Rock and roll (also known as rock 'n' roll) is a form of music that evolved in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with roots in mostly African American music genres, and quickly spread to the rest of the world.
Classic rock and roll is played with one or two electric guitars (one lead, one rhythm), a string bass or (after the mid-1950s) an electric bass guitar, and a drum kit. In the earliest rock and roll styles of the late 1940s and early 1950s, either the piano or saxophone was often the lead instrument, but these were generally replaced or supplemented by guitar in the middle to late 1950s. The beat is essentially a boogie woogie blues rhythm with an accentuated backbeat, the latter almost always provided by a snare drum.
The massive popularity and eventual worldwide view of rock and roll gave it an unique social impact. Far beyond simply a musical style, rock and roll, as seen in movies and in the new medium of television, influenced lifestyles, fashion, attitudes, and language. It went on to spawn various sub-genres, often without the characteristic backbeat, that are more properly called simply 'rock music'.
However, elements of rock and roll can be heard in country records of the 1930s, and in blues records from the 1920s. During that period many white Americans enjoyed African-American jazz and blues. Often "black" music was usually relegated to "race music" outlets (music industry code for rhythm and blues stations) and was rarely heard by mainstream white audiences. A few black rhythm and blues musicians, notably Louis Jordan, the Mills Brothers, and The Ink Spots, achieved crossover success; in some cases (such as Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie") this success was achieved with songs written by white songwriters. The Western swing genre in the 1930s, generally played by white musicians, also drew heavily on the blues and in turn directly influenced rockabilly and rock and roll, as can be heard, for example, on Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" (1957).
Going back even further, rock and roll can trace one lineage to the old Five Points, Manhattan district of mid-19th century New York City, the scene of the first fusion of heavily rhythmic African shuffles and sand dances with melody-driven European genres, particularly the Irish jig.
Before then, the phrase "rocking and rolling", as secular black slang for dancing or sex, appeared on record for the first time in 1922 on Trixie Smith's "My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll". Even earlier, in 1916, the term "rocking and rolling" was used with a religious connotation, on the phonograph record "The Camp Meeting Jubilee" by an unnamed male "quartette". The word "rock" had a long history in the English language as a metaphor for "to shake up, to disturb or to incite". In 1937, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald recorded "Rock It for Me," which included the lyric, "So won't you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll." "Rocking" was a term used by black gospel singers in the American South to mean something akin to spiritual rapture. By the 1940s, however, the term was used as a double entendre, ostensibly referring to dancing, but with the subtextual meaning of sex, as in Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight." The verb "roll" was a medieval metaphor which meant "having sex". Writers for hundreds of years have used the phrases "They had a roll in the hay" or "I rolled her in the clover. The terms were often used together ("rocking and rolling") to describe the motion of a ship at sea, for example as used in 1934 by the Boswell Sisters in their song "Rock and Roll, which was featured in the 1934 film "Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round", and in Buddy Jones' "Rockin' Rollin' Mama" (1939). Country singer Tommy Scott was referring to the motion of a railroad train in the 1951 "Rockin and Rollin'". .
Turner was one of many forerunners. His 1939 recording, "Roll 'Em Pete", is close to '50s rock and roll. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was also recording shouting, stomping music in the 1930s and 1940s that in some ways contained major elements of mid-1950s rock and roll. She scored hits on the pop charts as far back as 1938 with her gospel songs, such as "This Train" and "Rock Me", and in the 1940s with "Strange Things Happenin Every Day", "Up Above My Head", and "Down By The Riverside." Moon Mullican was one of the first white singers to record a style of uptempo blues that was identical to black music and not white country music. His "Pipeliner Blues", first recorded in 1940, swung like Big Joe Turner's "Roll 'Em Pete", and the unreleased 1946 track "Let Me Rock You Baby" went even further. By 1952, he was rocking with such jump blues as "Rocket to the Moon" that were similar in style to "Rock Around the Clock". Other significant records of the 1940s and early 1950s included Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" and Hank Williams' "Move It On Over" and Amos Milburn's Chicken Shack Boogie (all 1947); Jimmy Preston's "Rock the Joint" and Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" and Big Joe Turner's "Ooo-Ouch-Stop" (all 1949); and Les Paul and Mary Ford's "How High the Moon" (1951).
