moondog” Freed, a white DJ on Cleveland’s WJW, solidified its use in describing Black rhythm and blues music when he launched his R&B radio show in 1951. 

To make R&B more palatable to white listeners, record labels began hiring white acts to cover hits previously recorded by Black artists. These sanitized versions of songs like Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” (covered by Pat Boone and Elvis Presley, respectively) knocked the socks of young white music fans and earned the record labels a pretty penny. The Black artists, however, didn’t fare as well; far too often their versions remained mostly unknown by white audiences and, more importantly, monies they should have earned for writing and composing these songs stayed with the record labels. 

Nevertheless, R&B persisted and thrived. Berry Gordy’s Motown delivered smooth, soulful R&B records to Black and white American teens, raising the bar on what would constitute the sound of America with lush orchestration and arrangements and radio-forward production. Vocal groups became evermore in demand and ushered in the rise of the girl-group era. And yet, beneath the surface of such elegant, elevated production and performance, a revolution brewed. Despite the post-war economic recovery and prosperity that characterized much of the late 1940s well into the ‘50s, African Americans continued to face racism, discrimination, and violence. Under the weight of prolonged oppression and disparity, young Black activists began to organize resistance efforts throughout the south and other parts of the country. The fight for freedom and equality would come to be known as the Civil Rights Movement, and music would play a critical role in its evolution.

This period evokes an interesting conundrum, as Motown’s dominance and feel-good sounds are slowly displaced by more topical songs and politically-minded artists, particularly in the 1960s. R&B maintained its stronghold among Black listeners for sure, but the movement for civil rights called for a soundtrack that spoke even more overtly to the struggle and perseverance of the people–themes commonly found in gospel music. As these themes steadily infiltrated mainstream R&B, the music transformed once more and soul music was born. Soul artists didn’t necessarily start out as having a more radical sound and temperament; Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Jackie Wilson, for example, carried the torch for traditional R&B in terms of their performance style and look. Memphis-based Stax Records introduced soul artists like Al Green, Isaac Hayes, and Carla Thomas, all of whom recorded and released soul music that, while it certainly set itself apart from Motown, still played it relatively safe in the beginning. As the movement progressed further into the ‘60s, soul music artists became more intentional in using their music as a platform for social and political change. Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, The Staples Singers, and Aretha Franklin are among the numerous artists who fused music with activism, recording and performing bold compositions that would become anthems for the movement. James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” are among the most iconic and important songs to be associated with the Civil Rights era.

Soul kept on keepin’ on in the 1970s, as pioneers like Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff yet again revolutionizing the sound with the aptly-dubbed Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP). With artists like the O’Jays, Jerry Butler, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes on their roster, Gamble and Huff upped the ante on Berry Gordy’s Motown model by employing the best of the best musicians, composers, songwriters, and producers to create the songs recorded by their cadre of world-class performers. Around that same time, Chicago radio DJ and entrepreneur Don Cornelius was set to launch the first-ever all-Black music and dance television show. Debuting locally in 1970 before going national and relocating to LA a year later, Soul Train rivaled Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and provided African American artists the opportunity to perform before diverse TV audiences across the country every week. Black R&B and soul solo artists and groups had truly hit their stride, and showed no signs of stopping.

The ‘70s also saw the rise of funk. While first introduced in the 1960s via The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, funk went even further from the R&B establishment by incorporating break beats, rhythmic guitar playing, and the all-important “one” into soul music. George Clinton reimagined his doo-wop group, The Parliaments, into Parliament-Funkadelic, and acts like Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Betty Davis, and Labelle pushed the limits of what Black music could sound like and how Black artists could present themselves. Funk introduced a decidedly Afrofuturistic, eclectic, often flamboyant fashion to the African American musical aesthetic, setting the stage for perhaps the most dynamic musical genre, hip-hop.

R&B, soul, and funk shaped-shifted throughout the late ‘70s and into the 1980s. The already-legendary Michael Jackson, who’d come to prominence as a member of the Jackson 5 in Motown’s heyday, broke from his brothers and, with the help of another musical icon, Quincy Jones, smashed records and barriers with ground-breaking solo albums Off the Wall and Thriller. Minneapolis native Prince, who first emerged onto the scene at the tail end of the ‘70s, countered Jackson’s pop-centric R&B with a deliberately sexualized hybrid that owed as much to James Brown and Little Richard as it did to Carlos Santana. These two were among the first African American artists whose videos premiered on MTV and dominated the cable music channel at the height of its early popularity. 

More traditional R&B vocal groups like New Edition picked up where the Jacksons left off, driving a new generation of teen girls into a frenzy with infectious radio and roller skate jams. Whitney Houston, Stephanie Mills, and Chaka Khan affirmed that raw vocal ability wasn’t lost in translation, and veteran artists such as Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin, and Teddy Pendergrass benefitted from exposure to new audiences in the video age thanks in large part to BET. The late ‘80s saw Janet Jackson wrestle the spotlight from her brothers and stand on her own as one of the most influential artists of the decade.

While many R&B artists from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s remained active and relevant through the end of the 1980s, hip-hop had also come to prominence in the ‘80s and inspired a new crop of artists. The end of the Millennium brought New Jack Swing, neo-soul, hip-hop soul, and contemporary R&B to urban and pop radio formats, as well as cable music networks. Artists like Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige, and TLC seamlessly connected the dots between R&B and hip-hop, while acts like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Maxwell, and The Roots blended soul, jazz, and hip-hop. 

R&B (and its multitude of sub-genres) proliferated throughout the last decade of the 20th century, and the 2000s promised to deliver even more new music and performers to an increasingly diverse global audience. The early aughts made international pop stars out of late-’90s artists like Mariah Carey, Usher, and Beyoncé, and introduced new soon-to-be chart-toppers such as Rihanna and John Legend, all of whom–and hundreds more–continue to blaze new trails at the close of the 2010s. 

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