York: Jump blues
blues was mutating according to the changing social and
artistic landscape. The 32 beats of white pop music, the
dramatic emphasis of gospel singers, the heavy rhythm
of jump blues, the tight brassy riffs of swing orchestras,
the witty attitude of minstrel shows, all had a role in
making blues music more malleable and entertaining. Transplanted
in the dancehalls, the juke joints and the vaudeville
theaters, blues music became energetic and exuberant.
Form (arrangement, rhythm and vocal style) began to prevail
over content (message and emotion). While the lyrics were
still repeating the traditional themes of segregation,
the music was largely abandoning its original traits.
new style was born in New York thanks to saxophonist,
vocalist and bandleader Louis Jordan, who became one of
the best-selling artists of his time. Jordan (who had
inherited a band in 1938) shrank down the size of swing's
orchestras, emphasized the dance rhythm (the "shuffle"),
sharpened the sax and trumpet counterpoint, and sang the
hardship of black life in a detached (almost ironic) tone.
His Tympany Five, that ranged from five to nine members,
penned At The Swing Cats Ball (1939), Fore Day Blues (1939)
and Somebody Done Hoodooed the Hoodoo Man (1940) before
becoming hit makers with Outskirts Of Town (1941), Five
Guys Named Joe (1942), Is You Is (1944), Caldonia (1945),
Stone Cold Dead In The Market (1945), a duet with jazz
vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, Choo Choo Ch'Boogie (1946),
the multi-million seller that changed the history of black
music, Beans and Cornbread (1947). These songs defined
"jump Blues", the uptempo, jazz-tinged style
of blues that ruled the race charts after the war. Jordan
was the link between blues, jazz and rock music. Few people
noticed it, but Carl Hogan played a powerful guitar riff
on Jordan's Ain't That Just Like a Woman (1945) that,
ten years later, would make Chuck Berry's fortune.
intermediary between the swing orchestra and the jump-blues
combo was Erskine Hawkins, who straddled the border between
jazz and blues in Tuxedo Junction (1939), After Hours
(1941), Tippin' In (1945).
Orleans' barrelhouse piano blues survived in the early
cuts of pianist Jack Dupree, Dupree Shake Dance (1941)
and the drug song Junker Blues (1941).
World War II fostered a boom of "race" music
that enabled a more effective distribution of black music.
It was during the war, in 1941, that a radio station in
Arkansas (KFFA) hired Sonny Boy Williamson to advertise
groceries, the first case of mass exposure by blues singers.
It was during and right after the war that the growing
business of "race" music spawned several labels
(all of them founded and run by white people) devoted
only to black music, such as Savoy, founded in 1942 in
Newark (New Jersey) by Herman Lubinsky, King, founded
in 1944 in Cincinnati (Ohio) by Syd Nathan, Atlantic,
founded in 1947 in New York by songwriter Ahmet Ertegun,
and Aristocrat, founded in 1947 in Chicago by by two Polish
Jews, Phil and Leonard Chess.
Angeles: Sophisticated blues
Angeles bluesman Aaron "T-Bone" Walker who,
as a boy in his native Texas, had accompanied Blind Lemon
Jefferson and had emerged as a guitarist in the medicine
shows of Ida Cox and Ma Rainey, imported mellow jazz phrasing
into the blues guitar (as Lonnie Johnson had already done),
and decisevely adopted the electric amplification of the
instrument, which, in turn, redefined the guitar as a
dominant solo voice. T-Bone Blues (1940) and Mean Old
World (1941) were recorded by swing orchestras. His fusion
of deep-toned moaning rural blues and jubilant urban jump-blues,
which is the raison d'etre of Stormy Monday Blues (1943)
and T-Bone Shuffle (1947), take or leave the jazzy horns,
but caused him a stylistic imbalance that culminated with
the proto-psychedelic Strolling With Bones (1950).
fusion of blues and jazz was conceived in Los Angeles
by a white bandleader, Johnny "Otis" Veliotes,
whose combo, that emerged with their noir instrumental
version of Earle Hagen's Harlem Nocturne (1945) and stormed
the charts with Double Crossing Blues (1950) and Mistrustrin'
Blues (1950), was basically a shrunk-down version of the
big-bands of swing, the epitome of all future rhythm'n'blues
combos (guitar, piano, two saxes, drums, bass, vocalist).
The musicians of his orchestra set the standard for the
"solo" personality, indulging in spectacular
interjections and elegant phrasing. Besides writing Every
Beat Of My Heart (1951) and Roll With Me Henry (1955),
Otis rode the wave of rock'n'roll with Willie and the
Hand Jive (1958).
pioneer of the electric guitar, Lowell Fulson was also
a guttural and soulful shouter who left a mark on the
West Coast sound with Three O'Clock Blues (1946), Trouble
Blues (1947), Blue Shadows (1950), Reconsider Baby (1954).
vocalist Amos Milburn delivered the explosive Chicken
Shack Boogie (1948), besides Roomin' House Boogie (1949),
Let's Rock Awhile (1950), three premonitions of rock'n'roll,
and One Bourbon One Scotch One Beer (1953), one of the
most anthemic drinking songs of all times.
Milton crooned like a white pop singer in RM Blues (1945),
the first "gold" record of rhythm'n'blues and
another important step in the mutation of the boogie rhythm
Brown, the pianist who most closely resembled Nat King
Cole, was a member of a similar trio, the Three Blazers,
when he intoned Drifting Blues (1945), the first anthem
of existential frustration, and Merry Christmas Baby (1949),
while on his own he magnified Jessie Mae Robinson's Black
Night (1951) and Leiber & Stoller's Hard Times (1951).
In the age of boogie-woogie, he was, instead, the ultimate
specialist of the crying blues, a master of the suicidal
Californian master of the sentimental ballad, Percy Mayfield
indulged in the bitter pathos of his solemn compositions
Two Years of Torture (1949), Please Send Me Someone To
Love (1950) and Strange Things Happening (1950), besides
writing Hit The Road Jack (1961) for Ray Charles. Ivory
Joe Hunter pushed the crossover towards country music
itself with I Almost Lost My Mind (1950) and Since I Met
You Baby (1955).
