The Real Book can refer to any of a number of popular compilations of lead sheets for jazz tunes, but is generally used to refer to Volume 1 of an underground series of books transcribed and collated by students at Berklee College of Music during the 1970s. It got its name to distinguish it from the widely available fake books which printed only chords and lyrics of standard songs, to avoid copyright issues. The Real Book included melody lines, thus infringing music copyright, and the older versions were pirated — that is unlicensed — publications that paid no royalties to song authors. In 2004, Hal Leonard published a licensed edition, which pays royalties to song authors.
Musicians find it convenient to work from "the book", because it is available in different editions to suit B♭, E♭, and C (concert-pitch) instruments, as well as bass clef and voice editions ("low" and "high" voice, with lyrics included). A band leader can conveniently call out page numbers, since each edition is also paginated identically.
History of the 'original' Real Book
Bassist Steve Swallow and pianist Paul Bley are rumored to have been responsible for producing lead sheets for the book. However, this is a myth. Compositions by Swallow, Bley, and their friends (e.g. Chick Corea) are heavily represented in The Real Book alongside jazz standards and classic jazz compositions because those were the songs that were being played most by jazz musicians in early 1970s Boston, where the book was created. There is also speculation that composer Stu Balcomb was heavily involved in putting the book together, given his credit in Swallow's album Real Book for "cover graphics", and given the presence of several of his tunes in the book. The handwriting in the Real Book matches that in the liner notes for the album as well, suggesting that the whole book was written out by Swallow. Again, this is not accurate — but Swallow knew who to call to get the picture for his album. Only the first volume is the original. The two following volumes of The Real Book were produced—volume 2 is printed in characteristically 'rough' handwriting and transcription, while the third volume is typeset on a computer.
Pat Metheny claims that, while teaching at Berklee School of Music in 1973–4, one of his guitar students, and one of Gary Burton's vibraphone students (both of whom wish to remain anonymous), first came up with the idea of putting together the anthology that would form The Real Book.
The transcriptions in The Real Book are unlicensed, meaning that no royalties are paid to the artists whose songs appear in the book. Consequently, the book violates copyright and is therefore illegal. In the past, it was usually sold surreptitiously in local music stores, often hidden behind the counter for customers who asked. PDF editions of the book are now often available illegally on P2P networks.
The name is most likely a play on words from the common name for these types of song folios: "fake book". It could however, have been influenced by the Boston alternative weekly newspaper, The Real Paper, launched by writers of Boston's The Phoenix after a labor dispute.
A variety of dates have been attributed to the book. The April 1990 issue of Esquire featured The Real Book in the "Man At His Best" column by Mark Roman, in an article called "Clef Notes." He states, "I don't know a jazzman who hasn't owned, borrowed, or Xeroxed pages from a Real Book at least once in his career," and he quotes John F. Voigt, Berklee's music librarian, "The Real Book came out around 1971. The only material available in print then was crap." Another feature surfaced on April 10, 1994, in The New York Times article, "Flying Below the Radar of Copyrights." Manhattan guitarist Bill Wurtzel (né William K. Wurtzel; born 1938) is quoted as saying, "Everyone has one, but no one knows where they come from." The writer of the article, Michael Lydon, says that "I got mine in 1987 from a bassist who lives in Queens and who attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston; many in jazz circles suspect that students there reproduced the first copies of it in the mid-70s." 
Music sequencing software Steinberg Cubase has Real Book as a choice in Page Mode Setting, meaning that the key signature would be displayed only once at the top of the page in the notated sheet music, as is the style in the fake book.
History of the 'new' Real Book
In 2004, music publisher Hal Leonard obtained the rights to most of the tunes contained in the original Real Book and published the first legal edition, calling it the Real Book Sixth Edition in tacit acknowledgment of the five previous illegal versions. The cover and binding are identical to the 'old' Real Book, and the books even employ a font which is remarkably similar to the handwritten style of the originals although the new editions are more legible. The other main improvements are that most of the editing mistakes have been corrected; and, of course, every tune has been licensed and the copyright owners are being paid for the use of their intellectual property. The books were initially priced cheaper than the illegal ones were usually sold for—with the stated intention of driving the underground distributors out of business or boosting their own sales of the book. 137 tunes are missing in the 6th edition that were in the 5th, while 90 new tunes have been added.
Hal Leonard subsequently released The Real Book, Volume II, Second Edition in answer to the Real Book, Volume II. In July 2006 they released The Real Book, Volume III, Second Edition, in December 2010, The Real Book, Volume IV, -in June 2013, The Real Book, Volume V and in June 2016 The Real Book, Volume VI. The Real Vocal Book, Volume I, Second Edition also appeared recently, clearly a (more legible) response to the old book of similar title.
These books contain much, but not all, of the same material as their counterparts; and in most cases, but not all, charts from the new Hal Leonard books are compatible with the Real Book charts. In some cases, compatibility issues occur where corrections have been made to some of the mistakes in the 5th edition charts; in other cases, 6th edition charts may reference changes on better or more authoritative recordings.
- The New Real Book, compiled & edited by Chuck Sher (Charles D. Sher; born 1947) & Sky Evergreen (aka Bob Bauer; né Robert E. Bauer; 1956–1997), Sher Music (publisher) (1988) Volume III, E♭ ISBN 978-1-883217-03-7
- The Real Book 2nd edition, Hal Leonard (publisher) (2004)
- The Real Book, 2nd edition, O. Angabe (publisher) (1980) OCLC 314155091
- The Real Book, Pacific edition, Real Book Press (1980) OCLC 9593108
- The Real Book, 6th edition (2007) OCLC 56846058, 189624769, 750243800
Note: The New Real Book, also in 3 volumes, published by Sher Music Co., is another legal and readily available modern alternative. The collection of tunes in it differs from the original Real Book, but this edition offers some of the same songs, in new transcriptions and a different notation.
Some other music publishers also apply the term Real Book to their own publications — for example, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music publishes The AB Real Book. Alfred Publishing Co. has three real books.
- Ralph Patt, author of The Vanilla Book of 400 chord progressions for jazz standards
- Chas. H. Hansen Music Corp., pioneer publisher of legit fake books
- Pat,, Metheny,. The Pat Metheny real book : C instruments. Pat Metheny Group. (Artist ed.). Milwaukee, WI. ISBN 9781480350595. OCLC 933517286.
- Man At His Best: Clef Notes, by Mark B. Roman (born 1962), Esquire, April 1990, Vol. 113 ISSN 0194-9535
- Pop Music; Flying Below The Radar Of Copyrights, Michael C. Lydon (born 1942), New York Times, April 10, 1994
- Kernfeld, Barry (2006). The Story of Fake Books (1st ed.). Lanham, Maryland, USA: Scarecrow Press, Inc. p. 129. ISBN 0-8108-5727-8.
- Guide · Differences Between the 5th and 6th Editions, from realbooklisten.com (The Real Book Listening Original url accessed 2013-11-1)
- Obituary: Evergreen, Sky "Bob Bauer," 41, San Francisco, CA, San Francisco Chronicle, June 19, 1997
- Sher Music official website, Chuck Sher (Charles D. Sher; born 1947) (proprietor)