Rock & Roll: History, Music & Bands

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will articulate the development of rock 'n' roll music in the 1950s and its impact on international youth culture. We will explore the ways in which rock 'n' roll has changed and how its definition has shifted.

Context and Precursors

Rock 'n' roll was the dominant form of popular music in the developed world during the second half of the 20th century. Exactly when rock 'n' roll branched off from earlier, related styles is debatable, as is the genre's relationship to later genres like heavy metal or hip-hop. Rock 'n' roll epitomized the concept of youth culture in post-war America and would play an important role in defining that concept for much of the world during the 20th century.

The fundamentals of rock 'n' roll can be found in African-American blues in the early 20th century. The numerous style, variations, and traditions exemplified by bluesmen like Son House, Charlie Patton, and Lead Belly laid the groundwork for both rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. Although the contributions of African-American musicians were essential to rock 'n' roll, various types of white folk and popular music were also deeply important.

Rock 'n' roll emerged during a time of unprecedented post-World War II prosperity, which was not a coincidence. More people had radios than ever before and television became a mainstay in the American household. The recording industry advanced in leaps and bounds after the war, allowing for music to be distributed on a mass scale. In addition to technological changes, the post-war prosperity that many middle class families enjoyed meant that teenagers had money to spend on records. The early rumblings of the civil rights movement were also occurring during this period, making African-American music more accessible.

In the early 1950s, electric blues was developing in cities like Saint Louis, Chicago, and Kansas City. Musicians like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and T-Bone Walker took the acoustic blues of the rural Deep South and electrified it for Northern and Midwestern cities. During the late 40s and early 50s, the distinction between electric blues, rhythm and blues, and early rock 'n' roll often seems murky, but changes in technology and demographics were certainly being reflected in these stylistic shifts in music.

The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll

Elvis Presley in the film Jailhouse Rock.

In 1954, a young man from Tupelo, Mississippi named Elvis Presley recorded two songs, 'That's All Right,' and, 'Blue Moon of Kentucky,' for Sun Records in Memphis. Presley's good looks along with his compelling combination of country music and rhythm and blues would prove to be wildly successful. Between 1954 and 1957, Presley would define the rock 'n' roll genre with tracks like 'Jailhouse Rock,' 'Hound Dog,' and 'Don't Be Cruel.' Presley's era-defining, hyper-sexual appearances on television shows like the Ed Sullivan Show were nearly as important as his music.

Chuck Berry

In 1955, Chuck Berry released the single 'Maybellene,' which offered a vital mix of rhythm and blues, electric guitar, and country swagger. 'Maybellene' was a major hit, earning the number five spot on the Billboard Music Charts, a remarkable feat for an African-American musician at that time.

Little Richard was also one of the most important innovators of early rock 'n' roll. Beginning in a more rhythm and blues vein in the late 1940s, Little Richard would transform popular music in the 1950s with his brand of rock 'n' roll and unprecedented, extravagant stage persona. Between 1955 and 1959, Little Richard released classic tracks like 'Tutti-Frutti,' 'Long Tall Sally,' and 'Good Golly Miss Molly.' Little Richard's wild, hyperkinetic performances, sexy lyrics, and infectious musical style made him one of the definitive models of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s.

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