A Brief History of Rock and Roll Music

Rock and roll is one of the most famous and influential genres in the world. It has produced some of the most famous artists in the history of music. Read on for some more facts on rock and roll music history, including its origin and development through the years.
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First rock and roll record
The development of rock and roll music has always been inextricably linked to the technological development in the field of recording and sound engineering, as well as development in the instruments themselves. The invention of the electric guitar in 1932 was crucial for the conception of rock and roll.
Rock and roll is a widely variable music style, incorporating many sounds and including many genres. It began, in a form that is recognizable today, in the 1950s.

It was always an inclusive genre, having originated from an indiscernible mix of jazz, blues, swing, and country music. Its proto-forms were known as 'race music', due to the predominance of black artists. However, the success of white artists such as Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley made liking rock and roll mainstream.

Some of the most influential early artists in the rock and roll genre were Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, etc. All these artists were rooted in jazz and blues traditions.

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.

Origins and Early Development

Though no single particular preexisting genre can be considered the direct predecessor of rock and roll, the upbeat blues-based rhythm and blues comes close. It was a confluence of rhythm and blues and country music that led to the first, rudimentary versions of rock and roll.

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.

The Early 1950s


Three of the most influential rock and roll artists in history flourished in the 1950s: Bill Haley, Elvis, and Buddy Holly.

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.

The British Invasion and Beatlemania

Up till the early 1960s, rock and roll music had been limited to the USA. Its origins were in the States, and its greatest practitioners were also to be found in the U.S. This began to change in the 1960s, when, across the pond, British bands started to imitate and innovate this essentially American music form. Skiffle groups, consisting of makeshift instruments played by enthusiastic youngsters, had started to form all over England. It was in Liverpool, though, that the practice was particularly strong. The Quarrymen were just one among the countless skiffle bands on Merseyside; the only difference was that the Quarrymen were headed by a certain someone called John Lennon.

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.

Divergence and Decline

The emergence of bands such as Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith in the late 1960s and 1970s led to the formation of new genres such as hard rock, heavy metal, grunge rock, punk rock, etc. More importantly, the success of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and The Who led to the transformation of 'rock and roll' into the harder, more energetic 'rock' genre.

This inevitable transformation eventually led to bands such as Guns N' Roses, U2, Queen, Iron Maiden, and Van Halen.

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.

Further modifications occurred due to the influence of hip hop and rap music, with many modern rock bands incorporating rap in their songs. Linkin Park is one of the particularly popular examples.

Rock and roll, in the sense it originated in the 1950s, is practically absent in the modern music scene, with only tribute bands showcasing the original style. However, it is noteworthy to remember that whatever you are listening now probably has its origins in the rebellious cross-cultural movement of the 1950s.

Image Gallery


artwork depicting the beatles
Artwork depicting The Beatles: L-R, McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon
the rolling stones performing
Lineup of The Rolling Stones: L-R, Ronny Wood, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards

members of led zeppelin
Members of Led Zeppelin: L-R, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page
members of aerosmith
Lineup of Aerosmith: L-R, Tom Hamilton, Brad Whitford, Joe Perry, Steven Tyler, Joey Kramer

eric clapton
Eric Clapton, the only three-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
roger waters
Roger Waters, bassist, vocalist, and lyricist for Pink Floyd

roger daltrey
Roger Daltrey, lead vocalist of The Who
axl rose
Axl Rose, lead vocalist of Guns N' Roses
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Published: June 17, 2014
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