R&B and the Evolution of the Vocal Harmony Group

What is R&B?

Rhythm and blues, or R&B music, is a form of Black dance music that evolved during World War II and the two decades that followed. The genre includes elements of the blues, big band swing, gospel, and pop genres. R&B music has developed multiple styles from the major U.S. cities with large African American populations, like LA, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. These regional styles were all significantly influenced by the African American Southern migrants who had moved to these cities during the Second Great Migration. Over the decades, R&B music has continued to evolve in what is now considered streams. One aspect of R&B music that has continued to evolve throughout the five streams of R&B music is vocal harmony groups, which were developed in the first stream of R&B.

Vocal Harmony Groups during The First Stream

The first stream of R&B music occurred from the 1940s to the mid-1950s. It is during this period that the R&B vocal harmony group began. The tradition of African American men gathering in public spaces for singing in close harmony started in the 1800s with the Black quartet genre. During the development of R&B, these types of musical groups evolved into vocal harmony groups. These groups consisted of a lead singer and supporting background singers. They were identified by alternating lead vocals, harmonizing choruses, imitating instrumental timbres, and contrasting timbres and vocal range. At the beginning of the first stream (the late 1930s), vocal harmony groups, like the Mills Brothers and the Delta Rhythm Boys, began getting broadcast on the radio, performing with big bands, and appearing in movies and famous venues like the Apollo in Harlem.

After World War II, the vocal harmony group sound was modernized by groups like the Ravens, who established the blues form as a musical foundation, introduced blues lyric themes, incorporated blues elements, and institutionalized the bass voice on lead vocals. These new vocal harmony groups could be divided into two categories, romantic and rhythmic. Romantic vocal harmony groups primarily sang ballads a cappella or with acoustic guitar accompaniment. In comparison, the rhythmic vocal harmony groups sang up-tempo songs and were accompanied by R&B combos. These vocal harmony groups are also identified by their names. Many groups used birds as inspiration for their group names (i.e., the groups were named things like the Crows, the Cardinals, the Orioles, etc.). Through these vocal harmony groups, blues and gospel elements began to infiltrate R&B music more.

Pre-World War II Vocal Harmony Group, The Delta Rhythm Boys
Post-World War II Romantic Vocal Harmony Group, The Orioles
Post-World War II Rhythmic Vocal Group, The Clovers

Vocal Harmony Groups in the Second Stream – The Doo-Wop Sound and Crossovers

The period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s has become known as the second stream of R&B music. During this period of R&B music, vocal harmony groups began using a sound known as “doo-wop.” Doo-wop is a combination of vocables that are treated rhythmically to add movement. Typically, the doo-wop sound was performed a cappella. Backup singers of these groups incorporated variations of the phrase “doo-doo-wop” in their response to the lead singer. Many of these groups, especially the car groups (groups named after cars), added combos to increase the rhythmic intensity of their songs, becoming known as doo-wop and rock and roll vocal harmony groups. During the second stream, record labels began pushing crossover strategies on their R&B artists to take advantage of the new consumer base of the white youth. As a result of these crossover strategies, music performed by these R&B artists and groups began featuring what was known as the “uptown” production formula, which included pop-oriented productions, “hook lines,” string arrangements, and adaptations of Brazilian rhythms. While this formula was not popular among the genre’s original poor/working-class Black audience, it did launch the careers of many successful female vocal harmony groups, like the Chantels, and allowed them to crossover into mainstream music. As the 1960s continued, vocal harmony groups continued to evolve with the evolution of R&B.

Doo-Wop Group, The Moonglows
Doo-Wop and Rock and Roll Group, The Cadillacs
Crossover Vocal Harmony Group, The Chantels

The Third Stream – Vocal Harmony Groups and Motown

The third stream of R&B is categorized as R&B music from the 1960s to the mid-1970s. During this time, the record labels Motown, and Stax Records significantly influenced R&B music. At the beginning of Motown, vocal harmony groups were important parts of developing the record label and the Motown Sound. Detroit, where Motown was founded, was full of trios, quartets, and quintets of kids, all teaching themselves the traditions of vocal harmony groups from current hit records. Many of these groups were signed by the head of Motown, Berry Gordy. Motown vocal harmony groups each had their own distinctive sound based on the vocal timbre of the lead singer and lyrics and melodies that represented the young and urban experiences of the youthful Motown artists and songwriter-producers. The vocal harmony groups of the third stream also featured groups that catered to different audiences. Some groups, like the Supremes, catered to the preferences of white/mainstream audiences, gaining popularity among those groups, while other groups, like the Temptations, catered to the preferences of African American audiences. This made some groups (the more mainstream groups) more marketable in the music industry.

Popular Motown Female Vocal Group, The Supremes
Popular Motown Male Vocal Group, The Temptations

The Fourth Stream and Ballads

The fourth stream of R&B occurred from the 1970s through the 1980s. During this period, the popularity of R&B faded, as disco and funk music became more popular. Despite the decline in popularity, R&B remained popular in music as it provided an alternative to up-tempo dance music and the establishment of a romantic mood through R&B ballads. Vocal harmony groups, like the Stylistics and the Dells, specialized in these songs. Like the Jackson 5, other vocal harmony groups were able to evolve with the current popular genres of the time and sang both ballads and up-tempo songs. Unfortunately, as popular music continued to change and evolve in the 1980s, vocal harmony groups fell out of popularity and began to disappear from the music charts.

Male vocal harmony group popular for singing ballads, The Manhattans
Vocal harmony group, the Jackson 5, who played both ballads and up-tempo songs

The Fifth Stream – The Reappearance of Vocal Harmony Groups

During the fifth and final stream of R&B music, from the 1990s into the new millennium, vocal harmony groups again grew in popularity and reappeared on the charts. The sound of these groups was updated by songwriter-producers who incorporated current trends like break sections, rap, synthesized technologies, and funk grooves. These new groups would record slow, moderate, and up-tempo songs. The traditions and aesthetic of female vocal harmony groups were maintained through stylistic imitation and cover recordings. Female vocal groups also began incorporating hip-hop/rap into their music by adding hip-hop vocal sound effects, beats, rapped sections, and a spoken-word delivery style. Unlike female vocal groups, the male vocal groups of the fifth stream avoided hip-hop/rap elements. They stayed true to the traditions of the male vocal harmony groups with their vocal stylings, a cappella harmonies, and song interpretations that drew from gospel and jazz traditions and. Male vocal groups did become a little more modern by making synthesizes the musical foundation for the vocals. Unfortunately, by the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s, many of these groups had broken up or taken breaks to pursue other opportunities. Today, it is harder to find R&B vocal harmony groups on the charts, but the presence and influence of this part of R&B continue to leave a mark on R&B music.

90s Female Group, Xscape
90s Male Group, Mint Condition

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Sources – African American Music, An Introduction

Artist Paper – Kehlani

Kehlani “Success to me is only two things: happiness and stability.” Artist History Kehlani Ashley Parrish was born in Oakland, California, on April 24, 1995.

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