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Fri, 02.12.1943

Black History and Rhythm and Blues Music, a story

*Black History and Rhythm and Blues music is celebrated on this date in 1943.  Often shortened to R&B or R'n'B, it is a popular music genre originating in African America. We chose this date because The Miracles' 'Shop Around' became Motown Record's first million-selling single on this date in 1961.  

Billboard magazine coined "rhythm and blues" as a musical term in the United States in 1948; the term was used as early as 1943. It replaced the term "race music." Record companies describe recordings marketed predominantly to urban blacks at a time when "urbane, rocking, jazz-based music's heavy, insistent beat" was becoming more popular. In the commercial rhythm and blues music typical of the 1950s through the 1970s, the bands usually consisted of a piano, one or two guitars, bass, drums, saxophones, and sometimes background vocalists.

R&B lyrical themes capture the American black experience of pain and the journey to freedom and happiness. Lyrics and sound characterized triumphs and failures regarding relationships, economics, and dreams. The phrase "rhythm and blues" has undergone several meanings. In the early 1950s, it was applied to blues records and referred to music that developed from and incorporated electric blues, gospel, and soul music. From the 1960s to 1970s, several British bands and groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Animals were referred to and promoted as R&B bands.

By the 1970s, "rhythm and blues" had changed again and became a blanket term for soul and funk. In the late 1980s, a newer style of R&B developed, becoming known as "contemporary R&B." It combines rhythm and blues with elements of pop, soul, funk, disco, hip-hop, and electronic music. The term "rhythm and blues" was used by Billboard when it renamed its "Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles" chart. "Rhythm and blues" are often abbreviated as "R&B" or "R'n'B." At first, only blacks were buying R&B discs. According to Atlantic Records, sales were localized in African American markets; there were no white sales or white radio play.

During the early 1950s, more white teenagers became aware of R&B and began purchasing the music. For example, 40% of 1952 sales at Dolphins of Hollywood record shop, located in a black area of Los Angeles, were to whites. Eventually, white teens nationwide turned their musical taste toward rhythm and blues.  Johnny Otis produced many R&B hits in 1951, including "Double Crossing Blues," "Mistrustin' Blues," and "Cupid's Boogie," all of which hit number one that year. Otis scored ten top-ten hits that year. The Clovers, a quintet of a vocal quartet with an accompanying guitarist, sang a distinctive-sounding combination of blues and gospel and had the number-five hit of the year with "Don't You Know I Love You" on Atlantic.

Also in July 1951, Cleveland, Ohio DJ Alan Freed started a late-night radio show called "The Moondog Rock Roll House Party" on WJW (850 AM). Freed's show was sponsored by Fred Mintz, whose R&B record store had a primarily black clientele. Freed began referring to the rhythm and blues music he played as "rock and roll." In 1951, Little Richard began recording for RCA Records in the jump blues style of late 1940s stars. However, it was not until he recorded a demo in 1954 that caught the attention of Specialty Records that the world would start to hear his new up-tempo funky rhythm and blues that would catapult him to fame in 1955 and help define the sound of rock 'n' roll.

A rapid succession of rhythm and blues hits followed, influencing performers such as James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Otis Redding. Also, in 1951, the song Rocket 88 was recorded by Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm. This song is often cited as a precursor to rock and roll or as one of the first records in that genre. In a later interview, however, Ike Turner offered this comment: "I don't think that 'Rocket 88' is rock 'n' roll. I think that 'Rocket 88' is R&B, but I think 'Rocket 88' is the cause of rock and roll existing". In performing on the Atlantic label, Ruth Brown placed hits in the top five every year from 1951 through 1954.  

Motown Atlantic and Stax Records were business staples in the growth of R&B from the 1960s for a generation.  Stevie WonderMarvin GayeDonny HathawayCurtis MayfieldDiana RossMary WellsAretha FranklinIsaac HayesRoberta Flack, and others carried the music to new highs. Some were the Temptations, Supremes, the Four Tops, the Impressions, and many more. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hip-hop started to capture the imagination of America's youth. R&B started to become homogenized, with high-profile producers responsible for most R&B hits. It was hard for R&B artists of the era to sell their music or even have their music heard because of the rise of hip-hop, but some adopted a "hip-hop" image, were marketed as such, and often featured rappers on their songs.

In 1990, Billboard reintroduced R&B to categorize all black popular music other than hip-hop. Artists such as Usher, R. Kelly, Janet Jackson, TLC, Aaliyah, Destiny's Child, Tevin Campbell, and Mary J. Blige enjoyed success. L.A. Reid, the CEO of LaFace Records, was responsible for some of R&B's greatest successes in the 1990s in the form of Usher, TLC, and Toni Braxton. Later, Reid successfully marketed Boyz II Men. In 2004, 80% of the songs that topped the R&B charts were also at the top of the Hot 100. That period was the all-time peak for R&B and hip hop on the Billboard Hot 100 and Top 40 Radio. From about 2005 to 2013, R&B sales declined. However, since 2010, hip-hop has started to take cues from the R&B sound, adopting a softer, smoother sound that incorporates traditional R&B with rappers such as Common and Drake, who have opened a new door for the genre. This sound has gained popularity and created great controversy for both hip-hop and R&B on identifying it.

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