Off Topic Messages

Surprises in Whitburn's R&B book

Fri Dec 23, 2005 12:40 pm

For the first time Chart Historian Joel Whitburn has compiled a book of the Top 40 R&B and Hip Hop Hits from 1942-2004. While Whitburn has released books on R&B Hits they have always been limited run full chart items running about $50-$70. This is the first time that he has released a book of R&B hits similar to his Pop Top 40 books that are released and re-released every five years or so. This gives the mass market fan a chance to explore the music that was popular within the R&B field throughout pop history.

As usual with Whitburn, no analysis is attempted. The numbers are simply laid out before you. As usual, there is a nice selection of picture sleeves that is a little too weighted towards contemporary releases, although there are some nice vintage sleeves. As usual, the bits of trivia presented with the sleeves range from mildly interesting to the obvious and insipid.

Still because for the average fan these are relatively uncharted waters there are a number of surprises. The first one that caught my eye is the fact that the black audience until recently did have a taste for traditional white pop music. Casual fans will be amazed to see the names of Bing Crosby, Pat Boone, Frank Sinatra, Ricky Nelson and Andy Williams in the book. The listings aren't flukes because they are so frequent. They can't simpy be a knockoff of the pop listings because many hits by these artists miss the rankings. And they can't even be records that sound RBish because many don't although many of the later listings like the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" have an R/B lineage. An artist like Sinatra's three placings is interesting because even a black performer in the traditional pop style like Sammy Davis Jr. only made the R&B Top 40 once. It's a point of commonality that's often missed.

The Elvis ripped off black music clan will be taken aback at the success that Elvis had on this particular chart. Elvis was the no. 2 artist for the 1950s on the R&B listings behind Fats Domino and is the no. 38 artist of all time according to Whitburn's rankings. Elvis is the ONLY white artist in the Top 100. In one of the bodyguard books, it was mentioned how the shoe shine rumor gained steam again in about 1963. Elvis' popularity seems to have dried up around this time amongst African-Americans. Even later examples of an R&B influenced sound like "Suspicious Minds" didn't make the listings even though Sinatra's "That's Life" or the Rascals' hits did make the lists just a year or two earlier. It could also be that the degree of self-awareness that was taking place within the black culture and the need to redress its cultural position played a part in Elvis not making the R&B airwaves.

Even more interesting for Elvis fans is that some Elvis tracks like "Baby I Don't Care" and "Mean Woman Blues" made the R&B chart but did not make the pop charts.

Another surprise is that many popular 50s R&B early rock tunes did not make the charts. Two good examples are the Harptones' "Sunday Kind of Love" and Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You". These heavily covered records apparently made no chart at all as they missed the pop charts as well. This indicates a hole in the charts but also indicates the subterranean way a song can burrow its way into the public consciousness. Still, the Harptones' record immediately inspired a slew of covers and the Hawkins' record was popular enough in its day to get him billed on many white rock package shows. Perhaps, this is where it picked up its cache. It could be just the fact that the early R&B charts contained only 20 positions. A lot of records that made an impact could have been left off.

The book also slightly upsets some traditionally accepted theories. One is that rock and roll killed off the market for classic electrical blues. Interestingly, Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters had some of their biggest hits in 1956 the year the rock explosion became a revolution in taste. The Wolf had two of his piddling five R&B Top 40 hits and both made the Top Ten. (That this seminal artist had a mere five Top 40 R&B hit was in and of itself a shock.) Little Walter also made Top Ten and a younger artist like B.B. King did not notice an interruption. However, after '57 most of them except King were gone. Perhaps like the British Invasion, the rock explosion took awhile to change things.

That the cover industry was a white on black thing also gets it apple cart overturned here. In the 1950s black on black covers that created competing versions of the same songs were very common in the 1950s. And some of the most prestigious names in the business from Clyde McPhatter to his former group the Drifters to Solomon Burke indulged in it. That the black covers were generally better musically than the white covers does not eliminate the sometimes cut-throat intent. Even more interesting is that there is no rule for what has lasted. Although Clyde McPhatter's "Long Lonely Nights" was the #1 R&B hit in 1957 on Atlantic, only Lee Andrews and the Hearts' original is played today. Meanwhile the Drifters' remake of the Colts' "Adorable" was a bigger hit in its day and is still the preference of oldies fans. I would say in both instances the better version won out.

