Do we need to rescue R&B?

13th September 2016

It might come as a bit of shock to some of you but I’m a journalist. There’s a traditional association with the job that assumes that journalists are in love with words and books and associated ephemera but, really, that’s not always so. I have known plenty who prefer a pint to Poe and a Tarka Dahl to Roald and see the trade as a short cut to a tan. So, I’m a bit old fashioned, I suppose.

Surrounded by ten, seven foot high book shelves of unread books (some, double stacked) plus the other shelves of the completed works, of course, words and the knowledge that they imbue are not only important to me but, as a generally soft hearted, easy going, laid back individual, are one of the few things that rouse my passions when they are misused in a malevolent manner. When that mode combines with my other love, music, then my ire is awakened.

Little Willie John

There have been many examples, of course, that are non-musical in tone. For example: it’s not ‘soccer’, it’s ‘football’; it’s not ’24/7’ it’s ‘all day, every day’; I’m a cricket fan so why should I want to ‘touch base’?; it’s a shopping ‘trolley’ not ‘cart’; similarly, it’s a shopping ‘centre’ not ‘mall’ (I don’t even know how to pronounce that word…mall, moll, what?), you have a ‘fringe’ on your forehead not ‘bangs’; it’s ‘alternative’ not ‘alternate’; you don’t ‘hike’ a price you ‘raise’ it; you don’t ‘reach out’ you ‘ask’ someone; it’s not ‘Where’s it at?’, it’s ‘Where is it?’; TVs cater for ‘Series’ not ‘Seasons’ and, for some reason, I hate the word ‘movie’, I much prefer ‘film’. And there’s plenty more where that lot came from.

Little Willie John

That the majority of erroneous word use stems from America (still the world’s dominant and aggressive culture, ask any French official, struggling to maintain a diversity quota) is intriguing when you consider that one particular lexical mutation actually originated in America and was then screwed up by other Americans later on. It’s not even a word, it’s a term, reduced to the snappy abbreviation of R&B.


Little Willie John

Rhythm & Blues, stemmed from the 1940s and hit its initial height during the fifties. It offered a rock-based rhythm with a jazz and/or blues beat. Protagonists included everyone from Ike Turner and Fats Domino and many more relatively obscure acts such as Little Willie John and The 5 Royales. In the UK, early variants of The Who, Rolling Stones and Animals were all collected under the label, partly because they sang older R&B covers. The genre is remembered for its energy, its passion, flying sweat and spittle from frantic harmonica playing, roaring guitars and vocal deliveries. R&B, in full mid-performance, offered a sort of adrenalin-based mania.

Fats Domino

So why are the collected works of Beyonce, R Kelly, Usher and, give me strength, Maria Carey now described as R&B? It’s not so. No, really, it just isn’t. All of these people plus many others like them do not sing R&B. What they sing isn’t even soul or funk. What they sing is soul-lite or soul-pop with obvious cross-genre additions such as the brief infusions of hip pop and dance music to tweak here and there.

Fats Domino in Amsterdam, Fats tijdens zijn optreden in het Concertgebouw *3 november 1962

Fats Domino

Noted music expert, Bill Dahl, writing the liner notes for the Ace CD ( release, Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm’s Ike’s Instrumentals refers to Turner’s prowess on the Stratocaster guitar, “His savage licks, liberally laced with whammy-bar hammering so audacious that its a minor miracle he didn’t snap all six strings every time he yanked on the thin metal rod protruding from his Fender solid body, rate with the most hair-raising blues guitar developments of the 1950s and the early 60s.” Now, seriously could you ever apply that to Whitney Houston, Little Mix or Jamelia?

Fats Domino’s The Early Imperial Singles 1950-1952, features Every Night About This Time, a vastly under-rated track that featured his soon to be trademarked hammering piano line that sounds like the action sequence from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, such is its repeating ferocity. I see a lot of posturing from the likes of Fifth Harmony and Drake but I don’t hear ferocity.

Fats again

Finally, while I hear a lot of computer processing behind many contemporary R&B voices, what I do not hear is the sheer guts, drive and insight from a man like Little Willie John, one of the greatest singers of all time. He offered a host of classic proto-soul gems, grabbing a R&B song and ringing out the emotion like a water-filled sponge. If Sam Cooke, then Little Willie John was a chef. You can hear more on Little Willie John’s Nineteen Sixty Six: The Dave Axelrod & HB Barnum Sessions on the Kent label.


Little Willie John

Mangling the R&B label onto ‘soul-lite’ smacks of re-writing history and marketing spin. It might be ‘just words’ to some but, to me, words have meaning and power. The only ‘spin’ I want to see is on my turntable.