The Origins of Rock and Roll

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Podcast Transcript

In the early 1950s, a new type of music burst forth, which had its roots in blues, gospel, country, and swing. 

This new music took the world by storm and was as controversial as it was successful. 

This music has spawned countless variations, some of which are so different that it is hard to see how it evolved.

Learn more about the origins of rock and roll and how it came to dominate music on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I want to start by admitting the fundamental problem with this episode. That is defining exactly what rock and roll is. 

On one hand, you sort of know it when you hear it. However, once you go down the rabbit hole of trying to classify modern popular music, you run into a bunch of problems.

Is hip-hop rock and roll? Is techno rock and roll? Is pop music or heavy metal rock and roll? Is it all rock and roll, or is none of it rock and roll?

For the purpose of this episode, I’m going to take the coward’s way out and not define it. I’m going to focus on the early years of rock and roll when it was better defined, and later on, in future episodes, I’ll focus on some of the various subgenres of music I’ve mentioned. 

To that extent, it doesn’t matter if techno and hip-hop are rock and roll, as I think they clearly are descended from rock and roll. 

So with that, the term rock and roll comes from the phrase “rocking and rolling,” which was a reference to ships on the sea. There are written references to “rocking and rolling” being used by seamen in the early 19th century.

In the early 20th century, the term “rock and roll” had found a dual use in African-American slang for partying and dancing and as a sexual metaphor. 

The term rock and roll began appearing in songs in the 1930s. In 1934 the Boswell Sisters had a hit song titled “Rock and Roll,” although the song itself would not be considered a rock and roll song. It was used as a nautical reference.

There were more and more references to “rock and roll” in the 1930s and 1940s, almost all of which came from black artists recording for what was known at the time as “race music,” which was just just a term for records recorded for a black audience. 

Trying to draw a line for when rock and roll as a separate music genre began is impossible to do. Music historians can and do draw the lines in different places. 

The year which most historians would pick as the start of rock and roll would be 1951. Two things happened that year that made it a good choice for the birth of rock and roll. 

The first was the recording of what is widely considered to be the first rock and roll song, Rocket 88, by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. The Delta Cats were actually just Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm. 

The Kings of Rythm started out in the 1940s as a swing band and existed all the way to 2007 with the death of Ike Turner.

Rocket 88 actually sounds like other rhythm and blues songs from the era, which is why it is so difficult to pinpoint an exact start to rock and roll.

The other big thing that happened in 1951 was disc jockey, Alan Freed starting a midnight music show called “The Moondog House” on WJW in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Freed was an energetic DJ who played rhythm and blues music by black artists on a large major market radio station to a mixed-race audience. 

This had never happened before. Previously, rhythm and blues would only be played on low-power radio stations in black neighborhoods, or major radio stations would wait for a white artist to record a cover version. 

He also began to use the term ‘rock and roll’ frequently on the radio to refer to the music he was playing. 

His radio program was a hit, and he created a community of what he called ‘hipsters’ who were united by a love of this music. 

One of the landmark moments in the history of rock and roll took place on March 21, 1952, at the Cleveland Arena. Freed hosted a concert called the “The Moondog Coronation Ball,” which featured five black R&B acts.  On the schedule were Paul Williams and the Hucklebuckers, Tiny Grimes and the Rocking Highlanders, the Dominoes, Varetta Dillard, and Danny Cobb

It is considered to be the first rock and roll concert in history. 

The concert was a huge success. It was so successful that thousands more people showed up than the arena could hold, and the fire department had to shut it down after one song by Paul Williams. 

Other radio stations around the country began to take note of Freed’s success. A recording of his show was being replayed on WNJR in Newark, New Jersey, which covered the New York City market. 

1952 also saw the opening of a small record label in Memphis, Tennessee, by a record producer by the name of Sam Phillips.  Sun Records.

Phillips had been recording black rhythm and blues artists for the previous two years because he liked the music. He produced Rocket 88 the year before and worked with the likes of Howlin Wolf and BB King.

Sun Records became the engine that drove early rock and roll by signing some of the biggest names in the 1950s.

Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were all signed to Sun Records.

Oh, and he also signed a young singer from Mississippi called Elvis Presley.

Perhaps the most legendary moment in the history of Sun Records happened spontaneously on December 4, 1956. Carl Perkins, who previously had a hit in 1955 with his song Blue Suede Shoes, was in the recording studio.

Phillips had a new kid in to play piano for the session by the name of Jerry Lee Lewis. 

In the afternoon, a former Sun Records talent, Elvis Presley, stopped in to say hello. He left and returned to take part in a jam session when Johnny Cash showed up.

