I'm going to play a little loose with definitions here, because I have to. "Rhythm and blues" isn't so much a musical genre, you see, as it was a marketing term, grouping together a variety of African American musical styles in order to market them to black audiences. So some jazz wound up on the R&B charts, some blues, and, toward the end, a lot of rock and roll.
But I am interested in uptempo numbers by black artists that addressed itself to the subject of cowboys, and so the R&B charts are a good starting place. Because these musicians had something to say about the subject, and, frequently, what they most wanted to say was that they, too, really liked cowboys.
1. "Cow Cow Boogie," Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots (1944)
Featuring a piano intro mimicking the "bum-ba-dee-ya" guitar lick that opens almost every Ink Spots song, and always sounded like a cowboy lick to me, "Cow Cow Boogie" is perhaps the best-known example of a specific type of song. I speak of the "city hipster becomes a cowboy" song.
"Get along, get hip little doggie," our hepcat cowboy sings in a Western accent ("with a Harlem touch") and repeatedly launches into cowboy shouts. The song is so cool it is hard to believe it comes from an Abbott & Costello film; specifically "Ride 'Em Cowboy."
2. "Hi-Ho Baby," Jackie Brenston & Edna McRaney (1952)
Jackie Brenston was an R&B saxophonist who is directly connected with arguably the first rock and roll song ever recorded: He played sax on Ike Turner's "Rocket 88." Edna McRaney was a Chicago-based blues shouter, and together they recorded this little-remembered but terrific number.
Essentially, it's "Rocket 88," with Brenston bragging to McRaney about his car, but for whatever reason, he phrases it entirely in cowboy terms: "I'm going to hit the plains and hit the trail / you can ride with me in my fine fishtail." The song is genuinely propulsive, pushed along by the singers shouting "talk to me" to each other, as well as a searing solo by Brenston.
3. "Rock and Roll Cowboy," The Youngsters (1956)
Los Angeles doo woppers The Youngsters really seemed to dig cowboys. This cheerful song simply describes a Santa Fe cowboy. Perhaps he plays rock and roll, or something, but The Youngsters don't describe that. Instead, they just insist the cowboy is rock and roll, and, you know something? When a doo wop group sings "Yippee yi yay," it does sound rock and roll.
4. "Along Came Jones," The Coasters (1959)
Probably the best-known song on here, and a superb example of the fertile collaboration between songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and the band the Coasters. The song opens with clip-copping before instantly switching into a driving guitar and the band singing about a cowboy movie they watched on television.
There actually is a movie called "Along Came Jones" from 1945, a genial satire of cowboy movies starring Gary Cooper, but this song isn't about that. Instead, it presents a series of cliched melodramatic scenes, complete with a mustache-twirling villain and those rattling suspended fourth chords melodramas like to use when things gets tense.
There is a lot to like about this song, but my favorite thing is that, theatrically speaking, it's entirely buildup with no catharsis. We never see how Jones takes care of things. We just hear the Coasters, watching television, cry out delightedly that he has arrived, and must create the scene for ourselves while they admiringly discuss his appearance.
5. "Gun Slinger," Bo Diddley (1960)
Of all the R&B singers, it is least surprising that Bo Diddley would do songs about cowboys. He wore a cowboy hat for much of his career, sang folk-inspired songs that sounded like the sorts of boasts you might hear from mountain men, and actually wound up being Deputy Sheriff in New Mexico for a while.
Diddley released an entire concept album based around cowboy motifs, "Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger," in 1960. This included "Cheyenne," a song inspired by the 1955 television series starring Clint Walker, but the standout tune is its title song, "Gun Slinger."
It's about as perfectly Bo Diddley as a song can get, featuring the chunka chunka guitar part he made famous, skittish drums highlighted by constantly shaking rattles, and an excitable background of female singers. I don't think the song has more than one chord to it, which makes the minimalism of punk seem baroque by comparison.
The lyrics are also suitably minimal, with the singer imagining himself at the OK Corral. He doesn't actually do much there, except describe himself, but he looks fabulous: A gun on a hip and a rose in his vest.
6. "Sleepy Cowboy," The Five Sharps (1962)
One day I will discuss the phenomenon of the cowboy lullaby, of which there are a lot. I suppose sooner or later one was going to make its way into rhythm and blues, and it finally did in 1962.
The Five Sharps were a doo wop group from Queens, New York, and I am not clear on why they decided to sing a cowboy to sleep, but they do it perfectly. The essential structure of the song is doo wop, with a deep bass and the rest joining in for sumptuous harmonies. But the lyrics are pure western: "Sleepy little cowboy, why do you ride the range all day?"
7. "Theme from Buck and the Preacher," Benny Carter (1972)
Jazz afficinadoes will be familiar with the name Benny Carter, a saxophonist who worked with Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Dizzie Gillespie, and, well, seemingly everybody. I'm not sure why he was hired to write the theme for a 1972 western starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, but, oh man, does he do it justice.
The song might as well be a blaxploitation soundtrack, featuring funky orchestration, wah-wah guitar, jazz flute, and a chorus of soulful voices offering a James Brown-style melody. "Ain't it groovy how the black man and the red man got together?" they ask, and, yes, yes it is.