THE INFLUENCE OF RHYTHM AND BLUES
What did R&B bring to early Rock and Roll, and how was early Rock and Roll different?
All popular music comes from somewhere. But when innovative music gets on the radio, the television, or to the public's ears and eyes in some other fashion, it often sounds like it appeared from nowhere; like it landed on the doorstep and had no parents. But whether Punk, Hip Hop, Hard Rock or any other music, it all came from somewhere.
So, too, was the case with early Rock and Roll. What Elvis did pre-existed him—even if the way he put it together did not. As this lesson will suggest, one crucial "parent" to early Rock and Roll was Rhythm and Blues, or R&B. As Fats Domino said in the mid-1950s, "What they call Rock and Roll I've been playing in New Orleans for years." Many would agree with him. The subject of this lesson is the music of which Fats Domino speaks: the R&B of the pre-Rock and Roll era.
What was R&B, and where did it come from? The answers to that question are many and certainly crucial for any deeper understanding of the Rock and Roll story. The short version has it that when the Swing bands went out, due in part to the wartime economy and the daunting costs of keeping a large ensemble on the road, smaller combos became popular. Those smaller combos had a sound that many described as more "raw." Artists like Louis Jordan emerged in this moment, influencing a number of Rock and Rollers, Chuck Berry among them. As the R&B recordings reveal, these smaller combos retained the emphasis on horn sections, but, by virtue of being smaller groups of players, their sound left more musical room for other instruments. That being the time when electric guitar technology was getting more advanced, this meant that when the guitar players got more space, they met it with more volume. Thus the R&B sound edged toward Rock and Roll.
But even if R&B provided early Rock and Roll with many of its constituent elements, it is important to also consider what made them different. In this lesson, students will compare LaVern Baker's "Tra La La," an example of R&B, with her contemporary Chuck Berry's "Maybellene," an example of early Rock and Roll. By way of conclusion, LaVern Baker's record label, Atlantic, will be discussed as an example of the independent companies that made R&B for black audiences, only to find that white teenagers were, unexpectedly, their growing audience.
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
"We had a little bit of a rough time trying to get our artists to do anything resembling the blues. They were more singers like LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown . . . the [New York City-based] bands we had were composed of players from the big jazz bands and swing orchestras who had become studio musicians. They were not at all like the kind of musicians who were playing the blues in Chicago, like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and all those people. When we had these musicians try to play in an authentic blues fashion, it didn't work. The result, however, was quite intriguing. What emerged was music with a blues feel, but with a particularly Northern, urban influence."
Assign one or more of the following:
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.