Proto-Soul

Before the 1950s, black secular music was primarily grounded in the blues and jazz. Early in the decade, however, gospel-inspired solo singers and doo-wop groups began to gain popularity. With their collective rise came melismatic vocalism, call-and-response phrasing, gospel harmony, and ad-libbing.

It’s worth noting that the influence of gospel had been felt in secular music before (take note of singing preachers Son House, Willie Johnson, Gary Davis, and Utah Smith). Additionally, secular music affected gospel as well. Much has been written about the influence of blues chanteuse Bessie Smith on Mahalia Jackson’s singing style and the harmonies the early jubilee quartets were inspired by the instrumental arrangements of Dixieland jazz bands. These cross-fertilization of ideas laid the foundation for overtly gospel-influenced acts

The solo R&B singers of the fifties tended to have begun singing in the church and listening to early gospel artists. For example, Ray Charles started his career doing his best to sound like idols Charles Brown and Nat “King” Cole, but fter signing a long-term deal with Atlantic, Ray began developing his own style inspired by the gospel traditions of his youth. Moreover, many of Ruth Brown vocal cadences were adapted from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Faye Adams was a belter in the tradition of Mahalia Jackson and Brother Joe May.

For the groups, many of them began singing gospel, but transitioned into secular music to earn more money. For example, the “5” Royales, 5 Keys, and Famous Flames all began as amateur gospel groups. By melding their gospel harmony with a strong blues-based backdrop, these groups originated doo-wop music.

By the end of the 1950s, these acts had assumed control of the black music industry and set the stage for the soul-music explosion of the 1960s.