various artists: 1948: the R&B Hits

various artists
1948: the R&B Hits

IF THE YEARS 1954 to 1956 are considered the site of the rock 'n' roll explosion (i.e., the moment when rock 'n' roll came along and made all that came before it become irrelevant), then 1948 might be thought of as the year when the long fuse on that powder keg was first lit. This was the era of the honkers and shouters, a revolutionary period in black music during which Billboard first used the phrase rock and roll, to describe the raw power of the new black pop. In 1948, the blanket term R&B covered as many discrete styles as electronica does today, and often, when boutique retailing this past, reissuers have tended to focus on a singular style--doo-wop, say, or jump blues. What makes this Indigo collection unique is its scope: 1948 makes room for gospel fervor, poppy doo-wop harmony singing, New Orleans piano rolls, rural blues picking, and urban blues shouting.

During the '40s these styles bumped up against each other often in the world of working musicians and smart shoppers. Many great postwar jazzmen cut their teeth playing R&B, and, for many listeners, the stylistic difference between Louis Jordan's jump blues and Sonny Boy Williamson's rural blues weren't separate streams but branches on a tree. You may know Elvis's anxious, flirtatious 1955 cover of Wynonie Harris's drunken "Good Rockin' Tonight," but even if you appreciate Presley's intricate phrasing and friskier beat more than Harris's insouciant version, the lineage between black forebear and white innovator is fascinating to hear.

Of course, you can always chuck the sociological perspective and enjoy these classic sides on their own terms. The street-corner yearning of the Orioles' ghostly, genteel "It's Too Soon to Know" may have inspired scores of doo-woppers, but its tender beauty remains unmatched. Conversely, bawdy good times have never been much more lascivious than Wynonie Harris's jaw-dropping "Lollipop Mama" ("She shakes like jelly/And jelly don't shake itself"), or Bullmoose Jackson's "I Want a Bow-Legged Woman" ("She's got to be shaped like an old bass fiddle/Legs open wide with plenty room in the middle"). Ending the album is Sister Rosetta Tharpe's riveting "Up Above My Head," a fleet, mighty hallelujah! that'll take any fan of Aretha or Lauryn back to the very essence of the soul righteousness that bore them. After hearing it, and the 44 songs preceding it, the proper response can only be Amen.

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