I’ve always found L.A. in the 40’s and 50’s and its’ associated entertainment scene – including Hollywood and the movies – captivating. One of the definitive glamour eras, it’s not hard to envision a who’s who Tinsel Town crowd mixing with show business types, navigating a packed dance floor at some hip supper club on Central Avenue. Invariably there would be someone like Charles Brown – the “Sepia Sinatra” – onstage “tickling the ivories”.
And Charles Brown would be a fitting presence in this scenario because it would be here in L.A. in the 40’s and 50’s that both Brown and R&B rose to prominence.
While Atlantic Records shifted the industry’s centre to New York City in 1947 under the guiding hand of Ahmet Ertegun, and blew the doors open for R&B in 1953 when Jerry Wexler came aboard, the fact is that the genesis of the genre took place in L.A. in 1945.
Not to discount Atlantic’s efforts and the significant impact the label had on the genre and its recording artists, as well as the music industry in general; this is a snapshot of the emergence of R&B in the late 40’s and early 50’s L.A.
The story begins with the significant African American population growth in western cities – specifically L.A. – of approximately 35% or 350,000 between the years of 1940 and 1950. The stated growth was a direct result of a steady migration from mainly Texas and Oklahoma, and, to a lesser degree, Louisiana. The attraction was potential employment, especially the manufacturing jobs that the West Coast had to offer, as well as a choice of lifestyle. That is, while other urban centres offered employment possibilities, (e.g. Chicago, Detroit) and nightlife (e.g. New York), L.A. offered a relaxed racial climate and more desirable weather. It’s been said that L.A. was viewed by the new arrivals as “Harlem with palm trees”.
Employment brought new found discretionary income that gave rise to a vibrant live entertainment scene primarily along Central Avenue. The thoroughfare at its peak was home to no less than 14 high profile venues featuring both local and touring marquee acts. Places like The Dunbar Hotel and Club Alabam presented artists such as Louis Jordan, Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan showcasing at various times Little Esther (Phillips) and Etta James, Dinah Washington, Big Joe Turner, Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, and more. (Not to mention Jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie to name a few).
By the 1920’s Central Avenue – previously populated by a multicultural mix including Mexicans, Asians, and Europeans – was the heart of African American L.A. And, in later years, it provided a pleasant downtown for a majority of the L.A. African American population, and presented a friendly, respectable, primarily middle class lifestyle. At night, as alluded to above, it transformed into a dynamic magnetic destination of music, entertainment, and merriment.
Keeping in step with the appeal of live entertainment was home entertainment that remained a staple of African American life. And, as the incomes rose, so too did the demand for in home entertainment, namely phonograph records, and more precisely R&B phonograph records.
The surging popularity of R&B was a result of a new found acceptance by urban African Americans who wanted something more sophisticated than the down home blues of the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, and even Robert Johnson. It’s not so much that they viewed the music as lowbrow or distinctly lower class, but more because they didn’t want to be reminded of a less affluent time associated with the form, (before their collective move to the city).
R&B, largely viewed as good time dance music, was born out of the churches of black America. It consisted of, or contained elements of, Gospel, Boogie Woogie, as well as the jump beat of Swing. While Gospel was the source, R&B was heavily influenced by African American Swing era bands; (e.g. artists like Louis Jordan, the “Father Of R&B”, came from the Swing tradition). In its most basic form it mirrored the African American experience – the grit and passion of life in the black ghetto. That is, the music, while joyful, dealt in basic needs and desires. (This paragraph is inspired by copy found in Arnold Shaw’s excellent book Honkers And Shouters).
(Billboard in the late 40’s listings referred to the genre as Race Music. The category encompassed a catch all of Big Band, Pop, Boogie, Jazz, Gospel, and Blues. It wasn’t until 1949 when Jerry Wexler, then editing the Billboard charts, changed the name to the more culturally sensitive R&B.)
The increased interest in records coincided with the lifting of what was effectively a World War II recording ban. That is, during WW II, The War Production Board ordered a 70% reduction in the production of phonograph records. The thinking being that record production required shellac, a much needed component in the manufacture of flares, explosives, and artillery shells.
