TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.
(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")
New York: Jump bluesTM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
The blues was mutating according to the changing social and artistic landscape. The 32 beats of white pop music, the dramatic emphasis of gospel singers, the heavy rhythm of jump blues, the tight brassy riffs of swing orchestras, the witty attitude of minstrel shows, all had a role in making blues music more malleable and entertaining. Transplanted in the dancehalls, the juke joints and the vaudeville theaters, blues music became energetic and exuberant. Form (arrangement, rhythm and vocal style) began to prevail over content (message and emotion). While the lyrics were still repeating the traditional themes of segregation, the music was largely abandoning its original traits.
Another intermediary between the swing orchestra and the jump-blues combo was Erskine Hawkins, who straddled the border between jazz and blues in Tuxedo Junction (1939), After Hours (1941), Tippin' In (1945).
New Orleans' barrelhouse piano blues survived in the early cuts of pianist Jack Dupree, Dupree Shake Dance (1941) and the drug song Junker Blues (1941).
Surprisingly, World War II fostered a boom of "race" music that enabled
a more effective distribution of black music.
It was during the war, in 1941, that a radio station in Arkansas (KFFA) hired Sonny Boy Williamson to advertise groceries, the first case of mass exposure by blues singers.
It was during and right after the war that
the growing business of "race" music spawned several labels (all of them founded
and run by white people) devoted only to black music, such as
Savoy, founded in 1942 in Newark (New Jersey) by Herman Lubinsky,
King, founded in 1944 in Cincinnati (Ohio) by Syd Nathan,
Atlantic, founded in 1947 in New York by songwriter Ahmet Ertegun,
and Aristocrat, founded in 1947 in Chicago by by two Polish Jews, Phil and Leonard Chess.
Another pioneer of the electric guitar, Lowell Fulson was also a guttural and soulful shouter who left a mark on the West Coast sound with Three O'Clock Blues (1946), Trouble Blues (1947), Blue Shadows (1950), Reconsider Baby (1954).
Jump-blues vocalist Amos Milburn delivered the explosive Chicken Shack Boogie (1948), besides Roomin' House Boogie (1949), Let's Rock Awhile (1950), three premonitions of rock'n'roll, and One Bourbon One Scotch One Beer (1953), one of the most anthemic drinking songs of all times.
Roy Milton crooned like a white pop singer in RM Blues (1945), the first "gold" record of rhythm'n'blues and another important step in the mutation of the boogie rhythm into rock'n'roll.
Charles Brown, the pianist who most closely resembled Nat King Cole, was a member of a similar trio, the Three Blazers, when he intoned Drifting Blues (1945), the first anthem of existential frustration, and Merry Christmas Baby (1949), while on his own he magnified Jessie Mae Robinson's Black Night (1951) and Leiber & Stoller's Hard Times (1951). In the age of boogie-woogie, he was, instead, the ultimate specialist of the crying blues, a master of the suicidal mood.
Another Californian master of the sentimental ballad, Percy Mayfield indulged in the bitter pathos of his solemn compositions Two Years of Torture (1949), Please Send Me Someone To Love (1950) and Strange Things Happening (1950), besides writing Hit The Road Jack (1961) for Ray Charles. Ivory Joe Hunter pushed the crossover towards country music itself with I Almost Lost My Mind (1950) and Since I Met You Baby (1955).
T-Bone Walker and Johnny Otis put California on the map of blues music.
The 1940s witnessed a massive wave of immigration into the "golden state".
Los Angeles' ghetto, Watts, thus became one of the largest in the country.
Right afer the war, in 1946, three small independent labels ("indies")
were founded in Los Angeles
that specialized in black music:
Specialty, founded by Art Rupe,
Imperial, founded by Lew Chudd,
and Modern, founded by Jules Bihari.
Black music was "rocking" harder and harder, as
New Orleans' vocalist Roy Brown stated in his hits Good Rockin' Tonight in Texas (1947) and Rockin' at Midnight (1951),
and Detroit's rhythm'n'blues saxophonist Wild Bill Moore claimed in
We're Gonna Rock We're Gonna Roll (1948) and in the follow-up,
I Want To Rock And Roll (1949),
Cecil Gant proclaimed in We're Gonna Rock (1950),
and saxophonist Jimmy Preston declared in Rock The Joint (1949),
Rock With It Baby (1950) and Roll Roll Roll (1950).
During the industrial boom of the post-war era, Chicago became the main destination of black emigration. In 1946 the black ghetto, the South Side, became the second black city in the USA (after New York's ghetto, Harlem). The South Side was the place where the musical styles of the South met the musical instruments of the North. Chicago's blues style was not only faster and more turbulent than the Southern styles: it also adopted the horns and the electric guitar.
