It is difficult to pinpoint one particular song as the first ever rock and roll song, since the style developed gradually and with inputs from a multitude of artists. However, the 1951 song Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston is considered the first rock and roll record ever produced.
In the early days, 'rock and roll' was distinguished from other, often similar, genres by the presence of a back-beat, which was often played on the snare drum. However, this feature got fazed out over time.
The electric guitar, an instrument crucial to rock and roll, started to be commercially sold by Rickenbacker. This caused a revolution in the sound of popular music at the time, and led to the creation of the upbeat genres of rhythm and blues, and swing music. Many early rock and roll songs can also legitimately be considered rhythm and blues songs.
This early form of rock and roll was almost exclusively played as well as enjoyed by African Americans. In fact, the term 'rock and roll', which arose as a euphemism for sexual intercourse in the 1930s, was frowned upon by the mainstream white audience, and lyrically toned down versions of early rock and roll songs were often released by white artists; Pat Boone is known for such songs. The migration of African Americans to the large cities in the American north led to greater cultural exchanges between white and black artists, including musicians. In 1951, this 'race music' received a boost, when Cleveland-based RJ Alan Freed started to give rhythm and blues songs considerable airtime. Freed was also instrumental in popularizing the term 'rock and roll' as the name of the nascent genre.
► Bill Haley was the first white musician to achieve success with songs that had been reserved to black musicians until then. His success, with his band Bill Haley & His Comets, led to rock and roll being accepted by audiences across the racial divide.
► The phenomenal success of 'The King' Elvis propelled rock and roll, or more accurately rockabilly, to even greater heights of success and popularity. His on-stage persona was just as catchy as his tunes, and he became a symbol of the new, inclusive and expansive culture brought forth by rock and roll.
► The life and career of Buddy Holly is one of the great 'What If...' stories in the history of music. Holly used to open the acts of artists such as Bill Haley and Elvis with his band, Holly and The Crickets. His recording career began in 1957, but he died in a plane crash in 1959. The importance of his seminal work in this short period was such that Holly has been called the "single most influential creative force in early rock and roll".
Artists such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Elvis, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, etc., were important during the segue of rhythm and blues, swing, and country into a unified, identifiable style, 'rock and roll'. Chuck Berry's 1955 song Maybellene was one of the very first to prominently feature deliberately created distortion on the guitar, a feature that came to define the 'rock' genre.
Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr all grew up in Liverpool, and combined in the early sixties to form what is arguably the greatest band that ever lived: The Beatles. Influenced by Buddy Holly, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins, etc., The Beatles became a worldwide phenomenon. After their now-famous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, where Lennon reportedly asked a stagehand if the stage they were recording on was the same on which their hero Holly had played, The Beatles became a major part of the British Invasion, a remarkable increase in the number of British bands playing what had been till then largely American music, and succeeding in the larger market of the U.S.
Along with The Beatles, bands such as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, considered the first heavy metal band in the world, and The Who also had a major part in the Invasion. The Yardbirds were also a notable act from the early 1960s, since it launched the careers of three of the most famous and most influential guitarists in rock history: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. All three were ranked among the Top 5 of Rolling Stone magazine's list of the best guitarists of all time.
The timeline of rock and roll starts to branch out quite a bit after this point, thanks to the lasting influence of The Beatles and other British bands, which set the trends for countless other genres within the umbrella term 'rock and roll'.
The Beatles paved the way for several innovations that would revolutionize rock and roll, and contribute to the formation of a new sound, quite unlike the original tone of the 1950s rock and roll and rhythm and blues. They were among the first to really utilize the range of effects and modulations that can be produced in a recording studio. They were also among the first to use the sitar, tamboura, and other takeaways from Indian music, which became popular since the 1960s and are now consistently utilized in rock or jazz music. The Beatles also brought out the first concept album, in the form of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", though only three songs conformed to the 'concept'.
Thanks to the brilliant musical ability of all four of their members, in addition to their innovative use of technology and their ever-present charm, The Beatles became the best selling band in history. Three of their albums were ranked in the Top 5 of Rolling Stone magazine's list of the greatest albums of all time: "Rubber Soul" at #5, "Revolver" at #3, and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" at #1. Rolling Stone also named The Beatles the best artist (as a band) of all time.
Another trend started by The Beatles also led to the genre of 'psychedelic rock'. Pink Floyd, the torchbearers of psychedelic rock and progressive rock, became hugely successful in the 1970s and 1980s.