Record Breaking Records: R&B Charts
I have touched on the R&B charts many times throughout my posts, however today I would like to lay out the history as well as point out some of the many milestones achieved by both songs and artists. Charts in the music business are very much about sales and making money. As interesting as we find them, they do not always represent the truly great artists and songs. Sometimes it takes time and reflection to arrive at not only the lasting opinions but the evidence to establish what was overlooked.
An example of an overlooked artist during his time is Chuck Berry. You may find this assertion surprising as almost everyone that listens to American music has at least heard his name and is able to recognize a song or two, though his only #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 was “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1972. Berry was among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is widely cited as one of if not the most influential Rock and Roll artist in history. He has not only maintained a listening audience but he’s influenced generations of guitar players and songwriters. I wrote about Chuck Berry in October of 2018 so based on today's focus I will only summarize his R&B chart success.
Here is why I think he was underrated during his time, he only had three songs reach #1, and ten more that reached the top 10 on the R&B weekly charts. “Johnny B. Goode” peaked at #2 on the R&B charts and #8 on Billboard's Hot 100, yet is ranked at #7 on Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and is among the most recognizable songs ever recorded. If we look at the top 30 ranked R&B songs for the year end when Berry was most active on the charts (1955-59), he only had one song,“Maybellene”, hit as high as #3 in 1955, nothing in 1956, “School Day” was #15 for 1957 and “Sweet Little Sixteen” was #22 and ‘Johnny B. Goode” only #26 in 1958.
Berry is a good example of the fact that while many people reference the charts they don't really tell the whole story about music nor its history. When we look to the early R&B charts, in my opinion, in general they reflect more truth about the beginning of what we refer to as Rock and Roll and the hundreds of spin-off genres and subgenres that have evolved since the early 1950s. As you might imagine, I follow this topic via various media and I have read of too many opinions that Rock and Roll started with Bill Haley's “Rock Around the Clock” when it finally charted in 1955 or even later with Elvis Presley. Despite what I said about Chuck Berry who came on the scene in 1955, there is often no mention of the earlier Black artists who shaped this genre. Somewhat ironically, “Rocket 88” from 1951, written and performed by Black artists, is sometimes cited as an early Rock and Roll song despite being a straight up R&B song. Nevertheless, the early R&B charts is where we find the beginnings of Rock and Roll, not the mainstream pop charts. For the most part what I see as the real and early Rock and Roll songs from Black artists only made it on the R&B charts and got ignored or ranked much lower on mainstream Pop charts. Pioneers of Rock and Roll such as John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, B.B. King, Ike Turner and others were establishing the roots in the late 1940's and very early 50's as they were joined by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Reed, Etta James and LaVern Baker just to name a few.
We know the mainstream songs were catering to the White buying public and the artists were singing many of the same songs from the Black artists. Even when R&B charted songs became more popular in the mid 1950s, they still took a back seat to the mainstream charted songs. This in my estimation goes well beyond a just a matter of 'taste' in music. In the pivotal year of 1955, The Penguins with "Earth Angel" would be the first R&B group to hit the mainstream weekly Billboard and Cashbox Top Singles charts, next was Fats Domino with "Ain't it a Shame" in July, followed by Chuck Berry with "Maybellene" in August. These three were the only ones to show up on various mainstream top song lists for the year end. The top Rock and Roll song on the mainstream charts in 1955 was the legitimate (above mentioned) Bill Haley's version of “Rock Around the Clock”, followed by the less legitimate Pat Boone's quasi pop-rock version of "Ain't that a Shame".
This isn’t to say that both Blacks and Whites didn’t contribute to the development Rock and Roll and other genres, but denying the history is at best being misinformed at worst just plain ignorant. The first charts to specifically follow music from Black artists (as you’ll see below) also included some music from White artists that was played on radio stations catering to the African American audience. Of course, we know that in time there was a growing White listener base which had more influence on Black music and chart changes than you might think. Tis a thin line that connects R&B to Rock and Roll. All that being said, it’s important to look at the history of R&B to understand how it has evolved into the genre it is today. If we look to the experts, namely Rolling Stone Magazine’s recognition of R&B songs and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame it’s clear how important they are, yet I still see too many attitudes that are downplaying these songs and artists.