Eventually, a new term was coined for this aggressive kind of blues music: "rhythm'n'blues". Its birth date is disputed. In 1946 Muddy Waters cut the first records of Chicago's electric blues. In 1947 Billboard's writer Jerry Wexler coined the term "rhythm and blues" for Chicago's electric blues. In 1949 the Billboard chart for "race" records was renamed "rhythm and blues". The first major rhythm'n'blues festival was held in Los Angeles in 1950 (the "Blues & Rhythm Jubilee"), as important as the Carnegie Hall concert of 1938 that launched boogie woogie nationwide.
Another Mississippi refugee, vocalist J.B. Lenoir, was the first to aim blues music at contemporary political events, for example in the scathing Korea Blues (1951) and Eisenhower Blues (1955), and to indulge in histrionic behavior on stage (basically the progenitor of both Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger). He also assembled a band (two saxes, drums, bass, piano, and his own rhythm guitar) that changed the balance of instruments, as in the vibrant boogie Mama Talk to Your Daughter (1954).
Jimmy Reed, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1948 and created standards such as You Don't Have To Go (1955), Honest I Do (1957) and Baby What You Want Me To Do (1959) transposed the boogie rhythm to the harmonica and to the guitar, using his bass player Eddie Taylor to simulate the left hand of the pianists. The result could sound anthemic, as in Luther Dixon's rebellious Big Boss Man (1961). His slow, hypnotic boogies were the epitome of the style that Louisiana bluesmen called "swamp blues".
This generation created the archetypical styles at their instruments, the styles that became the reference points for the next generations of blues and rock musicians. Their generation was also the last generation to be born in Mississippi (or nearby states). The following one would be fully urbanized, and something of the original mood would be lost forever.
Unlike rural blues music, that was meant to be personal and documentary, rhythm'n'blues was becoming only "good-time music", ever more emancipated from the original social meaning of black music.
Appreciation of the original blues was limited to the intellectuals of the Greenwich Village (New York), the same crowd that had rediscovered folk music and that loved political songs. After the 1938 concert at the Carnegie Hall, the duo of harmonica player Saunders "Sonny" Terry, raised on the East Coast, and guitarist Brownie McGhee, became a fixture of the Village. So did Leadbelly himself. So did Josh White from 1941, also a celebrated cabaret artist.
In the South, Sonny Boy Williamson II (real name Aleck Ford, also known as Rice Miller) established the harmonica as a fashionable instrument through his virtuoso accompaniments to Nine Below Zero (1951), Don't Start Me To Talking (1955), Keep It To Yourself (1956), One Way Out (1961), with Elmore James, Help Me (1963).
In Arkansas, Robert "Nighthawk" McCollum crafted a relaxed, intimate style, first rehearsed in Sweet Black Angel (1949).
The northern Mississippi school, christened "deep blues" in 1991 by critic Robert Palmer, was long lost, and rediscovered only decades later.
Fred McDowell, first recorded in 1959, was perhaps the initiator, and the first bluesman to adopt the modal, tracey, droning, one-chord technique that would become typical of the region.
His main disciple was R.L. Burnside, first recorded in 1967, who probably cut his best album at the age of 68, Too Bad Jim (1994).
David "Junior" Kimbrough, first recorded at the age of 61 for All Night Long (1992), was even more removed from the mainstream, playing raw hypnotic music reminiscent of ancient work songs and jungle polyrhythms
Shunning the 12-bar dogma, they harked straight back to their African roots.
Gospel music became a major business (no longer related to churches) after the war.
Mahalia Jackson was the exception to the rule that gospel music was still mainly a music for vocal quartets: the Swan Silvertones, featuring the falsetto of Claude Jeter, formed by four West Virginia miners in 1938 and converted to a melodic format with Mary Don't You Weep (1955), and the Sensational Nightingales, from South Carolina, featuring the baritone of Julius Cheeks, were among the most popular, still in the "jubilee" style.
Among female groups, the Ward Singers ruled Philadelphia, one of the greatest gospel vocalists of all times thanks to the voices of Clara Ward (Reverend Herbert Brewster's waltzing Just Over the Hill, 1949) and Marion Williams (Brewster's Surely God is Able, 1950). The Ward Singers were instrumental in freeing the female gospel quartet from the ecclesiastic dogma: they wore regular (actually, colorful) dresses instead of Church robes. Thus they looked and sounded like a pop group.
