These days, contemporary R&B seems to be a genre of music with specific attributes and qualities that are easily identifiable—things like slow grooves, smooth production values, and lush vocal arrangements. And, depending on the singer’s gender, the listener is treated to either a Diva or Lothario begging their beloved, earnestly trying to convince the apple of their eye that they need to consummate their love immediately.
While some of these elements can be found throughout the history of the genre, the scope of R&B used to be much larger, encompassing many different, and often disparate, musical styles.
Rhythm and Blues was initially a catchall term; coined after World War II, it was used to describe music made predominately for, and by, urban African-Americans. Under the Rhythm and Blues heading, different sub-genres of Jazz and Blues converged, melting and blending to create a potpourri of different moods and vibes. From romantic, endearing ballads to rollicking, freewheeling barn-burners, R&B helped to change the nature of “popular music” while also giving birth to Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Thankfully, someone had the foresight to gather several of these early R&B acts, put them in one location, and film their performances, ensuring that future generations can witness the evolution of this brand of music. Preserved first on celluloid, and now embedded in digital databases, music freaks can treat themselves to these R&B jams and watch the precise moment when a radical shift occurred, one that took music in new directions.
Shot in 1955 by Studio Films, “Rhythm and Blues Revue” is a film that casts a wide net, giving exposure to the many different sounds of early R&B. Showcasing some of the biggest, most beloved bands and singers of the era, the film is essentially a variety special documenting the emergence of a new phenomenon.
It's a time-capsule; a treasure trove of sounds and images capturing the many different shades of early R&B, as well as the folks who played it—swinging Jazz-based progenitors; smooth, sophisticated crooners; raucous and raunchy Jump Blues practitioners—as well as dancers and comedians performing with the same adventurous spirit.
Some of the musicians most responsible for helping to ignite R&B crowd the show’s roster; well-established Jazz acts like Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway. These heavyweights lend star-power to the production—seeing these names juxtaposed over the fireworks display during the opening credits feels reassuring, especially since some of the artists listed aren’t well-known now.
While it might seem strange to see large Jazz bands perform in a film about R&B, it’s very easy to recognize their contributions its music—particularly when their bouncy, bluesy tunes are shuffled in with the music of younger acts. Sometimes overshadowed by the fresh energy of hungry upstarts more in-tune with the musical Zeitgeist of 1955, these Jazz titans still manage to turn in very compelling performances that are fun to watch.
Seeing Lionel Hampton use mallets to dab the bars of the vibes is a treat, while his jab at the pint-sized pianist, Milt Buckner—who is always fun to look at—is absolutely hilarious. When the tremolo-soaked notes of his vibraphone die out, Hampton, grinning maniacally from underneath an out-of-context sailor’s cap, gives Buckner the go-ahead to begin his solo. While the short and pudgy Buckner over-extends his arms, trying to tickle the ivories while making motor-boat noises with his lips, Hampton tells the audience, “Now we’re going to give you a little… small … jam session!”
Count Basie gives a laid-back, yet engaging, performance. Sitting at his piano, impeccably dapper and misty-eyed, Basie initiates musical duels between his bassist and each member of the horn section. The horn-players trade licks with the bassist in a perfunctory manner, volleying back and forth until Basie chides trumpeter Clark Terry. “Go on,” demands the Count, “talk to ‘em!” Terry obliges, exchanging conversational squawking that predates the voices of the anonymous teachers in Peanuts cartoons by ten years.
Cab Calloway, of course, outshines his contemporaries with his outrageous stage presence. Performing “Minnie the Moocher,” the call-and-response classic that made him a household name, Calloway prances about the stage in his plaid tuxedo like a demented trickster. Wagging his head and making silly, grotesque faces, he gleefully shouts: “Hi De Hi De Hi De Hi,” and “Ho De Ho De Ho De Ho!” The band try their best to imitate his melodic caterwauling, with mixed results. Calloway’s performance is not only a pleasure to watch, but also serves as a reminder that he was more than a simple band leader or a singer—he was also an Entertainer with a capital “E,” one who helped create Jazz’s Golden Era in legendary places like Harlem’s Cotton Club.
The first true-blue R&B performer of the show is the ample-bodied Amos Milburn. Backed by the Paul Williams’ Orchestra, Milburn jauntily sings about the dangers of alcohol in “Bad, Bad Whiskey” while stridently punching the keys of a Mason & Hamlin. Turning his rotund body to sing into a microphone on an angled boom-stand, he is clearly the precursor to Fats Domino.
One of the most historically significant moments of the film happens when blues shouter Big Joe Turner bloviates in front of William’s band, giving the audience a taste of proto-rock ‘n’ roll. Exulting about the values of washing one’s face and hands, Turner delivers the goods with an exciting rendition of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” that is electrifying as well as culturally important.