While the requirement for R&B recordings grew, it became evident from the outset that the major record companies interests lied elsewhere. That is, it’s believed that the majors viewed R&B as a niche market with product that catered to a comparatively smaller audience (African American buyers), and not worth the investment. (To be fair, their target market, consisting of predominantly white consumers, showed no noteworthy interest in African American R&B)
By ignoring the potential market, the majors created a vacuum and, in turn, provided an opportunity for small independent label owners that were only too willing to fill the void. Notable entrepreneurs like Art Rupe (Specialty Records), the Bihari brothers (Modern Records), Jack Lauderdale (Swingtime Records), and the Mesner brothers (Aladdin Records), established viable businesses. By the dawn of 1950 there were no fewer than 8 independent labels specializing in R&B.
If there had to be a designation as to the top West Coast independent companies, it would arguably be Modern Records (plus later formed subsidiaries RPM, Flair, and Meteor), and Specialty Records. The respective label owners shared the same passion for the music and business acumen.
The Bihari Brothers (Jules, Saul, and Joe) who formed Modern in 1945, were in the business of leasing juke boxes in the early 40’s, including African American neighbourhoods. The brothers quickly recognized the significant growth potential in African American neighbourhoods when they realized that, while they had a distribution network, they didn’t have enough records to satisfy demand. Utilizing the same manufacturing space and supply network used to service and deliver juke boxes, the brothers were well positioned to record and distribute some of the most influential R&B records of the day.
The Bihari Brothers, with their supply network in place, had a distinct advantage over the other independents because of the important role that jukeboxes played in making a record a hit. That is, historically approximately half of the records produced were destined for jukeboxes. The Biharis, with some suggestive selling, could effectively control both the selection and quantities of titles placed in the respective jukebox locations. Accordingly, by being able to play a key role in the supply, they increased the likelihood that prospective record buyers would hear a Modern release played on the jukebox. Logically, this would lead to more sales. Add to this scenario that a number of jukebox operators also doubled as distributors further increased prospective sales of their product. As such, they built Modern into a force among labels that recorded African American music.
On the talent side of the equation, the Bihari brothers personally scouted and developed an outstanding roster of artists and recorded them. The list included Etta James, Little Richard, Ike & Tina Turner, and John Lee Hooker. On the same list were 1950’s discoveries by their talent scout Ike Turner: Bobby Bland, Howlin’ Wolf, and Roscoe Gordon. Notable singles included: “Boogie Chillen” (Hooker), “Good Rockin’ Daddy” (James), and “Goodnight My Love” (Jessie Belvin). RPM boasted B.B. King’s “3 O’Clock Blues”, B.B.’s first hit and one of the bestselling R&B singles of 1952.
Art Rupe, the founder of Specialty Records, was determined to get into the entertainment business in some shape or form. Spurred by his love for Gospel, Rupe turned his attention to the music industry. But before diving in, he took a decidedly unique analytical approach, studying the hit records of the day in search of what he hoped would be a successful formula. He came to the conclusion that a record should be less than 3 minutes in length, and emulate the power of a big band sound with a pronounced Gospel feel.
Rupe founded Specialty in 1945 and applied his research findings to produce exceptional R&B, Gospel, and early Rock & Roll recordings. An aforementioned lover of Gospel, Rupe had the good fortune to record both The Swan Silvertones (with Claude Jeter), and The Soul Stirrers (with Sam Cooke), among others. And he developed an impressive R&B and Rock & Roll line-up including: Roy Milton – with a string of hits from 1946 to 1951 including ”Hop Skip Jump” in 1948, Percy Mayfield – “Please Send Me Someone To Love” in 1950, Lloyd Price – the classic “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952, Guitar Slim – “The Things I Used To Do” in 1953, Little Richard – 8 definitive singles from 1955-1957 including his first hit “Tutti Frutti”, and Larry Williams – a number of hits from 1957-1959 including “Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu” in 1957.
There would have been no significant R&B scene without the efforts of the Biharis, Rupe, Lauderdale, or the Mesner brothers providing an outlet for the genre. But, more importantly, that scene would not have existed without the talented artists whose compositions, and live and recorded performances defined the idiom.
There are numerous artists that played a role in the growing popularity of R&B in L.A. and none more so than Louis Jordan (and his Tympany Five), Johnny Otis, and Charles Brown. All have been mentioned in passing but should be given their due in greater detail.
Johnny Otis, a native Californian, was a true jack of all trades. Otis, at various times, served as a singer, bandleader, arranger, songwriter, producer, booking agent, tour promoter, club owner, record label operator, publisher, disk jockey, and television personality.
