The Roots of Rhythm and Blues (Lesson)

Welcome to the first installment of my new column, R&B Gold.
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Welcome to the first installment of my new column, R&B Gold. I’m excited to have the opportunity to explore a body of music that has been a continual source of inspiration to me—particularly when examined from the bottom up. It seems fitting that I’m finishing up this first column working in the back lounge of a tour bus in Motown—Detroit, Michigan, one of the great R&B towns of all time. Living my new life as a full-time touring musician with the Mavericks, I’ll be traveling to many of the places where this great music was created, and I hope to share some of those experiences with you.

“R&B” is short for rhythm & blues, and readers of my previous column Blues You Can Use will find there is a lot of cross-talk between the two categories in terms of artists, players, songs, and styles. R&B as a genre is hard to pin down to any one set of parameters, as it spans a roughly 70-year timeframe and encompasses artists ranging from Louis Jordan to Jay Z. For the purposes of this column, I will be limiting my focus to what is considered by some as R&B’s “Golden Era,” roughly between the late 1940s and late 1970s. The earliest work I’ll examine was originally performed on upright bass, but by the early 1960s, the electric bass (usually a Fender Precision) was the dominant instrument. The term “rhythm and blues” first came into use as a marketing category for music aimed at an increasingly urban African-American audience. As country blues migrated to northern cities, it began to reflect the new environment—it was louder, faster, and had a heavy beat that could inspire even tired factory workers to shake their money makers. These conditions gave rise to the electric post-war blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and others, but another form of popular African-American music was also taking shape—one that melded the vocabulary and emotion of raw blues with more sophisticated rhythms borrowed from jazz and Latin music.

R&B would stray from the ubiquitous 12-bar blues progression, diversify its rhythmic palette, and explore themes that reflected the new urban experience. It’s difficult to pinpoint the first true R&B record, as the style developed from, and ran parallel to blues, jazz, and jump styles, but it is possible to trace the “rhythm” in R&B to a point in time when Latin dance rhythms blended with blues music. The tresillo rhythm (Ex. 1) is felt and notated in 2/4, but stretching it out to 4/4, we see the dotted-quarter/eighth-note rhythm that launched a thousand hits, like “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” (Ex. 2). A similar South American rhythm, the baion, is syncopated with the “and” of beat two tied to the quarter-note on beat three (Ex. 3). Apply this rhythm to a simple triad, and you now have one of the most popular riffs in history (Ex. 4), and perhaps the first R&B bass line.

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Louis Jordan was a popular sax player, singer, and bandleader who bridged the gap from swing jazz to jump blues in the early 1940s with hits like “Saturday Night Fish Fry” and “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens.” His popular and commercial success opened a new pathway for African-American artists and laid the foundation for R&B and rock & roll. Although his music was primarily swing-based, he recorded several Caribbean-influenced tracks, introducing the Latin “tinge” to a new audience. His 1946 duet with Ella Fitzgerald, “Stone Cold Dead in the Marketplace,” prominently features the two singing with put-on West Indian accents over a Latin 3:2 clave groove. In 1947, he recorded “Early in the Morning,” a 12-bar blues with a baion-inspired bass pattern that became known as the rhumba-boogie. As a side note, the track features a remarkable piano intro by Wild Bill Davis, a pioneer of jazz Hammond B-3 playing, but his piano work here is virtually identical to the style of Professor Longhair, whose 1949 recordings of “Longhair’s Blues-Rhumba” and “Mardis Gras in New Orleans” have also been lauded as the “first rock & roll records,” despite their being released two years later.

Example 5 is the basic pattern from Jordan’s “Early in the Morning.” It’s a very literal presentation of the baion-triad pattern, played over Latin-style accompaniment, and doubled by the pianist’s left hand. The bassist sticks to the pattern without variation over a 12-bar blues form. To get a sense of how this pattern can adapt to different grooves, check out the many versions of Professor Longhair’s “Mardis Gras in New Orleans”: The bass line remains the same, but each version has its own unique rhythmic interpretation.

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Another early “rhythm number” by Jordan is his 1948 Caribbean-infused track “Run Joe,” which features several different Latin bass patterns. Example 6a is a baion rhythm that serves as the intro; it is sometimes syncopated, while other times it’s played on the beat. Example 6b is another baion, played over the Gm chord, that serves as an interlude and the outro. This particular pattern has been reused many times; two examples are Hendrix’ “Third Stone From the Sun” and the main groove of Reverend Horton Heat’s “Marijuana.” Example 6c is the basic idea used for the verses. It’s more similar to the tresillo rhythm, as the two quarter-notes on beats three and four are the emphasis.

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The early years of R&B are a trove of riffs and rhythms that went on to become the staples of rock & roll, soul, and funk. To hear them in their prenatal form, one gets a whole new perspective on modern music, and a greater appreciation for our musical history. Stay tuned—there’s lots more R&B Gold to come!



Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee.