The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll

Updated on January 3, 2018
Reginald Thomas profile image

25 years as a conductor, professional trombonist, and teacher. This author enjoys writing about his passion for music.

The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll

Many articles have been written about rock ‘n’ roll and where it came from. I have even read a few papers that discuss how rock "exploded" onto the scene in the 1950s. This couldn’t be more wrong.

Let’s keep this simple and understand that rock 'n' roll is a style or musical genre that evolved from rhythm and blues. This article will explore many of the developments and influences that contributed to what we call rock 'n' roll today.

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 a 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".

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 - 40's Rhythm and Blues

Classic Rock n Roll Analysis

Let's break down classic rock ‘n’ roll music and analyze it from the standpoint of the five elements of music:

  • Rhythm - the biggest change as it exhibited a steady reccurring “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 instrumentation of the total band. In the early days, the piano or saxophone were featured as the lead instruments. By the mid 1950’s 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 as a future answers like: The Twist, The Stroll, The Handjive, The Jitterbug.

This was the music that many religious groups and churches in the south campaigned against

Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry

The King of Rock n Roll
The King of Rock n Roll | Source
Chuck Berry was a great guitarist and very big influence on future rock stars.
Chuck Berry was a great guitarist and very big influence on future rock stars. | Source

This was the music that your parents absolutely hated!

Bill Haley and the Comets - Rock Around The Clock

Alan Freed

Major influence behind the popularity of  Rock n Roll
Major influence behind the popularity of Rock n Roll | Source

Other Influences

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 to this new genre in America. A mix of white and black artists were 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.

Doo Wop

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 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 50's and early 60's. 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

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 of rock ‘n’ roll called “rockabilly“ which came from their country roots.

Bill Haley

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

© 2017 Reginald Thomas

Please comment on this article if you would like. I appreciate your input.

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