Rock & roll represents the second major turning point in the history of 20th century popular music, the first being
the coming of jazz
It emerged in the mid-1950's from the coalescing of several black and white
musical styles - r&b
- in conjunction with the coming of age of the electric guitar as developed by Leo Fender
in the late 1940's.
The term rock & roll, apparently coined by D.J. Alan Freed
back in 1952, is often used as a catch-all for a lot of later music,
but strictly speaking it is a phenomenon which began with Bill Haley
's smash hit
"Rock Around The Clock"
in 1955 and ended with the Payola scandal of 1960, the shock of which caused radio stations across America
to revert to older, safer musical styles in their broadcasts.
Some argue the earliest rock & roll record was Ike Turner
's "Rocket 88"
( a song usually attributed to Jackie Brenston, probably for financial reasons ), but if you are familiar with
s 1947 song "Move It On Over"
it should be clear that this is the template
for Haley's 1955 breakthrough hit.
The seminal rock & roll artist was of course Elvis Presley
. ( U2's Bono sums up his pivotal position so well when
he describes his vision of Elvis with one finger on a negative terminal ( let's call it white harmony )
and the other on the positive ( black rhythm ), with the result that his whole body is electrified into those unforgettable, seemingly uncontrollable movements. )
It was Elvis who combined the feel of country with r&b and gospel within a blues structure, in an embryonic style dubbed "rockabilly".
This happened at a time, following the death of the great Hank Williams, when country music was commercially flat
and record producers were desparately searching for a new sound to sell to white audiences. Sam Phillips
, the owner of Sun Records in Memphis,
was the lucky man who, in the summer of in 1954, discovered both the sound and the man to sell it.
Many of Elvis's earliest recordings were covers of songs written by black blues artists, including Roy Brown
's "Good Rockin' Tonight"
and his first hit for the Sun label, Arthur Crudup
's "That's Alright, Mama"
. His biggest rockabilly success was the Carl Perkins
classic "Blue Suede Shoes"
By 1956 the harder-edged Southern style of rockabilly was beginning to shift towards rock & roll with the emergence of artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard
and Jerry Lee Lewis
, and Elvis was recording material from the pioneering duo Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
. Gene Vincent
of that year is classic early rock & roll, but as the decade progressed the music began to lose it's rebellious edge, becoming diluted into a lighter pop style as a
result of corporate interference, a change which is evident in much of the output of Eddie Cochran
and Buddy Holly
As the music changed, and the racial barriers that rock & roll had done so much to break down began to creep back onto the scene, a series of well-documented events deprived
rock & roll of it's star attractions - Elvis ( drafted ), Jerry Lee Lewis ( disgraced ), Buddy Holly ( killed ), Eddie Cochran ( killed ), Payola scandal, Chuck Berry ( imprisoned ).
These events sounded the death-knell for rock & roll in an America turning towards Brill Building
pop and Tamla Motown
But rock & roll was not dead. Across the Atlantic it's vitality had sparked a moribund British music scene into life, instigating a beat group craze
led by The Beatles
and The Rolling Stones
, who took a re-vitalised new rock music back to it's home in the so-called "British Invasion", beginning in 1964.