Walker and Johnny Otis put California on the map of blues
music. The 1940s witnessed a massive wave of immigration
into the "golden state". Los Angeles' ghetto,
Watts, thus became one of the largest in the country.
Right afer the war, in 1946, three small independent labels
("indies") were founded in Los Angeles that
specialized in black music: Specialty, founded by Art
Rupe, Imperial, founded by Lew Chudd, and Modern, founded
by Jules Bihari.
Rocking around the clock
music was "rocking" harder and harder, as New
Orleans' vocalist Roy Brown stated in his hits Good Rockin'
Tonight in Texas (1947) and Rockin' at Midnight (1951),
and Detroit's rhythm'n'blues saxophonist Wild Bill Moore
claimed in We're Gonna Rock We're Gonna Roll (1948) and
in the follow-up, I Want To Rock And Roll (1949), Cecil
Gant proclaimed in We're Gonna Rock (1950), and saxophonist
Jimmy Preston declared in Rock The Joint (1949), Rock
With It Baby (1950) and Roll Roll Roll (1950).
Rhythm 'n' blues
the industrial boom of the post-war era, Chicago became
the main destination of black emigration. In 1946 the
black ghetto, the South Side, became the second black
city in the USA (after New York's ghetto, Harlem). The
South Side was the place where the musical styles of the
South met the musical instruments of the North. Chicago's
blues style was not only faster and more turbulent than
the Southern styles: it also adopted the horns and the
a new term was coined for this aggressive kind of blues
music: "rhythm'n'blues". Its birth date is disputed.
In 1946 Muddy Waters cut the first records of Chicago's
electric blues. In 1947 Billboard's writer Jerry Wexler
coined the term "rhythm and blues" for Chicago's
electric blues. In 1949 the Billboard chart for "race"
records was renamed "rhythm and blues". The
first major rhythm'n'blues festival was held in Los Angeles
in 1950 (the "Blues & Rhythm Jubilee"),
as important as the Carnegie Hall concert of 1938 that
launched boogie woogie nationwide.
Waters" (McKinley Morganfield), a Mississippi guitarist
who reached Chicago in 1945, not only coined an influential
style at the electric guitar, that upgraded the archaic
forms to the amplified sound (yet another mutation of
Son House's style), not only crafted classics such as
I Can't Be Satisfied (1948), Rollin' And Tumblin' (1950),
Rolling Stone (1950), Honey Bee (1951), Willie Dixon's
Hoochie Coochie Man (1954) and Mannish Boy (1955), but
also nurtured a group of talents (almost all of them originally
from the Delta region) that included: guitarists Jimmy
Rogers, also an impressive songwriter who wrote That's
Alright (1953) and Walking By Myself (1959), and Theodore
"Hound Dog" Taylor; pianists Otis Spann (perhaps
the greatest blues pianist of his generation) and Eddie
Boyd (Five Long Years, 1952); bassist Willie Dixon; vocalist
Iverson "Lousiana Red" Minter (Red's Dream,
1962); and harmonica players "Little Walter"
Jacobs, the man who adapted the harmonica to the saxophone
of bebop, immortalized by the instrumental Juke (1952)
and Mean Old World (1952), Amos "Junior Wells"
Blackmore, who recorded the classic Hoodoo Man Blues (1965)
with his frequent collaborator Buddy Guy on guitar and
Southside Blues Jam (1970) with Otis Spann on piano, Walter
Horton and James Cotton.
Mississippi native, Elmore James, developed a percussive,
torrential technique at the electric bottleneck guitar
and pioneered distorted sounds, with a celebrated version
of Robert Johnson's Dust My Broom (1952), that gave the
name to James' band, the the Broomdusters (the only rivals
of Muddy Waters' and Howlin' Wolf's bands), and with a
series of breathtaking interpretations such as Robert
Johnson's Standing At The Crossroads (1954, but issued
as a single only in 1960), Tampa Red's It Hurts Me Too
(1957), The Sky Is Crying (1959), Shake Your Moneymaker
(1961) and One Way Out (1961), with Sonny Boy Williamson.
Mississippi refugee, vocalist J.B. Lenoir, was the first
to aim blues music at contemporary political events, for
example in the scathing Korea Blues (1951) and Eisenhower
Blues (1955), and to indulge in histrionic behavior on
stage (basically the progenitor of both Bob Dylan and
Mick Jagger). He also assembled a band (two saxes, drums,
bass, piano, and his own rhythm guitar) that changed the
balance of instruments, as in the vibrant boogie Mama
Talk to Your Daughter (1954).
songwriter and vocalist Willie Dixon, yet another Mississippi
emigrant who arrived in Chicago in 1937, a sessionman
since 1948, established a new style with his "walking"
bass lines, but, most importantly, composed some of the
most influential songs of the blues repertory: My Babe
(1955) for Little Walter Jacobs, You Can't Judge A Book
By Its Cover (1962) for Bo Diddley, Hoochie Coochie Man
(1954) and I'm Ready (1954) for Muddy Waters, I Can't
Quit You Baby (1956) for Otis Rush, 21 Days in Jail (1958)
for Magic Sam, Wang Dang Doodee (1966) for Koko Taylor
(Cora Walton), and especially the string of vibrant songs
for Howlin' Wolf: Evil (1960), Spoonful (1960), Back Door
Man (1961), Little Red Rooster (1961), Shake For Me (1961),
Reed, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1948 and
created standards such as You Don't Have To Go (1955),
Honest I Do (1957) and Baby What You Want Me To Do (1959)
transposed the boogie rhythm to the harmonica and to the
guitar, using his bass player Eddie Taylor to simulate
the left hand of the pianists. The result could sound
anthemic, as in Luther Dixon's rebellious Big Boss Man
(1961). His slow, hypnotic boogies were the epitome of
the style that Louisiana bluesmen called "swamp blues".
