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Lecture: Rock 'n' Roll Roots

Rock Music has the largest music business the world has ever known.  No other type of music has been so thoroughly commercialized as rock.

The first reference recorded may have been  in 1922 by Trixie Smith.  The lyrics of her song were

"My man rocks me with one steady roll."  'Rocking and rolling' was slang for sex.

Check YouTube for a recording of her song.  It doesn't sound like rock and roll at all, but just uses the terms.

The term "rock and roll" or "rock 'n' roll" referring to a type of music was probably first used by Alan Freed.  Freed was a disc jockey (DJ) in Cleveland who played rhythm & blues songs on his nighttime radio program (called The Moondog Show). 


As radio formats were changing (television was taking over the broadcast of series programs like The Lone Ranger, etc.) there were more opportunities for regional and local marketing.  Although the late night R&B show was directed toward African American audiences, white teenagers were listening in.  Freed found that these songs were becoming popular among white teenagers and began referring to them as "rock 'n' roll" records.  Freed became a celebrity himself, as did other disc jockeys.    He later moved to WINS radio in New York and his show there was named The Rock and Roll Party.

 The "Top 40" concept was the perfect vehicle to promote rock 'n' roll.



Alan Freed  (1922-1965)



What was the first rock song?


Your text offers these possibilities. 


"Rocket 88"  (1951)   listen

"Sh-Boom"  (1954)   listen

"Rock Around the Clock"  (1954)   listen

"That's Alright Mama"  (1954)  listen

What's your opinion?

There are other possibilities.  In a book called What was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record? by Jim Dawson & Steve Propes, this list is much more extensive.


It's not all that clear because like all of the trends in popular music, it didn't happen overnight.  In the period before rock music, the music business divided music into three categories:


  1. mainstream pop

  2. rhythm & blues

  3. country & western


So why did rock & roll seem to burst onto the scene so suddenly?  It's that discrimination thing again.  Rock 'n' roll was basically a blend of country music and rhythm & blues.  Styles loosely categorized as 'rhythm and blues' were originally called "race records" which just meant those songs recorded by and intended for African Americans.  The black R & B singers had been developing their style into an interesting mixture and the white country singers were borrowing elements of style as well.  For example, Chuck Berry was even gaining some popularity with white audiences by singing "hillbilly" songs with a rhythm and blues edge.  Some of those songs on the longer list are definitely from country music (which had a much greater influence on rock music than many people may admit!).


Post World War II teenagers who had free time and money to spend were looking for something more interesting than their parents' music.  This was the first generation of teenagers who were a target market. They turned their attention toward music by performers such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard and others.   


When white youth started paying attention, those interested in cashing in started paying attention, too. 



Sam Phillips (owner of Sun Studio in Memphis) is said to have remarked something to the effect: "If I could find a white man who could sing like a black man, I could make a fortune."

He found Elvis

Rock & Roll was already there, but now it exploded

Where did it come from?

As mentioned before, it was a mixture of R&B, country music, with a big of gospel and doo-wop thrown in.  But the new style became important when it crossed over into the mainstream pop music scene.  In other words, when mainstream publishers took notice.

Be sure to read full explanations in your text.

Remember that in the first half of the century, the charts were quite separated into mainstream pop, R&B, and country-western.


Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" (recorded in 1956) was the first record ever to reach number one simultaneously on Billboard's pop, R&B, and country charts.  That one was quickly followed by "Hound Dog" (1956) and "Jailhouse Rock" (1957).


Rock did not develop just in one place!


Northern Band Rock and Roll

Bill Haley and His Comets

"Rock Around the Clock"


New Orleans Dance Blues


Fats Domino

"Blueberry Hill"   listen

This was actually a cover of a Glenn Miller tune!

Before rock & roll, Fats was considered by most to be a "country" artist.


Little Richard

"Tutti Frutti"   listen

Considered himself to be the first "wild man" of rock & roll.





Memphis Rockabilly


All of these singers below were recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis.  Another singer recording there at this time was Johnny Cash!


Carl Perkins Photo

Elvis Presley pictures young

Carl Perkins

"Blue Suede Shoes"   listen

Elvis Presley

"Heartbreak Hotel"   listen

Jerry Lee Lewis

"Great Balls of Fire"   listen

"Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"   watch






Chicago Rhythm and Blues



Chuck Berry

"Johnny B. Goode"   listen


Bo Diddley

"Hey, Bo Diddley"   watch




Doo-Wop Groups



The Coasters

The Chords

"Sh-Boom"   listen

The Platters

"The Great Pretender"   listen

The Coasters

"Yakety Yak"   listen


The term "doo-wop" came from some of the nonsense syllables used by these groups.

Hmmmmmm . . .  nonsense syllables.  Do you remember "scat"?




Buddy Holly (1936-1959)


Buddy Holly and the Crickets

 were influenced by the rockabilly style,

but with their own unique sound


"That'll Be the Day"   listen

"Peggy Sue"   listen

Buddy Holly was from Lubbock, Texas.  He died in a plane crash at age 22.


Rock 'n' Roll was able to compete with the large record companies because:


Rock 'n' Roll

Used independent labels to record their music

They were cheaper and more accessible

Wrote their own music

No need for the traditional song-writers

Used a different performance style

More exciting movement; rougher voice quality; flashy dress


The Music Establishment ("Tin Pan Alley" in that respect) meanwhile, said . . .


Click here


Tin Pan Alley


Used cover versions of songs

Sung by more mainstream (translated "white") performers

Produced 45s

They were cheaper than 78s and the smaller companies could not afford to re-tool very quickly

Manufactured teen idols

Marketed their own stars through television and movies


Teen idols were marketed to be non-threatening, chosen for their wholesome good looks.

Some examples to come in the late 50s and 60s:  Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Darin

Pat Boone (1934-   )

The most successful cover artist

During 1955-1959,

only Elvis sold more records than Pat Boone


"Ain't That a Shame"   watch

Here's the original version by Fats Domino
"Ain't That a Shame"   watch
Which do you prefer?

Those songs that were originally R&B songs could "crossover" into the mainstream pop charts. 

Look at how the acceptance of rock and roll in the market impacted that process, driven by Elvis:

R&B Crossover Statistics

1950-53:  10%

1954:  25%

1958:  94%

This was the basis of early rock and roll - the Golden Years of 1954-1958.
Then Rock & Roll took several hits.


Little Richard quit the music business and became a preacher


Elvis was drafted into the Army and sent to Germany


The public became aware of Jerry Lee Lewis' marriage to his 3rd wife, who was also his 14-year old cousin (before he was legally divorced from his 2nd wife)


Buddy Holly,  Richie ("La Bamba") Valens and The Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace") were killed in a plane crash


Alan Freed and Dick Clark were accused of accepting payola.  Freed was indicted.


Chuck Berry was arrested, and spent time in prison for transporting a minor across state lines.


The day the music died refers to February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly's plane crashed

The rest of "American Pie" describes the major rock stars of the sixties and their publicity-saturated impact on the music scene:

the Jester is Bob Dylan, the Sergeants are the Beatles, Satan is Mick Jagger.



Despite these troubles, it was plain to the large record labels that rock & roll was a cash cow.

Never fear - Rock 'n' Roll is here to stay!





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