STEVE POND: You know, up until now I've really been discussing an aesthetic confluence, you know, lots of different styles colliding and joining together to create something called rhythm and blues. Really, it's a multi-faceted kind of style, but there are industrial and social reasons that this confluence happened, these intersections happened. We've already seen that rhythm and blues grew out of historically present styles already. That classic blues fed into it, that gospel is fed into it, that boogie-woogie fed into it, and swing fed into jump blues. So the idea that this is something that all of a sudden became rhythm and blues, a new category is a little specious, don't you think? In fact, what it is is a rechristening of a music that was already present.
Race records was a marketing category begun as early as 1920 with the rise of classic blues, and we discussed a while ago. It's the shorthand version of a complicated set of marketing strategies for producing a record, getting it out to people that are likely to buy it, having the artist be people that are likely to be perceived as marketable by those people, right? So race records was a way of saying black music produced by black musicians and sold to black customers.
But by the post-World War II period, race was becoming a pejorative term. It was no longer applicable. Additionally, in World War II terms, it was a little bit easier to conceive of this music no longer as applied only to a racial customer, only to an ethnic customer, but to somebody who was less clearly defined, more amorphous, and therefore, opening the market to a larger audience. So in 1947, Billboard Magazine, who does a lot of the sales charting for the industry, renamed this music from race records to rhythm and blues. But this is not to say that it suddenly lost it's race and class markings, that it was no longer for black people by black people. It was clearly black music, and it was clearly meant for a black audience.
Now in World War II, black men enlisted in the army and other forces in large numbers, and other people who had grown up in the rural South or in small towns across the country found themselves moving into the large cities to help with the war effort and the massive manufacturing effort that went along with it. So the situation when black soldiers came home from World War II was that the situation had changed and had not changed enough. These were men who had come back from being liberators of France, being liberators of the Pacific, and had been honored and treated as real people. When they came back, everything was supposed to be the way it had been always-- back to the same old Jim Crow segregation, back to the reduced circumstances, back to the limitations.
So it wasn't just the soldiers that were having trouble. People who had moved into the large cities, that had been in part of this massive, expanded manufacturing effort directed at the war suddenly found themselves in different circumstances. Women who had been welcomed into the workforce were no longer welcomed. Soldiers were coming home and spaces were needed to give those people jobs. People who had found a tremendous amount of freedom in the industrialized West and North found themselves being shunted back into their old circumstances as they were going to go back to their original homes. And they found themselves not satisfied, not ready to give up the kind of freedom and respect that they have been given.
In the aftermath of the war, a tremendous agitation effort began to integrate fully the armed forces. This took place from 1946 to 1953. This set the stage for the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education case that eliminated segregation in public schools. So beneath this placid exterior, there was a much more fraught atmosphere underneath. There was an underclass that sought redress, that saw the inequities going on in the country, that felt them deeply. And these are people who, coincidentally, were the target customers for rhythm and blues. And of course, we know that teenagers share a sense of dissatisfaction and anxiety and became very, very interested in the kind of music that was being played.
Throughout the 1930s, the music that was being broadcast was increasingly collected into a network situation. There were three or four radio networks that were nationwide, and the music that was being played was being played by bands on nationwide radio. And this was side-by-side with a record industry that was expanding exponentially. Now think about this. You're getting most of the music that you hear either played live on the radio by big bands or you're being entertained by records, but those records are not necessarily in your home. By 1940, over 40% of the records sold in the United States were sold not to homes, but to jukebox operators that people heard in cafes, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. So when you heard these performances, somebody was getting paid royalties. It wasn't the performers. It was the composers, the lyricists, and the publishers through a middleman royalty firm called ASCAP.
Now the members of ASCAP were a very small club, only about 1,500 people. And in order to join ASCAP, you had to have already produced five hits. So it was people like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein, that level of composer and lyricist. In 1939, ASCAP decided to up the ante. They were at the tail end of a five year contract with the radio networks and decided to up their rate 100%. Catching wind of this, a number of radio stations combined together and created their own royalty company called Broadcast Music Incorporated, BMI.
Now it's 1940, and ASCAP makes their announcement that they're going to cause the jump in royalty rate thinking that they've got a closed shop. They have all the composers that have all the music that everybody really wants to hear. The radio stations respond by saying, no, thank you. And instead, bring in recorded music by BMI. Now BMI had an open door policy. They accepted any music from any composer, and they also paid royalties to the performers. So in response, BMI brought forth all sorts of small record labels with their product that otherwise might not have been developed.
Think back to 1927 and the advent of the soundie. Now before that during the silent movie era, it was very common to have live musicians providing the soundtrack for films. This was no longer true. And all through the '30s there was a tremendous number of musicians who were looking for work, that had been displaced by the film industry. Add to that the fact that the jukebox industry was exploding in popularity, and people who might have been playing in small cabarets, small nightclubs, bars were being displaced by jukeboxes, Wurlitzers, spinning platters, and you could hear anybody you wanted to hear.
So the American Federation of Musicians under James Petrillo decided to take action to counteract this. The Petrillo called on all musicians in New York to not record for a period to be specified by him until some kind of agreement could be made to ensure musicians' health. This recording ban started in 1940, continued for over two years, and brought all recording to an end. Anybody that was recording an instrumental piece that had any kind of instrumental on it was not allowed to legally record during that time. This is one of the reasons that the gospel quartet became so popular. It was an acapella quartet, and because there were no instrumentalists on those records, they could sing and not have a problem.
Also, the independent record labels were not affected by this because Petrillo had his sights on the majors. He was going after RCA, Decca, and so on. He was not caring about Commodore records. So during the 1940s, in fact, through that whole decade, really it was a very fertile soil for independent record labels to grow. And with independent record labels, they were signing artists that they didn't have to pay very much, that they could afford to distribute in a very confined way to a specialized market that was already there. And that meant that they could specialize for an ethnically and class-marked audience. And this gave rise to a third situation-- the rise of television in the 1950s.
In the 1950s, the shows that had been on radio, the variety shows, the dramas, the comedy sketches, they left. They went to television. That's where the real money was. This was a serious blow to the radio networks. The national advertisers were starting to go. They were starting to head off to television land. Now in its place, what do you do to fill in that time? What do you do to bring in advertising dollars? One thing you can do is to take prerecorded music, music that is being played on jukeboxes, everybody already knows it's popular, and hire an inexpensive disc jockey, have play with appropriate patter, and off you go.
Now the thing that's great about that is that you can now start to look at formats. Instead of large, network-type broadcast, you can have small independent radio stations play very confined markets and play very confined ranges of music for those markets. This became another impetus for the rise of the independent record label. The net result of this is a huge assortment of records constantly coming through, DJs having to sort through 75, 100, 150 releases every week. It's a time of tremendous growth and vitality, and the music reflects this vitality. It has an urgency, a sexiness, danceability, captivating lyrics, great delivery. It's no wonder that this music develops the appeal that changes the music industry forever.
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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 6 of 6 in the Where did Rhythm and Blues come from? series.