This author has been an educator, conductor, and trombonist for the past 40 years. His experience qualifies him as an expert in this field.
Music has evolved into many styles and genres over the years. Musicians, teachers, and musicologists have studied and organized the history behind these styles. This article explores The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Read about the many developments and influences that contributed to this important musical genre.
The Early Years
Many of us remember the old rock ‘n’ roll artists and groups from the 1950s. I myself grew up with this music and love listening to it today. Let’s go back for a minute and look at what popular music was like during the 50s.
During the 1950s, white middle-class America was listening to the innocent sounds of artists like Perry Como, Patti Page, and Bing Crosby, to name just a few. Sweet wholesome entertainment to go along with what was on the early television shows such as Father Knows Best, Leave it To Beaver, I Love Lucy, and Ozzie and Harriet.
Let’s back up a little bit more to the late 1940s when African-American music artists from the south were playing and recording “rhythm and blues." This was jazz-based music with a very solid, heavy beat. The lyrics were centered around success and failures of life in general (relationships, freedom, goals, sex). In the southern regions of the United States, this music was referred to by many as "race music".
Rock and Roll Music
Lewis Jordan and his Tympany Five were standout rhythm and blues artists. Another was Wynonie Harris with his recording of “Good Rockin’ Tonight”. Big Joe Turner recorded "Shake, Rattle, and Roll." Below are two videos of rhythm and blues. The first is Wynonie Harris singing "Good Rockin' Tonight", considered to be the first rock n roll song.
So, to put a better light on the subject, it is safe to say that the rhythm and blues of the late 1940s would soon see its style of music evolve into what we know as rock ‘n’ roll. The characteristics are almost identical:
- Hard driving accented backbeat
- The distinct guitar sound and solo work
- Loud and raucous vocals
- Thought-provoking lyrics
The black rhythm and blues music of the late 1940s had a sound that was very distinctive. The instrumentation was dominated by the saxophone or piano as the lead instrument, along with the string bass and drums. The “beat” of this music centered around an offbeat which many of us now call the “backbeat” heard primarily by the snare drum.
As we get into the 1950s that lead saxophone or piano was replaced by the electric guitar as the lead instrument. And today, the typical or classic rhythm section will consist of two electric guitars (one lead and one rhythm) electric bass and drum kit.
Wynonie Harris—"Good Rockin' Tonight"
Big Joe Turner—"Shake Rattle & Roll"—'40s Rhythm and Blues
Classic Rock 'n' Roll Analysis
We can very simply break down classic rock ‘n’ roll music. As we listen to our favorites analyze them from the standpoint of the five basic elements of music:
- Rhythm—the biggest change as it exhibited a steady recurring “offbeat” or what we call today a “backbeat”. This accented beat is always heard in the snare drum.
- Melody—very ear-catching and easy to sing along with as well as the thought-provoking lyrics.
- Harmony—used with rock ‘n’ roll, based around three simple chords with occasional alterations.
- Timbre (tone quality)—had to do with the changes with the instrumentation of the total band. In the early days, the piano or saxophone was featured as the lead instrument. By the mid-1950s, the lead instruments changed to electric guitar or piano depending on the group or artist. Completing the group would be an electric rhythm guitar, electric bass guitar, and drums.
- Form—or how it was put together, rock ‘n’ roll was written in a simple song form. AABA
Rock ‘n’ Roll was definitely designed for dancing. Remember these: The Twist, The Stroll, The Handjive, The Jitterbug.
Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry
Bill Haley and the Comets—"Rock Around the Clock"
There were other contributors to the development of rock ‘n’ roll besides rhythm and blues. Country music, gospel, jazz, blues, and folk all had significant influences on this new genre in America. A mix of white and black artists was affecting the way people (mostly teens) listened to this music.
A white DJ from Cleveland named Alan Freed was promoting the black rhythm and blues artists on his radio show (Moon Dog Show) and using the expression “rock ‘n’ roll”. This will eventually lead to him getting fired, but nevertheless Freed was truly responsible for getting the word out about this new music and his white audiences loved it. The word spread quickly and before you knew it rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay.
