Styles & Forms | Roots of Rock

Rock’n’roll did not spring fully formed from Memphis in the shape of Elvis Presley but was the coming together of several different roots musics. Country, jazz, doo-wop and the blues had all enjoyed significant audiences in their own right, and all would have a bearing on the sounds to come.

The music scenes across America had been local or, at best regional. But just as the advance of radio beamed entertainment to new audiences, the migratory nature of life made American cities centres of musical change. As wartime industries demanded labour, so rural workers would bring themselves and their tastes to town. Clubs were opened to serve their leisure needs, and record labels surely followed.

Instruments were developing on which to play the music, notably the electric guitar that Leo Fender was on the point of perfecting in 1949. His Esquire, later renamed Telecaster, became the industry standard as rock amplified itself and prepared to make itself heard, loudly and proudly. A new era beckoned.

Sources & Sounds

The creation of rock’n’roll changed youth culture as we know it. But whether you consider the era began with Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’, which reached No. 1 in the US charts in May 1955, Elvis Presley’s bursting out of Sun Studios in Memphis with ‘That’s All Right’ the previous year or his hip-swivelling to a national US audience a couple of years later, there is little doubt that when the genie came out of the bottle it would not be put back in.

Mixing It Up

The twin musical ingredients that led to the explosion that was rock’n’roll were blues and country. The former was an urban phenomenon, or certainly became one as the black migration from the southern states to the cities grew in number. Country and western also grew in popularity to transcend its regional beginnings. A music that had been hitherto passed down the generations through the folk tradition was now reaching new audiences with the help of radio. It created national celebrities in cowboy singers like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and, by the end of the 1940s, had enjoyed a number of million-selling releases.

The divide between the musics was, quite simply, the colour bar. It was not usual for white youth to listen to and enjoy black or black-influenced music, nor for blacks to listen to country. Radio stations, likewise, remained exclusive, but performers like Bill Haley, with his country-music background, helped smudge the line between them. His inspiration to move from ballads to boogie was bluesman Big Joe Turner, who had relocated from Kansas to New York in 1939 and helped spark a boogie-woogie craze. His ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’ became an early rock’n’roll anthem in Haley’s hands in 1954 – a pattern that would be repeated when Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Hound Dog’ was covered by Elvis Presley in 1956.

Rhythm and blues had started life in the worksongs of the oppressed blacks, been refined into rural blues...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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