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Charles Brown
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Louis Prima
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Big Maybelle
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Ray Charles
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Johnny Otis
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Blu Lu
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Dinah Washington
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Tiny Bradshaw
  Tiny Bradshaw

Ruth Brown
  Ruth Brown

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Louis Prima
Louis PrimaLouis Prima became very famous in the 1950s with an infectious Las Vegas act co-starring his wife (singer Keely Smith) that mixed together R&B (particularly the honking tenor of Sam Butera), early rock & roll, comedy, and Dixieland. Always a colorful personality, Prima was leading a band in New Orleans when he was just 11. In 1934, he began recording as a leader with a Dixieland-oriented unit and soon he was a major attraction on 52nd Street. His early records often featured George Brunies and Eddie Miller, and Pee Wee Russell was a regular member of his groups during 1935-1936. Prima, who composed "Sing, Sing, Sing" (which for a period was his theme song), recorded steadily through the swing era, had a big band in the 1940s, and achieved hits with "Angelina" and "Robin Hood." In 1954, he began having great success in his latter-day group (their recordings on Capitol were big sellers and still sound joyous today), emphasizing vocals and Butera's tenor, but he still took spirited trumpet solos. Although he eventually broke up with Keely Smith, Louis Prima (who voiced a character in Walt Disney's animated film The Jungle Book in 1966) remained a popular attraction into the 1970s.

Big Maybelle
Big MaybelleHer mountainous stature matching the sheer soulful power of her massive vocal talent, Big Maybelle was one of the premier R&B chanteuses of the 1950s. Her deep, gravelly voice was as singular as her recorded output for Okeh and Savoy, which ranged from down-in-the-alley blues to pop-slanted ballads. In 1967, she even covered ? & the Mysterians' "96 Tears" (it was her final chart appearance). Alleged drug addiction leveled the mighty belter at the premature age of 47, but Maybelle packed a lot of living into her shortened lifespan. Born Mabel Louise Smith, the singer strolled off with top honors at a Memphis amateur contest at the precocious age of eight. Gospel music was an important element in Maybelle's intense vocal style, but the church wasn't big enough to hold her talent.

Little Willie John
Little Willie JohnHe's never received the accolades given to the likes of Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, and James Brown, but Little Willie John ranks as one of R&B's most influential performers. His muscular high timbre and enormous technical and emotional range belied his young age (his first hit came when he was 18), but his mid-'50s work for Syd Nathan's King label would play a great part in the way soul music would sound. Everyone from Cooke, McPhatter, and Brown to Jackie Wilson, B.B. King, and Al Green has acknowledged his debt to this most overlooked of rock and soul pioneers. His debut recording, a smoking version of Titus Turner's "All around the World" from 1955, set the pattern for a remarkable string of hits: "Need Your Love So Bad," "Suffering with the Blues," "Fever," "Let Them Talk," and his last, "Sleep," from 1961. His version of "Fever" was copied note for note by Peggy Lee and Elvis Presley, both of whom had bigger hits with it; John's version, however, remains definitive. His second hit, "Need Your Love So Bad," contains one of the most intimate, tear-jerking vocals ever caught on tape.

Dinah Washington
Dinah Washington Dinah Washington was at once one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the mid-20th century - beloved to her fans, devotees, and fellow singers; controversial to critics who still accuse her of selling out her art to commerce and bad taste. Her principal sin, apparently, was to cultivate a distinctive vocal style that was at home in all kinds of music, be it R&B, blues, jazz, middle of the road pop - and she probably would have made a fine gospel or country singer had she the time. Hers was a gritty, salty, high-pitched voice, marked by absolute clarity of diction and clipped, bluesy phrasing. Washington's personal life was turbulent, with seven marriages behind her, and her interpretations showed it, for she displayed a tough, totally unsentimental, yet still gripping hold on the universal subject of lost love. She has had a huge influence on R&B and jazz singers who have followed in her wake, notably Nancy Wilson, Esther Phillips, and Diane Schuur, and her music is abundantly available nowadays via the huge seven-volume series The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury.

