beat of the city

The early days of New Orleans R&B.

Tommy Ridgley

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY THE HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION

Rhythm and Blues didn’t originate in New Orleans – but it could have. The music form began evolving by the 1930s in American cities as black populations settled within them. From their neighborhoods came a sound that blended elements of jazz, gospel and the blues. Originally referred to as “race” music, a record producer created the prevailing term, more commonly known as “R&B”, an umbrella phrase to encompass this new urban sound. n New Orleans certainly provided one of the genre’s first great stars in Fats Domino, and developed a distinctive style that highlighted rollicking piano playing and lively horn sections. Of all music forms, it’s the R&B performers whose names and music have best persevered and who, in the true sense of an overused word, are “icons” of the local music scene. Consider Professor Longhair, an R&B player who’s the symbol of the local music festival named after jazz. Consider also that the most commonly heard Carnival songs in the city that gave birth to jazz are those from R&B, including Longhair’s classic “Gone to the Mardi Gras.” In speaking about R&B and New Orleans, Ernie K-Doe said it best. Now we’re not sure what it was he said, but certainly the performer who once gushed that he thought all music came from New Orleans had a handle on the reality. New Orleans and R&B belong together. In the words of K-Doe, “Taint in the Truth.”

Ed. Note: Few photographers had as much passion for New Orleans music, and earned the trust of local musicians, as the late Michael P. Smith. These photographs are from his collection, which was donated to The Historic New Orleans Collection.
 

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