Lee Hooker, who relocated from Mississippi to Detroit
in 1942, created an exuberant and anarchic synthesis of
boogie woogie and talking blues, such as in the hypnotic
Boogie Chillen (1948), Crawling King Snake Blues (1948),
I'm In The Mood (1951), Trouble Blues (1955), Dimples
(1956), Boom Boom (1962). Technically, he was one of the
least sophisticated performers, so casual to sound shabby
and uncertain when he was, in fact, all mood and feeling.
generation created the archetypical styles at their instruments,
the styles that became the reference points for the next
generations of blues and rock musicians. Their generation
was also the last generation to be born in Mississippi
(or nearby states). The following one would be fully urbanized,
and something of the original mood would be lost forever.
rural blues music, that was meant to be personal and documentary,
rhythm'n'blues was becoming only "good-time music",
ever more emancipated from the original social meaning
of black music.
of the original blues was limited to the intellectuals
of the Greenwich Village (New York), the same crowd that
had rediscovered folk music and that loved political songs.
After the 1938 concert at the Carnegie Hall, the duo of
harmonica player Saunders "Sonny" Terry, raised
on the East Coast, and guitarist Brownie McGhee, became
a fixture of the Village. So did Leadbelly himself. So
did Josh White from 1941, also a celebrated cabaret artist.
Texas, the tradition of country-blues was continued by
Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, one of the most eloquent
and lyrical bluesmen of all times, despite using one of
the most humble singing (or, better, half-singing) styles:
Katie Mae Blues (1947) and Short Haired Woman (1947),
both with Thunder Smith on barrelhouse piano, Big Mama
Jump (1947), Baby Please Don't Go (1948), Death Bells
(1949), T-Model Blues (1949), Airplane Blues (1949), Shotgun
Blues (1950). He transformed the blues of the Delta into
an electric, distorted form of boogie, while, at the same
time, emphasizing the narrative aspect.
the South, Sonny Boy Williamson II (real name Aleck Ford,
also known as Rice Miller) established the harmonica as
a fashionable instrument through his virtuoso accompaniments
to Nine Below Zero (1951), Don't Start Me To Talking (1955),
Keep It To Yourself (1956), One Way Out (1961), with Elmore
James, Help Me (1963).
Arkansas, Robert "Nighthawk" McCollum crafted
a relaxed, intimate style, first rehearsed in Sweet Black
northern Mississippi school, christened "deep blues"
in 1991 by critic Robert Palmer, was long lost, and rediscovered
only decades later. Fred McDowell, first recorded in 1959,
was perhaps the initiator, and the first bluesman to adopt
the modal, tracey, droning, one-chord technique that would
become typical of the region. His main disciple was R.L.
Burnside, first recorded in 1967, who probably cut his
best album at the age of 68, Too Bad Jim (1994). David
"Junior" Kimbrough, first recorded at the age
of 61 for All Night Long (1992), was even more removed
from the mainstream, playing raw hypnotic music reminiscent
of ancient work songs and jungle polyrhythms Shunning
the 12-bar dogma, they harked straight back to their African
music became a major business (no longer related to churches)
after the war.
Jackson, the virtuosa contralto of melismatic singing
(improvising a rapid-fire sequence of notes on a single
syllable of text), became the ambassador of gospel music
to the world with international hits such as Kenneth Morris'
Dig A Little Deeper (1947), Herbert Brewster's Move On
Up A Little Higher (1948), the first nationwide hit single
of gospel music, the traditional Go Tell It On The Mountain
(1950), Kenneth Morris' I Can Put My Trust In Jesus (1951),
Lucie Williams' In The Upper Room (1952). She legitimized
gospel music for a very large and international audience.
Jackson was the exception to the rule that gospel music
was still mainly a music for vocal quartets: the Swan
Silvertones, featuring the falsetto of Claude Jeter, formed
by four West Virginia miners in 1938 and converted to
a melodic format with Mary Don't You Weep (1955), and
the Sensational Nightingales, from South Carolina, featuring
the baritone of Julius Cheeks, were among the most popular,
still in the "jubilee" style.
female groups, the Ward Singers ruled Philadelphia, thanks
to the voices of Clara Ward (Reverend Herbert Brewster's
waltzing Just Over the Hill, 1949) and Marion Williams
(Brewster's Surely God is Able, 1950), one of the greatest
gospel vocalists of all times.
Staple Singers, formed in 1951 in Chicago by Mississippi
blues guitarist Roebuck "Pop" Staples and his
four children, bridged two generations and two styles
(blues and gospel) with Uncloudy Day (1956), Will the
Circle be Unbroken (1957), This May Be The Last Time (1958),
Oh Lord Stand By Me (1961).
choir leader James Cleveland penned one of gospel's greatest
hits, Peace Be Still (1963). Edwin Hawkins recorded the
hit version of the traditional Oh Happy Day (1969).
City: the Shouters
visceral style of singing (or, better, "shouting")
the blues developed in the dancehalls of Kansas City.
The shouters fronted combos of the kind that had evolved
in Chicago and Los Angeles, a poor man's version of swing's
orchestras. These combos were loud and unsophisticated.
Their goal was to entertain an audience that was paying
to dance. The vocalists had to shout in order to be heard.
The boogie piano rhythm and the shrill sax solo were frequently
the only elements that stood out, besides the vocals.
But the "shouter" was not so much shouting as
using the voice as an instrument: the function of the
voice was no longer to narrate but to contribute to the
overall sound. The three major Kansas City shouters were
also deeply influenced by jazz's concept of time.
foremost shouter was "Big" Joe Turner, the former
partner of boogie pianist Pete Johnson, now a proto-rocker
who constantly challenged the conventions of rhythm'n'blues,
from Cherry Red (1939) to My Gal's a Jockey (1947) to
Charles Calhoun (Jesse Stone)'s demonic Shake Rattle An
Roll (1954), while balancing between melodic and jazzy
ballads, such as Henry Van Walls' Chains Of Love (1951)
and Sweet Sixteen (1952), and exuberant novelties, such
as Honey Hush (1953), with Lee Allen on sax, and T.V.
Mama (1954), with Elmore James on guitar. His stormy,
booming vocals lifted blues music into a higher orbit.
main rival was Jimmy Rushing, who typically performed
as the booming tenor in big bands (mostly Count Basie's),
as plastic as a saxophone, and sculpted the dramas of
I May Be Wrong (1936), also known as Boogie Woogie, Good
Morning Blues (1937), Sent For You Yesterday (1938), Evil
Blues (1939), I Want A Little Girl (1940), Goin To Chicago
less intimidating was Jimmy Witherspoon, a theatrical
baritone who indulged in a more relaxed phrasing, Confessing
The Blues (1945), Ain't Nobody's Business (1948), his
own No Rollin' Blues (1950) and The Wind Is Blowing (1952).
