Saturday, 15 January 2011

Rhythm and Blues: the grown-up music that made everything else possible

Without Rhythm and Blues,  the musical genre invented by Black musicians in Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s by electrifying guitars and adding drums (and anything else they fancied) to acoustic Country Blues, there would have been no Rock ‘n” Roll, no Rockabilly, no Rock. We'd probably be listening to George Formby imitators.

It’s almost impossible to draw a clear distinction between R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Rock ‘n’ Roll – which is really just a subset of R&B – tends to be more upbeat and uptempo: in other words, funnier and faster. R&B, an amplified version of its progenitor, Acoustic Blues, was mainly played in Black dives where hard-working, blue collar adults drank spirits, danced, and fought with guns, knives and broken bottles. Rock ‘n’ Roll was more for dance-halls where an optimistic, mainly white younger crowd, many still in school, drank coke and beer, and looked forward to a suburban life of ever-rising wages, full employment, and fun. R&B lyrics tended to be about booze and cheating women and grown-up sex: R&R gave its fans lyrics about dancing and “necking”, school, clothes and cars. 

Like every other kid in the early Sixties, I knew about Rock ‘n’ Roll, and was vaguely aware that there was a more grown-up variant that sounded a lot like it, but was somehow different. The moment of revelation for me came with the release of a bargain LP compilation by Pye Records in 1964 calledChess Story Vol. 1, which I bought because I knew that Chess was the home of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and because it included “Susie Q” by Dale Hawkins and “Book of Love” by the Monotones. But what really astonished me were the tracks that opened Side A and Side B: Rollin’ Stone by Muddy Waters and Don’t Start Me Talking by Sonny Boy Williamson. The first, a slow, insistent, mysterious Delta Blues classic sounded as if it could have been recorded any time in the past hundred years. The other was a stomping Chicago Blues classic with the sort of lyrics rarely heard in pop hits of the time: “He knocked her down, blacked her eye/ She went back home, told her husband a lie.” 

So don your pork-pie hat, pour yourself a stiff rot-gun bourbon (water by) and enjoy my favourite hard-driving, grown-up music for hard times (for the purposes of this list, I’ve confined myself to artists who weren’t big with the Rock ‘n’ Roll crowd):

“Boogiie Chillen”, John Lee Hooker: Recorded in 1948, this was one of the most pivotal records in popular music history - that nagging, insistent, hornet-drone on the electric guitar, rock-steady beat, exotic Detroit local colour (Hastings Street, Henry’s Swing Club), that wonderful break mid-way through after which he re-enters with the title of the song, a great little story - “I heard Papa tell Momma, let that boy boogie-woogie – it’s in him, and it’s got to come out”. And Hooker’s following comment, “I felt so good – went on boogying just the same” – well, in a sense, we all did. 

“Rollin’ Stone”, Muddy Waters: Recorded in 1950, this was Chess’s second release. Although Mississipian, McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) had entered his urban electric band-leader phase, this is a solo performance, which lends it a sparse, brooding quality. Of course, it’s barely removed from Country Blues – but the relentlessness of the beat and the electric guitar make it R&B. (Obviously, this is where the Stones and the American Rock periodical got their names from.)

“Honey Hush”, Big Joe Turner: Recorded in New Orleans in 1953, this is about as urban as it gets. Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker sound like they’ve arrived at the studios fresh from the cotton-fields, but Turner was more of an urban blues shouter (some people say he had the loudest voice they’d ever heard). This is getting closer to Rock ‘n’ Roll in sound, but the lyrics “Turn off the water-works, baby, they don’t move me no more” and “Don’t make me nervous, I’m holdin’ a baseball bat” are strictly grown-up married couple stuff (although probably not typical of most Chiswick couples, I’ll admit). I don’t have a clue why he starts off with “Ah, let it roll like a big wheel/In a Georgia cotton-field – Honey Hush!” but it’s a great opening. The song was turned into a Rockabilly classic by Johnny Burnette – and covered by dozens of others. Utter classic. Turner also wrote “Shake, Rattle & Roll” – one of the most influential songs in popular music history – but “Honey Hush” is my favourite.

“Hound Dog”, Big Mama Thornton: Recorded in 1952, this was the first record produced by the white boys who wrote it - Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. I was with a female Elvis Presley fan when we both heard this for the first time, and we stared at each other before she uttered a blasphemous – but accurate – comment, “It’s better than the Elvis version!” It is!

