Rhythm & Blues

Vintage guitar and a neon sign of Blues on an old brick wall

The old saying warns those researching the old masters of rhythm and blues that you’ve got to suffer if you want to play the blues. That might be true, but those purists who love R&B music are willing to suffer greatly to enjoy hearing, singing and playing their favorite music, which speaks volumes about their dedication. That’s the way blues fanatics are — nothing else moves them.

The History of Rhythm & Blues

Like all forms of music, rhythm & blues has its own history that shows the myriad influences that helped create its sound.

exterior of an older building that a blues club

1930-1940

In dingy, basement bars, speakeasies and juke joints across the U.S., musicians were forging a new type of music in the 1930s and 1940s that was steeped in the rhythms of jazz and reflected the daily miseries of the common man or woman, as the case may be. At that point, it was called race music, which was later changed to the less offensive rhythm & blues or R&B.

Singers talked about lost lovers, unrequited love, being poor, hard work, low pay and all the conditions that have become associated with the depression known as having the blues.

Others celebrated finding new lovers, dumping untrue lovers and emerging from the cave of loneliness and depression, maybe even with a new pair of shoes, as R&B piano player and singer Al Kooper sang.

1950-1960

In the 1950s and 1960s, R&B began forcing its way into popular music. Rockabilly, which was the unwanted child of country swing and the frenetic form skiffle, was infused with blues and being enjoyed in the U.S. and the U.K. But Americans weren’t as interested in R&B as they were in the new rock ‘n’ roll coming from Memphis-based Sun Records in the form of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Sam Phillips knew he was onto something with Elvis. Phillips ran with Elvis until his untimely death.

That doesn’t mean American R&B roots and early performers like Robert Johnson were forgotten. They might have been in the U.S., but they were being discovered big time in Great Britain by teenagers like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. These musicians imported it back to the U.S. in the form of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

These R&B lovers weren’t just casual fans. They were historians, obsessed by the new music they had found hidden among the waves of grain in America. Down in the South, R&B artists toured the Chitlin’ Circuit of small clubs in small cities for fans with big appetites for R&B’s early legends. Black performers were not permitted to play in a lot of clubs except these little-known outposts of R&B.

Bands like The Rolling Stones came and toured the U.S., bringing little-known R&B artists with them as opening acts. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Steve Winwood all formed bare-bones groups to play the blues like Cream, Blues Breakers, the Jeff Beck Band, Traffic and the Spencer Davis Group. America countered with the original old-time masters of the form and added mega talents like Roy Buchanan, Mike Bloomberg, BB King and Albert Collins. 

Johnny Winters and his brother Edgar are incredibly talented multi-instrumentalists. Fast Life Rider shows them tearing into the song together on guitar and sax. If this doesn’t get your heart pounding, check your pulse. You might be dead.

Johnny and Edgar Winter’s Fast Life Rider rendition shows their awesome skill.

1970-Today

Originally, R&B favored small combos with vocals, guitars, bass and drums. Pianos and organs were added, as was the mouth organ, and then the horns came. This morphed with gospel vocalizing to produce soul music, and a heavier R&B called funk. James Brown was the self-proclaimed minister of funk, as it said on one of his album covers.

Funk led to heavier, even funkier music from Parliament Funkadelics and Bootsy Collins that became the backbone for hip hop and rap. The music beds that the rappers perform over are pure R&B.

Modern blues artists run the gamut. Some are piano pounders, like Lee Michaels; some blow their horn, like Mr. Magic, Grover Washington; and others, such as Brian Auger, diddle the Hammond B-3 console organ, a strong contender for the official voice of the blues. Guitar is still number one, but the other instruments have their place.

Artists who are famous in other fields also play the blues. Keifer Sutherland, actor and musician, has his own version of the Gibson ES-335 guitar that’s perfect for R&B. Penn Gillette, master musician and juggler, plays jazz and R&B on his upright bass after his shows with Penn and Teller at his home stage in Las Vegas.

person playing a guitar

The blues is inclusive. A guitarist can entertain on his lonesome. Two-piece bands are outnumbered by trios and quartets. You can be good or even terrible, and you’ll still enjoy playing the blues. Cities across the U.S. have blues nights with open stages where people can play the traditional blues styles with old friends and people they’ve never met.

You might have to suffer to play the blues, but you don’t if you just want to enjoy other people playing them. The blues, in all its forms, is more popular than ever because people relate to the common topics and the clever, funny or sometimes saddening lyrics. For the true zealots, there’s no substitute for R&B. It’s a uniquely American art form, and the world holds it in the highest esteem. Every note is a reason, and every performer is an excuse to hear it again.