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Rhythm and blues, or R&B, is a style of music that came out of the jazz, blues and gospel music that was being played by African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. Over the years, the term has commonly been used to describe whatever popular music this community was playing at the time.

Initially, black R&B bands took white songs by New York’s Tin Pan Alley writers and revved them up. This more upbeat, exciting type of music caught on in a big way, and for the first time, African Americans had their own style of commercial music.

It was often called jump blues, or blues and rhythm. As the swing era came to an end in the late 1930s, many big bands broke up into smaller units and formed “jump blues” bands, which played loud music with a strong dance beat, quickly becoming popular in the dance halls at the time. A typical band had a rhythm section provided by drums and a bass guitar and sometimes a piano. There would also be a couple of horn instruments. A featured soloist was often a saxophone player from a jazz background.

Early R&B bands were those of Count Basie, Louis Jordan and Lionel Hampton. Basie had a hit in 1937 with “One O’clock Jump”, while Jordan had a string of hits from the late 1930s through the 1940s.

By the mid 1940s, “R.M. Blues” by Roy Milton and “The Honeydripper” by Joe Liggins each sold one million copies. Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” was a landmark multi-million seller that topped the R&B charts for 18 weeks in 1946. Other hits included “Good Rockin’ Tonight” by Roy Brown in 1947, “The Hucklebuck” by various artists, and “The Shufflebuck” by Jimmy Liggins in 1950.

It wasn’t only African Americans cashing in on the R&B craze. Greek American Johnny Otis had a string of R&B hits in the early 1950s. In 1951 he had ten songs that reached the top ten, including three number ones: “Cupid’s Boogie”, “Double Crossing Blues” and “Mistrustin’ Blues”. Otis produced the first recording of Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog”, later made even more famous by Elvis Presley.

It was in 1951 that disk jockey Alan Freed started calling the R&B music he played on his radio program, “The Moondog Rock Roll House Party”, rock and roll. In 1954, “Sh-Boom” by the Chords was the first R&B song to reach the pop charts top 10. Fats Domino replicated this feat in 1955 with “Ain’t That a Shame”. Freed had moved to New York by that time and was helping to make R&B numbers such as Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” popular among white teenagers.

The new music style continued to evolve and was gaining popularity rapidly. In 1956, an R&B tour of the US and Canada, “Top Stars of ‘56”, featured Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Al Hibbler and Frankie Lymon among others. In Annapolis, more than 50,000 people turned up to a concert with seating for 8,000. There was a traffic jam for seven hours. Although African Americans continued to dominate the style, Elvis Presley made it to number 1 on the R&B charts in 1957 with “Jailhouse Rock” and number 5 with “All Shook Up” in the same year.

Motown Records was founded in 1959, the first major record label with an African American owner, Berry Gordy. It went on to become hugely successful, commanding a large share of the market for soul music, as R&B had become known in the early 1960s. The “Motown Sound” was soul music with a pop music influence. Some famous artists under this label included Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, the Four Tops and many more. In 11 years from 1961 to 1971, Motown had 110 songs reaching the top 10. Many R&B artists with other labels had huge success too, such as Sam Cooke, Chubby Checker, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.

By the 1970s, R&B was used as a general term for soul and funk music. R&B resurfaced as contemporary R&B, describing the R&B style that rose to the fore after the end of the disco music era in the 1980s. It combines soul, funk and dance and, from 1986, hip hop. The style features a slick electronic sound with drum machine rhythm. Vocal arrangements are smooth and lush, and often use melisma, where a single syllable is sung as two notes.

Early artists of contemporary R&B in the first half of the 1980s included Michael Jackson and Prince. In the late 1980s, Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston had hits. Tina Turner made a comeback with a string of contemporary R&B hits in the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 1990s, Boyz II Men led a number of boy bands that popularized classic soul harmonies. Some R&B was gaining a distinct hip hop sound by this time.

It was Mariah Carey, along with TLC and Boyz II Men, who brought R&B back to the mainstream in the mid 1990s. These three artists all released albums that sold over 10 million copies. Further offshoots of R&B occurred in the late 1990s and the 2000s by artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera.

Rhythm and blues has come a long way since American African musicians of the early to mid 20th century developed their own style of lively music based on some more conservative styles at the time. R&B had huge success in the 1950s and 1960s before making an even bigger comeback as contemporary R&B from the 1980s onwards.

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