Rock and roll

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Rock and Roll is a form of popular music, usually featuring electric guitars and a strong back beat, that emerged in America in the 1950s. It combines elements of boogie woogie, Jazz and rhythm and blues, and is often influenced by traditional folk music, country and blues.

Early North American rock and roll (1953-1963)

According to some, notably music historian Peter Guralnick, the first rock and roll recording was "Rocket 88", by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (written by 19-year-old Ike Turner) and recorded by Sam Phillips for the Chess Records label, in 1951. Others have pointed to Chuck Berry's "Maybellline" or "Rock around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets. Still others point out that performers like Fats Domino were recording blues songs as early as 1949 that are indistinguishable from later rock and roll.

Whatever the starting point, it is clear that 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 overturned in 1954. It can hardly be a coincidence, then, that a musical form combining elements of white and black music should arise, and that this music should provoke strong reactions, of all types, in all Americans.

Black performers first saw their songs recorded by safe, white performers. Pat Boone recorded Little Richard songs; Ricky Nelson recorded Fats Domino. Later, as those songs became popular, the original artists' recordings received radio play as well.

Significantly, too, early white rock and roll performers came from the South. Elvis Presley, who was described as "a white man who sings like a black man", came from Memphis, Tennessee. Buddy Holly was from Lubbock, Texas.

The "British Invasion" (1963-1967)

In the early 1960s, bands from England gave rock and roll a new focus. First re-recording standard American tunes, these bands then infused rock and roll with an industrial-class sensibility. Among the best known of these bands we're The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Who and The Kinks.

60's Garage Rock

The British Invasion spawned a wave of imitators in the U.S.A. and across the globe. Many of these bands we're cruder than the bands they tried to emulate. Playing mainly to local audiences and recording cheaply, very few of these bands broke through to a higher level of success. This movement that later became known Garage Rock gained a new audience when record labels started re-issuing compilations of the original singles, the best known of these is a series called Nuggets. Some of the better known band of this genre include The Sonics, Question Mark and the Mysterians, and The Standells

Psychedelia, "Progressive Rock" and Woodstock (1968-1974)

As part of the societal ferment in North America and Europe generally, rock and roll changed in a number of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

  • The music took on a greater social awareness; it was not just about dancing and smooching anymore, but took on themes of social justice.
  • The music itself broadened past the guitar-bass-drum format; while some bands had used saxophones and keyboards before, now acts like the Beatles (and others following their lead) experimented with wind sections, string sections, and full orchestration.
  • The Rolling Stones are credited with being the first band to dispense with band uniforms. Band members now simply wore whatever clothes they wished. As trivial as this sounds, it made a big impression on people at the time.
  • Musicians with classical and formal music backgrounds began to play rock and roll, leading to a greater emphasis on musicianship and composition, sometimes dispensing with the raw energy and power that characterized earlier manifestations of rock music. It is possible that Buddy Holly would not have recognized what Robert Fripp did as rock and roll.

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