by Cynthia C. Scott
R&B came of age during the 1960's, when such popular sounds coming from Motown, Stax/Volt Atlantic Records and various points all across the United States dominated AM Radio and inspired generations of musicians and music-lovers alike.
R&B didn't really get its signature sound, though, until the late 1950's, when singer/songwriter Ray Charles emerged on the scene. A true innovator, the singer came to be known as the inventor of Rhythm & Blues when he took Blues riffs and married them with Gospel to much acclaim. Though Charles was criticized within the Black community for secularizing many popular Gospel tunes, he would go on to have a number of Top Ten hits with such songs as "Night Time Is the Right Time," "What'd I Say" and "Hit the Road, Jack."
As the 1960's dawned, a new sound emerged from Detroit, which was dubbed by producer Berry Gordy as the Sound of Young America, and took hold of American listeners. Funky and sophisticated all at once, the Motown sound, which included such artists as Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Mary Wells, the Supremes, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, came to define much of R&B music during this period.
What made the music popular was not only the famous personalities that came out of Motown, but the music that fronted them. Known as the Funk Brothers, a collection of jazz-trained musicians around Detroit that Gordy personally selected, laid down tracks that would have young America grooving to their funky rhythms and beats.
Where the Motown sound was slick and often watered down for mainstream tastes, the Stax/Volt sound was raw, gritty, and uncompromisingly Southern-fried. Emerging out of Memphis, where many blues artists during a previous era made their mark, Stax/Volt brought Southern blues and R&B to American radio with widespread success. With such names as Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Booker G & the MGs, and later Aretha Franklin, Stax/Volt, which later merged with Atlantic Records, would come to inspire many of the early seventies funk and R&B groups with their signature style, focusing on the rhythm section, especially the bass guitar, for its sound.
But one artist that emerged from the 1950's R&B scene and became famous during the 1960's was James Brown. Known as Soul Brother No. 1 and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Brown would set the standards that later became funk music during the 1970's which his focus on sticky bass grooves. During the late 60's, he also created an anthem for Black America when he released "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." Having one of the tightest R&B bands around, Brown created funk beats that would later be sampled by rap groups such as Public Enemy. A true innovator, Brown set the standard for what R&B music would come to look and sound like during the 1960's.
Though he didn't belong to any particular sound that defined much of 1960's R&B, singer Sam Cooke was definitely in a league of his own. Originally a frontman for the Gospel group The Soul Stirrers, Cooke struck out on his own as a solo act to much success. Cooke earned hits with such songs as "Cupid," "Chain Gang," and "Wonderful World." Like many of the Motown singers, Cooke's style was much smoother and jazz-influenced, able to turn a phrase to interpret a line or lyric with gut-wrenching effect. His Dylan-inspired song "A Change is Gonna Come," which reflected the political and social movements of the day is a perfect example of his superior song styling. Cookie would later inspire such artists as Rod Stewart and also set the standard for smooth R&B singers whose phrasings teased out the seductive qualities that define R&B today.
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