The Staple Singers, formed in 1951 in Chicago by Mississippi blues guitarist Roebuck "Pop" Staples and his four children, bridged two generations and two styles (blues and gospel) with Uncloudy Day (1956), Will the Circle be Unbroken (1957), This May Be The Last Time (1958), Oh Lord Stand By Me (1961). Roebuck Staples had introduced the blues guitar in gospel music since 1937, and went on to craft a gentle style based on tremolo and reverb.
Veteran choir leader James Cleveland penned one of gospel's greatest hits,
Peace Be Still (1963).
Edwin Hawkins recorded the hit version of the traditional
Oh Happy Day (1969).
A visceral style of singing (or, better, "shouting") the blues developed in the dancehalls of Kansas City. The shouters fronted combos of the kind that had evolved in Chicago and Los Angeles, a poor man's version of swing's orchestras. These combos were loud and unsophisticated. Their goal was to entertain an audience that was paying to dance. The vocalists had to shout in order to be heard. The boogie piano rhythm and the shrill sax solo were frequently the only elements that stood out, besides the vocals. But the "shouter" was not so much shouting as using the voice as an instrument: the function of the voice was no longer to narrate but to contribute to the overall sound. The three major Kansas City shouters were also deeply influenced by jazz's concept of time.
His main rival was Jimmy Rushing, who typically performed as the booming tenor in big bands (mostly Count Basie's), as plastic as a saxophone, and sculpted the dramas of I May Be Wrong (1936), also known as Boogie Woogie, Good Morning Blues (1937), Sent For You Yesterday (1938), Evil Blues (1939), I Want A Little Girl (1940), Goin To Chicago Blues (1941).
Far less intimidating was Jimmy Witherspoon, a theatrical baritone who indulged in a more relaxed phrasing, Confessing The Blues (1945), Ain't Nobody's Business (1948), his own No Rollin' Blues (1950) and The Wind Is Blowing (1952).
In Los Angeles, jump blues was still the dominant paradigm. Majestic shouter Wynonie Harris delivered Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well (1944), Wynonie's Blues (1946), Roy Brown's epoch-defining Good Rockin' Tonite (1947), probably the first record to feature the backbeat rhythm, the titillating All She Wants to Do is Rock (1949) and Good Morning Judge (1950), and Hank Penny's Bloodshot Eyes (1951).
Roy Brown's fusion of
the emotional melisma of gospel music and
the pathetic wail of pop crooning
in Good Rockin' Tonite (1947)
Boogie At Midnight (1949),
Miss Fanny Brown (1949),
Cadillac Baby (1950),
marked the appropriation of religious ecstasy by pagan performers.
His melodramatic peak was
the terrifying Hard Luck Blues (1950).
The "shouter" was a male role, but the female equivalent of a shouter was to be found both in sacred (gospel) and profane (rhythm'n'blues) music.
Johnny Otis' orchestra, in particular, was instrumental in launching the careers of top-notch female vocalists: Esther Phillips, the voice of Otis' own Cupid's Boogie (1950), Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, the roaring contralto of Leiber & Stoller's Hound Dog (1953) and the author of Ball And Chain (1967), and Etta James (Jamesetta Hawkins), the spirited and defiant heroine of Otis' Roll With Me Henry (1955), also known as Dance With me Henry, a duet with Richard Berry based on Hank Ballard's Work With Me Annie.
Chicago's Dinah Washington (real name Ruth Lee Jones), the profane counterpart to Mahalia Jackson, worked out a charismatic and thundering synthesis of gospel, blues, jazz and pop singing, a dramatic monologue venting her existential neurosis that forged the archetype for the "soul ballad". After moving from Alabama to Chicago in 1927, she became a gospel singer in a female choir and a jazz singer in Lionel Hampton's big band. Capable of turning any melody into a show of acrobatic melisma, she dominated the charts with an eclectic repertory that included Leonard Feather's Evil Gal Blues (1944) and Baby Get Lost (1949), Richard Jones' Trouble In Mind (1952), Gene DePaul's Teach Me Tonight (1954), Maria Grever's Latin-tinged What a Difference a Day Makes (1959), This Bitter Earth (1960).
New York-based Ruth Brown was the first diva to rival Dinah Washington. Among her stirring blues ballads were: So Long (1949), Rudy Toombs' Teardrops From My Eyes (1950), 5-10-15 Hours (1952), Herb Lance's jazzy He Treats Your Daughter Mean (1953), Chuck Willis' Oh What A Dream (1954), Mambo Baby (1954), Leiber & Stoller's Lucky Lips (1953).
Faye Adams followed suit, also in New York, with Shake A Hand (1953), I'll Be True (1953) and Hurts Me To My Heart (1954). Mabel "Big Maybelle" Smith mastered an even more powerful voice for Grabbin' Blues (1953) and Candy (1956).
