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The Birth of Rock n Roll


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It was the early 1950s. American music hadn't changed significantly in many years. The big band era had gone the way of the dinosaur and the musical vacuum was expanding everyday. There were no artists for young people to identify with - no distinctive sound they could claim as their own. The time was ripe for something spectacular to happen - and in those early 1950s, it did.

The world of rock ‘n roll burst on the scene with incomparable flamboyance. The birth of any great historical trend is difficult to pin down, and rock ‘n roll is no exception. The early years are as full of claims and counter-claims and as brimming with controversy as the music itself has been over the years.

Bill Haley had said that he and his group were the originators of rock ‘n roll. Little Richard made a similar claim. Bo Diddley had said that he was at the beginning, and everything grew up around him. And, of course, there's Fats Domino, who was playing rock ‘n roll as far back as the 1940s, although it wasn't called that then.

The generation that grew up in the mid fifties gives credit to Elvis - and later generations think the style began with four young men from Liverpool.

Each of these artists and many more were major contributors in the genesis of rock. And Elvis in particular was the symbol around which it made its greatest rally. But it was Bill Haley who brought rock from its rhythm and blues origins into the spotlight in 1954 with the smash hit from the film Blackboard Jungle, Rock Around the Clock.

Rock ‘n roll - even the name itself has created more than its share of controversy. It's been said to have come from disc jockeys, dances, old blues songs and a dozen other sources. In an interview I had with him many years ago, Bill Haley put in his claim.

"I wrote a song for the Esquire Boys and it was recorded by them - this was before we hit - and also by the Treniers, and later recorded it myself, Rock a Beatin’ Boogie. The word rock had been used many, many times in many songs. So I just sat down one night and wrote a tune that went, ‘Rock, rock, rock everybody. . . ’ and I couldn't think of another word, so I just wrote, ‘Roll, roll, roll everybody. . . ’ and that is where the name came from. "

Early rock ‘n roll was a marriage of several musical elements. The two most prominent of these were country and rhythm and blues. Bill Haley brought these building blocks together and struck out in new directions. He had been doing country since he was 7 years old, but always loved rhythm and blues music. He spent some time traveling with a medicine show that passed through New Orleans. It was there that he learned some of the early rhythm and blues songs. Bill Haley honestly pointed out that he didn't invent the music, the music had been played for many years, in the form of boogie-woogie and what was called race music in the pre rock ‘n roll days.

Haley also pointed out that rock ‘n roll is a combination of country and rhythm and blues music. He went on to say that he was the first country singer to dare, shall we say, to sing rhythm and blues songs, it just wasn't accepted at the time. He took a country band, added a saxophone and sang songs like We're Gonna Rock This Joint Tonight, and everybody said, hey, what is it? They wouldn't play it on the radio yet, but the kids loved it, the juke boxes loved it, and from that came rock ‘n roll music.

Copyright 2008 Jim Nettleton

About the Author
Jim Nettleton is a radio and television professional whose career has spanned most of the rock era. Get the complete story of rock at his blog at This article may be freely reprinted and republished as long as it is not changed in any way. This resource box must also be included in its entirety.


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