When mentioned; more often than not, his name brings to mind his 1958 Capitol Records hit “Willie & The Hand Jive”. But what’s not part of the conversation is that he had 15 Top Ten records before “Willie”.
In the course of his career that started in 1939, Otis, originally a drummer by trade, performed with Count Basie, Charles Brown, (notably on the “Driftin’ Blues” session), Nat “King” Cole, and an assortment of R&B stars before becoming a band leader himself. On his own, among other hits, he recorded a hit version of the popular “Harlem Nocturne” that opened a number of doors for him, allowing Otis to tour Nationally.
By the 1950s he had a nightclub – The Barrelhouse in Watts – that featured strictly R&B acts – as well as a radio show in Los Angeles. And, for a short period he had his own weekly TV show, on which musicians such as Sam Cooke performed live.
Along the way, he wrote songs and produced his own releases as well as others. He used the steady stream of artists that he booked at The Barrelhouse as a foundation of his revue, the Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan.
Forced by economics of the times, Otis abandoned the big band while opting for a smaller outfit, adept at a bluesier, more hard edged sound, to back the Caravan. The Caravan, (a true floor show, including comedians at times), featured personal discoveries Esther Phillips, Willie Mae “Big Momma” Thornton, Etta James, the Robins (who became the Coasters), Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson, and Little Willie John.
As a songwriter and producer his credits include the hits “Wallflower” (“Roll With Me Henry”) for Etta James (1958 on Modern) and “Every Beat Of My Heart” for The Royals (1954 on Federal). In addition to producing the record, it has also been claimed that Otis had a hand in writing Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton (1953 on Peacock)
In sum, Johnny Otis must be considered as a true forerunner of R&B.
Charles Brown will probably be forever known for “Merry Christmas Baby”, “Please Come Home For Christmas”, and with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, the definitive “Driftin’ Blues”. But Brown – who was a major influence on both Ray Charles and Sam Cooke – was much more than that. The man dubbed the “Black Bing Crosby” and the “Sepia Sinatra”, in the years spanning 1945 to 1956, was, simply put, one of the premier entertainers in black America.
The college educated Brown was born in Texas City Texas. His grandmother set him on the road to be being a top notch piano player by teaching him rudimentary skills at the tender age of five. A quick study, by high school he was playing in bands and the church choir, and got the blues bug at 14.
But before taking the musical path, Charles, first taught high school and then worked as a chemist. It was only after being transferred to Berkeley California in 1943, and moving to L.A. soon after, that his life changed course permanently. That’s when he teamed up with Johnny Moore (guitar) and Eddie Williams (bass) to form Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers.
The group signed with Aladdin Records and recorded the million dollar hit “Driftin’ Blues” – one of the top black records of 1945 and 1946. And although Brown’s name wasn’t on the marquee, for all intents and purposes, Brown, the front man, was the band’s main attraction. This wasn’t lost on Brown and in 1949 he struck out on his own.
That same year Aladdin released the first Charles Brown solo effort “Get Yourself Another Fool”. It wasn’t the instant hit that Charles and Aladdin were hoping for, but it did bolster his reputation, (featuring his trade mark plaintive vocals and sparse piano), and would become a staple of his live performances. And the song proved to have some lasting power as well in that it was covered many times in subsequent years (including a rendition by Sam Cooke).
It was with his third release of that year that Charles Brown distinguished himself as a solo artist. The record, “Trouble Blues” hit number one and stayed there for 15 weeks. Brown was gaining momentum but would have to wait another two years for a second number one hit, “Black Night”, which stayed at the top of the charts for 14 weeks.
Times were changing rapidly and although Brown would remain a box office attraction, the hits proved more difficult. With a harder R&B style becoming popular, Brown cut three more numbers that sold respectably before leaving Aladdin in 1956: “Hard Times”, “Please Don’t Drive Me Away”, and “Merry Christmas Baby”.
After Brown’s exit Aladdin would never realize the heights achieved with Brown’s contributions. Thereby reinforcing that, based on the strength of his accomplishments and prominence on the R&B scene, Charles Brown was Aladdin Records. (This is stated with all due respect to Amos Milburn who recorded a number of hits among the approximately 100 sides he cut for Aladdin).