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Another sub-genre to rock n roll was that of the "Doo Wop" groups. This music was mainly black musical acts that were hugely popular R&B styles of the time. They displayed a close vocal harmony, nonsense lyrics, a simple beat, some with instrumental backups, and some without.
Following in the footsteps of groups like the "Inkspots or the Mills Brothers, doo-wop groups almost grew overnight. It is impressive how they followed each other as to their names. Certain trends led to the "bird groups" such as The Orioles, The Crows, The Penguins, The Flamingos, and so on... Another attractive trending name base was seen in groups like The Cadillacs, The Fleetwoods, and The Impalas. Not all of these groups would survive because of the number of groups in the competition. One group that did survive and went on to be popular for years was The Platters. Hit after hit.
There are so many great songs that these groups produced back in the '50s and early '60s. I am a big fan of the doo-wop groups and appreciate the revival concerts today. They are great!
Rock ‘n’ Roll is just Rhythm and Blues played at a faster tempo.
— Little Richard
Sam Phillips was a southern record producer and discovered a young singer named Elvis Presley. Phillips along with the manager Colonel Tom Parker, paved a nice road to success for Elvis has he recorded hit after hit and became known as the ”King of Rock n Roll. A few of the early hits by Elvis were: That’s All Right, Heartbreak Hotel, Love Me Tender.
Elvis and a few other white singers of the time (Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash) sang and recorded their kind of rock ‘n’ roll called “rockabilly“ which came from their country roots.
Bill Haley was a rock n roll musician mostly known for recording Rock Around The Clock. I personally like Bill Haley and the Comets along with song that catapulted him to stardom. My issue with this star is that some have given credit to Haley as the artist responsible for putting rock n roll on the map. He was also given the title "Father of Rock n Roll".
After the recording of "Rock around The Clock", Bill Haley and The Comets saw minimal success as it went through the paces of popularity. It wasn't until a movie called "Blackboard Jungle" with Glenn Ford came out and featured the same song and sent it to the top of the list. Sometimes, it's good to be at the right place at the right time.
The point is, there were so many that developed rock n roll, no one person should be awarded credit or a title for something not necessarily deserved.
Major Artists of Early Rock 'n' Roll
In closing, rock n roll music has been a great influence on hundreds of musicians world wide. The one concept to take from this article is that it did not explode into our laps one day, but evolved from several other forms of music over time.
A mix of black and white song artists that all contributed their special unique sounds to a great genre.
- Elvis Presley
- Little Richard
- Chuck Berry
- Fats Domino
- Lloyd Price
- Hank Williams
- Joe Turner
- Louis Jordan
- Ray Charles
- Bo Diddley
- Johnny Cash
- Charlie Rich
- Bill Haley
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Reginald Thomas
Reginald Thomas (author) from Connecticut on June 26, 2019:
Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed it. If you like music, visit my site at studionotesonline.com . Most articles have great musical examples. Nice talking to you!
Peter from Australia on June 25, 2019:
I can certainly relate to this Hub it brings back so many great memories. For me the start of Rock and Roll was when my sister and i went to see the movie Blackboard Jungle. Wow not so much the movie but Rock around the Clock !
No TV for us in those days it was not introduced into Australia until 1956 and then not many musical shows, Therefore most of our music came through the Radio, with top 10 and so on, Did I mention this was a great Hub and a joy to read. .
Reginald Thomas (author) from Connecticut on June 22, 2019:
I forgot about Rocket 88. I will get it in the article. Thanks!
Kelley Marks from Sacramento, California on June 22, 2019:
You certainly are a fan of rock and roll!...And you play the horns. Very cool, man! Anyway, you may want to mention in your article the song that is widely considered the first rock and roll tune - "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenson and Ike Turner (1951). They've got it on YouTube. Later!...
heath on May 06, 2019: