Rock and roll (often written as rock & roll or rock ‘n’ roll) is a genre of popular music that originated and evolved in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s, primarily from a combination of African American blues, jump blues, country, jazz, and gospel music. Though elements of rock and roll can be heard in country records of the 1930s, and in blues records from the 1920s, rock and roll did not acquire its name until the 1950s.
The term “rock and roll” now has at least two different meanings, both in common usage: referring to the first wave of music that originated in the mid-1950s and later developed “into the more encompassing international style known as “rock music,” and as a term simply synonymous with rock music in the broad sense. For the purpose of differentiation, this article uses the second definition.
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 blues rhythm with an accentuated backbeat, the latter almost always provided by a snare drum. Classic rock and roll is usually 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. Beyond simply a musical style, rock and roll, as seen in movies and on television, influenced lifestyles, fashion, attitudes, and language. It went on to spawn various sub-genres, often without the initially characteristic backbeat, that are now more commonly called simply “rock music” or “rock”.
The term “rock and roll” now has at least two different meanings, both in common usage. The American Heritage Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary both define rock and roll as synonymous with rock music. Encyclopædia Britannica, on the other hand, regards it as the music that originated in the mid-1950s and later developed “into the more encompassing international style known as rock music”.
The phrase “rocking and rolling” originally described the movement of a ship on the ocean, but was used by the early twentieth century, both to describe the spiritual fervor of black church rituals and as a sexual analogy. Various gospel, blues and swing recordings used the phrase before it became used more frequently – but still intermittently – in the 1940s, on recordings and in reviews of what became known as “rhythm and blues” music aimed at a black audience. In 1942, Billboard magazine columnist Maurie Orodenker started to use the term “rock-and-roll” to describe upbeat recordings such as “Rock Me” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. By 1943, the “Rock and Roll Inn” in South Merchantville, New Jersey, was established as a music venue. In 1951, Cleveland, Ohio disc jockey Alan Freed began playing this music style while popularizing the phrase to describe it.
The origins of rock and roll have been fiercely debated by commentators and historians of music. There is general agreement that it arose in the Southern United States – a region which would produce most of the major early rock and roll acts – through the meeting of various influences that embodied a merging of the African musical tradition with European instrumentation. The migration of many former slaves and their descendants to major urban centers like Memphis and north to New York City, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo (See: Second Great Migration (African American)) meant that black and white residents were living in close proximity in larger numbers than ever before, and as a result heard each other’s music and even began to emulate each other’s fashions. Radio stations that made white and black forms of music available to both groups, the development and spread of the gramophone record, and African American musical styles such as jazz and swing which were taken up by white musicians, aided this process of “cultural collision”.
The immediate roots of rock and roll lay in the rhythm and blues, then called “race music“, and country music of the 1940s and 1950s. Particularly significant influences were jazz, blues, gospel, country, and folk. Commentators differ in their views of which of these forms were most important and the degree to which the new music was a re-branding of African American rhythm and blues for a white market, or a new hybrid of black and white forms.
In the 1930s jazz, and particularly swing, both in urban based dance bands and blues-influenced country swing, was among the first music to present African American sounds for a predominantly white audience. The 1940s saw the increased use of blaring horns (including saxophones), shouted lyrics and boogie woogie beats in jazz based music. During and immediately after World War II, with shortages of fuel and limitations on audiences and available personnel, large jazz bands were less economical and tended to be replaced by smaller combos, using guitars, bass and drums. In the same period, particularly on the West Coast and in the Midwest, the development of jump blues, with its guitar riffs, prominent beats and shouted lyrics, prefigured many later developments. In the documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, Keith Richards proposes that Chuck Berry developed his brand of rock and roll, by transposing the familiar two-note lead line of jump blues piano directly to the electric guitar, creating what is instantly recognizable as rock guitar. Similarly, country boogie and Chicago electric blues supplied many of the elements that would be seen as characteristic of rock and roll.
Rock and roll arrived at a time of considerable technological change, soon after the development of the electric guitar, amplifier and microphone, and the 45 rpm record. There were also changes in the record industry, with the rise of independent labels like Atlantic, Sun and Chess servicing niche audiences and a similar rise of radio stations that played their music. It was the realization that relatively affluent white teenagers were listening to this music that led to the development of what was to be defined as rock and roll as a distinct genre.
