The Influence of Rhythm and Blues

Essential Question

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.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The importance of R&B as a musical gateway to the Rock and Roll of the mid-1950s
    • The role of labels like Atlantic Records in circulating R&B to both a black and a white audience
    • Some key differences between R&B and early Rock and Roll
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Extrapolate arguments about music by assessing sound, mood, tone, instrumentation
    • Draw connections among various print, audio and visual texts
    • Write creatively for personal and/or small group expression
    • Compare and contrast texts, arguments and ideas