Chicago, the dominant shouter was Chester "Howling
Wolf" Burnett. A disciple of Charlie Patton in his
native Mississippi, Wolf had already recorded How Many
More Years (1951), Moaning At Midnight (1951) and Saddle
My Pony (1952) and developed the symbiosis between his
funereal vocals and Willie Johnson's heavy guitar riffs,
the archetype of the guitar-voice dialogue in the electric
age. Even more influential were the recordings with Hubert
Sumlin on guitar, such as Evil Is Going On (1954), Smokestack
Lightning (1956), based on Charley Patton's Moon Going
Down, and his Killing Floor (1964), plus countless Willie
Dixon songs. His savage, seismic and vetriolic blues implied
not only a different message but a different way of communicating
altogether. He was perhaps the first artist to figure
out how to make thoroughly modern experimental music by
emphasizing the authentic, most primitive elements of
ancestral music; how to reconnect with the original creativity
of the human soul.
Los Angeles, jump blues was still the dominant paradigm.
Majestic shouter Wynonie Harris delivered Who Threw the
Whiskey in the Well (1944), Wynonie's Blues (1946), Roy
Brown's epoch-defining Good Rockin' Tonite (1947), probably
the first record to feature the backbeat rhythm, the titillating
All She Wants to Do is Rock (1949) and Good Morning Judge
(1950), and Hank Penny's Bloodshot Eyes (1951).
Brown's fusion of the emotional melisma of gospel music
and the pathetic wail of pop crooning in Good Rockin'
Tonite (1947) Boogie At Midnight (1949), Miss Fanny Brown
(1949), Cadillac Baby (1950), marked the appropriation
of religious ecstasy by pagan performers. His melodramatic
peak was the terrifying Hard Luck Blues (1950).
The "shouter" was a male role, but the female
equivalent of a shouter was to be found both in sacred
(gospel) and profane (rhythm'n'blues) music.
Otis' orchestra, in particular, was instrumental in launching
the careers of top-notch female vocalists: Esther Phillips,
the voice of Otis' own Cupid's Boogie (1950), Mae "Big
Mama" Thornton, the roaring contralto of Leiber &
Stoller's Hound Dog (1953) and the author of Ball And
Chain (1967), and Etta James (Jamesetta Hawkins), the
spirited and defiant heroine of Otis' Roll With Me Henry
(1955), also known as Dance With me Henry, a duet with
Richard Berry based on Hank Ballard's Work With Me Annie.
Dinah Washington (real name Ruth Lee Jones), the profane
counterpart to Mahalia Jackson, worked out a charismatic
and thundering synthesis of gospel, blues, jazz and pop
singing, a dramatic monologue venting her existential
neurosis that forged the archetype for the "soul
ballad". After moving from Alabama to Chicago in
1927, she became a gospel singer in a female choir and
a jazz singer in Lionel Hampton's big band. Capable of
turning any melody into a show of acrobatic melisma, she
dominated the charts with an eclectic repertory that included
Leonard Feather's Evil Gal Blues (1944) and Baby Get Lost
(1949), Richard Jones' Trouble In Mind (1952), Gene DePaul's
Teach Me Tonight (1954), Maria Grever's Latin-tinged What
a Difference a Day Makes (1959), This Bitter Earth (1960).
York-based Ruth Brown was the first diva to rival Dinah
Washington. Among her stirring blues ballads were: So
Long (1949), Rudy Toombs' Teardrops From My Eyes (1950),
5-10-15 Hours (1952), Herb Lance's jazzy He Treats Your
Daughter Mean (1953), Chuck Willis' Oh What A Dream (1954),
Mambo Baby (1954), Leiber & Stoller's Lucky Lips (1953).
Adams followed suit, also in New York, with Shake A Hand
(1953), I'll Be True (1953) and Hurts Me To My Heart (1954).
Mabel "Big Maybelle" Smith mastered an even
more powerful voice for Grabbin' Blues (1953) and Candy
Baker, a Chicago native, moved from the sprightly and
youthful Tweedlee Dee (1955) to Lincoln Chase's erotic
Jim Dandy (1956) to the melancholy ballads I Cried A Tear
(1958) and Shake A Hand (1959).
Taylor (Cora Walton), who arrived in Chicago via Memphis
in 1953, the first vocalist to claim the title of "queen
of the blues" since World War II, growled Honky Tonky
(1963), I Got What It Takes (1964) and Willie Dixon's
Wang Dang Doodee (1966), before establishing her persona
with a series of luxuriant albums starting with I Got
What It Takes (1975).
Post-war Blues Guitar
blues music was accepted by the white masses (basically,
with the advent of rock'n'roll), the influence was reciprocal:
white popular music would never be the same again, but
black music too would never be the same again. Rhythm'n'blues
lost its rural character and began to resemble (both in
format and in sound) white pop music with more vocal freedom
and a simpler, rawer arrangement (the electric combo instead
of the string orchestra).
real winner of the transformation from blues to rhythm'n'blues
had been the electric guitar, that was to dominate blues
music for the next few decades.
school of electric guitarists prospered with: Otis Rush,
launched by Dixon's I Can't Quit You Baby (1956) and matured
with Double Trouble (1958), with Ike Turner on guitar,
and So Many Roads So Many Trains (1960); "Magic"
Sam Maghett, one of the most lyrical and innovative, who
moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1950 and who died
prematurely at 32 after penning All Your Love (1957),
Easy Baby (1958), All Night Long (1958), with his most
famous guitar break, the boogie instrumental Riding High
(1966), the funky She Belongs To Me (1966) and the lively
instrumental Lookin' Good (1967); Texas's Freddie King,
mainly famous for his catchy instrumentals, such as Hide
Away (1961), derived from a Hound Dog Taylor instrumental,
The Stumble (1961), Lonesome Whistle Blues (1961), San-Ho-Zay
(1961), I'm Tore Down (1961), and Driving Sideways (1962),
but also successful with the romantic ballad Have You
Ever Loved A Woman (1961); George "Buddy" Guy,
capable of blending passages and savage arpeggio-laden
guitar workouts as in First Time I Met The Blues (1960),
Broken Hearted Blues (1960), Let Me Love You Baby (1961),
and Mary Had a Little Lamb (1967).