Lavern Baker, a Chicago native, moved from the sprightly and youthful Tweedlee Dee (1955) to Lincoln Chase's erotic Jim Dandy (1956) to the melancholy ballads I Cried A Tear (1958) and Shake A Hand (1959).
Koko Taylor (Cora Walton), who arrived in Chicago via Memphis in 1953, the first vocalist to claim the title of "queen of the blues" since World War II, growled Honky Tonky (1963), I Got What It Takes (1964) and Willie Dixon's Wang Dang Doodee (1966), before establishing her persona with a series of luxuriant albums starting with I Got What It Takes (1975).
This generation of female singers mixed sacred and secular aspects of black music in such an effective manner that they truly inverted the relationship between the text and the interpreter: the interpreter (the "recitation" of the vocalist) provided the meaning, whereas the lyrics and the melody merely helped deliver it. Their voices became the essence of the story to a degree that, until then, had been achieved only by theatrical actors.
They lacked the technical refinement of opera singers, but introduced a psychological refinement that was unknown in western music.
When blues music was accepted by the white masses (basically, with the advent of rock'n'roll), the influence was reciprocal: white popular music would never be the same again, but black music too would never be the same again. Rhythm'n'blues lost its rural character and began to resemble (both in format and in sound) white pop music with more vocal freedom and a simpler, rawer arrangement (the electric combo instead of the string orchestra).
The real winner of the transformation from blues to rhythm'n'blues had been the electric guitar, that was to dominate blues music for the next few decades.
Chicago's school of electric guitarists prospered with:
Otis Rush, launched by Dixon's I Can't Quit You Baby (1956) and matured with Double Trouble (1958), with Ike Turner on guitar, and So Many Roads So Many Trains (1960);
"Magic" Sam Maghett, one of the most lyrical and innovative, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1950 and who died prematurely at 32 after penning All Your Love (1957), Easy Baby (1958), All Night Long (1958), with his most famous guitar break, the boogie instrumental Riding High (1966), the funky She Belongs To Me (1966) and the lively instrumental Lookin' Good (1967);
Texas's Freddie King, mainly famous for his catchy instrumentals, such as Hide Away (1961), derived from a Hound Dog Taylor instrumental, The Stumble (1961), Lonesome Whistle Blues (1961), San-Ho-Zay (1961), I'm Tore Down (1961), and Driving Sideways (1962), but also successful with the romantic ballad Have You Ever Loved A Woman (1961);
George "Buddy" Guy, capable of blending passages and savage arpeggio-laden guitar workouts as in First Time I Met The Blues (1960), Broken Hearted Blues (1960), Let Me Love You Baby (1961), and Mary Had a Little Lamb (1967);
Earl Hooker, perhaps the last virtuoso of the slide guitar, a living vocabulary of extreme techniques, as certified by his own instrumental tracks Blue Guitar (1953), Blues in D Natural (1960), Universal Rock (1960) and Tanya (1962), as well as by his playing for others such as Robert Nighthawk's The Moon is Rising (1952) and Lillian Offitt's Will My Man be Home Tonight (1960).
Memphis' guitar stylist Albert King (born Albert Nelson) coined a strident propulsive phrasing language that emphasized tonal dynamics rather than melody, while, at the same time, fusing soul and blues in Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong (1961) and the stellar performances backed by Booker T. & the MG's: Laundromat Blues (1966), Crosscut Saw (1967), Born Under a Bad Sign (1967), Cold Feet (1967). His bandleader Eddie Fisher was a jazzier guitarist, based in St Louis (Missouri), who recorded The Third Cup (1969).
In Texas, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown absorbed elements of country, cajun and jazz, while pitching his soft and fluid guitar phrasing against the backdrop of a big band: Boogie Rambler (1949), Dirty Work At The Crossroads (1953), Okie Dokie Stomp (1954), Just Before Dawn (1959).
Albert Collins' instrumental pieces, from The Freeze (1958) to Don't Lose Your Cool (1963), via his tour de force Frosty (1962), defined a "cool sound" at the guitar based on loud sustained one-chord trebles.
In Los Angeles, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, perhaps the first guitarist to use the reverb and the feedback as musical elements, redefined blues music with the avantgarde Space Guitar (1954), I'm Getting Drunk (1954), Hot Little Mama (1955), and Gangster Of Love (1956). His canon was one of the most impressive of his era, or, for that matter, of any era, embodied in singles that few people heard but many guitarists would imitate for decades.
In New Orleans, Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones (who died at 33) embellished his own Story of My Life (1953) and The Things That i Used To Do (1954) with guitar sounds never heard before and shouting influenced by gospel music.
