Rock and roll is a form of music that evolved in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with roots in mainly Blues, Country, R&B, Folk and Gospel music, and quickly spread to the rest of the world.
Classic rock and roll is played with one or two electric guitars (one lead, one rhythm), a string bass or (after the mid-1950s) an electric bass guitar, and a drum kit. In the earliest rock and roll styles of the late 1940s and early 1950s, either the piano or saxophone was often the lead instrument, but these were generally replaced or supplemented by guitar in the middle to late 1950s. The beat is essentially a boogie woogie blues rhythm with an accentuated backbeat, the latter almost always provided by a snare drum.
The massive popularity and eventual worldwide view of rock and roll gave it an unique social impact. Far beyond simply a musical style, rock and roll, as seen in movies and in the new medium of television, influenced lifestyles, fashion, attitudes, and language. It went on to spawn various sub-genres, often without the characteristic backbeat, that are more properly called simply "rock music".
The immediate origins of rock and roll lie in the late 1940s and early 1950s through a mixing together of various popular musical genres of the time. These included Blues, Country music, R&B, Folk music, and Gospel.
However, elements of rock and roll can be heard in many "hillbilly" and "race" music records of the 1920s and 1930s. Often "black" music was usually relegated to "race music" outlets (music industry code for rhythm and blues stations) and was rarely heard by mainstream white audiences.
A few black rhythm and blues musicians, notably Louis Jordan, the Mills Brothers, and The Ink Spots, achieved crossover success; in some cases (such as Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie") this success was achieved with songs written by white songwriters.
The Western swing genre in the 1930s, generally played by white musicians, also drew heavily on the blues and in turn directly influenced rockabilly and rock and roll, as can be heard, for example, on Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" (1957).
Going back even further, rock and roll can trace one lineage to the old Five Points, Manhattan district of mid-19th century New York City, the scene of the first fusion of heavily rhythmic African shuffles and sand dances with melody-driven European genres, like Irish jigs and reels.
What should be noted is that prior to rock and roll, music was categorized based on race, nationality, location, style, instrumentation, vocal techniques, and even religion. However, with the immense popularity and commercial success of Elvis Presley in 1956, Rock and roll became cornerstone of the music industry in America. No more was music defined and categorized as it had been.
In 1951, Cleveland, Ohio disc jockey Alan Freed began playing rhythm and blues and country music for a multi-racial audience. Freed is credited with first using the phrase "rock and roll" to describe the music he played. However, the term had already been introduced to US audiences, particularly in the lyrics of many rhythm and blues records. Three different songs with the title "Rock And Roll" were recorded in the late 1940s; one by Paul Bascomb in 1947, another by Wild Bill Moore in 1948, and yet another by Doles Dickens in 1949, and the phrase was in constant use in the lyrics of R&B songs of the time. One such record where the phrase was repeated throughout the song was "Rock And Roll Blues," recorded in 1949 by Erline "Rock And Roll" Harris. The phrase was also included in advertisements for the film Wabash Avenue, starring Betty Grable and Victor Mature. An ad for the movie that ran April 12, 1950 billed Ms. Grable as "...the first lady of rock and roll" and Wabash Avenue as "...the roaring street she rocked to fame".
Before then, the phrase "rocking and rolling", as secular black slang for dancing or sex, appeared on record for the first time in 1922 on Trixie Smith's "My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll". Even earlier, in 1916, the term "rocking and rolling" was used with a religious connotation, on the phonograph record "The Camp Meeting Jubilee" by an unnamed male "quartette". The word "rock" had a long history in the English language as a metaphor for "to shake up, to disturb or to incite".
In 1937, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald recorded "Rock It for Me," which included the lyric, "So won't you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll." "Rocking" was a term used by black gospel singers in the American South to mean something akin to spiritual rapture. By the 1940s, however, the term was used as a double entendre, ostensibly referring to dancing, but with the sub-textual meaning of sex, as in Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight." The verb "roll" was a medieval metaphor which meant "having sex". Writers for hundreds of years have used the phrases "They had a roll in the hay" or "I rolled her in the clover". The terms were often used together ("rocking and rolling") to describe the motion of a ship at sea, for example as used in 1934 by the Boswell Sisters in their song "Rock and Roll" which was featured in the 1934 film "Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round", and in Buddy Jones' "Rockin' Rollin' Mama" (1939). Country singer Tommy Scott was referring to the motion of a railroad train in the 1951 "Rockin and Rollin'".
