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James Brown performing
on stage. Photo by
Kwame Brathwaite.


“Food nourishes the body and rhythm and blues feeds the soul,

‘nuff said.”

The bell rings, the dog salivates, confirmed Pavlov’s theory of conditioning. The same rings true when Rhythm and Blues, a.k.a. R&B, is mentioned to folks. They react to their last intimate moment with R&B, by shaking that booty, or holding someone tight grooving to the beat.  


Rhythm and Blues is an interpretation of the political atmosphere and socio-cultural experiences of black folks in America. Its lineage is rooted in gospel, big band swing and the blues. Its offspring are rock & roll, funk, fusion, disco and hip-hop. 


The term “race music” was introduced in the 1920s when record labels determined recording black blues singers was profitable. Okeh Records initiated the first race record with Mamie Smith, selling over 15,000 records in Harlem. Race records eventually included gospel, jazz, and comedy routines.  


While touring the south in 1945, Dizzy Gillespie and his big band realized young dancers were not interested in fast paced improvisations. “They couldn’t dance to the music but I could dance my ass off to it,” said Dizzy. “Jazz should be danceable; even when its fast it should always be rhythmic enough to make you move.”


Bandleader and saxophone player Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five exploited the crowd-pleasing aspects of jazz with infectious beats, suggestive lyrics and his bluesy saxophone solos. Jordan stated, “I made the blues jump.” His style “jumping the blues” merged rhythm and blues.


R&B birthed Doo Wop, with groups like the Ravens, Orioles, Del-Vikings, Jesters, Jimmy Castor & the Juniors, and the Teenchords (with Lewis Lymon). However, a youngster from Washington Heights, Frankie Lymon (and the Teenagers) ruled in 1956-57. His high voice and fancy footwork were reincarnated in Michael Jackson. 


While James Brown was putting the funk in R&B, “Mr. Dynamite” Jackie Wilson, was sliding across the Apollo Theater stage doing acrobatic moves, and never missing a note. 


Allan Freed, a New York City disc jockey, coined the term rock & roll. It was a watered down version of R&B, a platform for white performers like Elvis Pressley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard put the R&B in rock & roll. “Elvis Presley and those guys were the builders of rock & roll but I was the architect,” stated Little Richard. “They were good but I thought I was better.” 


Ray Charles reins as the king of rhythm and blues. His use of the piano, girl chorus, and call and response structures were something to behold. He turned the gospel into soulful pleasures.   


On the Harlem scene, the Apollo Theater was jumping. Immediately down the block was a little record shop, owned by Bobby Robinson. It was a magnet for locals and tourists, while performers and record promotion guys came to check out sales. 


Rhythm and Blues is a well-traveled road with imprints from Motown artists The Dells, Spinners, Isley Brothers, Patti LaBelle, Freddie Jackson, Shirelles, Four Tops, Chuck Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross and countless others. Food nourishes the body and rhythm and blues feeds the soul, ‘nuff said. 


harlem is... Music...
Music is the soul of rhythm from your
head to your feet...
It’s a combination of beats and

—Nile Graham, Harlem Educational Activities Fund

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