Because the development of rock and roll was an evolutionary process, no single record can be identified as unambiguously “the first” rock and roll record. Contenders for the title of “first rock and roll record” include Goree Carter‘s “Rock Awhile” (1949); Jimmy Preston‘s “Rock the Joint” (1949), which was later covered by Bill Haley & His Comets in 1952; and “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (actually an alias for Ike Turner and his band The Kings of Rhythm), recorded by Sam Phillips for Sun Records in March 1951. In terms of its wide cultural impact across society in the US and elsewhere, Bill Haley‘s “Rock Around the Clock“, recorded in April 1954 but not a commercial success until the following year, is generally recognized as an important milestone, but it was preceded by many recordings from earlier decades in which elements of rock and roll can be clearly discerned. Other artists with early rock and roll hits included Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Gene Vincent. Chuck Berry’s 1955 classic “Maybellene” in particular features a distorted electric guitar solo with warm overtones created by his small valve amplifier. However, the use of distortion was predated by Guitar Slim, Willie Johnson of Howlin’ Wolf, and Pat Hare; the latter two also made use of distorted power chords in the early 1950s. In addition, Bo Diddley introduced a new beat and unique electric guitar style, heavily influenced by African music and in turn influencing many later artists.
Early rock and roll
“Rockabilly” usually (but not exclusively) refers to the type of rock and roll music which was played and recorded in the mid 1950s primarily 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 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 Studio in Memphis. Three months earlier, on April 12, 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, “Rock Around the Clock” introduced the music to a global audience.
In 1956 the arrival of rockabilly was underlined by the success of songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, “Blue Suede Shoes” by Perkins and “Heartbreak Hotel” by Presley. For a few years it became the most commercially successful form of rock and roll. Later rockabilly acts, particularly performing songwriters like Buddy Holly, would be a major influence on British Invasion acts and particularly on the song writing of The Beatles and through them on the nature of later rock music.
Doo wop was one of the most popular forms of 1950s rock and roll, with an emphasis on multi-part vocal harmonies and meaningless backing lyrics (from which the genre later gained its name), which were usually supported with light instrumentation. Its origins were in African American vocal groups of the 1930s and 40s, like the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers, who had enjoyed considerable commercial success with arrangements based on close harmonies. They were followed by 1940s R&B vocal acts like The Orioles, The Ravens and The Clovers, who injected a strong element of traditional gospel and, increasingly, the energy of jump blues. By 1954, as rock and roll was beginning to emerge, a number of similar acts began to cross over from the R&B charts to mainstream success, often with added honking brass and saxophone, with The Crows, The Penguins, The El Dorados and The Turbans all scoring major hits. Despite the subsequent explosion in records from doo wop acts in the later 50s, many failed to chart or were one-hit wonders. Exceptions included The Platters, with songs including “The Great Pretender” (1955) and The Coasters with humorous songs like “Yakety Yak” (1958), both of which ranked among the most successful rock and roll acts of the era. Towards the end of the decade there were increasing numbers of white, particularly Italian American, singers taking up Doo Wop, creating all-white groups like The Mystics and Dion and the Belmonts and racially integrated groups like The Dell Vikings and The Impalas. Doo wop would be a major influence on vocal surf music, soul and early Merseybeat, including The Beatles.
Many of the earliest white rock and roll hits were covers or partial re-writes of earlier black 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, but artists and producers quickly recognized the potential of rock and roll. Most of Presley’s early hits were covers of black rhythm and blues or blues songs, like “That’s All Right” (a countrified arrangement of a blues number), “Baby Let’s Play House“, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “Hound Dog“.
