1940s R&B Hits
by Jason Gubbels | April 21, 2014
The descriptor "rhythm and blues" wasn't used as a marketing term for Billboard until 1949, but record companies had been applying many different names to the music for most of the decade. Prior to the introduction of the R&B chart, Billboard had grouped uptempo boogie-woogie, hot swing and urbane blues singles into what it dubbed "The Harlem Hit Parade," a category that stood until 1945, when it became the "Race Records" chart (the confusion didn't end in 1949, either -- Billboard would continue to tweak the category, utilizing "Hot Soul Singles" for most of the 1970s and "Hot Black Singles" for much of the 1980s, before finally returning to "Hot R&B/Hip-Hop" in the late 1990s).
But even if the men in suits had difficulty coming up with a good name for the music, what we've come to think of as classic R&B had arrived fully formed by the early 1940s. And as our playlist suggests, even early R&B sounded a whole lot like what would come to be known as rock 'n' roll. Jazz played a large role in helping define the sound for much of the decade -- Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Christian all make early appearances, and bandleader/vibraphone master Lionel Hampton racked up numerous chart hits. But while tight arrangements and classy singers dominated (Billie Holiday's appearance on Paul Whiteman's "Travellin' Light" helped keep it atop the charts for three weeks in 1942), rougher singers and louder saxophones were making their presence known. And electric guitars were beginning to assert their place within the R&B ranks -- in February 1949, John Lee Hooker made it to No. 1 with his minimalist guitar stomp "Boogie Chillen."
Even if guitars and saxophones were fighting for prominence, 1940s R&B singers spent as much time getting raunchy or pushing double entendres as they would in the 1950s (and, it must be noted, as much as they do in our current hip-hop/R&B scene). Whether it's Tampa Red begging "Let Me Play With Your Poodle," Savannah Churchill asserting "Fat Meat Is Good Meat," Julia Lee outlining the attributes of her "King Size Papa," or Gene Phillips slipping "Punkin' Head Woman" right past the censors, good times were clearly being had by all. So let's take Percy Mayfield's expert advice and "Get Way Back," courtesy of our big fat 1940s R&B party.