Johnny Otis
Johnny Otis Johnny Otis has modeled an amazing number of contrasting musical hats over a career spanning more than half a century. Bandleader, record producer, talent scout, label owner, nightclub impresario, disc jockey, TV variety show host, author, R&B pioneer, rock & roll star - Otis has answered to all those descriptions and quite a few more. Not bad for a Greek-American who loved jazz and R&B so fervently that he adopted the African-American culture as his own. California-born John Veliotes changed his name to the blacker-sounding Otis when he was in his teens. Drums were his first passion he spent time behind the traps with the Oakland-based orchestra of Count Otis Matthews and kept time for various Midwestern swing outfits before settling in Los Angeles during the mid-'40s and joining Harlan Leonard's Rockets, then resident at the Club Alabam

LaVern Baker
LaVern Baker LaVern Baker was one of the sexiest divas gracing the mid-'50s rock & roll circuit, boasting a brashly seductive vocal delivery tailor-made for belting the catchy novelties "Tweedlee Dee," "Bop-Ting-a-Ling," and "Tra La La" for Atlantic Records during rock's first wave of prominence. Born Delores Williams, she was singing at the Club DeLisa on Chicago's south side at age 17, decked out in raggedy attire and billed as "Little Miss Sharecropper" (the same handle that she made her recording debut under for RCA Victor with Eddie "Sugarman" Penigar's band in 1949). She changed her name briefly to Bea Baker when recording for OKeh in 1951 with Maurice King's Wolverines, then settled on the first name of LaVern when she joined Todd Rhodes' band as featured vocalist in 1952 (she fronted Rhodes' aggregation on the impassioned ballad "Trying" for Cincinnati's King Records).

Clyde McPhatter
Clyde McPhatter Clyde was one of the most influential R&B singers of the '50s and early '60s. In his own time, his name and voice loomed so much larger than that of the group the Drifters, which he founded, that it took five years for them to recover from his departure. McPhatter was idolized by Black audiences as few singers before or since ever were, and for almost 15 years helped define rhythm & blues and its transformation into soul. In a way, he was the most improbable of R&B stars, a gentle high tenor who, superficially at least, seemed more suited to the angelic strains of gospel music. And his name gave some potential managers and agents pause - what kind of R&B singer, forget a star, was named Clyde? And Clyde McPhatter seemed like a backwoods burlesque of a Black American name. But when he sang, the doubts and the laughter all disappeared - even on his live album from the Apollo Theater, recorded during his declining years, when he describes physical lust in the hit "Ta Ta," he makes it feel urgent and real, and utterly convincing.

Ruth Brown
Ruth BrownThey called Atlantic Records "the house that Ruth built" during the 1950s, and they weren't referring to the Sultan of Swat. Ruth Brown's regal hitmaking reign from 1949 to the close of the '50s helped tremendously to establish the New York label's predominance in the R&B field. Later, the business all but forgot her she was forced to toil as domestic help for a time but she returned to the top, her status as a postwar R&B pioneer (and tireless advocate for the rights and royalties of her peers) recognized worldwide. Young Ruth Weston was inspired initially by jazz chanteuses Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington. She ran away from her Portsmouth home in 1945 to hit the road with trumpeter Jimmy Brown, whom she soon married. A month with bandleader Lucky Millinder's orchestra in 1947 ended abruptly in Washington, D.C., when she was canned for delivering a round of drinks to members of the band. Cab Calloway's sister Blanche gave Ruth a gig at her Crystal Caverns nightclub and assumed a managerial role in the young singer's life. DJ Willis Conover dug Brown's act and recommended her to Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, bosses of a fledgling imprint named Atlantic.

Jackie Brenston
Jackie Brenston Determining the first actual rock & roll record is a truly impossible task. But you can't go too far wrong citing Jackie Brenston's 1951 Chess waxing of "Rocket 88," a seminal piece of rock's fascinating history with all the prerequisite elements firmly in place: practically indecipherable lyrics about cars, booze, and women; Raymond Hill's booting tenor sax, and a churning, beat-heavy rhythmic bottom. Sam Phillips, then a fledgling in the record business, produced "Rocket 88," Brenston's debut waxing, in Memphis. The singer/saxist was backed by Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm, an aggregation that Brenston had joined the previous year. Turner played piano on the tune; Willie Kizart supplied dirty, distorted guitar. Billed as by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, "Rocket 88" drove up to the top slot on the R&B charts and remained there for more than a month. But none of his Chess follow-ups sported the same high-octane performance, though "Real Gone Rocket" was certainly a deserving candidate.