Covers were 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 relevant successful covers was Wynonie Harris‘s transformation of Roy Brown‘s 1947 original jump blues hit “Good Rocking Tonight” into a more showy rocker and the Louis Prima rocker “Oh Babe” in 1950, as well as Amos Milburn’s cover of what may have been the first white rock and roll record, Hardrock Gunter‘s “Birmingham Bounce” in 1949. The most notable trend, however, was white pop covers of black R&B numbers. The more familiar sound of these covers may have been more palatable to white audiences, there may have been an element of prejudice, but labels aimed at the white market also had much better distribution networks and were generally much more profitable. Famously, Pat Boone recorded sanitized versions of Little Richard songs. Later, as those songs became popular, the original artists’ recordings received radio play as well.
The cover versions were not necessarily straightforward imitations. For example, Bill Haley’s incompletely bowdlerized 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”. Elvis’ rock and roll version of “Hound Dog”, taken mainly from a version recorded by pop band Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, was very different from the blues shouter that Big Mama Thornton had recorded four years earlier.
Commentators have traditionally perceived a decline of rock and roll in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1959, the death of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in a plane crash, the departure of Elvis for the army, the retirement of Little Richard to become a preacher, prosecutions of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, and the breaking of the payola scandal (which implicated major figures, including Alan Freed, in bribery and corruption in promoting individual acts or songs), gave a sense that the initial rock and roll era had come to an end. There was also a process that has been described as the “feminisation” of rock and roll, with the charts beginning to be dominated by love ballads, often aimed at a female audience, and the rise of girl groups like The Shirelles and The Crystals. Some historians of music have pointed to important and innovative developments that built on rock and roll in this period, including multitrack recording, developed by Les Paul, the electronic treatment of sound by such innovators as Joe Meek, and the Wall of Sound productions of Phil Spector, continued desegregation of the charts, the rise of surf music, garage rock and the Twist dance craze.
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.
Many early rock and roll songs dealt with issues of cars, school, dating, and clothing. The lyrics of rock and roll songs described events and conflicts that most listeners could relate to from some point in their lives. Topics that were generally considered taboo, such as sex, began to be introduced in rock and roll music. This new music tried to break boundaries and express the real emotions that people were feeling, but didn’t talk about. An awakening in the young American culture began to take place.
In the crossover of African American “race music” to a growing white youth audience, the popularization of rock and roll involved both black performers reaching a white audience and white performers appropriating African American music. Rock and roll appeared at a time when racial tensions in the United States were entering a new phase, with the beginnings of the civil rights movement for desegregation, leading to the Supreme Court ruling that abolished the policy of “separate but equal” in 1954, but leaving a policy which would be extremely difficult to enforce in parts of the United States. The coming together of white youth audiences and black music in rock and roll inevitably provoked strong white racist reactions within the US, with many whites condemning its breaking down of barriers based on color. Many observers saw rock and roll as heralding the way for desegregation, in creating a new form of music that encouraged racial cooperation and shared experience. Many authors have argued that early rock and roll was instrumental in the way both white and black teenagers identified themselves.
Several rock historians have claimed that rock and roll was one of the first music genres to define an age group. It gave teenagers a sense of belonging, even when they were alone. Rock and roll is often identified with the emergence of teen culture among the first baby boomer generation, who had both greater relative affluence, leisure and who adopted rock and roll as part of a distinct sub-culture. This involved not just music, absorbed via radio, record buying, jukeboxes and T.V. programs like American Bandstand, but it also extended to film, clothes, hair, cars and motorbikes, and distinctive language. The contrast between parental and youth culture exemplified by rock and roll was a recurring source of concern for older generations, who worried about juvenile delinquency and social rebellion, particularly as to a large extent rock and roll culture was shared by different racial and social groups. In America, that concern was conveyed even in youth cultural artifacts like comic books. In “There’s No Love in Rock and Roll” from True Life Romance (1956), a defiant teen dates a rock and roll-loving boy but drops him for one who likes traditional adult music—to her parents’ relief. In Britain, where post-war prosperity was more limited, rock and roll culture became attached pre-existing to the Teddy Boy movement, largely working class in origins, and eventually to the longer lasting rockers. Rock and roll has been seen as reorienting popular music towards a teen market, often celebrating teen fashions, as in Carl Perkins‘ “Blue Suede Shoes” (1956), or Dion and the Belmonts “A Teenager in Love” (1960).
From its early-1950s beginning 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, techno, and hip hop.