1951 saw urbane R&B merge with the rawer stuff for the first time, leading to the marriage that would later birth rock and roll. Yet something else was brewing under the surface that would have even bigger ramifications years down the line -- the electrification of the Delta blues, which gave rock its next direction after teen idols and sock hops had played themselves out. Here are the top 10 greatest R&B hits of 1941.
Despite the fact that it was a smash a full four years before "Rock Around the Clock" kicked off the rock craze, this instant vocal group classic still routinely makes early-rock compilations, simply because so many of the stylistic elements are already there. The lyrics would never have made it onto pop radio, of course, but it was that very suggestive nature -- sixty minutes until what? -- that drive white teens to it, exposing them to the hardest kind of R&B in the process. The biggest selling "black" hit of the year, and possibly the decade.
Vocalist Jackie Brenston's name was on the label, but the Delta Cats were really young Ike Turner's band, which is why in later years he took to calling himself the Godfather of rock and roll. An uptempo song about a car with a hard driving backbeat, tinkling piano, and a sax solo? That's rock and roll by any definition, and a crucial early tie-in to what would be two of rock's greatest motivators: speed and avarice. Few historians still believe Elvis stumbled upon rock all on his own.
Another trendsetter, this early doo-wop ballad had the right idea, taking a '30s pop standard, adding cool harmony for a backdrop, and bending the notes till they were blue. The Keys would have hits in the rock era, most notably 1955's "Ling, Ting, Tong," but none could match the beauty of this ballad, done as always with Rudy West's golden tenor leading the verses and Dickie Smith's rougher baritone guiding the group through the bridge. So identified were the group with the song that they opened their radio shows with it.
Though devoid of his signature boogie rhythms, which graced early hits such as 1948's "Boogie Chillen" and later ones such as 1962's "Boom Boom," John Lee's second and final #1 R&B hit arguably sported something just as good: this slow number may be the sexiest blues ever recorded, never to be confused with the more standard romantic platitudes of "I'm in the Mood for Love." That standard is also missing Hooker's excellent guitar solo, one which solidifies his standing as the most Delta-centric of the '50s electric blues men.
Brown had announced the arrival of West Coast Blues way back in 1946, as leader of Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, with "Driftin' Blues," but here he perfected it; the second #1 R&B hit of '51 was also the second biggest, setting up camp at #1 for 14 weeks just like "Sixty Minute Man." His perfection might have been a little too perfect, however: though future rock and rollers took notice -- check out that guitar solo -- Brown's string of huge hits would begin to drop off for good within a year, as R&B got harder, faster and more open to non-black influences. It did provide inroads for some folks, though, as songwriter Jessie Mae Robinson became the first black woman to write a #1 hit.
This blues standard came straight from the Delta -- it had already passed through who knows how many talented hands when Robert Johnson recorded it first in 1936. James actually recorded his version in Jackson, MS a decade and a half later, incorporating several elements from different versions, but as always with R&B hits, what mattered most was the groove: the triplet shuffle James and his band came up with influenced countless bluesmen and rockers both. (To "dust one's broom" is to beat the dust off of it before putting it away, which is certainly an unfortunate metaphor for the end of a relationship.)
The Clovers were best known by pop audiences for the original recording of "Love Potion Number 9," a minor hit in their hands. But on the R&B charts the Clovers were kings, and "Fool, Fool, Fool," the biggest of those top 10 "race" hits, shows why: it perfectly balances the smooth and urbane vocal group sounds of postwar R&B with lead singer Buddy Bailey's blue and impassioned lead. So perfectly positioned were they between eras that most of their hits later paid off big for rock artists, from Bobby Vinton to the Rascals to Steve Miller. And while this one didn't, quite, Ray Charles did lift most of the arrangement for his own version of "Night Time Is the Right Time."
Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett, on the other hand, was the most scarifying of the Chicago electric blues masters, which may be why even black audiences of the day tended to shy away -- the Wolf only had three top 10 hits, a lot fewer than most of his peers. But that same raw power, present in its purest form here, would influence an entire generation of British rockers a decade on; in fact, Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times" takes its inspiration from this single, even though it bears only the merest resemblance in practice. Wolf had to get those royalties from somewhere, though -- back in the day, he was paid so little per session that he'd record the same song at every label in town.
Sonny Boy Williamson II, a/k/a Alex "Rice" Miller, actually played harp on Elmore James' version of "Dust My Broom,: and this original, released the same year, was also recorded deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta for the Trumpet label. More than a little blasphemous for its day, this standard 12-bar blues was nevertheless delivered with a cool vocal panache more suited to St. Louis or even Los Angeles. (The Who somewhat puckishly included it as the only cover on their seminal rock opera Tommy.) Oddly enough, three separate takes of this song from the same session were released on three different singles, causing some confusion for blues scholars.
Though the Treniers had exactly one R&B hit and zero pop ones, they were still an enormous influence on rock: a self-contained vocal and instrumental group who blurred the line between hard swing and lite jump blues, replete with sax solos and talk of "rocking" and "rolling." Indeed, they were perhaps the single greatest influence on one Bill Haley, a resemblance you can hear immediately on this, their lone chart record. Thanks to Haley's hit, the mainstream would defer to this sound whenever it was searching for a generic "rock" motif, but don't cry for the Treniers -- they made their bones with an outrageous and wildly popular Vegas act just after WWII, and kept with it for many decades.