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Gospel and Rhythm & Blues Pave the Way

New genres of music aren’t created in a vacuum. If you want to learn about the history of funk and soul, you need to learn a little about the evolution of Black music in America. Before things could get funky, gospel and rhythm and blues would need to pave the way.

Now I never sung that stuff, but I like it, what they call soul. That stuff got heaven and hell in it. Can’t get to soul without rhythm and blues and gospel. And what they call rock and roll, which ain’t nothing but r&b—labels are bullshit. You wanna get to the 60s, you gotta start with the 40s and the beginning of rhythm and blues. Late 40s, early 50s. Somewhere along the mid-50s, people started doing gospel and blues. Look, you can’t make a clean separation anywhere.”

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in Nowhere to Run: the Story of Soul Music by Gerri Hirshey


The first book to use the word gospel to refer to a style of Black American music and singing was Gospel Pearls, published by the National Baptist Convention in 1921. Contained within were a number of composers, such as Charles Albert Tindley, that were experimenting with the traditional African American spiritual style that had been around since the days of slavery.

About a decade later, the distinct gospel sound was refined thanks to a blues artist known as Georgia Tom. After the tragic death-in-childbirth of his wife and newborn in 1932, Thomas A Dorsey (aka the Godfather of Gospel) turned to the spirituals and hymns of Black church music for solace. Blending the jazz and rhythmic cadences of blues with the proto-gospel style of Tindley, Dorsey wrote the gospel standard Precious Lord, Take My Hand.

After putting my wife away and the baby in the same casket, I went to the old Choral College in the music room there, Mr. Fry and I—and just browsing over the keys and seemingly the words like drops of water from a crevice of a rock above seemed to drop in line with me on the piano.

Thomas A. Dorsey

Much like soul would be in the future, gospel was controversial in the beginning due to its association with ragtime, blues, and jazz. Dorsey soon found like-minded ministers, though, with the help of vocalist Sallie Martin (and later Mahalia Jackson) demonstrating his compositions in churches across America. In 1933, Dorsey organized the first National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. Before long, gospel was mainstream Black American church music.

By the mid40s and 50s, gospel harmony quartets were the touring stars of the Gospel Highway, the church equivalent to the r&b Chitlin’ Circuit. However, like a Christian rock band…you can only ever get so popular in the religious sphere. Despite the taboo of recording secular music, gospel singers like Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke would eventually cross over into soul, successfully tapping into a much larger audience and paving the way for a slew of future gospel/soul crossovers in the 60s.

Rhythm and Blues

R&B—a blend of jump blues, big band, swing, gospel, and boogie—was born out of the urbanized jazz and blues sound that evolved during the two great migrations of southern Black Americans into the cities of the north and midwest in the first half of the twentieth century.

The term rhythm and blues came into regular use in 1948 when record companies started looking for an alternative label for Black music, until then categorized as “race” records. In the book Nothing but the Blues, Lawrence Cohen wrote that R&B was an umbrella term invented for industry convenience that embraced all Black music “except classical music (a very small category) and religious music, unless of course, a gospel song sold enough to break into the charts.”

One artist in particular, Louis Jordan, helped popularize the new sound in the 1940s. Louis Jordan and his band the Tympany Five combined swing horns, humor, slang, and call-and-response between Jordan and the band into the upbeat, infectious jump blues sound. Jordan and other r&b artists, like Charles Brown and Nat King Cole, helped inspire the next generation of r&b musicians. In particular, future soul innovators Ray Charles and James Brown.

“Louis Jordan could do everything,” James Brown said in the 2005 BBC docuseries, Soul Deep (the Hip-Hop-Evolution-but-for-soul-and-funk show that I wanted and apparently already existed). “He could play, he wrote the music, he danced, he made movies, he did the score. He did everything.”

“I was a real fan of Louis Jordan…Everything blended, everything matched…and I was crazy about his music,” Ray Charles said in a separate Soul Deep interview. “Some of the real good stuff that Louis Jordan did was when it was just, he had himself playing alto and a guy playing trumpet in the rhythm section, and man they were just unique.”

