The Origins and History of Rock’n’Roll

The roots of the origin of rock and roll lay in the so-called “Race music” and hillbilly music (later called respectively rhythm and blues and country), between the forties and fifties. Particularly significant were the influences of jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, country, folk, and gospel; scholars differ in their analysis as to which of these forms were most important and how this new music changed African American music.


Until the 1940s the term was sometimes used as a synonym for ragtime or derived piano styles (stride, barrelhouse). Honky-tonk sound still refers to the light and metallic sound typical of upright pianos.

It is not clear where the term Honky tonk comes from. Some think that it derives from a joking term, in the American South and Mid-West slang, used to indicate the ramshackle upright pianos commonly installed in the taverns of those regions, and destined at the end of the nineteenth century to serve ragtime pianists. In the early twentieth century, in fact, the term often indicated taverns and taverns reserved for the black underclass (later usually referred to as “juke-joints”).

With the advent of prohibition, this term indicated abusive drinking of alcohol (synonymous with “speak-easy”); after the end of Prohibition, taverns (or bars) with an adjoining dance floor, frequented by white patrons, were also called this way (or with similar names such as honkatonks, honkey-tonks, tonks or tunks bars), particularly in Texas and Oklahoma, usually workers, truck drivers or farmers.


In the forties, the decline of Western swing big-bands forced those musicians to fall back on more modest formations (characterized by the sound of the piano, hence the reuse of the term), developing a style that, although it did not obtain the consents of orthodox country, had a large following of the public until the sixties.

Numerous leading figures of country music began their careers in the honky-tonk arena, from Hank Williams to Merle Haggard.


The boogie-woogie is a musical style for piano derived from the blues, which became very popular starting from the thirties and forties, but which has its origins in much earlier times and which was subsequently extended from the piano to formations of three pianos, to the guitar, big bands, country and western music groups and sometimes gospel bands. Like the blues, boogie-woogie traditionally describes a wide range of emotions and is primarily related to a dance genre. The words of the first hit songs like Pinetop’s boogie-woogie were often the instructions for performing the dance.


The term “rockabilly” usually refers to the type of rock and roll played and recorded during the mid-1950s by white singers such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. It originates from the union of the words rock and roll and hillbilly; the latter term, which can be translated as “mountain goat”. It was originally used to describe a primordial form of country music very popular with white audiences. Many other rock’n’roll singers of the time, such as Fats Domino and Little Richard, moved away from the rhythm of black music and the blues tradition, making their music attractive to white audiences; generally, these are not defined as “rockabilly”.

In 1956, rockabilly was popularized by hits like Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues and Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. For a few years, he was commercially more famous than rock and roll. Later rockabilly, particularly with songwriters such as Buddy Holly, would have had a great influence on the British invasion and in particular on the Beatles.

Rhythm and blues

Rhythm and Blues is an African American musical genre influenced by jazz and gospel music and based on the harmonic structures of the blues. The singing, with a marked and danceable rhythm, is usually accompanied by tenor sax, electric guitar, Hammond organ. The term was coined in 1949 by the American weekly Billboard to replace race records, which indicated the productions of black artists. Various forms of city blues (such as Kansas City boogie-woogie) merged into this vague category, as well as simple forms of jazz, which audiences preferred to difficult bebop. Promoted by small independent labels, rhythm and blues triumphed in the 1950s and then succumbed to soul music. Its major performers were B.J. Turner, L. Jordan, F. Domino, Little Richard, C. Berry, B. Diddley.

The Legends

Chuck Berry made his debut with a blend of Chicago blues and country rockabilly in a song dedicated to a cow: Maybellene. In the second half of the decade (1956-57) he produced great R&R classics, such as Roll Over Beethoven, Too Much Monkey Business, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, You Can’t Catch Me, School Days, Oh Baby Doll, Rock and Roll Music. In 1958 Berry became an international celebrity with songs like Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode, Carol. From this moment Berry broke into the English rock of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals. The Stones have, in fact, interpreted several of Chuck Berry’s songs.

Bill Haley had country origins but was not long in coming under blues and rock influences. In July 1954, Elvis Presley recorded That’s All Right (Mama) in the Sun Studios in Memphis. Two months earlier, in May, Bill Haley & His Comets had recorded (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock. Haley introduced sax and double bass and made decidedly innovative use of them. Although it was only a small success when it came out, it was nevertheless used in the opening sequence of Blackboard Jungle the following year, establishing itself as a hit in the rock and roll boom movement. The song became one of the biggest hits in history and the audiences who came to see Haley and the band playing caused riots in some cities; from this moment the American public opinion associated rock with youth violence.

There is a famous photo that symbolizes the “wild” side of rock n’ roll youth and depicts why conservative America saw it as a threat. The photo portrays a gospel jam session in 1956 whose participants are Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The myth of the Million Dollar Quartet was born. The following year, Jerry Lee Lewis’s (1935) single appears, the single Whole Lotta Shakin ‘Goin’ on, severely censored for the sexual winks it contains. The way in which Lewis plays the piano remains famous, with an unleashed stage presence, until he sets fire to the piano during a performance.

Little Richard created in 1955 one of the historical and emblematic songs of all rock’n’roll: Tutti Frutti. The lyrics were his but adapted and cleaned up by Dorothy LoBastrie. Little Richard, along with Chuck Berry, embodies the black soul of rock’n’roll. He became the author of sensational gestures, such as the abandonment of the show-biz for the cassock, except for subsequent second thoughts.

Bo Diddley’s music is rich in African rhythms, dark and hypnotic guitar sounds, and Latin American flavors all combined together. A tangible example of the influence of American rock on the English one can be seen when, thanks to the “push” by the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, Pretty Thing (who all have his songs in their repertoire) Bo Diddley successfully performed his first English tour. He has been called “The Originator of Rock And Roll” for his role as a link from blues to rock and roll, and for having influenced, among others, artists such as Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and The Rolling Stones. He is also known for his particular rectangular-shaped guitar. He was one of the first rock musicians to include female musicians in his group. He is known for the so-called “Bo Diddley beat” a rhythm he used, similar to rumba and hambone.

The King, Elvis Presley has been already mentioned, but we cannot mention rock ‘n’ roll legends without thinking about the name that is synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll. Few have reached such popularity and greatness status to be identified only by their first name, and Elvis is the greatest among these.

There has never been, and will never be, someone who is a true icon of rock ‘n’ roll and popular culture worldwide as Elvis is. Every time we see a singer or band frontman perform we should always remember that Elvis was the first and biggest one of all. He is the reason they are performing today. Elvis was the first true rock star.

If you want to read more about Elvis, I suggest you read my previous article “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Rock ‘n’ Roll – The Conclusion

Rock ‘n’ Roll was the first musical genre in history that captivated billions of people worldwide. Sure, people all over the world know about Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel, etc, but they don’t ignite the fire in people that rock does. The passion involved in being a rock fan is on a whole different level. And to tell you the truth, if those great composers have had the chance to listen to rock ‘n’ roll, I’m convinced they would have been fans, and who knows what kind of music they would have composed have they been exposed to rock.

Hope you enjoyed this article…. stay tuned for more!

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