Louis Jordan, a seminal figure in R&B and Rock & Roll has been called at various times “The Father Of R&B” and “King Of The Jukebox”. Both monikers are more than fitting.
Born in Brinkley Arkansas, Jordan was in show business since his teens, (performing in minstrel shows). Jordan proved adept at both keeping pace with the trends and moving ahead of the curve. He was part of the Swing Era that was blossoming in 1935 when he moved to New York and added his alto sax to the reed section of Chick Webb’s band. But he found the experience stifling; in his words “Jazzmen play for themselves. I want to play for the people”.
So, in 1939, eschewing the big band pursuits of his contemporaries, Jordan formed The Tympany Five; (he would front his own band for the next 20 years), that would revolutionize the band structure forever. Although, The Tympany Five would actually usually number seven members, the line-up of drums, bass, piano, guitar, trumpet, tenor sax, and alto sax would not only be as loud and as effective as larger bands of the day, but would also set the template for groups for years to come – including present day.
Louis and the band moved to L.A. in 1942 and signed with Decca Records. Jordan immediately had a couple of highly regarded hits: “Knock Me A Kiss” and “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town”. With his combination of witty lyrics and crisp rhythm, by 1944 his recordings were charting regularly on both the R&B and Pop charts, (Jordan was the first major figure to cross over). But it wasn’t until 1946 that Jordan started his climb to the peak of his career. It was in 1946 that Jordan’s release “Buzz Me” was stocked in 400,000 jukeboxes! In the same year his recording of “Choo Choo Ch’boogie” garnered a million sales, and he and The Tympany Five were featured in a number of movies. The trend continued: “GI Jive” stayed on the Billboard charts from 1948 through 1950 for an unbelievable 101 weeks! In the same time frame he had 18 songs on the charts.
Jordan stayed with Decca until 1954. At that point the burgeoning forces of Rock & Roll, a genre along with R&B, that Jordan helped create, made his style and sound somewhat passé. But, it doesn’t discount, that in his prime, Louis Jordan was a major creative force in R&B while being credited with breaking down racial barriers and broadening its appeal for all.
There were a number of elements that contributed to the emergence of R&B in the 40’s and 50’s in L.A. All that came into play were co-dependent and interrelated:
- L.A.’s relaxed racial climate and employment opportunities that were inviting to the significant migratory African American population
- The acceptance of R&B by African Americans who formed the core consumer base of the genre
- The need for product that provided the opportunity for entrepreneurs and independent labels
- The venues that offered an opportunity for artists to hone their skills, promote themselves and their recorded works, and make a living while doing so
- The abundant available talent waiting to be discovered
All were convergent forces making L.A. the home of the birth of R&B in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
1. “Driftin’ Blues” – Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers / Charles Brown 1945, Aladdin Records
2. “Choo Choo Ch’boogie” – Louis Jordan And The Tympany Five 1946, Decca Records
3. “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” – Jimmy Witherspoon 1947, Swingtime Records
4. “Hop Skip Jump” – Roy Milton 1948, Specialty Records
5. “Please Send Me Someone To Love” – Percy Mayfield 1950, Specialty Records
6. “Everyday I Have The Blues” – Lowell Fulson 1950, Swingtime Records
7. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” – Lloyd Price 1952, Specialty Records
8. “The Things I Used To Do” – Guitar Slim 1953, Specialty Records
9. “The Wallflower” – Etta James 1955, Modern Records
10. “Tutti Frutti”– Little Richard 1955, Specialty Records
11. “Goodnight My Love” – Jessie Belvin 1956, Modern Records
12. “Willie & The Hand Jive” – The Johnny Otis Show 1958, Capitol Records
- Rico Ferrara, November 2020
3 thoughts on “THE BIRTH OF R&B IN 40’s & 50’s L.A.”
.Thanks Rico! That’s an enjoyable read and a great playlist, so helpful in showing an important part of the history of the music that we grew up on, and continue to enjoy to this day
LikeLiked by 1 person
What a terrific history lesson. ALL these artists are favorites. Man, I would have loved to have been there at the time – I would have been in those clubs every night! I always though Specialty must have been located in the New Orleans/Georgia/Texas area, just because of the artists. Good to be corrected. Keep going with this stuff Rico – I’m enjoying them so much!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Another great read, very informative. The hick from the is sticks he be learnin
LikeLiked by 1 person