Inspired by Louis Jordan and others, Ray Charles started playing piano on the famous Chitlin circuit at the age of 15 in 1945. He would eventually meet and play piano for “Little Miss Rhythm” herself, Ruth Brown, the soon-to-be Queen of R&B. Atlantic Records was formed in 1947, signed Ruth Brown in 1948, and by the 50s became known as “the house that Ruth built.” Brown brought certain pop elements to the genre, helping to further cement r&b’s place in the popular mainstream of Black music.

“I liked her singing…and she was good looking and she had all this hair. And she used to wear her hair down with these big kiss curls on the side you know?” Etta James said in Soul Deep. “And she looked like a Carmen Miranda or somebody, and did a Carmen Miranda kinda Chica Chica Chic dance, you know? And I said I want to sing like her, I want to look like her and I want to be like her.”

By the early 50s, college White kids were starting to regularly tune into r&b music on the radio and record companies took notice. Unfortunately, only a few Black musicians had lasting crossover success in the decade as White artists began repackaging sanitized versions of r&b hits for broader White radio consumption. A precursor to more than just soul, r&b also gave birth to Rock and Roll.

The Birth of Soul

While much of White America was focused on the rock n roll craze, two things happened in the r&b and gospel scenes in the mid50s. First: a few r&b artists started to blend the sexual energy of r&b with the spiritual soul and vocal delivery of gospel. Second: a number of gospel singers, seeing the popular success of soul, crossed over into recording secular music.

Ray Charles, the Father of Soul, is credited with recording the first song to bring these two styles together. His 1954 release, I’ve Got a Woman, combined the gospel melody of It Must Be Jesus by the Southern Tones with the jazzy rhythm and secular lyrics of r&b. The song quickly rose to number 1 on the r&b charts. “I just started to take my music and singing it the way I felt it,” Ray Charles said. “And of course, it had so much gospel sound to it but that was the way I felt, that was part of my growing up. I was raised in the church and of course religious music is basically just simple music.”

By adding background singers, the Raylettes, Ray Charles created his own gospel call-and-response choir. Like with the creation of gospel before it, not everyone was a fan of the new combination. Many thought that explicitly turning church music into secular r&b was a line too far, sacrilegious. “Lots and lots of people felt that way,” Ray Charles said in Soul Deep. “I mean a lot of people wrote me a lot of letters and stuff. But you know, you just tell yourself…you do what you do…and I knew all I was doing was being myself.”

Not long after, James Brown followed suit with his track Please, Please, Please in 1956. James Brown incorporated more church pageantry into his performance: becoming overcome with the energy of the music, collapsing, being helped up, draped with a cape, and fanned off before going on to new frantic heights—dancing like the Godfather of Soul and Father of Funk that he was. Not long after, James Brown and the Famous Flames scored another soul hit with their 1958 release, Try Me.

Elsewhere, in the world of gospel, a singer by the name of Sam Cooke was considering the ‘controversial’ decision of crossing over into pop music. Previously a member of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers with hits like Jesus Give me Water, Cooke took a chance and released the song Lovable in 1956. A secular cover of the gospel track Wonderful, Cooke tried to hide his ‘betrayal’ by releasing it under the alias Dale Cooke. His fans weren’t fooled and soon after he left the Soul Stirrers to start his pop soul career.

Cooke quickly put any doubters to rest by following up Lovable with the hit single, You Send Me in 1957, catapulting him to soul stardom. He’d remain a staple of the pop/r&b charts through the late 50s and early 60s and go on to start his own record label. Before his tragic death in 1964, Cooke’s label opened the door for many other gospel singers behind him.

Soul started to take shape in the 50s but was still being released sporadically—almost more of a trend then a proper genre. By the end of the decade, the once fuzzy line between soul and r&b became much more clear. In addition to Sam Cooke, a record company called Tamla Records (aka Motown Records) opened its doors in 1959 and would help drive the coming explosive crossover popularity of soul music in the 1960s.

Some might argue that “soul” was simply r&b’s pop rebranding campaign. Like Screamin’ Jay said, you can’t really make a clear separation anywhere. Soul definitely got 23 of its chromosomes from r&b but the combination of gospel and pop elements created a fresh, new sound that would take the world (and this lanky bastard decades later) by storm, and eventually lead down a path towards funk, afrobeat, hip hop, and more.

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