[GOSPEL MUSIC] STEVE POND: You know, the black church has a part of this story as well. Gospel music, which developed in the late 1920s and through the 1940s, was in a major flowering mode in the 1940s. But it also, from its very beginnings, had had a troubled bit of acceptance within the church, within the black church.
Thomas Dorsey, who had been a musical director for Ma Rainey, was known as Georgia Tom-- always was religious, but certainly was playing music that was, shall we say, secular. And in the late 1920s, when he started devoting his music to the church and to the realm of the holy, found a tremendous amount of resistance by playing music that was grafting the blues-- that music of the devil-- with the message of gospel. And it wasn't until, really, his proteges-- Roberta Martin, Mahalia Jackson, Willa Mae Ford Smith-- helped him force open the doors of the church that gospel started to take on its own life.
Now, the thing is that the way of singing gospel music is very much like the way you sing rhythm and blues. So it was a bit of a shock to the churchgoing public to have Ray Charles take a song like "The Little Light of Mine, I'm Going to Let It Shine" and convert it to "This Little Girl of Mine." Now, when he sings it, he sings it in a way that is totally compatible with the way you would go about singing a gospel song.
The gospel song is (SINGING) "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let that shine." So when Ray Charles sings this, converts the words to "this little girl of mine" with a lot of sexual charge in that message, people were up in arms and were ready to kill.
[MUSIC - RAY CHARLES, "THIS LITTLE GIRL OF MINE"]
RAY CHARLES: (SINGING) You know that this little girl of mine makes me happy when I'm sad. This little girl of mine loves me even when I'm bad. She knows how to love me right down to a T. If she does any wrong, you know she keeps it from me. And that's why I-- I-- I-- I, oh, love that little girl of mine.
STEVE POND: But the style of singing was already well in place by the time in the mid-50s when Ray Charles started singing. And when you think about it, many, many, many of the major rhythm and blues stars that we know began their singing lives in the gospel tradition-- people like Sam Cooke, you know, singing with the Soul Stirrers before he went on to larger fame as a solo act, but also people like Johnny Taylor, Aretha Franklin, of course, and Lou Rawls. Now, you don't normally think of Lou Rawls as a gospel singer. But take a listen to this recording of the Chosen Gospel Singers, of which he was the lead singer, recorded in the mid-1950s.
[MUSIC - CHOSEN GOSPEL SINGERS, "NO ROOM AT THE HOTEL"]
CHOSEN GOSPEL SINGERS: (SINGING) According to God's word, there was a virgin girl, the mother of Jesus. Oh, she went wandering around that night all alone, trying to find a home for the savior to be born. Lord, she had no room. Yeah, Lord, she had no room. Well, Lord, she had no room at the hotel when the time had fully come for the savior to be born. Lord, she had no room. Well, Lord, she had no room. Yeah, Lord.
STEVE POND: Now, let's compare that with this live version recorded in 1967 of "Chicago Blues." You hear all the same kinds of vocal inflections all the same kind of masterful expressive timbres and using a raspy kind of tone, using his voice as a very expressive instrument, all things that are central to the gospel tradition, now in the service of rhythm and blues.
LOU RAWLS: (SINGING) I'm going to Chicago. And I'm sorry, but I can't take you. No, I can't. I said that I'm going to Chicago, and I'm sorry, but I can't take you-- no, no, no, 'cause there ain't nothing in Chicago a monkey woman like you can do but be my baby.
STEVE POND: Now, part of that gospel tradition-- really, it was two traditions. Early on now I'm talking one, the first was a female, large choir, often with a soloist in front. The other was a gospel quartet, almost always male, and deriving their approach to singing as sort of a play on the barbershop quartet.
Just to give you a sense of the barbershop quartet in the late 1900's, which was a large kind of fad that happened all across the country, take a listen to this very typical barbershop quartet.
[MUSIC - "LOVE IS THE TIE THAT BINDS"]
BARBERSHOP QUARTET: Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in brother's love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
STEVE POND: Now, let's listen again to "No Room at the Hotel"-- just a little snippet of it to get a sense of how closely these things are drawing from each other.
