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Rock & Roll: History & Origins

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

How Rock & Roll Got Its Name


Although the origins of rock and roll have been heavily debated by experts, there is a general agreement that it first emerged in the Southern United States. Not to be confused with today’s Rock Music, rock and roll started as a sub genre of other black American music traditions. With roots in the blues, rhythm and blues (called "race music" at the time), gospel, country and jazz, it was the fusing of African music traditions with European instrumentation that characterized this new sound. Another major factor that influenced the creation of this new sound was the migration of former slaves to bigger cities such as Memphis, St. Louis , New York City, Detroit and Chicago. This meant that race mixing became more common in a number of ways as a result of people of different races now living more closely together. In many ways rock and roll was a sort of rebranding of rhythm and blues for a white audience. At Greater Toronto Music School, your instructor can help you dive deeper into the history and music of rock and roll.


Oxford English dictionary states that the first time the term rock and roll was used to describe musical style was in Metronome magazine in July of 1938. In the 1940s the term was being used in album reviews regularly by writer Maurie Orodenker. Although the term was widely used at this time, most of the music was still being classified as race music and was mostly unknown to White audiences. Often popular singles by black artists would be covered or re-recorded by white artists and then played on mainstream radio. It wasn't until 1951 when a dj named Alan Freed began playing rhythm and blues and country music for a multiracial audience in Cleveland that this started to change. Instead of waiting for white artists to cover particular songs, he would play the original singles by black artists. Freed would use the term "rock and roll" to describe the music he was playing. Having been familiar with music of past decades, he described it as follows "Rock and roll is really swing with a modern name. It began on the levees and plantations, took in folk songs, and features blues and rhythm".


Rock & Roll Music Lessons In Toronto or Rock & Roll Music Lessons Online

The Origins Of The Rock & Roll Sound


The swing music of the 1930s by artists such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson was essentially the dance music of the time. By the mid 1930s elements of what we know as rock and roll could be heard in the swing bands of the time. Bands such as Count Basie, played more and more music that focused on Blues based riffs with a more driving rhythm. In some areas such as New York City race mixing was already taking place. In the Midwest, an instrumental form of Blues known as Jump Blues developed that focused on blues riffs, saxophone solos and shouted vocals. In Nashville, white country artists would often record with uncredited black musicians. All of this cross pollination led to influence and was fed by the popularity of radio and the development of records and jukeboxes. Along with the development of electric amplifiers, new recording techniques and the invention of the electric guitar, the music business was born.


It wasn't until 1938 that the first "From Spirituals to Swing" concert was promoted by record producer Fred H Hammond. This concert series was meant to highlight black musicians and musical styles and took place in New York City. This concert featured singer Big Joe Turner and pianist Pete Johnson who recorded the song "Roll 'Em Pete" which kicked off a craze for "Boogie Woogie" music in America. Along with economic instability (due to a coming war) big bands started to become too expensive to tour and smaller ensembles became the norm.


As stated previously, the 1940s saw the development of new sounds such as jump blues. This style developed out of the further mixing of cultures and downsizing of bands. Other styles such as Rhythm and Blues were consistently using the term "rocking" either in lyrics or to describe their music. In 1947, the song "Good Rocking Tonight" was recorded by Roy Brown. Like a lot of music of the time, it parodied church music/themes and related its lyrics to themes of drinking and partying.


The 1950s is when Rock and Roll officially got its name. When disc jockey Alan Freed began playing music by black artists for a mainstream audience, it appealed to America's post war need for excitement. This new sound and style became attractive to young white teenagers, albeit against the wishes of parents and grandparents. Young white people would be seen shopping for clothes in black neighbourhoods in order to dress more like the artists they liked as well as buying their records. Although black artists such as Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and Fats Domino had transitioned from r&b into this new market, it was its adoption by the predominantly white mainstream that brought Rock and Roll into the spotlight. Many of the black artists believed they had been playing this music for at least 15 years prior. As mentioned earlier, white artists such as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis would re-record early r&b hits with new recording techniques developed by the big record companies (overdubbing, double tracking) and bring them to mainstream audiences. Around the time of Bill Haley's first hits in 1953, black musicians such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard began to take advantage of the breaking down of racial/social barriers. With DJs like Freed increasingly playing black artists, they were also able to enjoy much success throughout the 1950-60s. By 1953, after about 25 to 30 years of quiet development rock and roll got its name and had been firmly established. In the 1960s, we saw a decline of rock and roll due to the choice of Little Richard to leave music and become a preacher. It was then that rock and roll began to evolve in a number of directions such as British Rock and Roll and psychedelic rock. Today it has evolved into many subgenres and sometimes can be described by the all encompassing term "Rock Music".


Some important recordings in the development of Rock and Roll are:


Big Joe Turner, Pete Johnson


Roy Brown


Bill Haley


Chuck Berry


Little Richard


Are you interested in studying more of the history of Rock and Roll? Do you want to learn how to play more Rock and Roll songs? Did you know that Greater Toronto Music School is a great resource for finding the best in-home music lessons in your area? Are online music lessons more of interest to you? Let Greater Toronto Music School help find the perfect instructor for you or your child!


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