American Music in the United States

Rhythm & Blues at BMI

Black musicians were coming into their own. The rise of rhythm & blues in the aftermath of World War II became the most important wave of black music to join the pop mainstream, surpassing the earlier effects of ragtime, blues, and jazz. Black bandleader Louis Jordan, whose Tympany-Five recorded such hits as "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't" and "Caldonia" in the 1940s, is regarded by many as the father of r&b. He made the blues jump, and the style he pioneered, combining a driving "back-beat," searing vocals, live-wire electric guitar, and honking saxophone, would lay the path for rock & roll.

Billboard's recognition of r&b's position in the marketplace signaled its acceptance as part of the commercial mainstream. Black artists were first acknowledged by the magazine's Harlem Hit Parade column in 1942, which reported on news and recent record releases. By 1945, jukebox popularity charts for r&b music had been added, and retail charts soon followed. The designation "rhythm & blues" made its Billboard appearance in 1949, laying to rest the derogatory designation "race music" that had been used to categorize blues and other black musical forms. Racial segregation of music consumers and producers still existed, but the acceptance of black music by white listeners helped erode long-standing social barriers.

Meanwhile, black gospel musicians grew more popular than ever as the work of gospel pioneers, especially Thomas Dorsey, reached a wider audience than its religious constituency. Dorsey, who ironically began as a blues pianist and composer of such secular material as "Tight Like That" (1928), was installed in 1932 as choral director of Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church. That year he composed one of gospel's best known songs "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," which subsequently was recorded by a diverse range of performers, including Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley, The Swan Silvertones, and Red Foley.

The range of races and musical genres represented by these artists testifies to the democratization of American music and its power to erase social and racial barriers, a fact that BMI recognized early on as crucial to the future of American music.

Radio programmers recognized black music's increasing public acceptance, which, in turn, benefitted BMI as it stood virtually alone in serving r&b performing rights, licensing more than 90 percent of r&b radio hits on a weekly basis. Those hits were being produced by the proliferating field of independent record labels, which included the Rene brothers' Modern Records, Art Rupe's Specialty Records, Lou Chudd's Imperial Records, and Herman Lubinsky's Savoy label.

Chicago, home to uprooted Southern blacks who sought employment in the post-war economic boom, was a natural choice for the Chess Label and its subsidiary offshoots Aristocrat, Argo, and Checker, founded by Phil and Leonard Chess in 1949. They recorded some of the seminal figures in blues, r&b, and later rock & roll: the list includes Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. One of Chess's most valuable talents was Willie Dixon, who served as the label's resident talent scout, record producer, and bass player. More importantly, he wrote over 200 songs, among them some of the classics of modern blues: "I Just Want To Make Love To You," "I'm Ready," "Little Red Rooster," "Back Door Man," "Seventh Son," and "Hoochie Coochie Man."

As once neglected musical forms became assimilated into the commercial mainstream, musical genres began to cross-pollinate long before the term "crossover" became familiar. This was particularly the case with blues and country, as boogie woogie sounds were recorded by such traditionally country artists as Red Foley ("Tennessee Saturday Night"), the Delmore Brothers ("Hillbilly Boogie" and "Freight Train Boogie"), and Tennessee Ernie Ford ("Shotgun Boogie"). This trend was capitalized upon by Syd Nathan of Cincinnati King Records and its sister labels Queen, Federal, and DeLuxe. Nathan, who also recorded such r&b greats as Wynonie Harris, Bull Moose Jackson, Ivory Joe Hunter, and James Brown, in conjunction with his talented black arranger/producer Henry Glover produced country artists like the Delmore Brothers and Wayne Raney, who waxed the classic "Blues Stay Away From Me," which Glover co-wrote. Nathan particularly enjoyed working with Grand Ole Opry star and barrelhouse pianist Moon Mullican, whose free-wheeling 1951 hit.

Information on this page courtesy of the bmi library