An alternative claim is that the origins of "rocking and rolling" can be traced back to steel driving men working on the railroads in the Reconstruction South. These men would sing hammer songs to keep the pace of their hammer swings. At the end of each line in a song, the men would swing their hammers down to drill a hole into the rock. The shakers -- the men who held the steel spikes that the hammer men drilled -- would "rock" the spike back and forth to clear rock or "roll", twisting the spike to improve the "bite" of the drill.
There is much debate as to what should be considered the first rock & roll record. One leading contender is "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (in fact, Ike Turner and his band The Kings of Rhythm), recorded by Sam Phillips for Sun Records in 1951. Four years later, Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" (1955) became the first rock and roll song to top Billboard magazine's main sales and airplay charts, and opened the door worldwide for this new wave of popular culture. Rolling Stone magazine argued in 2004 that "That's All Right (Mama)" (1954), Elvis Presley's first single for Sun Records in Memphis, was the first rock and roll record. But, at the same time, Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll", later covered by Haley, was already at the top of the Billboard R&B charts.
Turner was one of many forerunners. His 1939 recording, "Roll 'Em Pete", is close to '50s rock and roll. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was also recording shouting, stomping music in the 1930s and 1940s that in some ways contained major elements of mid-1950s rock and roll. She scored hits on the pop charts as far back as 1938 with her gospel songs, such as "This Train" and "Rock Me", and in the 1940s with "Strange Things Happenin Every Day", "Up Above My Head", and "Down By The Riverside." . Other significant records of the 1940s and early 1950s included Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" and Hank Williams' "Move It On Over" and Amos Milburn's Chicken Shack Boogie (all 1947); Jimmy Preston's "Rock the Joint" and Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" and Big Joe Turner's "Ooo-Ouch-Stop" (all 1949); and Les Paul and Mary Ford's "How High the Moon" (1951).
Both rock and roll and boogie woogie have four beats to a bar, and are twelve-bar blues. Rock and roll however has a greater emphasis on the backbeat than boogie woogie. Little Richard combined boogie-woogie piano with a heavy backbeat and over-the-top, shouted, gospel-influenced vocals that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says "blew the lid off the '50s." However, others before Little Richard were combining these elements, including Esquerita, Cecil Gant, Amos Milburn, Piano Red, and Harry Gibson. Little Richard's wild style, with shouts and "woo woos," had itself been used by female gospel singers, including the 1940s' Marion Williams. Roy Brown did a Little Richard style "yaaaaaaww" long before Richard in "Ain't No Rockin no More."
Bo Diddley's 1955 hit "Bo Diddley" backed with "I'm A Man" introduced a new, pounding beat, and unique guitar playing that inspired many artists. Other artists with early rock and roll hits were Chuck Berry and Little Richard, as well as many vocal doo-wop groups. Within the decade crooners such as Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, and Patti Page, who had dominated the previous decade of popular music, found their access to the pop charts significantly curtailed.
"Rockabilly" usually (but not exclusively) refers to the type of rock and roll music which was played and recorded in the mid 1950s by white singers such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, who drew mainly on the Country roots of the music. Many other popular rock and roll singers of the time, such as Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, came out of the black rhythm and blues tradition, making the music attractive to white audiences, and are not usually classed as "rockabilly".
In July 1954, Elvis Presley recorded the regional hit "That's All Right (Mama)" at Sam Phillips' Sun studios in Memphis. Two months earlier in May 1954, Bill Haley & His Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock". Although only a minor hit when first released, when used in the opening sequence of the movie Blackboard Jungle, a year later, it really set the rock and roll boom in motion. The song became one of the biggest hits in history, and frenzied teens flocked to see Haley and the Comets perform it, causing riots in some cities. "Rock Around the Clock" was a breakthrough for both the group and for all of rock and roll music. If everything that came before laid the groundwork, "Clock" introduced the music to a global audience.
Many of the earliest white rock and roll hits were covers or partial re-writes of earlier rhythm and blues or blues songs. Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, R&B music had been gaining a stronger beat and a wilder style, with artists such as Fats Domino and Johnny Otis speeding up the tempos and increasing the backbeat to great popularity on the juke joint circuit. Before the efforts of Freed and others, black music was taboo on many white-owned radio outlets. However, savvy artists and producers quickly recognized the potential of rock, and raced to cash in with white versions of this black music. White musicians also fell in love with the music and played it everywhere they could. This, however, is somewhat unfair and a lot of the early rock hits were country based songs too. Many of Presley's early hits were covers, like "That's All Right" (a country arrangement of a blues number, its flip side Blue Moon of Kentucky was also successful), "Baby, Let's Play House", "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "Hound Dog". "Heartbreak Hotel", the song that brought Presley to a worldwide audience (and his first ever release that was not a cover) was composed by country writers.