Memphis' guitar stylist Albert King (born Albert Nelson)
coined a strident propulsive phrasing language that emphasized
tonal dynamics rather than melody, while, at the same
time, fusing soul and blues in Don't Throw Your Love on
Me So Strong (1961) and the stellar performances backed
by Booker T. & the MG's: Laundromat Blues (1966),
Crosscut Saw (1967), Born Under a Bad Sign (1967), Cold
Texas, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown absorbed elements
of country, cajun and jazz, while pitching his soft and
fluid guitar phrasing against the backdrop of a big band:
Boogie Rambler (1949), Dirty Work At The Crossroads (1953),
Okie Dokie Stomp (1954), Just Before Dawn (1959).
Collins' instrumental pieces, from The Freeze (1958) to
Don't Lose Your Cool (1963), via his tour de force Frosty
(1962), defined a "cool sound" at the guitar
based on loud sustained one-chord trebles.
Los Angeles, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, perhaps
the first guitarist to use the reverb and the feedback
as musical elements, redefined blues music with the avantgarde
Space Guitar (1954), I'm Getting Drunk (1954), Hot Little
Mama (1955), and Gangster Of Love (1956). His canon was
one of the most impressive of his era, or, for that matter,
of any era, embodied in singles that few people heard
but many guitarists would imitate for decades.
New Orleans, Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones (who
died at 33) embellished his own Story of My Life (1953)
and The Things That i Used To Do (1954) with guitar sounds
never heard before and shouting influenced by gospel music.
guitarist Luther Allison offered high-powered blues-rock
on Love Me Mama (1969), while Frank "Son" Seals
emerged with the full-throttle barrage of The Son Seals
Blues Band (1973), on which he departed from the 12-bar
dogma while retaining traces of Albert King's soul-blues
Post-war Blues Crooning
was still a magnet for southern musicians, particularly
the clubs of the Beale Street area.
blues pianist Ike Turner wrote and arranged (with his
Kings Of Rhythm) Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 (1951), one
of the contenders for the title of first rock'n'roll record,
a boogie song that hailed the automobile and featured
electric guitar and a wild sax solo, before turning to
the vocal skills and sexy looks of his wife Tina in A
Fool In Love (1960) and It's Gonna Work Out Fine (1961).
was, mainly, the epicenter of a mellow and elegant style
of rhythm'n'blues. Riley "B.B." King's main
merit was to make the blues palatable to white audiences.
His hits were covers of other bluesmend, transformed into
colloquial melodies sung in a gravelly gospel falsetto.
His guitar stew of bent notes and singing notes was more
a compromise than a synthesis between jazz great Charlie
Christian and T-Bone Walker's lighter touches. The combination,
from Lowell Fulson's Three O' Clock (1951) to hiw own
Rock Me Baby (1964), which was the archetype for blues-rock,
to Roy Hawkins' The Thrill Is Gone (1970), made him the
most popular (if not the most original) bluesman of the
Gordon debuted, still a teenager, with Booted (1952) and
No More Dogging (1952), that virtually invented the tempo
of ska music, and became a popular entertainer with Just
A Little Bit (1960).
"Ace" Alexander, who died at 25, continued the
slide into the pop ballad with My Song (1952), The Clock
(1953) and the posthumous Pledging My Love (1954).
"Junior" Parker, a sensual crooner who was also
an elegant harmonica player, specialized in simple atmospheric
ballads such as Feelin' Good (1953, de facto a cover of
John Lee Hooker's Boogie Chillen), Next Time You See Me
(1957) and In The DarK (1961), but more interesting are
the lugubrious love song Mystery Train (1953) and Mother
In Law Blues (1956), penned by guitarist Pat Hare, one
of the first virtuosi of the distortion.
delicate baritone phrasing of Bobby Bland had more in
common with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby than with the
Delta bluesmen, as proven by massive hits such as Joe
Medwick Veasey's Further Up The Road (1957) and I Pity
The Fool (1961) and Lead Me On (1960), both written by
Deadric Malone. The sound of these hits, and of the seminal
Two Steps From The Blues (1961), was due in large part
to the elaborate arrangements of Joe Scott, who also penned
Bland's most authentic "blues" performance,
Ain't Nothin' You Can Do (1964).
compromised with the pop ballad was Mississippi's "Little"
Milton Campbell, a natural bridge between the Delta, Chicago
(urban blues) and Memphis (soul), whose We're Gonna Make
It (1965) and Grits Ain't Groceries (1969), which is a
rewrite of Titus Turner's All Around The World (1958),
fused Howlin' Wolf's shout and Bobby Bland's croon, while
That's What Love Will Make You Do (1971) and Walking The
Back Streets and Crying (1972) adopted the ornate arrangements
of soul music and displayed an innovative guitar technique.
King, Bobby Bland and Little Milton made up the triad
of soul-blues singers who tried to explain the blues via
the elegant sound of soul music.
their followers, Los Angeles' Little Johnny Taylor (born
Johnny Merrett) delivered powerful interpretations of
Clay Hammond's anguished Part Time Love (1963), one of
the all-time best-sellers of blues music, Since I Found
A New Love (1964), Zig Zag Lightning (1966), Miles Grayson's
Everybody Knows About My Good Thing (1971), Bobby Paterson's
Open House At My House (1972).
Orleans: Piano Blues and Swamp Blues
Orleans, the historical capital of black music, developed
its own style, that relied on booming riffs, on "jump"
rhythms, and on a loud and heavy interplay of piano, sax
were a number of bands in New Orleans that defined the
local rhythm'n'blues sound. One bandleader stood out from
the crowd. Dave Bartholomew, a trumpeter who started his
own band in 1946 and raised talents such as drummer Earl
Palmer, saxophonist Lee Allen and pianist Professor Longhair,
was influential as an arranger and producer who crafted
a sound that bridged jump blues, dixieland jazz and the
carnival marches. His band specialized in warm relaxed
piaces such as Country Boy (1949), My Ding A Ling (1951)
and the proto-ska instrumental The Monkey (1957). But
Bartholomew would always overload the "bass"
range of the sound by piling up piano, bass, sax and drums
to produce the "rumble" that became his trademark.