Chicago's guitarist Luther Allison offered high-powered blues-rock on Love Me Mama (1969),
Frank "Son" Seals emerged with the full-throttle barrage of The Son Seals Blues Band (1973), on which he departed from the 12-bar dogma while retaining traces of Albert King's soul-blues fusion.
Memphis was still a magnet for southern musicians, particularly the clubs of the Beale Street area.
Mississippi's blues pianist Ike Turner wrote and arranged (with his Kings Of Rhythm) Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 (1951), one of the contenders for the title of first rock'n'roll record, a boogie song that hailed the automobile and featured electric guitar and a wild sax solo, before turning to the vocal skills and sexy looks of his wife Tina in A Fool In Love (1960) and It's Gonna Work Out Fine (1961).
Rosco Gordon debuted, still a teenager, with Booted (1952) and No More Dogging (1952), that virtually invented the tempo of ska music, and became a popular entertainer with Just A Little Bit (1960).
Johnny "Ace" Alexander, who died at 25, continued the slide into the pop ballad with My Song (1952), The Clock (1953) and the posthumous Pledging My Love (1954).
Herman "Junior" Parker, a sensual crooner who was also an elegant harmonica player, specialized in simple atmospheric ballads such as Feelin' Good (1953, de facto a cover of John Lee Hooker's Boogie Chillen), Next Time You See Me (1957) and In The DarK (1961), but more interesting are the lugubrious love song Mystery Train (1953) and Mother In Law Blues (1956), penned by guitarist Pat Hare, one of the first virtuosi of the distortion.
The delicate baritone phrasing of Bobby Bland had more in common with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby than with the Delta bluesmen, as proven by massive hits such as Joe Medwick Veasey's Further Up The Road (1957) and I Pity The Fool (1961) and Lead Me On (1960), both written by Deadric Malone. The sound of these hits, and of the seminal Two Steps From The Blues (1961), was due in large part to the elaborate arrangements of Joe Scott, who also penned Bland's most authentic "blues" performance, Ain't Nothin' You Can Do (1964).
Less compromised with the pop ballad was Mississippi's "Little" Milton Campbell, a natural bridge between the Delta, Chicago (urban blues) and Memphis (soul), whose We're Gonna Make It (1965) and Grits Ain't Groceries (1969), which is a rewrite of Titus Turner's All Around The World (1958), fused Howlin' Wolf's shout and Bobby Bland's croon, while That's What Love Will Make You Do (1971) and Walking The Back Streets and Crying (1972) adopted the ornate arrangements of soul music and displayed an innovative guitar technique.
B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Little Milton made up the triad of soul-blues singers who tried to explain the blues via the elegant sound of soul music.
Among their followers, Los Angeles' Little Johnny Taylor (born Johnny Merrett) delivered powerful interpretations of Clay Hammond's anguished Part Time Love (1963), one of the all-time best-sellers of blues music, Since I Found A New Love (1964), Zig Zag Lightning (1966), Miles Grayson's Everybody Knows About My Good Thing (1971), Bobby Paterson's Open House At My House (1972).
New Orleans, the historical capital of black music, developed its own style, that relied on booming riffs, on "jump" rhythms, and on a loud and heavy interplay of piano, sax and contrabass.
There were a number of bands in New Orleans that defined the local rhythm'n'blues sound. One bandleader stood out from the crowd. Dave Bartholomew, a trumpeter who started his own band in 1946 and raised talents such as drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonist Lee Allen and pianist Professor Longhair, was influential as an arranger and producer who crafted a sound that bridged jump blues, dixieland jazz and the carnival marches. His band specialized in warm relaxed piaces such as Country Boy (1949), My Ding A Ling (1951) and the proto-ska instrumental The Monkey (1957). But Bartholomew would always overload the "bass" range of the sound by piling up piano, bass, sax and drums to produce the "rumble" that became his trademark. He also wrote Smiley Lewis' Blue Monday (1953) and I Hear You Knockin' (1955), that features Huey Smith on piano, as well as most of Fats Domino's hits.
The other great bandleader, pianist Paul Gayten, wrote Since I Fell For You (1947) for Laurie Annie, For You My Love (1949) for Larry Darnell, The Music Goes Round And Round (1956), and The Hunch (1958), with Allen on sax and typical New Orleans piano.
For the bands of New Orleans, the piano was more than a mere addition to the vocals: often, it was the very foundation of the song.
