Early R&B Soul Music History

The earliest forms of the rhythm and blues and soul genres arose from a combination of gospel music, jazz and the blues. This combination of music grew to become one of the most dominant forms of entertainment in the latter half of the 20th century, sowing the seeds for everything from rock music to funk to hip hop. Originally prominent in the inner cities, R&B and soul became the chroniclers of the black experience in the United States, while appealing to white audiences.

As a mixture of blues, jazz and gospel, R&B began to catch on in several cities. By combining blues and jazz, the bands would usually have an electric guitar backed by a piano and a saxophone. Marketed towards black audiences, the earliest R&B hit maker was Louis Jordan who had a string of hits in the late 1940s. Following Jordan was Paul Williams, whose hit "The Hucklebuck" predated the sort of rave ups that would become commonplace in the '50s and '60s. His live show was a raucous event that would inspire later audiences such as James Brown and Otis Redding.

The 1950s saw a string of R & B artists take the sound and expand it. Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry created not only the foundation for the soul music of the '60s they also became the prototypes for the rock 'n' roll movement. Little Richard was especially important to not only the sound of R & B but to the flamboyant stage shows that would late be taken to its apex with artists like David Bowie and Mick Jagger. These sounds made headway into middle America with the help of radio station WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee, due to its nighttime R & B shows. These transmissions went throughout the Midwest, the East Coast and even in some foreign countries that lead to the rise of ska and British R & B. By the mid-1950s, however, these R & B performers would be overshadowed by Elvis Presley, who was able to take the sound of black music and make it acceptable to white audiences.

At the end of the decade, a young gospel singer by the name of Sam Cooke was on the cusp of becoming the "King of Soul." Cooke would revolutionize the soul genre, bridging the gap between the sounds of R&B and the soul music that would come to be popularized in the '60s and '70s. His influence would reach Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and scores of others. What made Cooke's music so special was his ability to mix social commentary with a pop song. Until this point, most political music was relegated to the folk scene. Here was Cooke singing boldly about oppression in songs like "A Change is Gonna Come." His death in 1964 came as a shock, but his impression on the genre is indisputable. Without him, soul music would have taken a different turn.

Coming to the public eye at the same time as Sam Cooke, Motown was an independently owned black record label founded by Berry Gordy that specialized in R&B and soul music. Known as Hitsville USA, Motown produced several hits, crossing black music over onto white radio. Groups like the Supremes challenged the Beatles in pop chart dominance. Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops and Michael Jackson all came through the ranks of the Motown hit machine. Led by the songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr., Motown believed in keeping their sounds simple, while pushing the boundaries on what their line of musicians were able to accomplish.

On top of Motown and Sam Cooke, soul music hit its stride in the 1960s. James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding all propelled themselves to the spotlight, making the genre commercially feasible. British bands that arrived as part of the "British Invasion" covered many of these songs, with groups like The Who fashioning themselves as players of "Maximum R&B." As the decade wore on and the political climate became more intense, R&B began to become more socially conscious, especially with the music of James Brown and Marvin Gaye. These sounds grew to be the foundations of funk, disco and eventually hip hop.





Approved by Jesse Anderson