He also wrote Smiley Lewis' Blue Monday (1953) and I Hear
You Knockin' (1955), that features Huey Smith on piano,
as well as most of Fats Domino's hits.
other great bandleader, pianist Paul Gayten, wrote Since
I Fell For You (1947) for Laurie Annie, For You My Love
(1949) for Larry Darnell, The Music Goes Round And Round
(1956), and The Hunch (1958), with Allen on sax and typical
New Orleans piano.
the bands of New Orleans, the piano was more than a mere
addition to the vocals: often, it was the very foundation
of the song.
school was started by a Isadore "Tuts" Washington
(who did not record until well into his seventies). His
disciple Professor Longhair, also known as Fess (real
name Henry Byrd), a husky vocalist, and wild performer
in the barrelhouse tradition, who started out in Dave
Bartholomew's band, invented a rolling bass riff that
remained popular for decades. His signature tune Mardi
Gras in New Orleans (1949), Bald Hair (1950), the Caribbean-tinged
Tipitina (1953), Gone So Long (1954), She Walks Right
In, Who's Been Fooling You, Big Chief (1963) were his
demonstrations of the New Orleans sound.
New Orleans style entered a new era with Antoine "Fats"
Domino, who, backed by Dave Bartholomew's band, broke
all sales records for black artists with his warm casual
falsetto and mellow boogie piano. His hits, such as The
Fat Man (1949), a cover of Jack Dupree's Junker Blues
(1941) that is contender for the title of first rock'n'roll
song, Goin' Home (1952), Going To The River (1953), Ain't
That A Shame (1955), and I'm In Love Again (1956), i.e.
the traditional Blueberry Hill, Blue Monday (1957), the
soul ballad Walking To New Orleans (1960), were mostly
co-written with the bandleader and propelled by his band
(mostly Earl Palmer on drums, Lee Allen on exuberant tenor
Price's career was established by a similar hit, Lawdy
Miss Clawdy (1952), also with Dave Bartholomew's band
and Fats Domino himself on piano, but then Price targeted
the white audience with the folk traditional Stagger Lee
(1959) and the smooth Personality (1959).
pianist Huey "Piano" Smith penned the novelty
Rocking Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu (1957) High
Blood Pressure (1958) and Don't You Just Know It (1958)
with his group, the Clowns, before writing Frankie Ford's
massive boogie Sea Cruise (1958).
and syncopated pianist Allen Toussaint, whose sound was
defined by the instrumental Java (1958), became the most
influential arranger and producer (besides songwriter)
of the city through hits such as Jesse Hill's Ooh Pooh
Pah Do (1960), Ernie K-Doe's super-catchy Mother In-law
(1961), CHris Kenner's I Like It Like That (1961) and
Land of a Thousand Dances (1963), Barbara George's I Know
(1961), the Showmen's It Will Stand (1961), Lee Dorsey's
Ya Ya (1961) and Ride Your Pony (1965) Herb Alpert's Whipped
Cream (1963), Aaron Neville's Tell It Like It This (1966).
rhythm section of the Meters keyboardist Art Neville
or less in line with this New Orleans sound were a number
of hits that benefited from the whole scene in the mid
1950s: Earl King's Those Lonely Lonely Nights (1955),
Shirley (Goodman) and (Leonard) Lee's Let The Good Times
Roll (1956), Clarence Henry's Ain't Got No Home (1956).
other style that was popular in Louisiana was the "swamp
blues", a hypnotic, haunting style derived from Jimmy
Reed. Slim Harpo (James Moore) made Reed's sound palatable
to a broader audience with the lascivious I'm A King Bee
(1957), Got Love If You Want It (1957), Rainin' in My
Heart (1961), the pulsating Shake Your Hips (1966), Baby
Scratch My Back (1966).
Slim (Otis Hicks), the most introverted and lyrical of
the three, sang Bad Luck Blues (1954) and Rooster Blues
(1959) in an ominous bass register.
main hit of swamp blues was Sea Of Love (1959), performed
by the Twilights.
enough, it was a white Mississippi pianist, Mose Allison,
to stand as the link between rhythm'n'blues and big-band
swing. He was also the sensitive singer-songwriter of
Back Country Suite (1957) Creek Bank (1958) and Autumn
Leaves (1959), and the author of jazz standards such as
Parchman Farm (1957) and Seventh Son (1958).
popularizer of swing for the rhythm'n'blues audience was
St Louis' tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest, whose massive
hit Night Train (1952) was derived from Duke Ellington's
Happy Go Lucky Local (1946).
quartets and barbershop quartets evolved into doo-wop
groups via the experiments of the post-war generation.
York's Ravens, despite their focus on covers of showtunes,
such as Jerome Kern's Ol' Man River (1946), and Irving
Berlin's White Christmas (1948), and covers of pop hits
such as Ray Anthony's Count Every Star (1950), introduced
the bass register of Jimmy Ricks as the lead vocals, an
influential innovation that was particularly effective
on the gutsier songs, such as I Don't Have To Ride No
More (1950) and Rock Me All Night Long (1952).
Orioles introduced a mellower style with Deborah Chesler's
It's Too Soon To Know (1948), and pioneered a vocal dynamics
that juxtaposed a tenor (Sonny Tilghman) singing in a
cold detached tone and a wordless falsetto in Tell Me
So (1949), and became one of the first "race"
groups to cross over into the pop charts with white songwriter
Artie Glenn's Crying In The Chapel (1953).
Clovers pioneered with Ahmet Ertegun's Don't You Know
I Love You (1951) and Fool Fool Fool (1951) the fusion
of blues and gospel that was to obscure the old pop-jazz
styling of the 1940s. The blues element was even stronger
in Rudolph Toombs' One Mint Julep (1952) and in Ting-a-ling
(1952), and the style kept evolving towards gospel with
Good Lovin' (1953) and Lovey Dovey (1954), basically soul
music ante-litteram. Bernie Wayne's Blue Velvet (1955)
and Blanche Carter's Devil Or Angel (1956) marked a retreat
towards mellow pop formats, but maintained a rare level
of sophistication, while the sparkling melodies and rhythms
of Love Love Love (1956) and Leiber & Stoller's Love
Potion Number Nine (1959) targeted the rock audience.
number of vocal groups remained closer to gospel than
to pop and jazz. The main "rhythm'n'gospel"
groups were: Dominoes, Midnighters, Five Royales, Drifters.
