For nearly a century, rhythm and blues (R&B) and its later offspring, soul, have provided a soundtrack for the everyday hardships and joys of life in the American experience. In this article, we’ll explore the roots of these genres, and take a look at some of the most influential R&B and soul artists of all time.
Famed record producer Jerry Wexler is credited with coining the name “rhythm and blues” as a marketing device in the late 1940s. R&B is part of the larger continuum of Black music created in America and flows from the convergence of blues, big band swing, and gospel. The development of the genre and the growth of its popularity coincided with the second migration of African Americans from the south and rural areas to large cities like Chicago and New York following World War II.
One of the genre’s earliest practitioners, bandleader and saxophonist Louis Jordan — who also co-composed the 1944 hit song “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” — used elements that would come to define R&B. These included the shuffle rhythm, boogie-woogie bass lines, and short horn patterns or riffs. “The songs featured the use of African American vernacular, humor and vocal call-and-response sections between Jordan and the band,” wrote ethnomusicologist Mark Puryear in a 2016 story in Smithsonian Magazine.
In the 1960s, the sound of R&B was largely influenced by Motown, the legendary Detroit-based record company started by songwriter/producer Berry Gordy Jr. Its roster of artists included dozens of legendary performers whose music would resonate for generations, such as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Commodores, and, later, the Jackson 5. Many of Motown’s hits were penned by the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier), including “Heat Wave,” “Baby Love” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You).” The skill of the backing musicians on Motown recordings — including drummer Benny Benjamin and the legendary bassist James Jamerson — also played a large role in shaping the sound and “feel” of R&B.
Even in a record company loaded with superstars and future hall of famers, there are standouts. Gordy once called Marvin Gaye “the truest artist I’ve ever known. And probably the toughest.” More than just an expressive R&B crooner with an astounding four-octave range, Gaye also penned his own songs. “Rarely has a musician had as great an impact on American culture as music legend Marvin Gaye,” said CBS News’ Rome Neal in a 2004 story about the singer’s lasting influence. In 2016, Gaye was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, who noted that he had “helped to shape R&B for a generation.” The honor came not only for Gaye’s own work — hits like “What’s Going On” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — but also for songs written for his peers, such as “Dancing in the Street” for Martha and the Vandellas.
Another artist/songwriter who was crucial in the development of the so-called “Motown sound” was Smokey Robinson, the soulful leader of the vocal group known as the Miracles. During his decades-long career, Robinson wrote more than 1,000 songs, including “The Tracks Of My Tears,” “My Guy” (a hit for Mary Wells), and “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” popularized by the Temptations.
Stevie Wonder, who turned 70 this year, started his career with Motown at age 11, wowing audiences with his vocals and harmonica skills on the hit song “Fingertips – Pt. 2.” As the former child star matured, his skills expanded to synthesizers, drum machines and samplers. These modalities played a large role during what some refer to as Wonder’s classical period, which began in 1972 with the albums Music of My Mind and Talking Book, followed by Innervisions a year later, Fulfillingness’ First Finale in 1974 and Songs in the Key of Life in 1976. “What Stevie symbolized, especially during that time, is a fullness of the black experience,” said Zandria Robinson, professor of African American studies at Georgetown University, in a recent story for theundefeated.com. “Stevie is the black documentarian of the 1970s.”
Sometime in the 1950s and early 1960s there was a co-mingling of R&B, gospel and jazz that led to the creation of soul. “When those three styles collided, soul’s big bang occurred,” said music writer Lois Wilson in a Telegraph article entitled “Life and Soul.” “Ray Charles and Sam Cooke laid the groundwork,” she says, “secularizing the sanctified with effusive vocal, stirring lyrics and deep rhythmic feeling: Ray with 1954’s “I Got A Woman,” Sam with 1957’s “You Send Me.”
At times, soul can sound a lot like R&B, but the genre’s best performers use the power and dexterity of their voice to tell their stories. Think of Aretha Franklin’s wail or the crooning of Al Green. The power of their storytelling lies in the subtleties of their vocals.
Like many Black artists, Sam Cooke honed his skills in the choir loft. He would later sing lead for the Soul Stirrers, a popular gospel quartet in the late 1940s. But Cooke was destined for bigger things and left the group in 1957 to pursue a path in secular music. He wrote (or co-wrote) many of the songs he sang, and also served as a mentor to other artists, jump-starting the careers of Billy Preston, Bobby Womack and Lou Rawls by helping them transition from the church to the bandstand. “What made brother Sam Cooke so special is he would stand flat-footed and kill you with one song,” said legendary singer James Brown in an interview with Dick Clark on the TV show American Bandstand. “If I had half the voice that Sam had, I would quit dancing.”
Ray Charles may have left us over a decade ago, but our musical memories keep him alive. “So much so that it’s a challenge to think of anyone else who ever performed such songs as “Georgia On My Mind,” “What’d I Say” and “You Don’t Know Me,” wrote Owen Edwards in Smithsonian Magazine. “Brother Ray” might often perform other genres of music, but no matter the tune, he was always singing soul. He also knew how to manipulate his voice to convey the feeling of the lyrics. “He could belt like a blues shouter and croon like a pop singer,” wrote Jon Pareles and Bernard Weinraub in their 2004 Ray Charles obituary in the New York Times, “and he used the flaws and breaks in his voice to illuminate emotional paradoxes. Even in his early years, he sounded like a voice of experience, someone who had seen all the hopes and follies of humanity.”
And then there’s the Queen of Soul: Aretha Franklin. Franklin’s instrument — her remarkable voice — made her much larger than the soul genre that so often defined her. The daughter of a Baptist minister, Franklin began her career as a child singing in church, but embarked on a secular career at the age of 18, finding acclaim and commercial success after signing with Atlantic Records in 1966. The label was also home to the aforementioned Jerry Wexler, who would produce both Franklin’s signature song “Respect” (written by fellow soul singer Otis Redding) and her 1967 mega-hit “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman.” The impact Aretha Franklin had was lasting and profound, not just on her peers but on scores of R&B singers to follow — Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys among them.
Without R&B, there would be no soul music … and without the inspiration of jazz and gospel, there would be neither. Fortunately for us all, the convergence of these many different genres gave birth to music that will live on forever.