So, too, was the case with early Rock and Roll. What Elvis did
pre-existed him—even if the way he put it together did not.
As this lesson will suggest, one crucial “parent” to early Rock
and Roll was Rhythm and Blues, or R&B. As Fats Domino said
in the mid-1950s, “What they call Rock and Roll I’ve been playing in New Orleans for years.” Many
would agree with him. The subject of this lesson is the music of which Fats Domino speaks: the R&B
of the pre-Rock and Roll era.
What was R&B, and where did it come from? The answers to that question are many and certainly
crucial for any deeper understanding of the Rock and Roll story. The short version has it that when
the Swing bands went out, due in part to the wartime economy and the daunting costs of keeping
a large ensemble on the road, smaller combos became popular. Those smaller combos had a sound
that many described as more “raw.” Artists like Louis Jordan emerged in this moment, influencing a
number of Rock and Rollers, Chuck Berry among them. As the R&B recordings reveal, these smaller
combos retained the emphasis on horn sections, but, by virtue of being smaller groups of players,
their sound left more musical room for other instruments. That being the time when electric guitar
technology was getting more advanced, this meant that when the guitar players got more space, they
met it with more volume. Thus the R&B sound edged toward Rock and Roll.
But even if R&B provided early Rock and Roll with many of its constituent elements, it is important
to also consider what made them different. In this lesson, students will compare LaVern Baker’s “Tra
La La,” an example of R&B, with her contemporary Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” an example of early
Rock and Roll. By way of conclusion, LaVern Baker’s record label, Atlantic, will be discussed as an
example of the independent companies that made R&B for black audiences, only to find that white
teenagers were, unexpectedly, their growing audience.
THE INFLUENCE OF RHYTHM AND BLUES