Ward's Dominoes, based in Harlem, broke with the orthodox
style of Ravens and Orioles, and pioneered the style with
Sixty Minute Man (1951), a song of sexual innuendos delivered
by the bass voice, and one of the first songs to use the
expression "rock'n'roll", Have Mercy Baby (1952),
These Foolish Things Remind Me of You (1952), Money Honey
(1953) and The Bells (1953), besides launching the careers
of Clyde McPhatter and then Jackie Wilson.
erotic and visceral Midnighters, from Detroit, propelled
by a driving rhythm of guitar, bass and drums, shocked
the world of religious music with the obscene lyrics sung
by Hank Ballard in Get It (1953) and especially Work With
Me Annie (1954), which began one of the first teenage
sagas of popular music. Teardrops On Your Letter (1958)
was, de facto, already soul music. It was backed with
The Twist (1959), Ballard's most famous invention (a revision
of his Is Your Love For Real which was in turn a variation
on the Drifters' Whatcha Gonna Do). It was the beginning
of a new career, highlighted by the dance novelties Finger
Poppin' Time (1960) and Let's Go (1960).
Five Royales, from North Carolina, led by songwriter Lowman
Pauling delivered the jubilant melodies and complex arrangements
of Baby Don't Do It (1952), Help Me Somebody (1953), Laundromat
Blues (1956), the sublime Think (1957), Dedicated To The
One I Love (1958). Pauling was also (mainly?) one of the
most inventive guitarists of his time: he pioneered guitar
distortion and feedback in The Slummer The Slum (1958)
and was perhaps the first guitarist to employ the "fuzztone".
They bridged the gap between the black vocal groups and
the first rock bands.
McPhatter moved to the Drifters, based in New York, and
continued his gospel-pop mission with Jesse Stone's Money
Honey (1953), his own Honey Love (1954), and Ahmet Ertegun's
boogie Whatcha Gonna Do (1954). The new Drifters of 1959
were a completely different group, led by baritone Ben
King, whose sophisticated vocals highlighted There Goes
My Baby (1959), Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's first
experiment mixing Latin percussions and strings, as well
as Doc Pomus & Mort Schuman's diptych This Magic Moment
(1960) and Save The Last Dance For Me (1960). The third
season of the Drifters, with King replaced by Rudy Lewis,
yielded Gerry Goffin & Carole King's Up On The Roof
(1962), Mann & Weil's On Broadway (1963), and finally,
with Johnny Moore replacing the late Rudy Lewis, Artie
Resnick & Kenny Young's Under The Boardwalk (1964),
arranged by Bert Berns with Latin percussions and strings.
These hits, all produced by Leiber & Stoller, and
including Ben King's solo Spanish Harlem (1961), also
a Leiber/Stoller composition, and Stand By Me (1961),
his secular version of a traditional gospel tune, were
innovative and influenced both soul, pop and rock music.
Ballard, Frankie Lymon, a New York boy soprano who became
the archetype of the teenage pop star, bridged the world
of rhythm'n'blues and rock'n'roll with Why Do Fools Fall
In Love (1955), a novelty that basically turned a child's
wail ("ooh-wah oo-ooh wah-ah") into a melody,
and I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent (1956).
fusion between sacred and profane African-American music
was finally embodied in a new vocal style, "doo-wop"
(so called from the phonetic nonsense often used for the
vocal harmonies), that emerged in the 1950s as a natural
consequence of the developments of the previous decades.
Its peak was probably between 1955 and 1962.
song that, released in december 1954 in Los Angeles, started
the fashion was Earth Angel, sung by the Penguins of baritone
Curtis Williams and falsetto Cleveland Duncan. The song
itself was a synthesis of several musical elements of
the time: it is one of the many ballads of the era based
on the chord changes of Rodgers & Hart's Blue Moon,
and very similar to the Swallows' Will You Be Mine (1951)
and to the Hollywood Flames' I Know (1953), Curtis Williams'
previous group. It was composed by Williams' high-school
buddy, Jesse Belvin, who basically recycled his Dream
Girl (1953), and it was in the style of Belvin's other
hits, Goodnight My Love (1953) and I'm Only a Fool (1954).
In fact, it is Belvin that can be credited with the key
synthesis of the song: between the idealized love of the
1950s (a modern equivalent of the medieval "amor
cortese") and the teen angst that was about to explode
in rock'n'roll. In fact, the song struck a chord mainly
with the young white audience, once it was broadcast by
disc-jockey Alan Freed.
the falsetto (deemed too feminine), the lyrics (deemed
ridiculous) and the piano playing (the only instrumental
accompaniment was Williams' simple piano figure, that
created a danceable beat by hammering three times the
same chord) were criticized as a symbol of artistic decadence.
This was also the first song released by an independent
label to reach the top of the charts (the cover by a white
group sold even more). And, finally, this song marked
the first time that a major musical phenomenon originated
on the West Coast.
Angeles became the first stage for the doo-wop revolution.
The Platters, propelled by the acrobatic tenor of Tony
Williams (famous for his sobbing style at very high notes)
and featuring one of the first female doo-wop singers
(Zola Taylor), were the most conventional, still in the
mellow sound of the Ink Spots, with tidy phrasing and
orchestral arrangements: two hits written by their (and
the Penguins') mentor Sam "Buck" Ram, Only You
(1955) and The Great Pretender (1955), My Prayer (1956),
that was a cover of Georges Boulanger's Avant de Mourir,
Jerome Kern's Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (1958) and Ram's
Twilight Time (1958)
Jewels were perhaps the most unconventional, as proven
by their raucous Hearts of Stone (1954).
Coasters, mostly a vehicle for Leiber & Stoller's
compositions, were the clowns of doo-wop, their jovial
musical vignettes the equivalent of television's sit-coms.