From the 1920s through to the early 1940s, music targeted toward the African American record buyer was generally referred to as Race Music, a term coined by Okeh Records in 1922. African American composer Perry Bradford convinced the record company that there were record buyers in the Black community. Okeh was producing popular music records from White artists starting in 1918. Mamie Smith’s recording of Bradford’s “Crazy Blues” was the first record from a Black artist, released in 1920. It sold what was at that time an astounding 75,000 copies. In the absence of any formal charts (and not unlike any type of music in these early days) these records were advertised in newspapers, pamphlets and posters read almost entirely by Black Americans. With the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the market for records took a huge hit and almost completely wiped out the industry for Black recording artists. There would, however, be a slow resurgence in the early 1940s.
Here is a timeline of the 'major' Billboard charts related to the Black music community and the later to come but larger catch-all term of R&B:
- Harlem Hit Parade (1942 to February 10,1945).
- Juke Box Race Records (February 17,1945 to June 17,1957).
- Billboard's "Best Sellers" (May 22,1948 to October 13,1958).
- Rhythm & Blues (first appeared on June 25,1949 to November 23,1963). *See my note below for more on this significant turning point.
- Billboard's "Jockeys" listed simultaneously to the R&B charts (January 22, 1955 to October 13, 1958).
- Hot R&B (October 20,1958 to November 23,1963)
- This started after the "Jockeys" ended but again ran at the same time as Rhythm & Blues charts and after a brief hiatus it also was reinstated January 30, 1965 and continued under that name until the week ending August 16, 1969.
- Best Selling Soul Singles (August 23, 1969 to July 7, 1973).
- Hot Soul Singles (July 14, 1973 to June 19, 1982).
- Hot Black Singles (June 26, 1982 to October 1990).
- Hot R&B Singles (October 1990 to January 1999).
- Hot R&B Singles & Tracks (January 1999 to December 1999).
- Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks (December 1999 to April 2005).
- Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs (April 2005 to present).
*The first formal charts for Rhythm and Blues (R&B) can be credited to very successful producer Jerry (Gerald) Wexler who was a music journalist working for Billboard Magazine in 1947. He looked at the terms used to describe the music coming from the African American community and confirmed they were generally racist and demeaning. As noted, the first was called Harlem Hit Parade so Wexler was tasked with coming up with a new term. He landed on Rhythm and Blues derived from what he heard in the Black music community itself. Nowadays, R&B/Hip-Hop is the most popular music genre in the world.
At the same time, there were other published charts focused on African American music. Cashbox Magazine was noted for charting almost solely based on reported record sales. Their R&B chart history looks like this:
- Hot In Harlem, N.Y. (started June 24, 1946).
- Hot On Chicago’s South Side (started October 13,1947 and for major markets by May,1952).
- New Orleans, Dallas, Los Angeles, and St. Louis were added in addition to some smaller market charts.
- The Nation’s Rhythm & Blues Top Ten (introduced March 7, 1953).
- The chart depth would gradually increase from 10 to 100 but not until 1975.
- Black Contemporary (1978)
- The name was changed to Top 100 Urban Singles in 1995.
The UK is the next largest English market that of course had their own charts which included songs from the US. Black R&B artists rarely made appearances before the 1960s and had no separate charts for many years, the first I could find started in 1994.
So, you can see the problem with attempting to gather the top songs and artists when the chart history is so convoluted.
There is an mathematician and author named Edward Foote Gardner who did a massive amount of research on popular music and he has developed charts from 1900 to 1949. They include the charts I mentioned above but are also based on other reputable data. His lists include many Black recording artists’ songs that may or may not have appeared on Billboard or Cashbox prior to 1950. In the 1930s, artists such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and The Ink Spots had songs appear on the mainstream Pop charts of the day. Many reached #1 and had regular appearances in the top 10. Black music was therefore represented on other music charts prior to 1950 as demonstrated by Gardner though the charts and music style largely were not representative of the Black community itself.
Let’s take a look at some milestones based on the early days of R&B music.