The school was started by a Isadore "Tuts" Washington (who did not record until well into his seventies). His disciple Professor Longhair, also known as Fess (real name Henry Byrd), a husky vocalist, and wild performer in the barrelhouse tradition, who started out in Dave Bartholomew's band, invented a rolling bass riff that remained popular for decades. His signature tune Mardi Gras in New Orleans (1949), Bald Hair (1950), the Caribbean-tinged Tipitina (1953), Gone So Long (1954), She Walks Right In, Who's Been Fooling You, Big Chief (1963) were his demonstrations of the New Orleans sound.
Lloyd Price's career was established by a similar hit, Lawdy Miss Clawdy (1952), also with Dave Bartholomew's band and Fats Domino himself on piano, but then Price targeted the white audience with the folk traditional Stagger Lee (1959) and the smooth Personality (1959).
Boogie pianist Huey "Piano" Smith penned the novelty Rocking Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu (1957) High Blood Pressure (1958) and Don't You Just Know It (1958) with his group, the Clowns, before writing Frankie Ford's massive boogie Sea Cruise (1958).
More or less in line with this New Orleans sound were a number of hits that benefited from the whole scene in the mid 1950s: Earl King's Those Lonely Lonely Nights (1955), Shirley (Goodman) and (Leonard) Lee's Let The Good Times Roll (1956), Clarence Henry's Ain't Got No Home (1956).
The other style that was popular in Louisiana was the "swamp blues", a hypnotic, haunting style derived from Jimmy Reed. Slim Harpo (James Moore) made Reed's sound palatable to a broader audience with the lascivious I'm A King Bee (1957), Got Love If You Want It (1957), Rainin' in My Heart (1961), the pulsating Shake Your Hips (1966), Baby Scratch My Back (1966).
Lightnin' Slim (Otis Hicks), the most introverted and lyrical of the three, sang Bad Luck Blues (1954) and Rooster Blues (1959) in an ominous bass register.
The main hit of swamp blues was Sea Of Love (1959), performed by the Twilights.
Oddly enough, it was a white Mississippi pianist, Mose Allison, to stand as the link between rhythm'n'blues and big-band swing. He was also the sensitive singer-songwriter of Back Country Suite (1957) Creek Bank (1958) and Autumn Leaves (1959), and the author of standards such as Young Man Blues (1957), Parchman Farm (1957) and Seventh Son (1958) that embodied his noir atmosphere and his languid existentialism, the epitome of the beatnik era.
Another popularizer of swing for the rhythm'n'blues audience was St Louis' tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest, whose massive hit Night Train (1952) was derived from Duke Ellington's Happy Go Lucky Local (1946).
Gospel quartets and barbershop quartets evolved into doo-wop groups via the experiments of the post-war generation.
New York's Ravens, despite their focus on covers of showtunes, such as Jerome Kern's Ol' Man River (1946), and Irving Berlin's White Christmas (1948), and covers of pop hits such as Ray Anthony's Count Every Star (1950), introduced the bass register of Jimmy Ricks as the lead vocals, an influential innovation that was particularly effective on the gutsier songs, such as I Don't Have To Ride No More (1950) and Rock Me All Night Long (1952).
Baltimore's Orioles introduced a mellower style with Deborah Chesler's It's Too Soon To Know (1948), and pioneered a vocal dynamics that juxtaposed a tenor (Sonny Tilghman) singing in a cold detached tone and a wordless falsetto in Tell Me So (1949), and became one of the first "race" groups to cross over into the pop charts with white songwriter Artie Glenn's Crying In The Chapel (1953).
A number of vocal groups remained closer to gospel than to pop and jazz. The main "rhythm'n'gospel" groups were: Dominoes, Midnighters, Five Royales, Drifters.
Billy Ward's Dominoes, based in Harlem, broke with the orthodox style of Ravens and Orioles, and pioneered the style with Sixty Minute Man (1951), a song of sexual innuendos delivered by the bass voice, and one of the first songs to use the expression "rock'n'roll", Have Mercy Baby (1952), These Foolish Things Remind Me of You (1952), Money Honey (1953) and The Bells (1953), besides launching the careers of Clyde McPhatter and then Jackie Wilson.
The erotic and visceral Midnighters, from Detroit, propelled by a driving rhythm of guitar, bass and drums, shocked the world of religious music with the obscene lyrics sung by Hank Ballard in Get It (1953) and especially Work With Me Annie (1954), which began one of the first teenage sagas of popular music. Teardrops On Your Letter (1958) was, de facto, already soul music. It was backed with The Twist (1959), Ballard's most famous invention (a revision of his Is Your Love For Real which was in turn a variation on the Drifters' Whatcha Gonna Do). It was the beginning of a new career, highlighted by the dance novelties Finger Poppin' Time (1960) and Let's Go (1960).
