Death of Rhythm & Blues
Something died, writes Nelson George. Something that will perhaps be revived one day, but whose death signaled the end of an era for the black community. This is what The Death of Rhythm & Blues chronicles, the rise and fall of a musical genre on the backdrop of fast changing times. For Rhythm & Blues (R&B) is two different things at once. As a musical style, it emerged around the end of the 1940s, synthesizing different black genres, such as blues, gospel, or swing, to which it gave an eminently danceable and propulsive feel. However, argues Nelson, R&B was also a symbol and a catalyst of the black community's aspirations. It characterized the attempt to move forward, the common desire "to achieve equality under the law, end overt and covert racism, and acquire firm power" [p. xi]. When some of these goals were partly achieved for a growing fraction of the black population, the forces that kept it together came apart and in the process something was lost. At exactly the same time, and for the same reasons, R&B started to atrophy. In both cases, says George, what the black community had to let go of in the name of progress was their pride in the uniqueness of their people and of their heritage. If "you can tell where black people are at any given point in history by [their] music" [p. xiv], the study of R&B should yield fascinating insights into the past and future of the African-American community.
Nelson George sets his analysis within the framework of a political and cultural debate that has divided black leaders for the last century: the opposition between assimilation and self-sufficiency. Quite deliberately, and at variance with most of his contemporaries, George positions himself as a supporter of Booker T. Washington. Washington had advocated vocational training—manual labor, for instance—for his people as a means to achieve excellence and thus break down racial barriers, rather than resorting to the forms of assimilation (or at least integration) that W.E.B Dubois had initially supported. For George, the assimilationists' triumph brought nothing but white, individualistic values to African-Americans, at the expense of more substantial ones.
Drawing on Washington's message, George puts forward a convincing case that all-black cultural forms, such as baseball or R&B, in which numerous black people did achieve excellence, could have been a way for the black community to preserve its heritage and enhance its self-sufficiency, "a potent weapon in the struggle for the soul of black America" [p. 8]. However, despite considerable commercial success, this is not what happened. For a distinction has to be made between sales figures and more essential issues such as: what happened to the profits generated by black artists? Were they reinvested into the community? Were their managers or booking agents black? Consistently, the answer is no, and Nelson George readily identifies the culprit: assimilation, or as it is known in musical parlance, "crossover." The apparent success enjoyed by black artists is yet another proof of the ultimate failure of the pro-assimilation stance. Eager to break into the white market, wooed by transnational majors, black artists chose to adulterate their music to please white tastes. R&B gave way to disco, ironically an extension of black dance music; black radio stations stopped being a "safe haven" [p. 157] for black artists and became, rather, a vehicle for "white negroes." Repeatedly, African-American performers were told by black radio managers that they were "too black" for their audience. George insists, "a more committed effort at self-sufficiency would have given blacks a better base from which to work for integration and practical power" [p. 201]. R&B could have been such a force, but it failed, precisely under the weight of pro-integration forces. Ultimately, The Death of Rhythm & Blues can be read as a political manifesto, a call for black musicians "to free themselves from the comforts of crossover, to recapture their racial identity" [p. 200].
The Death of Rhythm & Blues is not only a committed book, it is also a fascinating account of the development of R&B. It covers chronologically the work and lives of numerous characters of the R&B scene, famous stars, entrepreneurs, lesser known musicians, and technicians. George pays homage to them, providing a wealth of precious facts, dates, and little known anecdotes. The story opens in the late forties on a businessman, Dave Clark, and a musician, Louis Jordan, underscoring R&B's debt to the big band era. George then chronicles the early development of the music on independent labels —Imperial, Peacock, Atlantic, Specialty, Philco-Aladdin, King..., many on the west coast, as a result of the influx of blacks in Southern California. At the time, black deejays, "the inheritors of the black oral tricksters" [p. 114], or even white "Negrophile" ones, played a seminal role in disseminating the music. However, George is much more circumspect when it comes to white artists, such as Norman Mailer, who celebrated the "negro" paradigm (the primal, sexual energy of blacks), stereotyping African-Americans in a way ultimately as disparaging as overt racism.