“The Boogie Disease”, Doctor Ross: Recorded for Sun Records in 1954, this is about as chaotic and primitive as it gets – again, the good Doctor sounds like he’s just been out killing boll-weevils, but it’s borderline Rockabilly. I’ve always loved The Flamin’ Groovies cover version, “Doctor Boogie” – and when I heard this for the first time about a year ago, it was like meeting a disreputable old friend who’d have your booze cupboard cleaned out before you could blink. I just love this. “Give me one a doze penicillin dere!” Elvis recorded his first sides at Sun the same year – owner Sam Phillips had the magic all right.

“Mojo Hand”, Lightnin’ Hopkins: I’m cheating here, because this is unaccompanied (apart from a single loose snare drum in the background) and the guitar is acoustic. But it is so magnificent, so rocking, that I reckon it almost qualifies as R&B. This, the Texas bluesman’s finest effort, sounds like a late 1940s classic, but it was recorded in 1960.

“Big Town Playboy”, Eddie Taylor: Released by Chess in (I think) 1955. Taylor played rhythm guitar on Jimmy Reed’s classic recordings – but I prefer this, his undisputed masterpiece.

“Don’t Start Me Talking”, Sonny Boy Williamson: A hit for Chess in
1955. Williamson was a goateed harmonica player, and according to most people who performed with him, an absolute bastard – while touring England in the 1960s he allegedly set fire to a hotel room trying to cook a chicken in a percolator, and allegedly fled the country after stabbing a man in a street fight. Superb performer, though.

“You Need Love”, Muddy Waters: Chess, 1962. Yes, I know it’s his second appearance, but he was simply the greatest of them all. This one has always fascinated me, with its OTT African-style drums and great organ. What a voice.

“High-Heel Sneakers”, Tommy Tucker: Released by Checker, a subsidiary of Chess, in 1964. An anomaly this – an absolutely straightforward R&B single that could have been released any time in the previous decade, but which, somehow, became a huge mainstream hit all over the world – it’s in the “Green Onions” league of perfect, stripped-down grooves.

“Oh Pretty Woman”, Albert King: Stax, 1966. A genuine cotton-picker, whose records sound somehow HUGE despite standard instrumentation – great string-bending, minimalist guitar-player, and a big, fat, mucous-coated voice. The opening is massive: Big Person’s Music.

“Shake Your Hips”, Slim Harpo: Released on Excello, 1966. This
delightful record, covered, faithfully and, therefore, pointlessly, by the Stones forExile on Main Street, was the work of a Louisiana singer, song-writer and harmonica player who, despite chart success, never gave up his trucking business. If he hadn’t died at the age of 46 in 1970, I reckon he’d be far better known than he is – a true original.

“Hummingbird”, B.B. King: From his 1970 crossover album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds. R&B had got very tired by this stage – too many Spotty Herberts from Pinner to Pudsey bashing out crapola versions of Elmore James’s trademark slide guitar lriff, but this album was a real shot in the arm. This beautiful track has violins on it, more than three chords (it was written by Leon Russell), a melody, and great wailing gospel choirs  – to all intents and purposes, it was Soul, and acts as a sort of full stop to classic R&B.


  1. Good programme on BBC4 the other night on Sister Rosetta Tharp, who is supposed to have influenced everyone in R&B, inc. Muddy Waters. Footage of a ludicrously young-looking Elvis attending one of her concerts. Please see
    Monday, January 17, 2011 - 11:42 AM

  2. I came across Leadbelly's superb 'Midnight Special' fairly late in life and it tops my list of R&B.
    But is it R&B or its close cousin: a 'Spiritual?'
    Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 04:30 AM

  3. DM - I have the Rosetta Tharpe prog on TiVo and am looking forward to it.

    Perry Black, Leadbelly's an odd one, right enough - folk, country, blues, show tunes: he just didn't care! Mind you, being sent to prison for killing a man in a brawl probably makes you quite insouciant about musical genres. I think Mr. Leabetter (remember, we have to address prisoners as “Mr.” these days, unless, I suppose, they’re women) basically created Skiffle - Brit proto-rockers certainly pinched enough of his tunes.

    A correspondent has emailed me, asking where Big Bill Broonzy and R.L. Burnside fit in to all this. Broonzy was an electrified R&B urbanite who caught wind of white folk’s taste for “Authentic” Country Blues, and promptly switched to acoustic guitar and dungarees – produced some great stuff, too. Burnside was a Mississippi R&B man, inspired by Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” who nobody paid much attention to (he spent a while in Parchman Prison for killing a man) before a white R&B band recorded with him in the 1990s and he became a bit of a sensation. "A Ass Pocket of Whiskey" still sounds great.
    Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 06:14 PM

  4. Boogie Disease and Mojo Hand are both new to me, and superb. I'm not impressed by your political views, but your taste in music's not half bad.
    Thursday, January 27, 2011 - 10:40 PM