Origins of Modern Music: What is the History of R&B?

Origins of Modern Music: What is the History of R&B?

Rhythm and blues, or R&B, is a style of music that has been popular for over 80 years, leaving an indelible mark on music, pop culture, and the public consciousness. Several of the biggest recording artists of all time have been R&B artists such as Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Beyonce. R&B is known for soulful vocalizing, danceable beats, smooth production, catchy melodies, and relatable themes. Millions of music lovers all over the world are fans of R&B and its various styles and subgenres.

The genre has also impacted other styles of music, often through direct influence, collaborations, and incorporation of its elements into other forms. From the radio to film/television to commercials and more, R&B is an American art form with a global reach. Directly influenced by older genres like blues, jazz, and gospel, R&B has an undeniable legacy. It’s worth exploring the history of R&B and how, over the years, it has evolved while retaining many of its signature elements.

What Is the History of R&B?

R&B originated in the early 1940s among Black Americans. In previous decades, many Black Americans left the southern United States as part of the Great Migration for cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York City, and Los Angeles. This migration created new creators and audiences for jazz and blues.

This new sound emerged as a style of boogie-woogie music, a form of jazz that had heavy beats and rocking music. Artists such as saxophonist Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, and Roy Brown gained popularity for their grittier style. By the end of the decade, the term “rhythm and blues,” first coined by journalist Jerry Wexler, was commonly used to describe upbeat, jazz-based music with blues and gospel influences.

Mid-Century Magic

The 1950s was a critical era for R&B as a time of innovation and experimentation, moving the genre forward. This decade saw the emergence of early R&B legends such as Ray Charles, James Brown, and Little Richard. These artists were not only gifted singers and musicians but also electrifying performers whose energy captivated audiences. Other important developments in the 1950s helped shape this relatively new genre:

  • New rhythms and grooves: R&B creators began to experiment with new rhythms. This included global influences from Africa, including Afro-Latin rhythms such as bossa nova from the Caribbean and Latin America.
  • Electric guitar ascension: The electric guitar emerged as a staple of R&B music, allowing musicians to create sounds and develop styles of playing that were not possible with the acoustic guitar.
  • Rise of vocal groups: In the 1950s, vocal groups such as The Drifters and The Platters became popular. Their tight harmonies and smooth vocals appealed to all types of listeners.
  • Mainstream integration: During the 1950s, R&B got more mainstream with the popularity of rockers such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The influence of R&B on rock and roll was present in many of the decade’s biggest hits, including the music of the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley. Songs like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Heartbreak Hotel” were popular on both rock and rhythm and blues charts.

Enter the Soulful Sixties

The 1960s was a pivotal moment in the history of R&B. As the genre further distinguished itself from its blues and jazz origins, a new style of R&B became very popular, called soul music. Soul music dominated the airwaves and charts in the 1960s, notable for several common characteristics:

  • Expressive, soulful vocals: Deeply inspired by gospel music, soul vocals were often passionate and full of emotion. The 1960s were a time of great social change, especially among Black Americans. The singing in this era reflected the passions and frustrations of Black people fighting for civil rights and social justice.
  • Call and response singing: Many songs in this area featured a “call” from the lead singer and a “response” from the background vocals or chorus. This was directly inherited from gospel music and spirituals created by enslaved Africans.
  • Catchy rhythms:  One distinguishing feature of soul music is strong rhythms, punctuated by hand clapping and improvisational body movements. Soul music was all about expressing the depth of your feelings, not just in the voice but also with the body. 

This decade also saw the emergence and establishment of many of R&B’s most beloved and popular acts. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, rose to stardom in the 1960s. Considered by many to be the greatest singer of all time, Aretha brought her signature gospel-cultivated soulful vocals to secular music with massive hits such as "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," "Respect," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Chain of Fools," "Think," and "I Say a Little Prayer."

This decade also saw the rise of different styles of R&B based on geography. Cities such as Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, etc., each had their own sub-genre of soul music, inspired by local artists and other influences. Most notable among these was Detroit and the Motown sound, a lighter, more pop-oriented version of soul.

Founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy, Motown Records was one of the most successful record labels, launching the careers of iconic R&B superstars, including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, and The Jackson 5. Under Gordy’s leadership, Motown carefully cultivated the images of its artists, including polished performances and elaborate stage shows. Motown was instrumental in helping to break down racial barriers, as many acts rivaled prominent rock and pop artists in popularity and commercial success.

The Sounds of the Seventies

Life went on, and so did R&B and its various sounds. The 1970s continued the trend of soul music with themes of civil rights, politics, and soul issues. Stars from the 1960s, such as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Michael Jackson (of the Jackson 5), continued to enjoy mainstream success, picking up new listeners along the way.

Two prominent styles of R&B characterized this decade both in sound, style, and culture:


Although funk started in the prior decade, it began to dominate R&B and popular music in the 1970s. Funk music is a highly danceable form of R&B characterized by strong rhythmic grooves fueled by the electric bass, highly percussive rhythms from a drum set and other percussion instruments, complex chords, and often horn sections. Building on work popularized by James Brown, several funk acts came to the fore, including Sly and the Family Stone, Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament Funkadelic, Kool and the Gang, and Cameo, among others.


Another R&B subgenre that came out of the 1970s was disco. Associated with the nightlife scene in several American cities, disco music was mostly uptempo, featuring a four-on-the-floor rhythm beat. Other signature elements included syncopated basslines, elaborate orchestrations (including strings and horns), strong melodies, and anthemic choruses.

Disco emerged as an escape from some of the social and economic challenges of the time, including the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, and the Watergate scandal. Clubbers would go to nightclubs to forget their troubles by dancing the night away. Disco was a very inclusive genre of music, featuring artists from all walks of life.

Although the genre quickly faded and was sometimes derisively considered a flash in the pan, disco made an indelible mark on pop culture, yielding classics such as “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, “Love To Love You, Baby” by Donna Summer, and “Le Freak” by Chic.

The Dawn of the Eighties and Contemporary R&B

The 1980s is often seen as the beginning of the Computer Age, thanks to the invention of the microcomputer and the use of computers in everyday life. Popular music was also impacted by the use of computer electronics and R&B was no exception. Contemporary R&B came to the mainstream in this decade, melding classic R&B elements with increased use of electronic instruments, smooth production techniques, and influences from pop, funk, rock, and hip-hop.

One of the biggest developments in popular music during this era was the dawn of the music video. You can’t talk about the history of R&B without discussing music videos and one artist who is considered an exemplar of the music video format, Michael Jackson, whose 1982 album “Thriller” gave the world some of the most iconic music videos, including that of the title track.

Several artists also were launched in this era, adding to R&B’s legacy, including Whitney Houston, Prince, Luther Vandross, Janet Jackson, and Sade, among others. R&B continued to expand its reach, creating sub-genres such as new jack swing, quiet storm, hip-hop soul, neo soul, and alternative R&B.

When you take a close look at the history of R&B, you can see that it also chronicles and parallels major moments in American history. This is no surprise for an American art form that is as influential as R&B, or one that takes so much from its roots, as R&B. From the early days of boogie-woogie to modern electronic-inspired hits, R&B is a rich tapestry of sounds. Visit our site to find digital sheet music to R&B songs from every era. Only at Musicnotes.