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Growing up in ’40s Georgetown, Andrew Magruder would watch the white kids play baseball through the fence. He desperately wanted to join in, lobbing escaped balls back to the other side in hopes of an invitation that never came.
“He couldn’t get over the fence to play with those kids, so the physical barrier was there,” author and ethnomusicologist Stuart L. Goosman says of Magruder, who grew up to sing lead in the Five Blue Notes. “But the physical barrier was not there for music. Music was a more socially acceptable avenue of expression for young black males.”
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Goosman’s Group Harmony: The Black Urban Roots of Rhythm & Blues examines the R&B explosion of the mid-20th century. Like Magruder, young black males in segregated urban environments grouped together to reinterpret Tin Pan Alley standards and popular music from the radio. In the hands of good producers, their music, labeled rhythm and blues, was turned into top-selling records. Group Harmony focuses on influential area bands, such as D.C.’s Clovers and Baltimore’s Orioles, widely credited with being the first R&B group.
“Baltimore and Washington both had a very rich tradition of vocal harmony, and…it had a lot to do with the social dynamics, the racial dynamics of those two cities,” says the 52-year-old Goosman, who lives in Wilton, Conn. Lacking control of their segregated environment, “young kids were able to control the music they sang and how they sang it and how they interpreted it.” This group-harmony phenomenon has a history that dates back to Africans’ arrival in the New World, says Goosman, when slaves took hold of vocal arrangement as something that they could structure and control.
But R&B artists gave up a bit of that control to become successful. The role of the producer, Goosman says, was essential “in making records sound good, in making musicians sound good, kind of guiding them and helping them craft their own talents and shape their material.” In 1951, the Clovers, who had been performing anywhere they could within segregated D.C., started recording with then-D.C.-based Atlantic Records and became a national sensation.
“The association of the Clovers and Atlantic Records is really crucial,” Goosman says, “because it kind of propelled rhythm and blues and vocal harmony into a much larger sphere. The production techniques and the recording techniques of Atlantic Records really helped take what was a street-corner harmony group like the Clovers and turn them into a real popular rhythm-and-blues/rock-’n’-roll group.”
According to Goosman, “the Clovers established a paradigm of popularity.” A few decades before, the white-dominated music industry had begun to realize the market for black music. The black community had established its buying power, and “white people began to get interested in black music, and it became a commodity,” says Goosman. “And so part of the development of rhythm and blues is exploiting that interest that whites had in black music….It’s something that has repeated itself over and over again. It began with ragtime; you saw the same pattern in jazz; you saw it in rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll.”
And today, Goosman says, you see it in rap and hiphop, the absorption of something originating in black communities “into the general cultural milieu.”
In that way, R&B provided a means for black men like Magruder to hop that fence. “It’s almost a rhythmic pattern,” says Goosman, “of black innovation and then consumption on a more general basis by white folks.”—Rebecca Corvino