Both rock and roll and boogie woogie have four beats (usually broken down into eight eighth-notes/quavers) to a bar, and are twelve-bar blues. Rock and roll however has a greater emphasis on the backbeat than boogie woogie. Little Richard combined boogie-woogie piano with a heavy backbeat and over-the-top, shouted, gospel-influenced vocals that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says "blew the lid off the '50s." However, others before Little Richard were combining these elements, including Esquerita, Cecil Gant, Amos Milburn, Piano Red, and Harry Gibson. Little Richard's wild style, with shouts and "woo woos," had itself been used by female gospel singers, including the 1940s' Marion Williams. Roy Brown did a Little Richard style "yaaaaaaww" long before Richard in "Ain't No Rockin no More."
Bo Diddley's 1955 hit "Bo Diddley" backed with "I'm A Man" introduced a new, pounding beat, and unique guitar playing that inspired many artists. Other artists with early rock and roll hits were Chuck Berry and Little Richard, as well as many vocal doo-wop groups. Within the decade crooners such as Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, and Patti Page, who had dominated the previous decade of popular music, found their access to the pop charts significantly curtailed.
In July 1954, Elvis Presley recorded the regional hit "That's All Right (Mama)" at Sam Phillips' Sun studios in Memphis. Two months earlier in May 1954, Bill Haley & His Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock". Although only a minor hit when first released, when used in the opening sequence of the movie Blackboard Jungle, a year later, it really set the rock and roll boom in motion. The song became one of the biggest hits in history, and frenzied teens flocked to see Haley and the Comets perform it, causing riots in some cities. "Rock Around the Clock" was a breakthrough for both the group and for all of rock and roll music. If everything that came before laid the groundwork, "Clock" introduced the music to a global audience.
Covering was customary in the music industry at the time; it was made particularly easy by the compulsory license provision of United States copyright law (still in effect ). One of the first successful rock and roll covers was Wynonie Harris's transformation of Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" from a jump blues to a showy rocker. The most notable trend, however, was white pop covers of black R&B numbers. Exceptions to this rule included Wynonie Harris covering the Louis Prima rocker "Oh Babe" in 1950, and Amos Milburn covering what may have been the first white rock and roll record, Hardrock Gunter's "Birmingham Bounce," in 1949.
Black performers saw their songs recorded by white performers, an important step in the dissemination of the music, but often at the cost of feeling and authenticity (not to mention revenue). Most famously, Pat Boone recorded sanitized versions of Little Richard songs, though Boone found "Long Tall Sally" so intense that he couldn't cover it. Later, as those songs became popular, the original artists' recordings received radio play as well. Little Richard once called Pat Boone from the audience and introduced him as "the man who made me a millionaire."
The cover versions were not necessarily straightforward imitations. For example, Bill Haley's incompletely bowdlerized cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" transformed Big Joe Turner's humorous and racy tale of adult love into an energetic teen dance number, while Georgia Gibbs replaced Etta James's tough, sarcastic vocal in "Roll With Me, Henry" (covered as "Dance With Me, Henry") with a perkier vocal more appropriate for an audience unfamiliar with the song to which James's song was an answer, Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie."
Blues would continue to inspire rock performers for decades. Delta blues artists such as Robert Johnson and Skip James also proved to be important inspirations for British blues-rockers such as The Yardbirds, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. The reverse, black artists making hits with covers of songs by white songwriters, although less common, did occur. Amos Milburn got a hit with Don Raye's "Down the Road a Piece," Maurice Rocco covered Raye's "Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar," and Wynonie Harris covered "Don't Roll Your Bloodshot Eyes At Me" by Hank Penny and "Oh, Babe" by Louis Prima, for the R&B market.
