1950 was the year that the blues became jazzy, vocal groups became more rhythmic, swing started to jump, and Chicago went electric. Small bands started to replace big ones, guitars came out front, rhythm became harder, and the sass became sexier. Still known as "race" records, many of which were hard to get outside the South and all of which were forbidden on pop radio, these top 10 greatest R&B hits of 1950 laid the groundwork for not just the rock and roll explosion but also doo-wop, soul, and more!
The song which launched the great Fats Domino's
career is also the one which introduced the concept of the backbeat -- a gimmick from Dixieland jazz that became a crucial component of 50s rock and roll. (It also featured what would become a staple of New Orleans R&B,
a four-sax brass section.) At first relegated to a b-side, Domino's signature song (an adaptation of a local favorite called "Junker's Blues") actually came out in December '49, but it made such a noise over the following year that it routinely comes up in discussions of the first rock and roll record.
He was rural enough to have recorded for folk musicologist Alan Lomax, but Ivory Joe didn't have much success till he moved to Los Angeles, where his soft croon fit the burgeoning genre of smooth, jazzy "West Coast Blues" perfectly. So urbane was this delicate ballad that it served a crucial role in getting blues over to pop radio; in fact, a full five years later the notorious Pat Boone would get a #1 hit by bleeding the life from it. Hunter's latent smoothness served him well in the '60s, when he made an equally effortless move to country.
Percy was arguably the rawest of the West Coast bluesman, which might explain why this Louisiana native had trouble coming up with an equally large follow-up smash. So influential was his proto-soul style -- present in the lyrics, which speak of universal as well as personal love -- that none other than Brother Ray Charles
rediscovered him in the early Sixties, even covering one of his demos, "Hit the Road Jack." (No, Ray didn't write it,
especially not the way it was depicted in his biopic.)
Muddy, on the other hand, embodied the essence of his scene from Day One, virtually creating the Chess label's version of Chicago Blues by investing this bare-bones single with his trademark field holler, then dressing it up for the urban market with electric guitar. Believe it or not, electric blues was still quite the novelty at the turn of the '50s, and Muddy's pioneering singles were a huge influence on '60s Brit rockers, particularly the Rolling Stones,
who did indeed take this song's name as their own.
Is this the first doo-wop
song? Lots of folks think so, and it's easy to see why: there's a vocal bass line, some backup "nom"s, a little five-part harmony, some jazzy guitar noodling, and even a bass vocal solo. Elegant beyond words, it set an instant standard, even if that near-operatic female vibrato didn't have a future in the genre. This song was so ahead of its time that it became a major R&B hit eight years later for the Rivieras and a minor pop hit a full twelve years later for Linda Scott.
Atlantic's very first 45, and a midtempo jump blues
that bore the imprimatur of label head Ahmet Ertegun all over it - clean and clear vocals, a bright and bouncy rhythm, and an arrangement that airbrushed the blues just enough to make it swing. The second-biggest R&B hit of the year and a proper introduction to the record buying public for "Miss Rhythm,"
it featured the kind of early '50s proto-rock style Ahmet would soon imprint on a young group known as the Drifters.
Joe Liggins had already begun to shape the face of postwar blues in 1945 by moving two million copies of his biggest hit and signature song "The Honeydripper." But this single, his first for the soon-to-be-influential Imperial label, got a lot of attention for its quieter, sexier, more menacing vibe, based on a crawling piano riff (adapted from the more equine lope used in Freddie Slack & Ella Mae Morse's "Cow Cow Boogie") that would make its way to many a pop and R&B playbook through the '50s. Lyrically it was a rather typical hangover lament, but Liggins' newly smoothed out style made it sound like the party might still be going on.
The third recording of this 12 bar blues ballad standard, Lowell's rendition was also the biggest hit, spending as full month at #1 R&B, although it was released way back in October of the previous year, slowly climbing up the charts for a full six months. Its gentle, jazzy air influenced as whole raft of soul-blues blues men, not the least of which was B.B. King, who waxed his own distinctive hit version while keeping one ear on Fulson's.
was the king of postwar rhythm and blues, coming off a massive and massively influential hit in '49 with "Saturday Night Fish Fry." This song, however, detailed another kind of party, one that all but announced that a slower, sexier strain of '50s R&B was on its way. "They did the boogie real slow with the blue lights way down low," he declares, marveling that "their feet didn't even move." Well, well. Perhaps it had something to do with the smoky licks being peeled off by Charlie Christian, R&B's first great electric guitarist, now mixed front and center for maximum smoulder.
There's a lot going on in this #1 smash: the smooth deep vocals and stinging guitar of Johnny Otis,
the backing of the Robins, one of the most influential vocal groups for doo-woppers, and most shocking of all, the wax debut of the great Little Esther Phillips, belting a very adult lyric at the tender age of 14! There's even a lyrical nod to Louis Jordan's "Caldonia" and some bawdy comic repartee, taken by Otis from a popular black comedy act. Small wonder it rode the top of the charts for a full nine weeks.