I was also surprised at some of the holes in my own knowledge in this regard. I had basically gone my entire life thinking B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone" was an original. The good news for me though was that I had the original by Roy Hawkins on a comp somewhere that I hadn't gotten around to hearing. It was nice piece of living education and entertainment.

One of the more depressing insights in the book is that in the late 1950s and for most of the 1960s most of the big R&B hits were big pop hits as well. You definitely can see how Billboard thought the R&B charts were redundant in 1964. However, once you get into the 1970s you get to see the audience splinter. Tracks pop up in lofty R&B positions that never even made the lowest sections of the Pop charts. Pop was as segregated as it was in the 1950s although now the choice was more intentional. This especially became the case in the 1980s as black airplay on the pop airwaves was essentially reduced to- Whitney Houston, Prince, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and a few others and some flukes. The airplay of white artists on the R&B airwaves was almost completely lost. Lately with the all consuming audience for hip hop the balance has started to turn again. The audience is integrated again even if not everyone agrees if their shared enthusiasm is a good thing.

I was also somewhat surprised to see the way the chart shifted. The chart runs especially in the 1950s and 1960s were generally shorter (in many cases much shorter) than pop runs. Also, perhaps predictably there is less nostalgia and tracks coming back in later years for a second run. On the flip side of the same coin, there is a sense of audience loyalty that is most often missing from the pop charts- acts like Gladys Knight and the Pips, the O'Jays, the Isley Brothers and Bobby Bland had hits even Top Ten Hits into their 40s, 50s and even their 60s.

Finally, some pop fans (not this one but some) will also be surprised when they see that artists they had written off previously as one hit wonders like Gene Chandler or the Flamingos actually had very nice hit making careers even if the pop airwaves weren't always open to them.

Overall a very nice reference.
Last edited by likethebike on Fri Dec 23, 2005 1:39 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Fri Dec 23, 2005 1:27 pm

GREAT post. You've sold me -- I'll have to seek out this book ASAP.


Sat Dec 24, 2005 7:25 am

Very nice overview, Likethebike, as usual in your postings.

I have the complete top 100 version of this book. It is the third such book of R&B by Whitburn that I have purchased. I can't live without these great reference books. I have a 5 foot shelf dedicated to the Whitburn books. I own nearly every one. They are costly but essential to anyone who loves music history of the US Billboard charts.

jeff R

Sat Dec 24, 2005 9:53 am

Yes, well-done as usual, LTB.

Your Elvis comments alone deserve a hearing in the "All-ELVIS" Section.

I'll try to be brief here and return at another time but it can be striking how many blues and R&B acts (some still active) grew up tuning in things like the Grand Old Opry and were quite avid about it.

One in particular was Bobby "Blue" Bland- and he's one of many blues and R&B acts I've seen quoted as growing up in part on white country & western music.

Also: Bland himself cites, of all people, acts like Sinatra, Tony Bennett and even Perry Como as influential (along with Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock) in his phrasing and diction. That had to mean he (and others) had access -even in Jim Crow Tennessee -and Memphis- from where he hailed.

The way some think, that shouldn' t happen. Well, it did then - and we're all the better for it!

Off the top of my head here, Muddy Waters' first hits came either in the late '40s or more likely around '51 and were noticeably stripped down, nearly acoustic affairs that were designed in part by Leonard Chess to reach the "nostalgic" and homesick legions of Black Americans who have moved from the South to places like Chicago. (Ironically, his first sides were more uptown in instrumentation, with horns, etc.) By '56, his sides were meatier and tougher managed to chart outside of Chicago, which is really where his domain was.

Likewise, Little Walter proceeded to outpace his old bandleader and began touring all over, even playing Boston and the Apollo in Harlem with his jazz-influenced, rock-ish harp and singing. But rock also put a crimp in his charting. (Scott Dirks' biography is like a phonebook but was terrific.)

Also, once Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley hit, Muddy and the Wolf sort of got dumped by Leonard Chess, even in their prime. However, locally they remained a solid and still-developing draw thoughout the '60s before going more national by reaching a white audience.

But just as black politics changed, so did black tastes. BB King writes a very sad tale about being booed by black teenagers in the '50s -a first for him. Rock (and uptempo soul) steamrollered blues.

That Ray Hawkins' THRILL IS GONE side was an eye-opener for me too. A CD was put out by I think ACE in the last few years with it.