Once upon a time, rhythm & blues music was simply an extension of swing and boogie-woogie, offering no hint that one day the same term would be used to describe the funk-laden, hip-hoppin’ genre that dominates playlists now. As we have examined in the previous two columns, the turning point was the introduction of Afro-Latin/Caribbean rhythms to the swinging jump-and-jive music of artists such as Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, and one of the most significant artists of the previous century, Mr. Ray Charles.
Ray Charles was directly involved in the early formation of R&B, but he came to it with a strong background in jazz and gospel music. His piano vocabulary ranged from harmonically rich modern bop, to plaintive, hymnal triads, but his deep sense of blues was always right at the surface. Add to this a million-dollar voice, wailing saxophone chops, and a knack for conveying the emotion of a song, and you have the monumental talent that was Ray Charles. Ray’s recorded work was strictly swing-based until the 1956 Atlantic release of “Mary Ann,” a 12-bar blues number that featured a twisty Latin beat for the vocal sections, that transitioned to a hard swinging treatment for the instrumental break.
Recorded on November 30, 1955 in New York City, Ray’s first foray into the “rhythm side” of R&B was anchored by bassist Paul West and renowned swing drummer Panama Francis. Paul West graduated from New York’s High School Of Music & Art in the early 1950s (my alma mater) and went on to lay down the bottom for many jazz legends like Milt Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and Errol Garner, to name but a few. The bass line centers on a R–8–b7–5 box shape played with the syncopated rhythm shown in Examples 1a–c, a derivative of the guaguanco genus of Latin rhythms. Example 1a is written with rests on the downbeats, and due to the decay time of West’s upright bass, it sounds like this. However, it was played with longer note durations as shown in Ex. 1b, and its visually simplified version, Ex. 1c.
Example 2 is a basic representation of Paul West’s line during the Latin section of “Mary Ann.” The guaguanco-box pattern is the building block, used to anchor the I chord in bars 1 through 3. He switches to an octave pattern in bar 4 to set up the IV chord in bar 5, grounding the event by squarely hitting the downbeat of beat three with the 5th of the chord. In bar 6, he plays the root of the IV chord (F), but then finishes the measure with the box pattern used for the I chord. This “harmonic anticipation” gives the line forward motion and is a typical feature of ostinato Latin lines. The I chord in bar 7 returns to the main pattern, and then sets up the change to the V chord with a “III–VI” movement in bar 8 that predictably lands on the II (D) in bar 9. The bass consistently plays the II over the V chord throughout the track—once again, a common harmonic device in Latin-based music.
I first became aware of this month’s rhythm as the basis of another song, with a completely different melodic pattern—Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye’s duet performance of “Once Upon a Time.” While released on the album Together in 1964 after her success with “My Guy,” it was recorded a few years earlier before either artist had made their name. As it was recorded at Motown in the early 1960s, it’s a safe bet that James Jamerson supplied the foundation on upright bass. Although he adhered to the featured rhythm on this track, the rest of the album is a collection of swinging, bluesy standards that left him plenty of room to let you know who stood behind the bass. I was introduced to this song recently on the Mavericks tour bus, where classic R&B is a staple of our musical diet. As it turns out, we wound up recording a faithful-but-modern rendition of this number at Nashville’s famed Blackbird Studio for future release. At the session, I gave the Wells/Gaye version a serious listen to discover that typical of Latin progressions, the bass ostinato overrides the need to “make the changes.” The vocal verses are built from two patterns, one the originates on the I of the key, the second from the II—once again employing the old “II over the V” trick. Example 3 is similar to the bass line under the verse—tabbed out to lie where it falls most effectively on the upright bass. On the electric, you may want to move it up to a higher position and palm-mute for more thump.
Many other rhythms fuel early R&B music, and my ears are constantly on the hunt for them. Some criteria for consideration are a lack of precedent in the genre, multiple examples, or being integral to a tune that has remained part of the living repertoire. The evolution of R&B music was guided by the introduction of new rhythms, and one thing you can count on—it keeps getting funkier!
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee. edfriedland.com