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The History of Rock and Roll Until 1960


Rock and roll, although said by many historians to have its first true emergence in the mid-1950’s, has musical origins that trace back to the early 1920’s. The rock and roll musicians of the middle of the twentieth century were influenced by many of their predecessors who specialized in a variety of different musical genres. Early rock primarily consisted of three of the most popular musical genres of the time: mainstream popular music, country and western, and rhythm and blues. Shortly after its emergence, rock and roll began to “crossover,” or become hits on these three previously mentioned top hits charts, yet it eventually, as some claim, died in 1959. However, with the combination of these three forms of music, along with the rise of television and a new, more experimental youth culture, rock and roll became one of the most influential and popular forms of music in American history.

In the time before the early 1950’s, music was mostly heard on the radio. Although television was present in society, it was still a new technology and therefore wasn’t present in every household nationwide. In the time from the 1920’s to the 1940’s, radio broadcasted shows that included live bands or acts playing right there in the studio. Beginning in the late 40’s and continuing into the 50’s, television did begin to attract a national audience, and the result was a push for the reemergence of local and regional radio broadcasts, as seen when radio first emerged in the early 20’s. Television, though, had already begun to influence American culture, especially the youth. Being able to see the images of these rock and roll musicians on television helped to spur the rise of the rebellious youth culture, which in turn was able to spur the popularity of rock and roll. The children of the World War II veterans had now reached their teen years and many of them were not conforming to the post-war idea that their parents held in which they should be “proper young adults.” Movies released during this time such as Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One showed these teens “the wild side” and helped to bring them together in an effort to backlash against their parents’ expectations. Now that they had their goal, they needed their own kind of music—one separate from that of the adults. This music eventually materialized in the form of rock and roll, yet there were several steps along the way.

Pre-rock and roll music had been on the airwaves since radio began it’s broadcast in the early 1920’s. The “Tin Pan Alley” music began to make its way onto the radio, as songwriters would sell their sheet music to performers. This type of music was nicknamed this due to its sound (a sound similar to people banging on tin pans). These performers would play the music that was pre-written for them on the radio. As mentioned earlier, the band and/or singer would perform in the radio studio live during the duration of its allotted time of the broadcast. While big bands were the norm at the time, with 1935-1945 being considered “the big band era,” a new type of solo, the lead-singer, began to emerge and change popular music. During the time of the big band, the singer was merely featured as a soloist, and the main attention was credited towards the band. Slowly, artists began developing on their own and leaving the band to do the back-up work. The most famous of these early soloists was Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Sinatra went solo in 1943 and released “family friendly” hits like “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” These wholesome tunes, along with his good looks and marketability gave him the necessary tools to become a legitimate solo pop singer. The important part of this facet of rock and roll was the audience that it was gaining. While this early popular music is a far cry from the first rock and roll recordings, it is important to note that more people were now listening to music on the radio and television than ever before. This new, expanded taste for music will eventually provide the explosion of rock and roll.

While popular music was winning over a large, national audience, country music in the southeast and western music of the southwest and west had been on the rise since the 20’s and 30’s. The music of the west usually dealt with cowboy themes, while Texas style big bands were also prevalent. The country music of the southeast was based primarily on the folk traditions of the white gospel community. These two styles eventually combined to form the traditional “country and western” genre. Radio shows such as the Grand Ole Opry, which was based in Nashville, began to dominate the country and western recording scene. Jimmie Rodgers was the first country singer to hit it big, while Hank Williams became the first actual country and western star. As radio grew in popularity, accessibility, and technology, superstations began to emerge which helped country and western music find its national audience. Many people agree that the melodies and harmonies eventually found in rock and roll originated in the country and western field. Before even recording, rock and rollers got their taste of country and western through the superstations and national broadcasting. As previously mentioned, the important aspect of this music was its ability to gain the attention of the national audience.

A short time later, especially during the 40’s and 50s, rhythm and blues also began to grow. Started primarily in the rural South, the blues made its way into the urban cities of the North, namely New York and Chicago. Rhythm and Blues consisted of very different and distinct styles, including doo-wop (a musical style done acapella) and black gospel music. Possibly, its most important aspect was a specific type of twelve bar blues that came to be known as the Chicago electric blues. However, because typical rhythm and blues artists were African American and the subject matter of the songs sometimes had sexual references, it never fully gained the approval of a national audience like other popular sounds of the time. Influential rhythm and blues musicians included Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter, Fats Domino, and Ray Charles. This was the music, though, that teenagers listened to in order to defy the wishes of their parents. These same white suburban teens that disobeyed their parents by listening to the hottest black singers were also the ones to eventually buy Elvis Presley and Little Richard albums. Rhythm and blues, though, unlike pop and country and western, had difficulty in working its way into white American culture.

After music had become available on a wide scale, rock and roll also became accessible to young American teenagers. Popular music was winning on the national level while country and western and rhythm and blues were finding a fan base on a smaller platform. The invention of the electric guitar (by Les Paul) brought a new sound that attracted audiences and helped with the push of rock and roll. The rebellious teens of the 50’s began to listen to crossover hits by black artists like the flamboyant Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” in 1955 and Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” in 1955 as well. Meanwhile, Pat Boone “whitefied” some of Little Richard’s biggest hits in order for white Americans to be exposed to music of black artists. This “whitefication” of early rockers actually helped rock and roll get off the ground. It helped to spread rock and roll across the nation as a teen craze. By now, rock and roll had hit the mainstream of American culture. It was at this point that Elvis Presley emerged as one of the most important rock and rollers of all time. By combining the country and western and rhythm and blues like no other before him, he gained an audience of black and white teens alike. He was shown on the biggest television shows simply because the kids loved him and the parents hated him. Presley paved the way for such artists as Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, whose country and western influence was obvious in his simplistic guitar playing and manipulation of vocals.

Eventually, though, all good things must come to an end. Each rock and roller met their fate and rock slowly died. Elvis was drafted into the army from 1958-60; Berry had trouble with the law; Little Richard decided to go into the ministry; Jerry Lee Lewis was ridiculed for marrying his teenage cousin, and in 1959, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash. By this time, much of the rock and roll had crossed over into the pop charts and new, less revolutionary forms of music resurfaced. The dance craze and softer, more “corny” music helped to push the original rock out of the spotlight.

Early rock and roll experienced a quick explosion in American popular music. The national audience along with the rebellious teen culture of the 1950s helped rock and roll emerge. By combining country and western with rhythm and blues, early rockers created an original and daring new sound. Television brought rock and roll into the homes of every television owner in the country, whether parents agreed or not. However, this grand explosion of rock and roll eventually hindered its growth. By crossing over into the pop charts, later rock and roll allowed for watered down groups and new fads such as the dance craze. With the disintegration of it’s major names, original rock and roll somewhat died in 1959, only five years after its birth.

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