Covering was customary in the music industry at the time; it was made particularly easy by the compulsory license provision of United States copyright law (still in effect ). One of the first successful rock and roll covers was Wynonie Harris's transformation of Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" from a jump blues to a showy rocker. The most notable trend, however, was white pop covers of black R&B numbers. Exceptions to this rule included Wynonie Harris covering the Louis Prima rocker "Oh Babe" in 1950, and Amos Milburn covering what may have been the first white rock and roll record, Hardrock Gunter's "Birmingham Bounce," in 1949.
Black performers saw their songs recorded by white performers, an important step in the dissemination of the music, but often at the cost of feeling and authenticity (not to mention revenue). Pat Boone recorded sanitized versions of Little Richard songs, though Boone found "Long Tall Sally" so intense that he couldn't cover it.
Almost every time Little Richard would have a hit, Pat Boone would put out the same song. Pat Boone's clean-cut appearance and status as a family man, along with his calmer manner of singing, were accepted by a new group of listeners, including many adults .Later, as those songs became popular, the original artists' recordings received radio play as well. Little Richard once called Pat Boone from the audience and introduced him as "the man who made me a millionaire."
The cover versions were not necessarily straightforward imitations. For example, Bill Haley's modified cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" transformed Big Joe Turner's humorous and racy tale of adult love into an energetic teen dance number, while Georgia Gibbs replaced Etta James's tough, sarcastic vocal in "Roll With Me, Henry" (covered as "Dance With Me, Henry") with a perkier vocal more appropriate for an audience unfamiliar with the song to which James's song was an answer, Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie."
Blues would continue to inspire rock performers for decades. Delta blues artists such as Robert Johnson and Skip James also proved to be important inspirations for British blues-rockers such as The Yardbirds, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. The reverse, black artists making hits with covers of songs by white songwriters, although less common, did occur. Amos Milburn got a hit with Don Raye's "Down the Road a Piece," Maurice Rocco covered Raye's "Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar,", Chuck Berry's first hit single Maybellene was a rewritten version of Bob Wills' Ida Red, and Wynonie Harris covered "Don't Roll Your Bloodshot Eyes At Me" by Hank Penny and "Oh, Babe" by Louis Prima, for the R&B market.
Alan Freed is credited with first using the phrase "rock and roll" to describe a mix of both "black" and "white" music played for a multi-racial audience. While working as a disc jockey at radio station WJW in Cleveland, he also organized the first rock and roll concert, called "The Moondog Coronation Ball" on March 21, 1952. The event proved a huge drawing card — the first event had to be ended early due to overcrowding. Thereafter, Freed organized many rock and roll shows attended by both whites and blacks, further helping to introduce African-American musical styles to a wider audience.
Rock and roll appeared at a time when racial tensions in the United States were coming to the surface. African Americans were protesting segregation of schools and public facilities. The "separate but equal" doctrine was nominally overturned by the Supreme Court in 1954, and the difficult task of enforcing this new doctrine lay ahead. This new musical form combining elements of white and black music inevitably provoked strong reactions.
After "The Moondog Coronation Ball", the record industry soon understood that there was a white market for black music that was beyond the stylistic boundaries of rhythm and blues. Even the considerable prejudice and racial barriers could do nothing against market forces. Rock and roll was an overnight success in the U.S., making ripples across the Atlantic, and perhaps culminating in 1964 with the British Invasion.
The social effects of rock and roll were worldwide and massive. Far beyond simply a musical style, rock and roll influenced lifestyles, fashion, attitudes, and language. In addition, rock and roll may have helped the cause of the civil rights movement because both African American teens and white American teens enjoyed the music. It also birthed many other rock influenced styles. Progressive, alternative, punk, and heavy metal are just a few of the genres that sprang forth in the wake of Rock and Roll.
A teen idol was a recording artist who attracted a very large following of (mostly) female teenagers because of their good looks and "sex appeal" as much as their musical qualities. A good example is Frank Sinatra in the 1940s, although a case can be made for Rudy Vallee even earlier. With the birth of rock and roll, Elvis Presley became one of the greatest teen idols of all time. His success led promoters to the deliberate creation of new "rock and roll" idols, such as Frankie Avalon and Ricky Nelson. Other musicians of the time also achieved mass popularity.