Rock and roll appeared at a time when racial tensions in the United States were coming to the surface. African Americans were protesting segregation of schools and public facilities. The "separate but equal" doctrine was nominally overturned by the Supreme Court in 1954, and the difficult task of enforcing this new doctrine lay ahead. This new musical form combining elements of white and black music inevitably provoked strong reactions.
After "The Moondog Coronation Ball", the record industry soon understood that there was a white market for black music that was beyond the stylistic boundaries of rhythm and blues. Even the considerable prejudice and racial barriers could do nothing against market forces. Rock and roll was an overnight success in the U.S., making ripples across the Atlantic, and perhaps culminating in 1964 with the British Invasion.
The social effects of rock and roll were worldwide and massive. Far beyond simply a musical style, rock and roll influenced lifestyles, fashion, attitudes, and language. In addition, rock and roll may have helped the cause of the civil rights movement because both African American teens and white American teens enjoyed the music. It also birthed many other rock influenced styles. Progressive, alternative, punk, and heavy metal are just a few of the genres that sprang forth in the wake of Rock and Roll.
Teen idols of the rock and roll years were followed by many other artists with massive appeal to a teenaged audience, including the Beatles and the Monkees. Teen idols were not only known for their catchy pop music, but good looks also played a large part in their successes. It was because of this that certain fan magazines, exclusively geared to the fans of teen idols (16 Magazine, Tiger Beat, etc.), were created. These monthly magazines typically featured a popular teen idol on the cover, as well as pin-up photographs, a Q&A, and a list of each idol's "faves" (i.e. favorite color, favorite vegetable, favorite hair color, etc.).
Teen idols also influenced toys, Saturday morning cartoons and other products. At the height of each teen idol's popularity, it was not uncommon to see Beatle wigs, Davy Jones' "love beads", or perhaps even Herman's Hermits lunchboxes for sale.
The trad jazz movement brought blues artists to Britain, and in 1955 Lonnie Donegan's version of "Rock Island Line" began skiffle music which inspired many young people to have a go. These included John Lennon and Paul McCartney, whose group The Quarrymen, formed in March 1957, would gradually change and develop into The Beatles. These developments primed the United Kingdom to respond creatively to American rock and roll, which had an impact across the globe. In Britain, skiffle groups, record collecting and trend-watching were in full bloom among the youth culture prior to the rock era, and colour barriers were less of an issue with the idea of separate "race records" seeming almost unimaginable. Countless British youths listened to R&B and rock pioneers and began forming their own bands. Britain quickly became a new center of rock and roll.
In 1958 three British teenagers became Cliff Richard and the Drifters (later renamed Cliff Richard and the Shadows). The group recorded a hit, "Move It", marking not only what is held to be the very first true British rock and roll single, but also the beginning of a different sound — British rock. Richard and his band introduced many important changes, such as using a "lead guitarist" (Hank Marvin) and an electric bass.
The British scene developed, with others including Tommy Steele, Adam Faith and Billy Fury vying to emulate the stars from the U.S. Some touring acts attracted particular popularity in Britain, an example being Gene Vincent. This inspired many British teens to buy records more than ever and follow the music scene, thus laying the groundwork for Beatlemania.
At the start of the 1960s, instrumental dance music was very popular in the UK. Hits such as "Apache" by The Shadows and "Telstar" by The Tornados (produced by Joe Meek), form a British branch of instrumental music.
At the same time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, R&B fans such as Alexis Korner promoted authentic American blues music directly in London clubs, and elsewhere, at a time when this music was declining in popularity back in the USA. This led directly to the formation of such groups as The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds in London, The Animals in Newcastle, and Them in Belfast. In the USA, such groups became known as part of the "British Invasion".