Tuesday, August 19, 2008

R&B & Race Records

I write often about jive-talking black DJs of the 1950s because the era fascinates me. I'm completely partisan towards it. The slow progression from jive to hip-hop is tied to radio, to turntables, and to technology. I'll make my indefensible bald assertion now and say it was the only genre born on the radio.In the 1950s and 1960s Black DJs made inroads into popular culture. But there was radio programming marketed towards them before that. Some record labels (Paramount for example) had been target marketing to them for decades. In 1942 Billboard became the first to chart it.

On October 4th, 1942 they launched a music chart called the "Harlem Hit Parade." Three years later they retitled the chart "race records." The term race records was alreayd established. The term is first known to have appeared in 1922, in an advertisement of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper. Race records were not meant to be construed as a genre. This was simple segregation. It was realty just records made by black recording artists. The chart initially was comprised of raw juke box plays but after 1948 also incorporated some retail sales data. Despite it's intended purpose, the chart at different times had both Bing Crosby and Dick Haymes on it.

In 1945, Jerry Wexler, suggested in the Saturday Review of Literature that the insensitive term "race records" be dropped in favor of "rhythm and blues." In 1948, RCA Victor was marketing black music under the name Blues and Rhythm. It wasnt' everything but it was industry acceptance. Billboard changed it in the summer of 1949, The Race Records chart is renamed the Rhythm & Blues chart. It's generally accepted that Wexler did not invent the term, but his article was the onus behind it's formal adoption. At the time Wexler was a writer for Billboard, why this article was published outside their magazine we may never know.

The chart became important enough to be subdivided. In 1948 there were separate charts published for Best Sellers and Juke Box plays. In 1955 a third chart was added, based exclusively on radio airplay. These three charts were re-consolidated into a single R&B chart in 1958.

Then in November of 1963 the chart was canceled entirely. Strangely this coincided with the assassination of President Kennedy. The chart that would immediately follow his dead never ran. Now, it's difficult to argue this as causal. But I don't like coincidences. The chance synchronization between death of a powerful civil rights figure, and the end of a race-based music chart seems unlikely. We may never know the connection. It may be indirect. But the chart ceased and Billboard gave a bullshit reason. They claimed that Motown was now so popular that musical tastes had converged. A quick examination of charts form that year disprove that crap of course. I'd show you the charts but they are still very much under copyright.

In 1965 A simpler more pop-oriented chart was re-launched. It is that chart, which has been boiled down into today's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart.