To trace back the history of rock and roll is same as going back in time to pinpoint the origin of a cultural phenomenon. It is definitely not easy. There is no specific date or even year that can be credited with the beginning of the phenomenon. The reason being that it was not propagated by a person or by an event, but by the culmination of a rebellious and spontaneous music created by a young generation. However, if you need a starting point to track the genre that is rock and roll, you can start the journey somewhere in the stretch of 10 years between the 1940s and the 50s.
Historians may have not reached an agreement on when the rock and roll music came into being, but there is a general consensus that its birth place was Southern United States. The early forms of rock and roll combined the African musical sensibilities with the background of European instruments. The music is also said to take inspiration from a number of existing forms of music, including gospel, jazz, and country music, among others.
This period also saw a huge cultural shift. There was the mass migration of the African American community to the urban centers. A large number of people from the black and white communities started living in the same neighborhoods, which resulting in a cultural amalgamation. These communities now had a chance to share their lifestyles, which included listening to each other’s music as well.
The other important development of the time that was the technology advancement in the field of music. With the advent of the electric guitar, microphone and amplifier, there was a new era ushering in. Niche audiences were being catered by the industry and the radio stations. Most notable amongst those being the Cleveland radio jockey, Alan Freed and his Moondog Show. This audience niche was mainly comprised of teenagers who were liking this fresh wave of music that came to be known as rock and roll.
The genre developed through a long process of evolution and therefore, there is no one person or record that can be credited as the pioneer. What is known is that 1953 witnessed a number of rock and roll’s first hits like Crazy Man Crazy by Bill Haley and his Comets, Crying in the Chapel by Doo Wop Group and so on. Independent records like Chess (Chicago), Sun (Memphis) and Specialty Records, Los Angeles, among others, made a beeline to sign these new stars so that they could bank upon the growing popularity of Rock and Roll.
Rock and Roll was largely considered a fad, but it all changed in 1955 when Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock topped the pop charts. This proved that this music was here to stay and not just a passing craze that would die down. The year also saw Chuck Berry and Little Richard register many R&B hits. Not only this, it also marked Elvis Presley moving on to the big league with RCA records, which was scouting for a rock and roll performer of their own.
In 1956, rock and roll started to make some significant contributions to the pop charts. Elvis Presley also became the first singer to have nine hits taking the top slots on the music charts. This trend continued and by 1957, not only did rock and roll becomes a permanent fixture in pop music, but also contributed more than 40% share of the records market. This decade would have easily been a golden age of rock and roll, were it not for the deaths of the rock and roll artists – Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly.
The dawn of the 60s saw a continuation of the lucky streak of Elvis Presley. Rock and Roll further evolved with the increasing impact of the folk revival, surf music, Phil Spector’s wall of sound, and so on. African American artists also make a sort of a comeback on the music charts. This was also the era that saw the rise of the legendary The Beatles, who hogged the popular charts for most of the decade. This era also saw a sea change in the songwriting style for Rock and Roll, which moved away from love to now include socially relevant ideas and political comments. Hippie culture also started to have its impact when psychedelic songs came to become popular. This period also saw the novice stages of a harder rock version or heavy metal. The emergence of television also brings about another bout of encouragement for the genre.
Young artists and bands made for prime time television and these shows were mainly created to cater to a teenage crowd. All this exposure, made for a cult following of the genre which further led to music festivals exclusively dedicated to rock music. The Monterey Pop Festival debuted in 1967 and more than 150,000 fans attended the event. The popularity of rock just kept growing and in 1969, with the Woodstock Music and Art Fair attracting more than 500,000 visitors.
Everything about rock and roll just magnified in the 1970s. The bands started playing in stadiums, instead of theatres and the records market expanded with the emergence of great bands like Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and so on. These bands earned big money and had private jets to travel around. This expanding market also gave rise to various new forms of rock like hard rock, heavy metal, progressive rock, punk rock, and so on. The seventies also brought with it many a heartbreaking news. The Beatles fell apart and the band members moved on to form their solo careers. Elvis Presley, who by now had become a pop legend, also died in 1977, when he was only 42.
The seventies were extravagant and set a pretty strong pedestal for rock in the eighties. The 24-hour exclusive music channels just added a cherry on the cake. The launch of MTV in 1983 and VH1 in 1984 marked the beginning of a new era for the music industry as a whole. These channels were a powerful tool that helped focus on the different rock formats as well as provided a platform for newer bands to make their mark. The music or the bands had never received such a kind of exposure and focus, and it furthered the market for the music. This period also witnessed the emergence of women across various formats, which was evident from the number of singles they featured in and also the kind of sales they were able to generate.
The market and the industry matured and the nineties saw the popularity of alternative rock reaching new heights. The Smiths, REM and other alternative rock bands were suddenly in demand by the record companies. However, these bands chose to stick to their style, instead of customizing their music to gain a mass approval. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and other grunge bands, managed to find their own success with the audiences. The music kept evolving into new forms and had their own niche of audiences. Soon, the industry experienced digitization, which resulted in an easing out of distribution. The combined effect of the two made music much more accessible.
The turn of the new millennium did not fade away the legacy of rock and roll. It kept evolving with new sub-genres being added every now and then. Heavy metal became more extreme with the emergence of death metal, black metal, and so on. Alternative rock maintained its popularity with bands like Coldplay, but probably Pop Rock is the one that took the cake due to its mass approach in lyrics and music.
Rock and roll is an ever evolving genre with its bands and new branches. It is a never ending story. However, the next time you listen to your favorite band, you will be able to appreciate the rich history that it is part of and appreciate it better. When you sign up for an AT&T U-verse Plan, you can listen to a lot of music online.