Teen idols of the rock and roll years were followed by many other artists with massive appeal to a teenaged audience, including the Beatles and the Monkees. Teen idols were not only known for their catchy pop music, but good looks also played a large part in their successes. It was because of this that certain fan magazines, geared to the fans of teen idols (16 Magazine, Tiger Beat, etc.), were created. These monthly magazines typically featured a popular teen idol on the cover, as well as pin-up photographs, a Q&A, and a list of each idol's "faves" (i.e. favorite color, favorite vegetable, favorite hair color, etc.). Teen idols also influenced toys, Saturday morning cartoons and other products. At the height of each teen idol's popularity, it was not uncommon to see Beatle wigs, Davy Jones' "love beads" or Herman's Hermits lunchboxes for sale.
From its early-1950s inception through the early 1960s, rock and roll music spawned new dance crazes. Teenagers found the irregular rhythm of the backbeat especially suited to reviving the jitterbug dancing of the big-band era. "Sock-hops," gym dances, and home basement dance parties became the rage, and American teens watched Dick Clark's American Bandstand to keep up on the latest dance and fashion styles. From the mid-1960s on, as "rock and roll" yielded gradually to "rock," later dance genres followed, starting with the twist, and leading up to funk, disco, house and techno.
The jazz movement brought blues artists to Britain, and in 1955 Lonnie Donegan's version of "Rock Island Line" began skiffle music which inspired many young people to have a go. These included John Lennon and Paul McCartney, whose group The Quarrymen, formed in March 1957, would gradually change and develop into The Beatles. These developments primed the United Kingdom to respond creatively to American rock and roll, which had an impact across the globe. In Britain, skiffle groups, record collecting and trend-watching were in full bloom among the youth culture prior to the rock era, and color barriers were less of an issue with the idea of separate "race records" seeming almost unimaginable. Countless British youths listened to R&B and rock pioneers and began forming their own bands. Britain quickly became a new center of rock and roll.
In 1958 three British teenagers became Cliff Richard and The Drifters (later renamed Cliff Richard and the Shadows). The group recorded a hit, "Move It", marking not only what is held to be the very first true British rock and roll single, but also the beginning of a different sound; British rock. Richard and his band introduced many important changes, such as using a "lead guitarist" (Hank Marvin) and an electric bass.
The British scene developed, with others including Tommy Steele, Adam Faith and Billy Fury vying to emulate the stars from the U.S. Some touring acts attracted particular popularity in Britain, an example being Gene Vincent. This inspired many British teens to buy records more than ever and follow the music scene, thus laying the groundwork for Beatlemania. At the same time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, R&B fans such as Alexis Korner promoted authentic American blues music directly in London clubs, and elsewhere, at a time when this music was declining in popularity back in the USA. This led directly to the formation of such groups as The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds in London, The Animals, (featuring Eric Burdon), in Newcastle, and Them, (featuring Van Morrison), in Belfast. In the USA, such groups became known as part of the "British Invasion". And indeed the genre of blues did not fully reach mainstream America until it was watered down and reintroduced by the British Invasion.
The rapid rise in popularity of the early rock & roll music might also be attributed in a lesser degree to the natural tendency of youth to rebel against the previous generation and declare their independence by being different, and the more this "difference" upset the previous generation the better. The fact that R&R had its roots in the African-American culture obviously had an effect on more than a few of the "good white folk" of the era. In early rock and roll, the beats and styles were heavily borrowed from African-American and Southern gospel music, and some of the most popular early rock and rollers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Ray Charles were raised in strongly religious communities.
Parents fought with their hip-swiveling teenagers about the "ungodly music." which threatened the older, conservative generation. This divide between rock and religion intensified in the mid-'60s, when outspoken musicians like Bob Dylan and John Lennon drew harsh criticism for songs and comments like Dylan's "With God on Our Side," and Lennon's misunderstood "The Beatles are bigger than Jesus" scandal. Parents and clergy believed that rock 'n' roll was the cause of the nation's social ills and youthful rebellion.
Some radio stations pressured by religious groups, (mostly in the Bible Belt), believed that black music and its offspring: rock 'n' roll, were part of a Communist conspiracy to contaminate the minds of young people in the America, and the ensuing public breaking of the hated records was reminiscent of the Nazi bonfires of late 1930s.
In the US of the late 1950s, several rock concerts were canceled because the police couldn't "guarantee the safety of the audience". As parents continued to fight against rock music its appeal continued to spread spread among young listeners. The musicians mesmerized the teenagers with songs that created a sense of unrestrained freedom which was daring for the fifties. With the religious zealotry, the racial issues of the time, and McCarthyism its a wonder Rock and Roll survived at all, but as Danny and the Juniors proclaimed in their big hit, "Rock and Roll is Here to Stay."
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