The Five Royales, from North Carolina, delivered the jubilant melodies and complex arrangements of Baby Don't Do It (1952), Help Me Somebody (1953), Laundromat Blues (1956). They relied on Lowman Pauling's compositional skills (he penned both Think in 1957 and Dedicated To The One I Love in 1958, both highly influential) and on his inventive guitar style. He virtually invented guitar distortion and feedback on 1958's The Slummer The Slum, and was perhaps the first guitarist to employ the "fuzztone". They bridged the gap between the black vocal groups and the first rock bands.
Frankie Lymon, a New York boy soprano who became the archetype of the teenage pop star, bridged the world of rhythm'n'blues and rock'n'roll with Why Do Fools Fall In Love (1955), a novelty that basically turned a child's wail ("ooh-wah oo-ooh wah-ah") into a melody, and
I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent (1956).
The fusion between sacred and profane music of the blacks was finally embodied in a new vocal style, "doo-wop" (so called from the phonetic nonsense often used for the vocal harmonies), that emerged in the 1950s as a natural consequence of the developments of the previous decades. Its peak was probably between 1955 and 1962.
The song that, released in december 1954 in Los Angeles, started the fashion was Earth Angel, sung by the Penguins of baritone Curtis Williams and falsetto Cleveland Duncan. The song itself was a synthesis of several musical elements of the time: it is one of the many ballads of the era based on the chord changes of Rodgers & Hart's Blue Moon, and very similar to the Swallows' Will You Be Mine (1951) and to the Hollywood Flames' I Know (1953), Curtis Williams' previous group. It was composed by Williams' high-school buddy, Jesse Belvin, who basically recycled his Dream Girl (1953), and it was in the style of Belvin's other hits, Goodnight My Love (1953) and I'm Only a Fool (1954). In fact, it is Belvin that can be credited with the key synthesis of the song: between the idealized love of the 1950s (a modern equivalent of the medieval "amor cortese") and the teen angst that was about to explode in rock'n'roll. In fact, the song struck a chord mainly with the young white audience, once it was broadcast by disc-jockey Alan Freed.
Both the falsetto (deemed too feminine), the lyrics (deemed ridiculous) and the piano playing (the only instrumental accompaniment was Williams' simple piano figure, that created a danceable beat by hammering three times the same chord) were criticized as a symbol of artistic decadence. This was also the first song released by an independent label to reach the top of the charts (the cover by a white group sold even more). And, finally, this song marked the first time that a major musical phenomenon originated on the West Coast.
Los Angeles became the first stage for the doo-wop revolution. The Platters, propelled by the acrobatic tenor of Tony Williams (famous for his sobbing style at very high notes) and featuring one of the first female doo-wop singers (Zola Taylor), were the most conventional, still in the mellow sound of the Ink Spots, with tidy phrasing and orchestral arrangements: two hits written by their (and the Penguins') mentor Sam "Buck" Ram, Only You (1955) and The Great Pretender (1955), My Prayer (1956), that was a cover of Georges Boulanger's Avant de Mourir, Jerome Kern's Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (1958) and Ram's Twilight Time (1958)
The Jewels were perhaps the most unconventional, as proven by their raucous Hearts of Stone (1954).
The main doo-wop artists in Chicago were the Flamingos, boasting the falsetto of John Carter who penned the sophisticated slow ballad Golden Teardrops (1953), later matched by I'll Be Home (1956) and A Kiss from Your Lips (1956).
New York had not been left in the dark by the doo-wop explosion. In fact, the Harptones had pioneered the genre with Louis Prima's Sunday Kind Of Love (1953), and the Crows' Gee (1953) was in the vanguard of the more rhythmic style that bordered on rock'n'roll. The Chords' claim to fame is only one song, Sh-Boom (1954), but it was another epoch-making song thanks to its bouncy rhythm and its charming vocal games: A bland cover by a white group, the Crew Cuts, reached the top of the charts and started the habit of turning black songs into watered-down versions sung by white kids. The Cadillacs, whose hit was Esther Navarro's Spedoo (1956), were influential for their onstage theatrics, the prototype for many soul artists of the following decade.
In New York, James Sheppard invented the "concept" album, except that it was not an album but a series of 14 singles that told the story of a teenage romance. It started with Crazy For You (1955), the elegant Your Way (1956) and especially A Thousand Miles Away (1956), by Sheppard's first group, the Heartbeats, followed by I Won't Be The Fool Anymore (1957), 500 Miles To Go (1957) and Down On My Knees (1958). Shep and The Limelites, Sheppard's subsequent trio with no bass vocals, resumed the saga with Daddy Home (1961), perhaps the most intricate, and the end, I'm All Alone (1962).
