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Rhythm-and-Blues Music

record needle, Jerry Wexler, minstrel shows, black musicians, Bill Haley

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Rhythm-and-Blues Music or R&B, variety of different, but related, types of popular music produced and supported primarily by black Americans beginning in the early 1940s. Rhythm-and-blues music, also known simply as R&B, embraces such genres as jump blues, club blues, black rock and roll, doo wop, soul, Motown, funk, disco, and rap. First coined in 1949 by Jerry Wexler, who would become prominent with Atlantic Records, the term rhythm and blues was used as a synonym for black rock and roll (rock-and-roll music done by black musicians) in the early and mid-1950s. Until white rock-and-roll performers such as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley achieved mass popularity in the mid-1950s, what was commonly referred to as rock and roll by white disc jockeys and fans was referred to as the latest style of R&B by black disc jockeys and fans.

As a tradition, R&B provided the single greatest influence on popular music worldwide for much of the second half of the 20th century. This influence can be traced in forms of rock music, country and western, gospel music, and jazz as well as in a variety of non-Western forms of music, including Nigerian juju, a style of popular dance music, and Algerian rai, another popular style distinguished by its rebellious lyrics. As the influence of various styles of R&B has grown, black urban values have also permeated a wide variety of other cultures, most notably that of contemporary Euro-American youth.

Current Trends

By the mid-1990s, elements of rap—including sampling, scratching (a percussion technique that involves running a record needle manually across vinyl records), and declaimed vocals—had become part of what could perhaps best be described as dance-based, post-disco music. The vocal-group tradition of R&B continued, perhaps best represented by TLC, as did the prominence of solo vocal acts, such as singers Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, and Maxwell.

Social Significance

The various styles of R&B have followed a cycle that originated in the mid-19th century with music from minstrel shows. The general cycle starts when black Americans develop a musical style that is an integral part of a much larger black subculture, embracing language, fashion, demeanor, and attitudes. From the outset of this development, a small number of white Americans become interested in both the music and the subculture and actively participate on the fringes of the nascent subculture. Eventually, some of these white participants begin to make their own versions of the music, some of which then gain widespread popularity among white youth. The popularity of the music transfers part of the language, fashion, style of dance, and attitude of the subculture into the mainstream of American culture. In its role as one of the most popular forms of music, R&B has always found an audience outside its black American roots, a fact that is unlikely to change in the 21st century.


Bowman, Rob, B.A., M.F.A., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Music, York University. Author of "Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Recors (1997)" and winner of a 1995 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes, "The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Volume 3: 1972-1975".

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