[MUSIC - CHOSEN GOSPEL SINGERS, "NO ROOM AT THE HOTEL"]
CHOSEN GOSPEL SINGERS: (SINGING) According to God's word, there was a virgin girl-- the mother of Jesus. Oh, she went wandering around that night all alone trying to find a home for the savior to be born. Lord, she had no room. Yeah, Lord, she had no room. Well, Lord, she had no room at the hotel.
STEVE POND: Now, in a lot of rhythm and blues of the late 1940s through the 1950s and into the '60s, you have a sort of a blending of these two traditions, of the front person in front of a large choir and this sort of integrated harmony of a barbershop quartet. So now you have a barbershop quartet with a solo singer, and in this case it's decidedly not gospel. This is Hank Ballard and the Midnighters doing "Work With Me, Annie."
[MUSIC - HANK BALLARD AND THE MIDNIGHTERS, "WORK WITH ME, ANNIE"]
HANK BALLARD AND THE MIDNIGHTERS: (SINGING) Oh, work with me, Annie. Work with me, Annie. Oowee, work with me Annie. Work with me, Annie. Work with me, Annie. Let's get it while the getting is good. So good, so good, so good, so good. Annie, please, don't cheat. Give me all--
STEVE POND: Now, I've already discussed a little bit about novelty lyrics and sort of a novelty approach to lyrics-- playful. This is put into the form of that barbershop-derived gospel style in rhythm and blues. And this is an early song, from 1954. This is The Chords doing a song called "Sha Boom."
[MUSIC - THE CHORDS, "SHA BOOM"]
THE CHORDS: (SINGING) Life could be a dream, sweetheart. Hello. Hello, again. Sha boom and hoping we meet again. Boom. Hey nonny ding dong, alang alang alang, boom ba bip a bip bado badip. Life could be dream, if only all my precious plans would come true. If you would happily spend my whole life loving you, life could be a dream, sweetheart. Every time I look at you--
STEVE POND: Now, how important did this style of singing become and this approach to lyrics and this approach to vocables? It became very important. It was so lively, so interesting, and so captivating that it gave rise to the cover phenomenon. We're going to talk about the covers in just a second. But take a listen, by comparison, of The Chords doing "Sha Boom" and right behind it a parallel moment of the cover band Crewcuts doing the same song.
[MUSIC - THE CHORDS, "SHA BOOM"]
THE CHORDS: (SINGING) Life could be a dream, sweetheart. Hello, hello again. Sha boom and hoping we meet again. Hey, nonny ding dong, alang alang alang.
[MUSIC - THE CREWCUTS, "SHA BOOM"]
THE CREWCUTS: (SINGING) Hey nonny ding dong, alang alang alang, boom bado, badoo badoo baday. Oh, life could be a dream if I could take you up in paradise up above. If you would tell me I'm the only one that you love, life could be a dream sweetheart. Hello, hello, again, Sha boom and hoping we meet again. Oh, life could be a dream, if only all my precious plans would come true, if you would let me spend my whole life loving you, life could be a dream sweetheart.
STEVE POND: What you hear is a very marked difference between using expressive timbres and adhering to the melody as written. So you get a sense of a major aesthetic difference between the rhythm and blues tradition as it evolved in the black popular music community and its parallel in the mainstream white-dominated popular music industry. So there's an aesthetic in place-- an important aesthetic-- a raspy kind of tone quality that conveys deep emotion, playfulness with the melody, so that you're signifying on it, the idea of using close harmony as a background, as well as the use of instrumentation that happens in a gospel church-- piano, organ, joined with choral sounds and introducing electric guitar, electric bass, and drums.
Now this dovetails with another style of rhythm and blues. We're starting to see this is a conglomeration of different styles. The jump bands that rose in the 1940s also make use of very similar kinds of instrumentation and certainly similar approaches to making music.
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In this study room, Steve Pond explores the musical roots of Rhythm and Blues - from the influences of jazz, early blues and gospel music, to the Jump Bands and "Boogie-woogie" music of the forties. Learn how the societal, political and musical changes after World War II shaped the record industry and the emergence of modern day Rhythm and Blues music.
This video is part 3 of 6 in the Where did R&B come from? series.