The four played several songs that were recorded by the engineer Jack Clement, who felt that this was something that needed to be captured for posterity. 

Presley, Perkins, Lewis, and Cash became known as the Million Dollar Quartet.

Already by 1952, 40% of the sales of rhythm and blues records, almost all of which were recorded by black musicians, were now purchased by whites, indicating to record labels that perhaps this was something that they should pay attention to. 

While rock and roll was gaining in popularity, it was still a niche market. 

1954 saw the release of the first single by Elvis Presley, “That’s All Right.” It wasn’t a hit upon its release selling only 20,000 copies. It didn’t chart nationally and only hit number four on the local Memphis charts. However, some music historians point to this song, instead of Rocket 88, as being the first rock and roll song.

The first big hit rock and roll song was “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. It was recorded in 1954 but was the theme of the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle. It became a smash hit and was the number-one song on the pop music charts for two months in late 1955 and early 1956. it also reached number three on the R&B charts as well.

At the time, the only difference between the pop and R&B charts was the demographics of where they collected data. The pop chart was for white audiences, and the R&B chart was for black audiences. 

Rock Around the Clock opened the floodgates for rock and roll. In January 1956, Elvis Presley recorded and released his first hit song, Heartbreak Hotel. 

Both Rock Around the Clock and Heartbreak Hotel climbed the charts in the UK as well, showing that rock and roll weren’t going to be limited to the United States. 

1956 saw a string of hits by Elvis Presley, including Don’t Be Cruel, Love Me Tender, and Hound Dog. 

However, it also saw other artists under the rock and roll label find success as well, including Fats Domino and the Platters. 

By 1957 and 1958, rock and roll had fully dominated the pop charts. Not just Elvis but other acts began to rise to prominence.

Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis,  Little Richard, The Coasters, Bobby Darin, Buddy Holly, and many others. 

1957 also saw the national launch of American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark. It featured rock and roll artists every week and introduced the genre to a new group of listeners: parents. Kids were already listening to rock and roll, but now a clean cut in their living rooms was able to make it acceptable.

Already, this early in the history of rock and roll, you were beginning to see sub-genres develop. Doo-wop music, which was mostly acapella groups, became popular. Elvis and Bill Haley were performing what became known as rockabilly. 

Even country music was affected by new rock and roll influenced artists like Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty.

While the pop and R&B charts were originally designed to measure different audiences by race, the rock and roll revolution showed just how much things had changed.

In 1954, only 3% of the songs on the pop charts were by black artists. In 1957, it was 30%. 

Whites were buying records and attending concerts of black artists in large numbers, which was unheard of just a few years before.

Some acts, such as the Del-Vikings, and the Impalas, had both black and white members in their group, which, again, would have been unheard of just a few years prior. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that rock and roll was a vanguard for the civil rights movement which was to come. Rock and roll was one of the first areas of American culture which integrated.

There is a lot more to the story of rock and roll, as I’m sure all of you are aware. For decades there were innovations and changes in music, which were all lumped under the banner of rock and roll. 

It became the single biggest cultural export of the United States for the rest of the 20th century. In the late 50s, kids in England were listening to American rock and roll, who, just a few years later, formed the core of the British Invasion.

Rock and roll became of the first genres of music to define a specific generation. A teen culture developed, which wasn’t really a thing before. Communications and transportation hadn’t allowed for cultural trends to spread as fast before. This culture went beyond music to clothes and hairstyles. 

The idea of teenagers having a separate culture is something we take for granted today, but it really wasn’t a thing prior to rock and roll. 

During the Cold War, rock and roll came to define the United States. People living behind the Iron Curtain would smuggle records and listen to illicit radio stations just so they could enjoy rock and roll music. 

Regardless of how you define what is or is not rock and roll, you can’t deny the powerful cultural influence it has had. All modern music owes some sort of debt to rock and roll. It is arguably the most important cultural innovation of the last century. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Gvhjkjjjhhhhjhh over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write

Fantastic way to learn history!

History in the form of entertainment – I love it! Interesting, informative, and even humorous at times, I look forward to learning something new every day. As I write this, I’m listening to the most recent episode, soon to become the most recent member of the completionist club, having listened to each episode at least once.

Thanks, Gvhjkjjjhhhhjhh! I’m sorry for using the American pronunciation for your name instead of the proper British. When you enter the completionist club, make sure to ask for a name badge with a phonetic pronunciation of your name so the other members can refer to you properly.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show, and also remember you can now leave reviews on individual episodes on Spotify.