Maurice Williams wrote a demented ditty over a Latin rhythm, Little Darlin (1957), for his original band, the Gladiolas, only to see it become a hit in the interpretation of Canada's Diamonds (but perhaps this was the only case in which the white cover improved the vocal arrangements over the black original), and then penned an even weirder hit over a Caribbean beat, , Stay (1960), with the Zodiacs, shocking the white masses with his almost self-parodying falsetto.
Once doo-wop became big business, very few groups were able to emulate the artistic innovations of the pioneers. Fred Parris' In The Still Of The Night (1956) by the Five Satins (New Haven), was notable for replacing the traditional vocal counterpoint with an ostensible refrain of "shoo-doo-shoo-be-doo". Book Of Love (1958) by the Monotones was one of the "hardest" doo-wop songs. Get A Job (1958) by the Silhouettes was quite unique in being a nonsense protest song. Maybe (1958) was the first hit by a female doo-wop group, the Chantels. Come Softly To Me (1959) by the Fleetwoods was one of the few that mixed female and male voices. The Del-Vikings of Come Go With Me (1957) were the first multi-racial group to achieve nation-wide success. My True Story (1961) by the Jive Five boasted the crying lead vocals of Eugene Pitt. Richard Rodgers' Blue Moon (1961) by another multi-racial group, the Marcels, was one of the most amusing.
Among white groups who did not simply cover black groups, the Italo-Americans dominated: Little Star (1958) by the Elegants; There's A Moon Out Tonight (1958) by the Capris; 16 Candles (1959) by the multi-racial Crests; Sorry (1959) by the multi-racial Impalas; Denise (1963), by Randy and the Rainbows; and Frankie "Valli" Castelluccio's Four Seasons, with Sherry (1962), Big Girls Don't Cry (1962) and especially Walk Like A Man (1963).
But maybe the most impressive achievement of white doo-wop groups was
Since I Don't Have You (1959) by the Skyliners, orchestrated like a symphony
by producer Joe Rock.
What rhythm'n'blues achieved (in all its transmutations) was, socially speaking, to dispel the notion that black music was for black people only. But perhaps even more important was the progressive emancipation from the cliches of blues and jazz music: the arrangements became less and less sophisticated, the sound harder and harder, the guitars more versatile and sharp-edged, the vocals shouted or cried, the beat more aggressive, the lyrics more oriented towards the lifestyle of young people. Less style and more bodily movement. Less intellectual and more emotional. A side effect was to bring back to the surface the original ritual sexual element of African music. Indirectly, these changes meant that popular music was becoming a collective sexual innuendo, a sort of secret code for young people to communicate about taboo subjects.
Rhythm'n'blues also changed the profile of the audience. Where jazz catered to the audience of the clubs for the middle-class and (ever more often) the "aristocracy" of the city, rhythm'n'blues reached out to the working class and even to the street gangs. This was a rapidly-expanding market of urban masses that were benefiting from the economic boom of the post-war era. In fact, rhythm'n'blues can be said to have altered the balance, by overtaking jazz as the most popular form of black music. The fact that the more "populist" form became also the more "popular" reflected a profound change in the social fabric of the American nation.
In other words, the stage was set for rock'n'roll to emerge. What was missing (the great drawback of rhythm'n'blues) was true creativity. Rhythm'n'blues (whether vocal or instrumental) was anchored to well-defined structures, that performers challenged only marginally. There were no significant attempts to create free-form structures, to integrate idioms of other cultures, to enlarge the orchestration to new instruments, to radically alter any of the fundamental dogmas of black-music performance. That will be, indeed, the revolution of rock music, which will progressively introduce the traditional European values of innovation and progress into the archaic values of African personal expression.
Both jazz and rhythm'n'blues may not have happened if white pop music (Tin Pan Alley) had not been stuck in a creative crisis. In the 1930s jazz bands took advantage of the vacuum caused by the Depression: jazz (swing) became popular when the masses had little else to listen (and especially dance) to. Rhythm'n'blues achieved the same feat in a similar time of crisis: at the end of World War II, Tin Pan Alley was incapable of producing exciting new music, and particularly exciting dance/party music that could stimulate the younger audience. Thus the white audience was led to rhythm'n'blues combos the same way their parents had been led to swing orchestras. (The exact same phenomenon would take place in the mid 1970s, when, again, white kids would look at black music, such as hip-hop, in an era of creative crisis for white rock music).
See Blues Music
See Soul Music
See this chapter for blues of the 1980s.
Southern, Eileen: "The Music of Black Americans" (Norton, 1971)
TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.