The music that we now know as "rhythm & blues" emerged from the blues scene of the 1950s. R&B took the upbeat tempo and reckless urgency of the jump blues style and paired it with a vocal style that was equally informed by the pop music of the day and the gospel tradition of the churches that many early R&B crooners grew up and learned to sing in, Sam Cooke probably being the best example of this gospel-pop crossover. Blues singers like Etta James and Bobby "Blue" Bland that had the pipes to pull it off would become stars in a field dominated by vocalists like Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, and many others.
The Evolution of Soul
If rhythm & blues music was an urbanized form of the blues, then soul music – which in itself was a further evolution and refinement the original blues blueprint – was an urbanized form of R&B that sprung up in cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago during the 1960s. The introduction of a deep rhythmic groove to R&B would result in funk music during the 1970s, and during that decade all three offshoots of the blues would flourish both creatively and commercially.
Today's rhythm & blues bears little resemblance to the fiery, emotional R&B of decades past, placing much more of an emphasis on dance beats and pop-styled vocals and arrangements than on the passion and grit displayed by the music's roots. Although contemporary R&B artists like Beyonce, Rihanna, or Usher, to name but three, have achieved success beyond the wildest dreams of first generation soul singers, time will tell whether or not their music has the staying power of, say, an Isaac Hayes or Otis Redding.
Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues
Putumayo World Music was formed in 1993 to promote international music, a quest that the label has been quite successful at over the last 17 years. Putumayo has released music by artists as diverse as acoustic bluesman Eric Bibb, acclaimed African singer Angelique Kidjo, New Orleans jazz legend Kermit Ruffins, and blues giant Taj Mahal, among many others.
The label's compilations are well though out, if not often definitive in their fields, and feature a diverse and invigorating range of music. Throughout the years, however, although Putumayo has flirted with rhythm & blues and soul music, they've never released a compilation dedicated to American R&B...until now. Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues offers up an electrifying dozen tracks of classic R&B and modern soul with a definite old-school R&B edge.
Keeping The Flame Alive
The average record-buyer wouldn't necessarily know that there's more to today's R&B scene than Beyonce, but artists like Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Keb' Mo', Ruthie Foster, and others are keeping the flame alive for the stone cold real thing. Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues mixes first generation rhythm & blues crooners with the new kids on the block to present an encouraging picture of where R&B has been and the direction that it's headed.
Texas R&B legend Lavelle White kicks off Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues with her spirited "I've Never Found A Man To Love," a early-1960s throwback with smooth-as-silk vocals and an engaging horn section that, if this was a just world, would have been a huge radio hit 'cause it satisfies like sweet tea on a hot summer day.
There's a lot more to like on Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues as well. British retro-soul shouter James Hunter is the best of his country's revivalists, and his up-tempo "Til Your Fool Comes Home" would have sounded equally at home in Chicago circa 1956 as it does today. The Emotions – three sisters who were a big 1970s soul act – deliver the gorgeous "My Honey and Me" with energy and emotion, while Catherine Russell's lovely "Put Me Down Easy," with soaring vocals and passionate delivery, is a great example of modern-day soul.
Wang Dang Doodle
Stax soul legend Sam Moore (Sam & Dave) teams up with bluesman Keb' Mo' and R&B singer Angie Stone for an energetic romp across Howlin' Wolf's classic "Wang Dang Doodle," while New Orleans six-string legend Snooks Eaglin is represented by a spry reading of "A Mother's Legend," replete with his imaginative fretwork, while another Crescent City musical giant, Irma Thomas, accompanied by noted jazz/blues pianist Henry Butler, shows the American Idol generation how to do it with a powerful performance on the mesmerizing "River Is Waiting." Underrated and too-often overlooked by all but her local audience (and The Blues Foundation), the Blues Music Award winning Thomas is one of the greatest R&B vocalists of all time.
Ruthie Foster, an up-and-coming star in the blues world, is featured here with "'Cuz I'm Here," from her The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster album, the song a slow-paced but smoldering performance that showcases Foster's powerful, expressive voice and interpretive skills. Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings are well-known to fans of roots-oriented R&B, and their "100 Days, 100 Nights," from the 2007 album of the same name, is a scorching rocker with full horn blasts and fiery vocals that evoke memories of Aretha Franklin and Koko Taylor in one brilliant performance. Another old school New Orleans R&B favorite, Rockie Charles, delivers the heart-string tugging tear-jerker "Before I Find The Right Girl For Me" with no little emotion and loneliness.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
If Beyonce or Justin Timberlake just aren't your cup o' tea, and you've been looking for a reason to listen to rhythm & blues once again, then Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues will serve as a great re-introduction to the form. The album's inspired mix of performers and the uniform quality of the performances will have you tapping your feet and snapping your fingers, and will shuffle your too-long-couch-bound posterior to your local record store (as it did mine) to discover full-length discs from fine folks like Sharon Jones, Ruthie Foster, and Catherine Russell, as well as some old soul favorites. (Putumayo World Music, released February 9, 2010)
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