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Rich History of Rhythm & Blues Celebrated

Smithsonian Folklife Festival features R&B greats

The Funk Brothers band, a famous R&B group from the 1960s, performs at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
The Funk Brothers band, a famous R&B group from the 1960s, performs at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

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Chris Simkins

Rhythm and blues. It's an American treasure and a powerful influence on popular culture. The evolution of this art form was celebrated at the Smithsonian’s recent Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington.

Rhythm and blues was invented by African Americans more than 70 years ago. The term "R&B" was originally a marketing tool, but now refers to various musical styles including Gospel and Electric Blues, which was popularized by BB King.  

Seventy years later, R&B is still going strong. At the celebration on the National Mall, thousands - young and old - came out to listen and dance. Some remembered the dance moves from the popular television show "Soul Train," which ran for 35 years. Many at the festival got into the moves and the mood. Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History, kicked off the R&B tribute.   

"I realized this is the music that told us volumes about America, and it was also the kind of music that spoke about pain. It spoke about resiliency," says Bunch. "In some ways it becomes a universal music and then the music is so infectious. You can be anywhere in the world and hear people tapping their toes to Rhythm and Blues because it’s that special.”

Longtime R&B Singer Jerry Williams, known as Swamp Dogg, performed at the Festival. He and his band were influenced by legends of the 40s. "Rhythm and Blues to me is just a good jump song like 'Bad, bad whiskey made me leave my happy home.'"

By the 1950s and 60s, James Brown was thrilling audiences with a new uptempo R&B, a style that went on to define rock and roll.  

It wasn't long before female artists like Diana Ross and the Supremes capitalized on the success of rhythm and blues.

Mable John, the first female recording artist to sign with a Motown label, was at the Smithsonian event. She also backed up the legendary Ray Charles.

"Rhythm and Blues is the beat, it’s the rhythm and it’s the message of the heart," John says. "If your heart is hurting, it expresses that. If your heart is glad, it can express that. If you are just trying to give a message, it can express that. It's the soul."

By the 1970s, R&B groups like the Temptations and, later, Michael Jackson, helped propel R&B worldwide.

Today, R&B is still evolving. With boogie and doo-wop, it's rooted in the deep tributaries of African-American culture. But it’s now a blanket term for music with hard hitting beats, lyrics and melodies that keep people dancing.

It is music that some believe will continue to grow in popularity because it transcends age, race and social class.

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