Rhythm and Blues

Rhythm and blues, more commonly known as R&B, is an extremely broad genre that encompasses or is closely tied to various popular styles, including soul and Motown music. Originating as early as the 1940s, R&B has constantly changed its meaning as the genre evolved, so we are going to start right off with classic rhythm and blues. 

Classic Rhythm and Blues

Rhythm and blues first began to take shape as a recognisable music form in the 1940s following the Great Migration, as there was an influx of Black Americans in major cities such as New York, Chicago, LA, and Detroit. This increased cultural diversity brought with it Black American tradition, including blues and church music. The term rhythm and blues was coined by Jerry Wexler in 1947 to categorise a new, polished blues sound being headed by Louis Jordan and his band, the Tympany Five. By the beginning of the 1950s, rhythm and blues was mainly reaching a black audience; existing primarily in clubs and honky-tonks, it was seen as a simpler alternative to jazz. However, artists such as Johnny Otis saw hits with songs such as Double Crossing Blues and Cupid’s Boogie which helped the genre gain a wider, more diverse audience. By the mid 50s, rock ‘n’ roll was becoming a highly popular genre, with many of its leading artists such as Little Richard and James Brown belonging equally to R&B. Due to the simultaneous development of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s, the genres were almost indiscernible during this period. However, in the 60s when rock went in a heavier, more psychedelic direction, R&B pursued a more polished sound. The year 1960 also demonstrated R&B’s diversification with singers such as Sam Cooke and the label Motown Records taking the genre in new directions that led to notable styles. Classic R&B shares many characteristics with rock ‘n’ roll. The instrumentation is often guitar based, with accompanying double bass, drums, piano, vocals and sometimes a saxophone. There is also a heavy blues influence and sometimes elements of gospel traditions. 

Notable artists:

The Tympany Five

The Cardinals

Johnny Otis

Ruth Brown

Fats Domino


Soul is a popular genre that entered the mainstream in the mid-to-late 1950s. It developed from the rhythm and blues tradition but also combines elements of African American gospel music. The genre first started showing signs of fruition in the mid 50s with singers such as James Brown, Etta James and Ray Charles achieving hits; Charles’ I Got a Woman was particularly successful, and the singer is noted for his instrumental role in popularising the genre. Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson were also vital to developing the soul style and Cooke rose to fame leading the group the Soul Stirrers. Throughout the 60s, soul music became increasingly popular. Iconic figures such as Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin experienced great commercial success. Aretha Franklin especially, aided by the leading label in soul and R&B, Atlantic Records, enjoyed widespread success in 1967 with the release of I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) and Respect. This was arguably the peak in popularity for soul as it was dominating charts and leading festivals. Moving into the 70s, the genre began to fragment into a wider variety of styles. Typical soul music can be identified by a blues influence in the harmonies, virtuosic vocal ad-libs and call-and-response figures between lead vocals and backing vocals. Instruments used will often prioritise a strong sense of rhythm and horn sections are very common.

Notable artists:

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

James Brown

Ray Charles

Sam Cooke

Otis Redding


Motown Records is a record label initially founded in Detroit by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1959. The label was so integral to the commercialisation and development of a more polished, popular branch of soul music that the name itself is synonymous with that music style. During the 60s, Motown Records became associated with many iconic musicians, including Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Jackson 5. These artists all experienced success and helped shape a more commercial, soul-infused pop sound. However, by the early 70s, there was declining interest in the more polished, classy pop-soul music that Motown was now synonymous with. Gordy repositioned the record label to be based in Los Angeles where it was less influential on the landscape of popular music, however, its unmistakeable influence during the 60s cemented the label as one of the most influential in all of pop music. Motown music is discernible through its rhythmic emphasis, a strong backbeat is typically present, and the songs were often short to be more suited for radio. Motown records also had their own in-house band known as the Funk Brothers: a group of capable musicians, including Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson, who played on many of the records. Motown artists, like the music they released, were presented as clean and polished.

Notable artists:

Marvin Gaye

The Temptations

Stevie Wonder

The Supremes

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles


Contemporary R&B

Contemporary R&B is used to describe the new wave of R&B music that emerged in the 80s. The style developed and took elements from progressive soul, disco, and hip hop. Most notably, contemporary R&B was influenced by the rhythmic emphasis and use of electronic synths, effects, and percussion in these styles. This newer sound is typified in the album Control released by Janet Jackson in 1986. Into the 90s R&B solidified itself once again as one of the most popular genres with Whitney Houston’s soundtrack to The Bodyguard becoming immensely popular and the best-selling soundtrack of all time. The next few years saw the release of Janet Jackson’s self-titled album janet and Mariah Carey’s Music Box, both of which were widely successful. In 1995, Carey’s album Daydream included the single One Sweet Day which was a collaboration with Boyz II Men and received universal praise. Into the 2000s, R&B more commonly crossed over with hip hop and the style continued to exhibit commercial success. Contemporary R&B is typically characterised by the use of electronics: electric keyboards, synthesisers and drum machines are very common and replaced the guitar-based instrumentation of earlier classic R&B. The vocals are usually both very smooth and polished, and virtuosic. Within R&B there are also a lot of ballad style songs. 

Notable artists:

Janet Jackson

Whitney Houston

Mariah Carey

Michael Jackson

Boyz II Men

Alicia Keys

If you want to commission your own music in this style, or would like more information or help, please contact us.