Early History of Rock Music

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

This lesson gives you snapshots from the early days of rock, focused on four of its superstars. You'll learn how each musician added their mark to the story of rock and roll.

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.

Chuck Berry

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.

Chuck Berry introduced a broad range of listeners to country music and blues with a strong, catchy beat.
An image of Chuck Berry with his guitar

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.

Elvis Presley

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.

Elvis had people talking about his dance moves, sometimes in dismay and sometimes with enthusiasm.
An image of Elvis Presley

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.

Little Richard

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.'

Little Richard was not afraid to express himself on stage.
An image of Little Richard

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.

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