Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.
The First Hall-of-Famers
In 1986, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored its first class of inductees. It had been over 30 years since rock got its official start, but the names of those inducted were echoes of a thrilling and culture-altering past.
This lesson looks at these early days of rock music in the 1950s through the lens of four great artists of the time: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly.
What Is Rock and Roll?
What is rock? If described technically, rock is a dominant form of popular music that gained traction in the 1950s and 60s, usually consisting of a small group of bandmembers, often utilizing a pronounced beat.
Yet, the story of rock is much more vibrant than this description. To understand it better, we have to go back in time.
It's 1955, and rhythm and blues music had set the stage for the combination of sounds we call rock. This style had grown in popularity in the 1940s, but was not yet known to many Americans.
A St. Louis-born guitarist and songwriter named Chuck Berry would take his love of poetry and experiment with mixing country with rhythm and blues. Audiences responded, and his hit Maybellene hit #1 on the R&B charts, and #5 on the pop music charts.
Even as Berry gained success, the racism of this time often impacted which acts were chosen to represent 'rock.' Many early rock successes consisted of white musicians performing the acts originated by black musicians of the time.
As an African American artist who gained popularity not only among black audiences, but white teen audiences as well, Berry's success kicked off a new path for crossover musicians of the time. His rock career helped open the door to more people experiencing and enjoying a range of musical styles.
A white, Mississippi teenager raised on gospel music, Elvis Presley's sound was also rooted in African American traditions combined with a country twist. At 18 years old, he got his break after he paid a studio so he could record himself singing That's All Right Mama, a song from blues musician Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, and Blue Moon of Kentucky, a bluegrass tune from the eclectic Bill Monroe.
Like Berry, Presley mixed sounds that might traditionally be thought of as black and white music, connecting them in new ways. 'The King' also added in another challenge to the accepted norms of the time - a hip gyration that some thought of as immoral and a threat to decency. Many teenagers, of course, loved this expressiveness, and this supported the success of his music all the more.
A Georgia native with powerful charisma, Richard Penniman, also known as Little Richard, paired exuberant boogie-woogie-style piano playing with showmanship that fans enthusiastically embraced. The self-proclaimed 'architect of rock n'roll' drew from his gospel background, as Elvis also had done. In 1955, his hit Tutti Frutti crossed over from the R&B charts to the pop charts, as Berry's had done that same year.
Drummer Charles Conner of Little Richard's band The Upsetters reminisced about this time saying, 'We were the first band on the road to wear pancake makeup and eye shadow, have an earring hanging out of our ear and have our hair curled in process.'
These types of approaches to fashion had their impact on teen culture. This helped pave the way for future rockers to push the boundaries with what they wore and how they presented themselves.
By the time he was a teenager himself, Texan Buddy Holly was already an experienced country musician and performer. When Elvis came to town in 1955, Holly's band opened for the star, and the young Buddy got hooked on Presley's rock style.
Yet, as he grew in popularity, Holly himself would often be viewed as a regular guy, less controversial than Presley and more relatable to those musicians who would emerge after him.
Holly's band, The Crickets, would record the lively That'll Be the Day two years later, one of seven Top 40 singles. Sadly, in 1959, 22-year old Buddy Holly's life was taken when he and fellow performers Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash.
A tragic loss, the rocker known for his horn-rimmed glasses and clean-cut image is cited as a powerful musical inspiration for many other celebrated artists, such as Bob Dylan and The Beatles. In a 1978 interview for Rolling Stone, Bruce Springsteen revealed the influence Holly has had on him: 'I play Buddy Holly every night before I go on, that keeps me honest.'
Rock's impact on teenagers included an inspiration to innovate in music while merging with rebellious ways of expressing oneself. All four of these musicians added something unique to the early days of the genre. They each opened a door for future musicians to grow up and put their own stamp on rock.
From Presley and Berry's combinations of black and white traditions, to the clean-cut Holly and the big personality of Little Richard, the early days of rock gave a voice to a generation who felt they had outgrown former modes of music and wanted something that represented the culture of youth.
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