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Naming black music charts 1942 to 1992 December 20, 2006

Posted by wallofsound in Uncategorized.

The way that we understand popular music is in large part organised by the sorts of language we use to talk about it and the way we categorise it. A revealing example of these categorising processes can be found in the naming of record sales charts for music of African American origin. Taking as a primary source the titles of black music charts in Billboard magazine from their inception in 1942 through to 2002, it is possible to contextualise these changing terms by drawing on secondary sources in the historiographies of popular music culture.

Billboard is the American music industry’s main trade publication, and its charts are the most widely cited national calculations of record sales in the USA. Starting with a pre-war ‘Honour role of Hits’ and later a ‘Hot 100’ list each week Billboard has calculated and presented the best selling records in descending order. As well as these national best selling lists it offers a series of other charts including, from 1942, a chart of music that sells to African American audiences. The names of this list have changed over the last 60 years as follows:

Figure 4.1 Billboard charts for music of African American Origin 1942 to 2002

1942 Harlem Hit Parade
1945 Race Records
1949 Rhythm and Blues
1963 no separate chart
1965 R&B
1969 Soul
1982 Black
1990 R&B

The term ‘hit parade’ was already in use in the 1930s to describe the pop charts and the pre-fix ‘Harlem’ gave it a nice alliteration as well as connoting the African American audience whose tastes this chart was designed to represent. Harlem, on the northern end of Manhattan Island in the city of New York, hosted the major black community in the city, and has a key place in the history of African American music. By the 1920s the district had become the centre of a distinctive African American intellectual and cultural movement termed the Harlem Renaissance (Floyd 1990 1-28). It was here that bandleaders Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson fused black Blues forms and Hot Jazz styles with Dance band music (Chilton 1979, 47 – 56 )

On the edges of Harlem was the Cotton Club. It was here that Ellington made his name fulfilling the exotic notions the club’s white middle class clientele had of African Americans with his ‘Jungle music’. The sophisticated, ambitious music was presented as primitive and sexual in the club’s jungle setting and cabaret of dance and music (Haskins 1985). The noun Harlem, then, articulates the paradox of one part of African American music in the first forty years of the twentieth century: For the black musicians it represented an attempt to construct a culture the equal of that of white Americans, but for that latter group it was a symbol of the primitivism of sexualised escape.

The use of the term ‘Harlem Hit Parade’ represented an attempt to define the records bought by African Americans from the perspective of the New York-based Tin Pan Alley traditions of the mainstream music industry. From their position just off Broadway in Midtown Manhattan the white industry executives felt the world of black music was as alien as the streets of Harlem just a short subway ride up town. Although in the 1940s Manhattan was becoming an important place for the development of small group Bebop Jazz, most African American record buyers bought a very different type of music made in other industrial cities of Northern USA.

Billboard tried to signal this with the change of the name of its chart to ‘Race Records’. From the position of the twenty first century, learning that the music of African Americans was organised as ‘Race’ music is quite a shock. This had been a widely used term in the music industry since the very early years of recorded music, although by the 1940s it was limited to the white industry establishment. The connotations of the term race are complex. Today it is associated with a now generally discredited approach to understanding the peoples of the world, which under the cover of a supposed scientific investigation sought to prove that white skinned peoples were biologically superior to dark skinned folk. In the early twentieth century, though, ‘race’ was widely used in the same way that the term ethnicity is used today. That is to say, it represented a particular group of people with distinct cultural qualities. In the 1920s African Americans used the term positively as a collective noun defining their own cultural identity. In these terms, then, race music would articulate the distinctive culture of African Americans (George 1988, 8 –11).

The term Race records entered the vocabulary of the music industry in 1920 when white record producer Ralph Peer used the term to describe a new series of record releases of classic Blues singers like Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith aimed at an African American Audience (Sanjek and Sanjek 1996, 31). Up until 1930 this was a major market for records, as there was little African American music to be heard on the radio (Barlow 1995). African American record buyers were sufficiently numerous they kept several independent companies, including black owned ones, in business. However, the Great Depression and the resultant widespread unemployment led to the collapse of record sales and the companies that supplied them (Garofalo 1997, 46 -50).

It was not until the industrial expansion created by wartime production in the 1940s which led to rising prosperity among African Americans that the market for black music grew again. By then, though the women singers of the classic Blues and male singer/guitarists of the country Blues were being eclipsed by the new urban music of electric-guitar based bands of Rhythm and Blues. By the late 1940s the African American communities in the northern industrial cities had grown dramatically as people migrated in search of jobs created by the post-war boom. These communities became a significant market for music initially met by a new generation of independent record companies like Chess in Chicago and Atlantic in New York, and King in Cincinnati (Gillett 1988; Cohodas 2000; Garofalo 1997, 78 – 80)

Sales of records to black consumers were, from 1949, tracked by a Rhythm and Blues chart. For over a decade hundreds of Rhythm and Blues record companies were set up in cities and towns with black populations, producing the R&B and Doo Wop music that was to contribute to the foundations of Rock and Roll (Gillett 1971, 23 –37). The rising prosperity of the 1950s and the increasing prominence of African American sporting and entertainment stars in wider US society suggested to young blacks that it was possible to integrate into mainstream American society. Brian Ward suggests that these internationalist aspirations were reflected in a shift in popular music tastes with an increase in sales for black pop, rather than R&B, along white pop among black buyers (Ward 1998). Billboard obviously thought so as well and in 1963 they stopped publishing a chart listing sales among African American buyers, presumably because the pattern of sales was so similar to the Hot 100. Detroit-based Motown was the defining record label of this period. Owned by black entrepreneurs and releasing music by black singers, it nevertheless declared itself “the sound of young America” and modeled its releases far more on the white-produced Girl Group sounds of the early 1960s, than the R&B of the decade before (Early 1995; Smith 1999).