There are other surprises as well: an animated Ruth Brown performs a rocking version of her hit, “Teardrops from My Eye” that absolutely cooks, thanks, in no small part, to a propulsive back-beat; a huge Gospel voice with heavy, quivering vibrato bellows out from the tiny frame of Faye Adams; crooner Herb Jefferies demonstrates how cigarettes, used at the right moment and in the right way, could create mystery, drama, and intrigue where there otherwise isn’t any, and Martha Davis & Spouse—the stage name of a Rubenesque pianist-singer and her hapless, just-happy-to-be-here husband-bassist—gives the audience a taste of how bawdy, and demanding, a lady who knows what she wants can get.
The music is broken up by other forms of entertainment, too.
Little Buck and Bill Bailey break up the monotony with some intricate and athletic tap-dance routines, with the latter giving what has to be the first time the Moonwalk has been captured on film.
The real low moments happen when the show’s forgettable host, Willie Bryant, engages in routines with the comedy duo, Freddy & Flo. Of the three, Freddy, who is a dwarf, is the most fun to watch—he’s like a hep-cat version of Jimmy Durante, only shorter—but having to use the bland Bryant as a straight-man doesn’t pay off. Fortunately, these bits are used at the beginning of the show, and aren’t reprised in the second-half.
The real surprise of the non-musical acts is Nipsey Russell, who does a far better job using the boring Bryant for his comedic purposes. During his second performance, Russell teams-up with his partner, Mantan Moreland, for a funny bit that hinges on their interrupting each other. I have to admit, it’s both refreshing and surprising to see Russell in all his glory, tearing through a honed, well-timed act. For many years, I erroneously thought he was only famous for being part of the cadre of boozy C-list celebrities that survived dips in their careers by constantly appearing on game shows in the 70s and 80s—people like Charles Nelson Riley, Betty White, and Jamie Farr. His appearances in “Rhythm and Blues Revue,” however, illustrates why he was a well-known entertainer in the first place.
There are a couple of absolutely outstanding performances in “Rhythm and Blues Revue,” highlights that deserve to be viewed over-and-over, with or without the rest of the film. These performances are given by two of the most incomparable artists of the twentieth century: the smooth crooner Nat King Cole, and the beautiful virtuoso Sarah Vaughn.
Accompanied only by a conga player, a relaxed Nat King Cole languidly sings “Calypso Blues” in perfect pitch while sitting on a makeshift pier, dressed like a goofy South American tramp. Cole’s casual confidence, handsome smile, and silky baritone help him overcome the silly dockside decorum. Any singer with less confidence—or less capability—would’ve been too embarrassed to have pulled it off with his panache. If you’ve ever wondered why the man is a legend, here’s proof: never has such a sparsely-arranged tune—performed on a dumb set, and in embarrassing clothes— had such a visceral impact. Hearing Cole’s amazing voice coming from that disarming smile is the musical equivalent of getting a deep-tissue massage by an expert masseuse, with hot oil and caring hands. I’m convinced the man could’ve sung “Three Blind Mice” to the same affect.
The real sapphire of the set is the gorgeous Sarah Vaughn. As Ella Fitzgerald’s biggest rival, Vaughn has the vocal chops to prove why she belongs in The Lady of Song’s company. The impossibly gifted singer radiates beauty from the screen; her magnetic charisma and smiling stage presence make it hard to believe she was known as “Sassy” because she swore like a sailor on shore-leave. Her talent emanates through her big smile and as she performs “Perdido,” it's clear she's in full command of her voice. Vaughn is the only performer in the entire film to use improvisation—putting a finger to her lips to hush the band, she expands her phrasing, flexing her sophisticated and superior sense of rhythm. Letting her voice hang over in to the next bar, Vaughn drapes each measure with flourishes of vocal athleticism. Even when she shoots straight up to the ceiling of her vocal range, almost cracking her voice, she does so with such dexterity—and such a pretty smile—that it’s an endearing and exciting moment. Watching her, I became convinced that, at that exact moment in 1955, there wasn’t a more sophisticated, good-looking or talented singer anywhere else in the world. I was also certain that everyone in that moment would’ve probably agreed with me—save maybe the poor drummer, who's not only dwarfed by the supernova of Vaughn’s demonstrative capabilities, but also had to hit the skins while wearing a satin Mexican shirt with enormous ruffled sleeves.
Despite its historical and cultural significance, “Rhythm and Blues Revue” is far from a perfect concert film. One of the biggest problems being the order of the performances, particularly the awful comedy that gets the whole event off to a sluggish start. The production values are, at times, laughable—the phony establishing-shot which unsuccessfully tries to place the viewer in midtown Manhattan before the opening credits; spliced-in stock footage of actual audiences at the Apollo Theater, cutting to what is obviously a television studio; the terrible editing that’s mostly noticeable during emcee Willie Bryant’s forgettable monologues and introductions.
All of these things, however, are a small price to pay considering the amazing value of what’s in-between them—amazing performances, and the birth of R&B.