The term "rhythm and blues" to anyone under the age of 30 conjures up names like Mary J. Blige, The Fugees, and even Luther Vandross. Popular television and radio channels, MTV and Radio 1 have recently launched their own R&B chart shows playing music which seems a world apart from that which is discussed in Hugh Gregory's The Real Rhythm and Blues. Gregory offers a celebration of a genre of music pioneered in the late 1930s and early 1940s in America which continues to inspire and influence the world of popular music. It is, as the title implies, a historical narrative in search of what and who R&B, one of the world's first musical forms to achieve a black and white crossover audience and arguably the most enduring and constantly evolving form of music, comprises.
This is a well-researched and comprehensive history which documents and unravels the many myths and misnomers behind what R&B actually is and what it has come to mean. Each chapter focuses on R&B's generic development, chronologically from the 1920s right through to the late 1980s. There are short subsections within every chapter about each of the artists mentioned and their individual contribution to the world of R&B. Gregory traces the roots of R&B back to black gospel music, blues and big band jazz. He charts the rise of seminal R&B bands such as The Mills Brothers, explores the role of A&R men, independent record labels, cult DJs and the svengali manager/performers like Johnny Otis and Ike Turner. Gregory also underlines the importance of showmanship and the role of R&B performers such as Ray Charles as "entertainers" as well as singers and musicians. This was of central importance to the genre and an element which certainly captured the imaginations of those such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and even Bruce Springsteen who were strongly influenced by it in the later rock'n'roll years.
Gregory confesses in the introduction that the book is "not intended to be an encyclopaedic litany of every single name that has ever been influenced by or has performed R&B". Hence, to its credit, it is not a hagiographic homage to R&B intended for purists. Gregory is rather an author who writes with conviction and very apparent passion for his subject, making the book an eminently informative, entertaining and readable history for anyone who has even the most casual of interests in the history of R&B.
Roni Dutta is a freelance journalist specialising in popular music.
The Real Rhythm and Blues
Author - Hugh Gregory
ISBN - 0 7137 2603 2
Publisher - Blandford
Price - £14.99
Pages - 219