George then moves to the next phase of the musical evolution, soul, the groundbreaking fusion between secular (R&B) and spiritual genres, a music blacks developed as they felt increasingly alienated from what had become known as "rock." Initially embodied by Ray Charles, who made "pleasure (physical satisfaction) and joy (divine enlightenment) seem the same thing" [p. 70], soul subsequently evolved, thanks to Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield, and the efforts of various labels such as Motown, Stax or Philly, whose ups and downs are scrupulously described. As the story unfolds, Nelson George (and here lies maybe his main achievement) manages to link musical developments with political, social, and cultural issues. He thus asserts that "Motown...shows that the combination of successful integration and powerful feeling of black inadequacy...was a bad omen for the R&B world" [p. 89], even if for a while artists like James Brown tried to demonstrate that black music could yield artistic and economic freedom. Another bad omen was the limited space devoted to women in R&B, with the notable exception of Aretha Franklin. Another compelling dimension of The Death of Rhythm & Blues is George's ability to bring to the fore technical and economic issues: the role played by independent and major record companies (with, for instance, some remarkable pages on the 1972 Harvard Report which led CBS to invest heavily in black music, altering white tastes and cajoling black buyers at the same time), the development of retail outlets in the black neighborhoods, the evolution (for better or for worse) of black radio, and the links between music and the motion picture industry.
One of the book's shortcomings it that it gets entangled into the hackneyed, fruitless debate about the nature of rock 'n' roll; for George, rock 'n' roll is simply black R&B that white musicians stole from black performers. Writing about white artists, he thus resorts to rather disparaging terms, mentioning "foul" English products, or describing Mick Jagger doing his lame funky chicken [p. 92], which adds little to the issue. Admittedly, the fact that he is one of the few black people (with Eileen Southern) who have written on music, including African-American styles, could add some weight to his argument, but not necessarily. The lack of well-deserved financial rewards for black precursors is a given fact, but the aesthetic changes performed by white artists cannot be reduced to unwelcome adulterations of the original. "To applaud black excellence and white mediocrity with the same vigor is to view them as equals, in which case the black artist in America always loses [p. 92]." At this point, though, isn't George confusing artistic creativity (though he redeems groups like the Beatles for their contribution to making black music better accepted) and financial gains? Similarly challenging is his contention that an artist like Jimi Hendrix severed his connection with the black community because of his brilliance on the electric guitar, which turned him into a product fit for the white rock market
Nelson however never displays what would amount to debilitating narrow-mindedness. As the closing chapter of The Death of Rhythm & Blues, devoted to early rap music, and his seminal book on hip hop culture, Hip Hop America, amply prove, he can bypass the limitations of his own original tastes and grasp what the music may have to offer in the future. As early as 1988, he could speculate as to what extent rap would or would not redeem African-American music, leading the way out of the quagmire of assimilation. Except that, as he adds, rap is deprived of the hope that rang so loud and clear in the best R&B, in the heydays of the civil rights movement. Indeed, the development of rap music, despite unavoidable co-opting by the white market and, simultaneously, the occasional isolation on the fringes of the black community, proved to be a powerful instrument for the restoration of a strong black consciousness.
in 1988, when the book was first published, George coined the term
"retronuevo" to describe musicians embracing the
past to create new forms. At the time, few artists were considered
worthy of the title, least of all R&B singers. Surprisingly, 15
years later, it is perhaps from the ranks of female R&B singers,
Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, or Kelis, that
once again the sounds of a more promising future for African American
music and consciousness can be heard. Finally, it is not one of the
least achievements of The Death of Rhythm & Blues to
have increased our awareness of what is at stake in the development
of American popular music.