However, the 1960s is also well known for another form of black music much more rooted in the changing views of the African American communities. Billboard recognised these changes, but returned to an earlier terminology reinstating its black music chart as R&B. David Ward and Nelson George both cite Ray Charles and Sam Cooke as key artists in this musical change in the way they brought together R&B and Gospel music into what became known as Soul music. But there was more at play here than a shift in musical form. Soul was an articulation of a distinctive, culture affirming, black way of life. “Soul style, as manifested in distinctively black ways of walking and talking, eating, dressing, joking, thinking, working, playing, dancing and making music, defied analysis or imitation by outsiders” (Ward 1998, 182). James Brown was emblematic, the self-styled Godfather of Soul who proclaimed I’m Black and I’m Proud. In 1969 this new music cultural form was recognised by Billboard and its chart was renamed Soul.

It is no coincidence that Soul remained the name for the black music chart for thirteen years, a similar length to the Rhythm and Blues nomenclature. Although African American music in the 1970s was diverse and fast changing, the term Soul embraced it all. The idea of Soul was self consciously articulated through Africanised clothes and hair, southern styles of food, the search for ‘black’ musical forms, and support for the civil rights or black power movements (Ward 1998). While Memphis-based Stax records symbolised the early Soul sound (Bowman 1997), the sounds of Soul became increasingly varied. The increasing importance of the producer led to a studio soul championed by Isaac Hayes, developed by a raft of Motown producers and achieved its most mature form in Philly Soul (Cummings 1975). Experiments with earlier forms of Jazz, R&B and Rock produced Funk – meaning dirty — from bands like Kool and the Gang, Ohio Players and Parliament (Vincent 1996).

Much of this music achieved wider popularity among white Americans and Europeans and many of the artists were signed up to large music corporations. Such ‘cross over’ from black buyers to white buyers had been a characteristic of the market for music since the mid 1950s but during the 1970s it became a highly politicised cultural phenomena (Perry 1988). George argues that it led to the “Death of Rhythm and Blues” (1988), and the rise of a disco-culture in the US led to a dissemination of black musical forms into the mainstream of American pop music equal to that of Rock and Roll twenty years before.

In the face of the internationalisation of a strongly disco-influenced pop-soul sound a new range of primarily African American musical forms were developed in different cities of the US. Hip Hop in New York, Go Go in Washington, House in Chicago, Techno in Detroit all reinterpreted the past of Soul and Funk forms into a new musical culture distinctive to the particular location, ethnicity and sexuality of its host culture (Rose 1994; Reynolds 1998; Sicko 1999). Together with the rising popularity of Reggae and Dance Hall, the developments of studio soul into Swing Beat, and a continued interest in older forms of black music the term Soul could no longer cover them all. Reflecting the idea of black music produced for black consumers the chart changed its name first to Black music, and then in 1990 returned to the term R&B.

The re-use of the term R&B owes a significant debt to Nelson George and his concept of the ‘R&B world’, his role at Billboard magazine in the 1990s and his championing of a new generation of black entertainment industry entrepreneurs like Def Jam’s Russell Simmons. For George the connections between Hip Hop/R&B and post-Soul black consciousness were this culture’s most important characteristics (George 1998). R&B was taken up as a musical category for music firmly rooted in the tradition of Studio Soul/Swing Beat, but now infused with the vocal attack of Hip Hop and production techniques derived from the break beat and House/Techno manipulations. The political economy of contemporary R&B is indistinguishable from the Tin Pan Alley structures of mainstream pop and the cultural articulations of Soul have been replaced by a commitment to entertainment spectacle. Although it is possible to trace the musical sounds of R&B back to an earlier Rhythm and Blues, the sound and stance of contemporary R&B are as distinct from 1950s Rhythm and Blues as 1960s Soul was from 1920s Hot Jazz.

It is hard to sustain the idea that the R&B chart still identifies what is selling to African American consumers. The parallel economy of black music celebrated by George — based upon specialist record companies, regional distributors and small retailers, and promoted through local tours and black radio – and which sustained a musical culture, has gone. Black music entrepreneurs are most likely to work as independent producers for major record companies, and artists contracted to these companies and marketed internationally. While modern black music still sells significantly to a black audience it is far more widely popular, and the charts represent the sales of a type of music, rather than the purchases of a type of record buyer. For the record industry R&B is now a marketing category and not a market, and for music fans R&B is just one sound among many.



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