R&B History

The R&B Archives: Origins of a Genre


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Pinpointing the exact moment that R&B was created is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, the genre was not created ex nihilo. It was a combination of two sounds that evolved into the sound that we hear today. Second, during its rise, music was described as being either folk music or popular music. R&B evolved from popular music, which was every type of music that was not folk. That included sounds like jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll.

From the 1890s to the post World War II era, African Americans combined complex African rhythms with European harmonic structures. That combination would later create jazz music. However, Ragtime (1895 to 1919) is considered to be the precursor to the genre of music that Jerry Wexler coined Rhythm and Blues in 1947. Ernest Hogan composed La Pas Ma La in 1895. It is the first known Ragtime composition to be published. However, Ben Harney composed You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down the following year, which helped to popularize the Ragtime genre.

Dance orchestras helped Ragtime gain acceptance with a larger percentage of society during the 1910s. And the big band sound transitioned popular music from Ragtime to a smoother, rhythmic style during the 1920s and 1930s. Jazz music emerged during this transitional period. And jazz artists would fuse the smooth sounds of big band music with deep, rhythmic tones. Jelly Roll Morton, an American ragtime and jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer, considered the tresillo or habanera to be an essential part of jazz. R&B producers, like Dave Bartholomew, would incorporate this Cuban form of music into his records.

In fact, Bartholomew superimposed tresillo over a swing rhythm in his 1949 release of Country Boy. He used this fusion of sound throughout much of his work. And thanks to Bartholomew, this fusion was the most heavily-used rhythmic pattern in 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. He wrote and produced for legendary rock ‘n’ rollers, like  Fats Domino and Little Richard. Fats Domino recorded at least 40 songs that landed in the Top 10 on the R&B chart. And Little Richard has seventeen Top 40 R&B singles.

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