Each of their songs was also a social mini-drama, told
(usually by tenor Carl Gardner) in the vernacular language
and capped by a moral: Riot In Cell Block No 9 (1954),
Smokey Joe's Cafe (1955), Searchin' (1957), whose greatly-simplified
instrumental part bore little resemblance to rhythm'n'blues,
the lascivious Youngblood (1957), Yakety Yak (1958), a
childish novelty (albeit permeated by teen angst) that
introduced King Curtis Ousley' "yakety sax",
Charlie Brown (1959), whose "fool voice" was
still reminiscent of minstrel shows, and Poison Ivy (1959).
York had not been left in the dark by the doo-wop explosion.
In fact, the Harptones had pioneered the genre with Louis
Prima's Sunday Kind Of Love (1953), and the Crows' Gee
(1953) was in the vanguard of the more rhythmic style
that bordered on rock'n'roll. The Chords' claim to fame
is only one song, Sh-Boom (1954), but it was another epoch-making
song thanks to its bouncy rhythm and its charming vocal
games: A bland cover by a white group, the Crew Cuts,
reached the top of the charts and started the habit of
turning black songs into watered-down versions sung by
white kids. The Cadillacs, whose hit was Esther Navarro's
Spedoo (1956), were influential for their onstage theatrics,
the prototype for many soul artists of the following decade.
New York, James Sheppard invented the "concept"
album, except that it was not an album but a series of
14 singles that told the story of a teenage romance. It
started with Crazy For You (1955), the elegant Your Way
(1956) and especially A Thousand Miles Away (1956), by
Sheppard's first group, the Heartbeats, followed by I
Won't Be The Fool Anymore (1957), 500 Miles To Go (1957)
and Down On My Knees (1958). Shep and The Limelites, Sheppard's
subsequent trio with no bass vocals, resumed the saga
with Daddy Home (1961), perhaps the most intricate, and
the end, I'm All Alone (1962).
doo-wop became big business, very few groups were able
to emulate the artistic innovations of the pioneers. Fred
Parris' In The Still Of The Night (1956) by the Five Satins
(New Haven), was notable for replacing the traditional
vocal counterpoint with an ostensible refrain of "shoo-doo-shoo-be-doo".
Book Of Love (1958) by the Monotones was one of the "hardest"
doo-wop songs. Get A Job (1958) by the Silhouettes was
quite unique in being a nonsense protest song. Maybe (1958)
was the first hit by a female doo-wop group, the Chantels.
Come Softly To Me (1959) by the Fleetwoods was one of
the few that mixed female and male voices. Stay (1960)
by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs was one of the weirdest,
thanks to its almost self-parodying falsetto and Caribbean
beat. The Del-Vikings of Come Go With Me (1957) were the
first multi-racial group to achieve nation-wide success.
My True Story (1961) by the Jive Five boasted the crying
lead vocals of Eugene Pitt. Richard Rodgers' Blue Moon
(1961) by another multi-racial group, the Marcels, was
one of the most amusing.
white groups who did not simply cover black groups, the
Italo-Americans dominated: Little Star (1958) by the Elegants;
There's A Moon Out Tonight (1958) by the Capris; 16 Candles
(1959) by the multi-racial Crests; Sorry (1959) by the
multi-racial Impalas; Denise (1963), by Randy and the
Rainbows; and Frankie "Valli" Castelluccio's
Four Seasons, with Sherry (1962), Big Girls Don't Cry
(1962) and especially Walk Like A Man (1963).
maybe the most impressive achievement of white doo-wop
groups was Since I Don't Have You by the Skyliners, orchestrated
like a symphony by producer Joe Rock.
importance of blues music
rhythm'n'blues achieved (in all its transmutations) was,
socially speaking, to dispel the notion that black music
was for black people only. But perhaps even more important
was the progressive emancipation from the cliches of blues
and jazz music: the arrangements became less and less
sophisticated, the sound harder and harder, the guitars
more versatile and sharp-edged, the vocals shouted or
cried, the beat more aggressive, the lyrics more oriented
towards the lifestyle of young people. Less style and
more bodily movement. Less intellectual and more emotional.
A side effect was to bring back to the surface the original
ritual sexual element of African music. Indirectly, these
changes meant that popular music was becoming a collective
sexual innuendo, a sort of secret code for young people
to communicate about taboo subjects.
also changed the profile of the audience. Where jazz catered
to the audience of the clubs for the middle-class and
(ever more often) the "aristocracy" of the city,
rhythm'n'blues reached out to the working class and even
to the street gangs. This was a rapidly-expanding market
of urban masses that were benefiting from the economic
boom of the post-war era. In fact, rhythm'n'blues can
be said to have altered the balance, by overtaking jazz
as the most popular form of black music. The fact that
the more "populist" form became also the more
"popular" reflected a profound change in the
social fabric of the American nation.
other words, the stage was set for rock'n'roll to emerge.
What was missing (the great drawback of rhythm'n'blues)
was true creativity. Rhythm'n'blues (whether vocal or
instrumental) was anchored to well-defined structures,
that performers challenged only marginally. There were
no significant attempts to create free-form structures,
to integrate idioms of other cultures, to enlarge the
orchestration to new instruments, to radically alter any
of the fundamental dogmas of black-music performance.
That will be, indeed, the revolution of rock music, which
will progressively introduce the traditional European
values of innovation and progress into the archaic values
of African personal expression.
jazz and rhythm'n'blues may not have happened if white
pop music (Tin Pan Alley) had not been stuck in a creative
crisis. In the 1930s jazz bands took advantage of the
vacuum caused by the Depression: jazz (swing) became popular
when the masses had little else to listen (and especially
dance) to. Rhythm'n'blues achieved the same feat in a
similar time of crisis: at the end of World War II, Tin
Pan Alley was incapable of producing exciting new music,
and particularly exciting dance/party music that could
stimulate the younger audience. Thus the white audience
was led to rhythm'n'blues combos the same way their parents
had been led to swing orchestras. (The exact same phenomenon
would take place in the mid 1970s, when, again, white
kids would look at black music, such as hip-hop, in an
era of creative crisis for white rock music).
Eileen: "The Music of Black Americans" (Norton,
Cotto, Massimo: "Enciclopedia del Blues" (1994)
Gillett, Charlie: "The Sound of the City" (1970)
Hardy, Phil & Laing Dave: "Faber Companion to
20th Century Popular Music" (1990)