Rhythm & Blues

What is R&B?

R&B stands for “Rhythm & Blues”. It’s a loosely-defined genre of music, and can refer to a number of different genres that are musically very different from each other. All of these artists have at one time or another been referred to as “R&B”: Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, Mariah Carey, Prince, the O’Jays, the Weeknd. That covers a huge range of musical styles! So rather than discussing subgenres, it makes more sense to discuss how the term “R&B” has been used to describe various genres over time. Looking at R&B this way will also show how R&B intersects with other popular American musical forms like blues, jazz, rock, and hip-hop.


Musical Features of R&B

1950s R&B – The Blues Becomes Rock & Roll

Little Richard – Long Tall Sally (1956)

The term “Rhythm & Blues” was coined in the 1950s to describe popular blues records that sold well with African Americans. These records were usually fast-paced dance tunes with performed by small bands, which set them apart from the popular “Big Band” jazz of previous decades.

A classic example was Little Richard, who is considered one of the pioneers of both R&B and rock music. Little Richard was one of the first artists who had “crossover appeal,” meaning his records sold well with both white & black audiences in a segregated society. He created the sound that Elvis would bring to national popularity, marking the start of the rock & roll era.

1960s R&B – Motown and Soul

The Temptations – My Girl (1965)

The Temptations - My Girl

In the 1960s, rock & roll had developed into a hugely popular art form, with performers like the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix carrying the torch that Little Richard had lit. But R&B also developed along a separate track, less harsh than rock, which came to be known as soul music. Soul was intensely driven by vocals, and usually had a more relaxed feel than rock & roll. It incorporated more elements of gospel, the African-American spiritual music still heard in churches across the United States. In the soul era, R&B music became more and more melodic, with a heavy emphasis on vocal harmony and catchy tunes. As jazz and rock & roll became more and more focused on instruments like the piano or the guitar, R&B remained focused on the human voice.

The Temptations are a great example of 1960s R&B. In particular, they exemplify the sound known as “Motown.” Coming out of Detroit, Motown incorporated multi-part harmonies into the R&B sound.

1970s R&B – Funk Becomes Hip-Hop

The O’Jays – Cry Together (1978)

O'Jays - Cry Together
stand the pain Oh, let me kiss your eyes Let me wipe the tears away Oh, let me hold you close Let’s talk to each other, I wanna hear what you gotta say Oh, last night, sweet last night, me and my woman We cried together Said we cry, cry, cry We cry together, together And then we, and then we, and then we And then we made love, love, love, ooh Love like we never made love before You know we stopped huggin’ each other and kiss And I wiped the tears from my face And I'm love all over the place [Incomprehensible] Said we cry There's nothin’ wrong with you And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with me We’re not the only people in the world who go through ups and downs And changes and turn arounds #OJays #CryTogether">

The 70s were a fascinating time in the history of American music, because you can hear all the strands of what came before and glimmers of what would come next. When you listen to the O’Jays, you’ll hear the influence of gospel and 1960s R&B in the multi-part vocal harmony and the catchy melody of the chorus. You can also hear the beginnings of hip-hop. During the verse, the vocalist isn’t singing, but “rapping” – speaking over the backbeat. At this point, rapping hadn’t become a separate art form of its own, but it was a popular feature of some R&B music. Later on, hip-hop artists would develop rapping into its modern form, generally using harsher and more electronic backbeats than those of R&B. But some of the roots of rap are here in 1970s R&B.

Another important feature of 1970s R&B is that the lyrics focus on relationships. This continues to be an important feature of R&B today – singers usually focus on intimacy rather than other topics like partying or politics.

1990s and Modern R&B

Anthony Hamilton – Comin’ From Where I’m From (2003)

Anthony Hamilton - Comin' From Where I'm From (Official Music Video)

In the 90s, the term “R&B” started to be used for a style of music that sounds a lot like modern R&B. It focuses on a single singer, either male or female, with an expressive style and extensive use of melisma – moving quickly from note to note while holding a single note (the Anthony Hamilton song has a lot of melisma right at the end, as he sings the word “scared”).

In modern R&B, the vocal style is similar to older R&B genres, but the backbeat is quite different. You can hear the influence of hip-hop coming into R&B at this point, with heavy use of electronic instruments and an emphasis on bass and drums. It’s easy to imagine someone rapping over this backbeat, which was less true for the R&B sounds of earlier decades.

Another important trend in modern R&B is a return to classic 1960s soul sounds. Artists like Amy Winehouse and Cee-Lo Green have worked on fusing modern R&B with classic soul sounds, wider instrumentation (incorporating horns and guitars as well as piano and electronic sounds), and a raw vocal style that harkens back to some of the earliest days of R&B.

Also, Amy Winehouse and Cee Lo, return to classic soul.

Important R&B Artists

1950s R&B

  • Little Richard
  • Fats Domino
  • Ray Charles
  • The Drifters
  • Elvis Presley

1960s R&B

  • Otis Redding
  • Aretha Franklin
  • The Temptations
  • The Rolling Stones
  • Sam Cooke
  • Wilson Pickett

1970s R&B

  • Diana Ross & the Supremes
  • The Jackson 5
  • The O’Jays
  • Barry White
  • James Brown
  • Earth, Wind, & Fire

1990s and Modern R&B

  • Beyonce
  • Whitney Houston
  • TLC
  • Destiny’s Child
  • Usher
  • Alicia Keys
  • The Weeknd