Amos Milburn
Amos Milburn Boogie piano master Amos Milburn was born in Houston, and he died there a short 52 years later. In between, he pounded out some of the most hellacious boogies of the postwar era, usually recording in Los Angeles for Aladdin Records and specializing in good-natured upbeat romps about booze and its effects (both positive and negative) that proved massive hits during the immediate pre-rock era. The self-taught 88s ace made a name for himself as the "He-Man Martha Raye" around Houston before joining the Navy and seeing overseas battle action in World War II. When he came out of the service, Milburn played in various Lone Star niteries before meeting the woman whose efforts would catapult him to stardom.

Wee Bea Booze
Wee Bea Booze Whether under the name of Bea Booze, Wee Bea Booze, Bee Bea Booze, or Beatrice Booze, this female blues singer has got to be the alcoholic's crooner of choice, or would be if the drunks would have heard of her. Which is probably not likely since her obscurity overshadows what seems like it might have been a 100-proof show business name, especially in such a hard-drinking music as blues. The reality is, even in the proud city of Baltimore, few blues fans know that Bea Booze is one of their own. Yet this singer, who sometimes accompanied herself on guitar, managed to create a few legendary discographical cocktails. One of the best sips of her music is to be found on the Delmark compilation entitled Don't You Feel My Leg, spotlighting recordings she made with a quartet that includes tenorman George Kelly and organist Larry Johnson. This set features a full-cover photograph of Booze, cradling her electric guitar under her arm. Blues fans that really want to "bea" swarmed by the bea-hive might opt for the compilation unpromisingly entitled Female Blues: The Remaining Titles, Vol. 2 from the Document company, which also features the efforts of Bea Foote, a singer whose efforts are hardly pedestrian; although any writer who wants to feel that they are clever on their feet would say so.

Tiny Bradshaw
Tiny Bradshaw Tiny Bradshaw really had a two-part career, in the 1930s in swing and from the mid-'40s on as a best-selling R&B artist. He majored in psychology at Wilberforce University but chose music as his career. Bradshaw sang early on with Horace Henderson's Orchestra (in addition to playing drums), Marion Hardy's Alabamians, the Savoy Bearcats, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and Luis Russell. In 1934, he put together his own orchestra and they recorded eight spirited numbers for Decca later that year. A decade of struggle lie ahead and, when Bradshaw's big band recorded again, in 1944, the music was more R&B and jump-oriented. The majority of Bradshaw's recordings were cut during 1950-1954, although there would be one session apiece made in 1955 and 1958. All of his post-1947 output was made for King including the seminal "Train Kept A-Rollin'" in 1951. For several decades, that song became a staple of numerous garage bands along with notable recorded versions by the Yardbirds in the '60s and Aerosmith in the '70s.

Hank Ballard
Hank Ballard The Midnighters began their career as the Royals. Organized in late 1950 or early '51 by Henry Booth and Charles Sutton, the original lineup is said to have also included Levi Stubbs (later of he Four Tops) and Jackie Wilson. By 1952, when bandleader Johnny Otis discovered Hank and the group at the Paradise Theater in Detroit and recommended it to Federal Records producer Ralph Bass, the personnel comprised of lead singers Booth and Sutton, harmony vocalists Lawson Smith and Sonny Woods, and guitarist Alonzo Tucker. Booth led the Royals' first waxing, the Otis doo wopp composition "Every Beat of My Heart" (later a smash for Gladys Knight and the Pips). The Royals' initial style was smooth, owing much to Sonny Til and the Orioles. It changed radically when Hank Ballard, who'd grown up singing in church in Bessemer, Alabama, replaced Smith in 1953. Inspired by the Dominoes' Clyde McPhatter, the 16 year-old former Ford assembly line worker became lead singer, bringing to the group a hard gospel edge and a suitcase full of rhythm-charged, frequently raunchy songs, beginning with 1953's "Get It".

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Biographical Information on this web page is a product of AMG (All Music Guide) and may not be used for commercial purposes. Inquiries may be directed to Ron O'Neal
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* Swing* Jimmy Witherspoon
Jimmy Witherspoon

Wynome Harris
Wynome Harris

Amos Milburn
Amos Milburn

Billy Wright
Billy Wright

Johnny Otis*
Johnny Otis

Louis Jordan
Louis Jordan

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Little Willie John
Little Willie John

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