Skip to main content

Rhythm and Blues: Tell It Like It Is

Rhythm and Blues:
Tell It Like It Is

In early 1967, a romantic ballad, “Tell It Like It Is,” passionately sung by Aaron Neville, climbed to number one on the rhythm and blues charts. “Tell It like It Is” did not comment upon any of the roiling civil rights issues of the time. Yet, the trajectory of this popular song tells us many things about the complex relationships and social processes that have shaped the creation, promotion, consumption, and ongoing vibrancy of rhythm and blues. The popularity of this song and its interpretations by artists as diverse as Otis Redding, Andy Williams, Freddy Fender, the Dirty Dozen Band, and Heart, tell a story of resilience and resistance. It reflects how the music of an historically marginalized population came to exert a powerful influence on American popular culture.

Click to watch video

Introduction and comments from the curator, Mark Puryear.

Drawing from the deep tributaries of African American expressive culture, rhythm and blues is an amalgam of jump blues, big band swing, gospel, boogie, and blues that was initially developed during a thirty-year period that bridges the era of legally sanctioned racial segregation, involvement in three wars, and the struggle for civil rights.

Singer and songwriter William Bell recorded with the Stax label from 1961 until 1975, when he switched to Mercury Records. In 1985, he founded Wilbe Records. Photo courtesy of Andrea Zucker Photography

Mable John began her recording career with Berry Gordy, when in 1960 she signed to Motown’s Tamla label. She spent several years backing Ray Charles as one of the Raelettes, and she was signed with Stax Records from 1966 until 1968. Since 1973, she has been working with gospel groups and running a charitable organization. Photo courtesy of Stax Museum of American Soul Music

While the term “rhythm and blues” was first applied as a marketing category by Billboard magazine in 1949, the music itself was created through the interplay among performing artists, songwriters, arrangers, producers, promoters, and devoted fans. Through conversations with those who have continued to work behind the scenes and with those performing in this program, Rhythm and Blues: Tell It Like It Is, reveals some of the social and cultural notes that have been played out through the decades.

The Rhythm and Blues program is produced in partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Dixie Cups began performing rhythm and blues music in 1963 and the group now includes original members Barbara Ann Hawkins (right) and Rosa Lee Hawkins (left), joined by Athelgra Neville. Drawing on their New Orleans roots, the group recorded “Iko Iko” but it was their number one hit, “Chapel of Love,” that beat out The Beatles for the top spot in 1964 and garnered the group’s first gold record. Photo by Richard Strauss, Smithsonian Institution

Fred Wesley was the arranger music director and composer for James Brown and later he arranged and performed with Parliament-Funkadelic. Fred Wesley performing at the 2010 JazzNoJazz Festival in Zurich, Switzerland with his jazz-funk band Fred Wesley and the New JBs. Photo by Johannes Vogel. Courtesy of Fred Wesley


Support the Center and our important work, including the Folklife Festival, Folkways Recordings, exhibitions, films, and educational materials.

.