Rhythm and blues, often abbreviated to R&B, is a genre of popular African American music that originated in the 1940s. The term was originally used by record companies to describe recordings marketed predominantly to urban African Americans, at a time when "urbane, rocking, jazz based music with a heavy, insistent beat" was becoming more popular.
The term has subsequently had a number of shifts in meaning. In the early 1950s and beyond, the term rhythm and blues was frequently applied to blues records. Starting in the 1950s, after this style of music contributed to the development of rock and roll, the term "R&B" became used to refer to music styles that developed from and incorporated electric blues, as well as gospel and soul music. By the 1970s, rhythm and blues was used as a blanket term for soul and funk. In the 1980s, a newer style of R&B developed, becoming known as contemporary R&B.
Jerry Wexler of Billboard magazine coined the term "rhythm and blues" in 1948 as a musical marketing term in the United States. It replaced the term "race music", which originally came from within the black community, but was deemed offensive in the postwar world. Writer/producer Robert Palmer defined rhythm & blues as "a catchall term referring to any music that was made by and for black Americans". He has used the term "R&B" as a synonym for jump blues. However, Allmusic separates it from jump blues because of its stronger, gospel-esque backbeat. Lawrence Cohn, author of Nothing but the Blues, writes that "rhythm and blues" was an umbrella term invented for industry convenience. According to him, the term embraced all black music except classical music and religious music, unless a gospel song sold enough to break into the charts.
Rhythm and blues bands usually consisted of piano, one or two guitars, bass, drums, and sax. Arrangements were rehearsed to the point of effortlessness and were sometimes accompanied by background vocalists. Simple repetitive parts mesh, creating momentum and rhythmic interplay producing mellow, lilting, and often hypnotic textures while calling attention to no individual sound. While singers are emotionally engaged with the lyrics, often intensely so, they remain cool, relaxed, and in control. Bands dressed in suits and even uniforms. Lyrics seem fatalistic and the music feels somehow inevitable.
The migration of African Americans to the urban industrial centers of Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the 1930s created a new market for jazz, blues, and related genres of music, often performed by full-time musicians, either working alone or in small groups. The precursors of rhythm and blues came from jazz and blues, which overlapped in the 1930s through the work of musicians such as The Harlem Hamfats, with their 1936 hit "Oh Red", as well as Leroy Carr, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and T-Bone Walker. There was also increasing emphasis on the electric guitar as a lead instrument, as well as the piano and saxophone.
In 1948, RCA Victor was marketing black music under the name "Blues and Rhythm". In that year, Louis Jordan dominated the top five listings of the R&B charts with three songs, and two of the top five songs were based on the boogie-woogie rhythms that had come to prominence during the 1940s. Jordan's band, the Tympany Five (formed in 1938), consisted of him on saxophone and vocals, along with musicians on trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums. Lawrence Cohn described the music as "grittier than his boogie-era jazz-tinged blues". Robert Palmer described it as "urbane, rocking, jazz based music with a heavy, insistent beat". Jordan's cool music, along with that of Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Billy Wright, and Wynonie Harris, is now also referred to as jump blues. Also in 1948, Wynonie Harris' remake of Roy Brown's 1947 recording "Good Rockin' Tonight" hit the charts in the #2 spot, following band leader Sonny Thompson's "Long Gone" at #1.
In 1949, the term "Rhythm and Blues" replaced the Billboard category Harlem Hit Parade. Also in that year, "The Huckle-Buck", recorded by band leader and saxophonist Paul Williams, was the #1 R&B tune, remaining on top of the charts for nearly the entire year. Written by musician and arranger Andy Gibson, the song was described as a "dirty boogie" because it was risque and raunchy. Paul Williams and His Hucklebuckers' concerts were sweaty riotous affairs that got shut down on more than one occasion. Their lyrics, by Roy Alfred (who later co-wrote the 1955 hit "(The) Rock and Roll Waltz"), were mildly sexually suggestive, and one teenager from Philadelphia said "That Hucklebuck was a very nasty dance". Also in 1949, a new version of a 1920s blues song, "Ain't Nobody's Business" was a #4 hit for Jimmy Witherspoon, and Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five once again made the top 5 with "Saturday Night Fish Fry". Many of these hit records were issued on new independent record labels, such as Savoy (founded 1942), King (founded 1943), Imperial (founded 1945), Specialty (founded 1946), Chess (founded 1947), and Atlantic (founded 1948).