How Did Rock & Roll Music Begin?

By Louise Lambert ; Updated September 15, 2017

Rock & roll music began in the 1950s. It was a fusion of different musical styles from across America--blues, gospel, jazz, rhythm & blues, country and swing. The social and economic changes that took place in America during and just after the Second World War contributed to its birth.

Background

Before the war, white American music was dominated by the big jazz bands. When these bands began to break up during and after the war, smaller groups started to form in their place. Many of them used electrically amplified guitars, drums and sometimes harmonicas and saxophones. At the same time, a new kind of music was beginning to make its mark--the music of the south, introduced by the African Americans who had migrated north to take up work in the cities.

Rhythm and Blues

This new music, with its electric sound, was a mix of blues, gospel and jazz. In 1947 Jerry Wexler, a writer for the magazine Billboard, invented the term "rhythm and blues" (R&B) to describe it. It became a huge hit with white Americans, especially young people. It seemed much more exciting than the music of their parents' generation, with a beat they could dance to and lyrics they could identify with.

Development of Rock & Roll

The radio and the growth of the recording industry helped R&B to reach homes across the country. In 1951 a white Cleveland disc jockey called Alan Freed started a radio show called "Moondog Rock 'n' Roll Party," playing black music. Freed is believed to be the first person to use the term "rock & roll." As the music took hold, the number of white performers experimenting with R&B increased. Country, swing and big band music were all influences in the rock-&-roll sound they produced.

Early performers

Black rock & roll performers in the 1950s included Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Chuck Berry, a former blues singer, claimed he "accidentally" invented rock & roll while trying to write a country song. Little Richard claimed to be its "architect" and "real king." Two white singers emerging at that time were Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. Elvis is now universally acknowledged as the "king of rock & roll."

Noteworthy dates

In 1948 Detroit R&B saxophonist Wild Bill Moore released "We're Gonna Rock We're Gonna Roll". In 1951 a recording of "Rocket 88", performed by Jackie Brenston, was released. It was written by Ike Turner and is widely regarded as the first rock-&-roll record. In 1952 disc jockey Alan Freed organized the first rock and roll concert, called the Moondog Coronation Ball. In 1953 Bill Haley's "Crazy, Man, Crazy" was the first rock-&-roll record to reach the American Top 40.

About the Author

Originally a translator, Louise Lambert has been a writer of general-interest articles, business profiles and instructional material since 1985. She has written for U.K. businesses, a website and corporate magazines. Lambert has also produced training material for Marks & Spencer, and Barclays. She holds the final diploma in French from the Institute of Linguists in London.