Introduction | Soul & R&B

In 1949, two apparently small events took place, which in hindsight were to have monumental significance for popular culture. The first of these saw Billboard magazine change the name of its ‘Race Records’ chart to the more relevant and politically correct ‘Rhythm & Blues’ chart, reflecting the success of the American dance music of the moment.

Meanwhile, a 19-year-old blind Georgia orphan called Ray Charles Robinson (he dropped the Robinson to avoid confusion with the legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson) released his first single ‘Confession Blues’. By the mid-1950s, rhythm & blues had mutated into rock’n’roll, the ultimate crossover between black and white popular music, and in the form of R&B would remain the dominant label attached to pop music of Afro-American origin. By 1954, the visionary and eclectic Charles, with his arrangement for bluesman Guitar Slim’s ‘The Things That I Used To Do’ and the irresistible fusion of jazz, blues and gospel on his own ‘I Got A Woman’ (later covered by Elvis Presley), had invented soul music – rock’s spiritual, sensual Afro-American twin.

Soul is an innovative blend of musical styles: the Baptist hymn and the juke joint dance exhortation, the plantation field holler and the sophisticated jazz standard, the romantic vocal flights of doo-wop and the driving rhythms of small-band R&B, the gospel plea for deliverance and the altogether earthier blues lament. It rose to prominence through the innovations of two further black male pioneers from the southern states. Mississippi gospel heart-throb Sam Cooke made a controversial move to secular pop in 1956. By 1957 his ‘You Send Me’ – a heart-melting mix of teen pop and Cooke’s alternately tender and roaring gospel vocals – had gone to No. 1 in the US and truly ignited the soul era. He continued to be one of pop’s most loved crossover pioneers until his shocking death in 1964, at the hands of a motel manager who claimed she shot the singer in self-defence after he had allegedly raped another woman.

Georgia’s James Brown released his first single, ‘Please Please Please’, in 1956, a record so vocally intense and rhythmically tough that it made a romantic plea to a woman sound like a hysterical scream from the very depths of sexual desperation and despair. Brown’s prolific writing and recording schedule was sent into commercial overdrive by the most extreme live performances of the period, a theatrical and almost militarily precise singing and dancing spectacular that had a profound influence on Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Prince and every star since who has combined flamboyant sexual display, bravura dance moves and unstoppable physical energy with playful drama and driving rhythm. A recorded document of that show, 1962’s Live At The Apollo, along with another Ray Charles innovation, Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music from the same year, established soul as an album-selling genre. James Brown, of course, was key in turning soul music into...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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