The first #1 song on the Harlem Hit Parade in 1942 was "Take It and Git" by Andy Kirk with the Twelve Clouds of Joy. By December of that year it was the same song as every other chart: “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby. In the following years by popularity we have a cover of a 1920s Bessie Smith song "Don't Cry Baby" (1943), recorded by Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra with vocals by Jimmy Edwards; "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" (1944) by The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald; "The Honeydripper" [Parts 1 & 2] (1945) by Joe Liggins and His Honeydrippers; "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" and "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens" (1946 and 1947) by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five; "I Love You Yes I Do" (1948) by Bull Moose Jackson and His Buffalo Bearcats and finally, "Trouble Blues" (1949) by The Charles Brown Trio.
The newly named R&B charts, first from Billboard and later by Cashbox started to lean towards a slightly different sound as the year end top songs were; “Tomorrow Night” by Lonnie Johnson in 1948. In 1949 it was a great one-hit wonder named “The Hucklebuck” by Paul Williams at #1. From 1950 to 1956, names such as Amos Milburn, Louis Jordan, Ruth Brown, Percy Mayfield, Faye Adams, The Clovers, Fats Domino, and Johnny Ace would dominate. In 1957, Elvis Presley was the first White artist to appear at the top of the R&B charts with a double A side of “Jailhouse Rock” / “Treat me Nice”, but on the Cashbox Magazine competing charts it was The Coasters who hit #1 with their own duo of “Searchin’” / “Youngblood”. In 1958, Clyde McPhatter’s “A Lovers Question” competed for #1 with Chuck Willis’s double A side of “What am I Living For” / “Hang up my Rock and Roll Shoes”. In 1959, Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” competed with Brook Benton’s "It's Just a Matter of Time". Benton also hit #1 that year on the weekly charts with "Thank You Pretty Baby", and "So Many Ways" hitting twice. I won't go on to list every year, but Benton had the top songs of 1960 as well with "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" with Dinah Washington; in fact, they both had four more #1 songs that year. Speaking of being underrated and overlooked, while Washington was deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, Benton is yet to be nominated!
What you see on this list are a lot of songs that we consider to be in the Rock and Roll genre. Just by comparison, in 1959 “Stagger Lee” hit only #10 on the Billboard mainstream charts while the other #1 R&B song, “It's Just a Matter of Time”, was only at #40. This divergence was typical between the R&B and mainstream charts.
I could not find a comprehensive 'All Time' classic R&B song list. Many of them must be written by people under 35 and don't list anything from before around 1995. Digital Dream Door has a good one with the number one song from 1967 “Respect” by Aretha Franklin at #1 which is no-brainer followed by:
2. I Heard It Through the Grapevine - Marvin Gaye (1968)
3. (Sittin' On) The Dock of The Bay - Otis Redding (1967)
4. What'd I Say - Ray Charles (1959)
5. Maybellene - Chuck Berry (1955)
6. Papa's Got A Brand New Bag - James Brown (1965)
7. Money Honey - Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters (1953)
8. Shake, Rattle, & Roll - Big Joe Turner (1954)
9. My Girl - The Temptations (1964)
10. Long Tall Sally - Little Richard (1956)
As for songs from the R&B charts that rank high on The Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, we have four in the top ten: “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye at #3, “Respect” by Aretha Franklin’s at #5, “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry at #7 and “What'd I Say” by Ray Charles at #10.
To further my earlier point that it takes time to establish what we’ve overlooked when it comes to charts, we can look at some discrepancies related to a couple of R&B’s most popular songs. While Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” did hit #1 on the weekly R&B charts, it finished the year at #2 behind Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” which does not appear on the Rolling Stone Magazine list at all (still a great song). On the Billboard Hot 100, “What’s Going On” peaked at #2 and finished the year at #21. In 1967, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” was #1 on the year end R&B charts but ranked anywhere from #10 to #20 on the various Billboard and Cashbox charts.
I’ll conclude with some more achievements for R&B/Hip Hop.
Thriller is still at the top for albums, followed by The E.N.D. by Black Eyed Peas. However, Stoney by Post Malone now has the most weeks in the top 10 at 77 surpassing Thriller at 76. Drake is at 194 for the most weeks on the top albums chart.
• Most weeks at #1 with 20 for "Old Town Road" (2019) – Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.
• Most weeks on the charts at 75 weeks is "Be Without You" (2005) by Mary J. Blige.
• Most #1 singles: Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Drake all at 20.
• Louis Jordan still holds the record for the most weeks at #1 on the charts at 113.
• Most top 10 singles: Drake at 70 followed by James Brown at 57.
Edited by Richelle Dafoe
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