STEVE POND: So who was the audience for rhythm and blues? Well, a significant chunk of that audience turns out to be, to everybody's surprised, white, middle class teenagers. Now think about this dissonance. There is a representation of the country in the 1950s that is very placid, suburban, Eisenhower era, but it masks a certain anxiety. There is the Korean conflict, there's the Cold War emerging, there's tremendous uncertainty about the world's health.
At the same time, there seems to be prosperity across the country. Now, this turns out to be somewhat of a fiction. Teenagers felt this anxiety, this dissonance. They were looking for something that went beyond that placid overlay that was represented by Joe Stafford, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra. They were looking for something more exciting.
Rhythm and blues records were mostly distributed on very confined, small independent labels known as Indies. We're going to talk about that in a second. But one of the fallouts of that was that indie labels had very small distribution with those records. They could only sell a certain number of thousands of records realistically. 3,000, 4,000, even 20,000 would have been a huge hit
In comparison, somebody like RCA, Capitol Records, Decca, could paper the country with their record project. They could cover those small, independent ones. Now we've already played segments of "Sh-boom", two versions of them, one, the original, the independent, by the Chords, the second, the cover, by the Crew-Cuts, all in the same year.
And in fact, what happened was that the Chords cut their version of "Sh-boom", and immediately afterwards, the Crew-Cuts were brought into place, put into the RCA studios, and cut their version of it, which was then distributed on a massive scale. And that's the one that sold.
We also know of Ricky Nelson's cover songs, and Pat Boone is somebody who, in particular, made a small industry of covering rhythm and blues tunes. But this represented a major miscalculation on the part of the major record industry labels. What they thought was the right thing to do was to take the songs that were marketed to a very specialized black, lower class audience, and make it palatable for America's teenagers, the suburban young, largely by sanitizing the sound, by making it more-- seeming to adhere to European aesthetics of a pure tone, of adherence to the melody as written.
And it turns out that the authentic one, the one that sounded like it came from the heart, the one that seemed like it was not overly well-produced, became the one that teenagers wanted more. This became most apparent with the experience of "Tutti Frutti". One of the reasons I played "Tutti Frutti" is because "Tutti Frutti" is one of those examples that Pat Boone covered, and to everybody's surprise, the Little Richard original version outsold it. It was at that point that the major labels said, we give up. Let's join them. And rhythm and blues soon became rock and roll.
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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 5 of 6 in the Where did Rhythm and Blues come from? series.