The History and Origin Rock and Roll

Where did “Rock and roll” originate. “Rock and roll” has not always been a part of the world of music. So the question arises as to where “Rock and roll” actually got its start and become such a dominant force in music cultures around the world. I will attempt to go back in time and discover the history and origin of “Rock and Roll”.

It has been probably well over fifty years since the first “Rock and Roll” record was recorded. However, with the help of the historical archives, a lot of information is still available, and hopefully it should not be too difficult to establish the history and origin of “Rock and Roll”.

First, there will have to be a reasonable definition of what is “Rock and Roll”. How do we distinguish artistic music as either jazz, blues, country, opera or “Rock and Roll”. As one US Supreme Court justice said when trying to define pornography “You just know it when you see it”. Hopefully, this discussion can be more specific, and when all is said and done we will have a relatively clear definition of “Rock and Roll”, and where Rock and Roll originated or evolved.

In this discussion I will, for the most part, base my generalities on the history of “Rock and Roll” (hereafter RR) from entries made in Wikipedia (hereafter WP). Having reviewed numerous articles on the subject, WP is as reliable as any article on the subject. And WP seems to have a concise and accurate summary of the founding RR artist at issue and the history and origin of RR.(All the artist mentioned have their own page on WP to review)

It is well established that the first use of the term “Rock and Roll” in the public forum was made by Alan Freed, a Cleveland,Ohio disc jockey, who later organized and promoted some of the first RR concerts, consisting of a number of early RR groups, along with other rhythm and blues groups of the early 1950’s.(See A. Freed WP)

Many assert that the first RR song to have been recorded was done by Big Joe Turner “Roll em Pete”, an upbeat jazz song with a boogie piano. (1939) Others consider the Ike Turner recording “Rocket 88” (1951) at Sam Phillip’s Sun Records. Even others consider the (1954) recording of Bill Haley and the Comets “Rock Around the Clock”, a big band version of rock to be the first RR recording. And others point to Elvis Presley’s (1954) recording “That’s All Right Mama” to be the first true RR recorded song. And you can not ignore Little Richard’s boogie piano of the mid 1950’s.

As the son of Paul Burlison (WP), a RR rockabilly pioneer with the Rock and Roll Trio (WP), I have also included some of the trio’s recordings (1953 “Your Undecided” and 1956 “Train Kept A Rollin”). The Rock and roll trio, being a good example of how a country group began using a rockabilly style in the early 1950’s. The trio’s songs having been covered by such groups as The Yardbirds, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelen, The Straycats, Los Lobos, Rod Stewert and even the Beatles, to name a few.. And as an early rockabiller my father conveyed to me a number of facts and stories about those early days of RR that I believe has given me a first hand perspective on the subject.. Having been born in 1951, I have been fortunate enough to spend some time back stage with a number of rock stars over the years through my dad, and in essence, I have had a front row seat on the development of RR over the last 50 plus years.

During the early 1950’s, in an around Memphis,Tennessee, the Rock and Roll Trio and other hillbilly bop groups were rotating the local honkytonks on weekend gigs. And many of the early rockabilly artist began to experiment with a new sound while playing at the Saturday Night Jamboree in Memphis, playing at The Goodwyn auditorium and during their Saturday performances in the early 1950’s they created what became rockabilly. (See WP- Rockabilly)

The music of the south in the early 1950’s was basic jazz, country ballads and for the most part slow moving blues songs. The dance of the day, following the big band World War II era, was the jitterbug. The jitterbug was a fast paced dance that was usually danced to the upbeat tunes of the big band era during the war and continued into the early 1950’s. The owners and managers of the honkytonks wanted the patrons to stay and dance as long as possible- (obviously). The only way a small four piece band could keep the patrons dancing was to play country and blues songs with a upbeat version of the songs they knew, and by doing so, this would allow the jitterbug/bop to be performed and keep the patrons/managers happy. And the result was- rockabilly. It is safe to say that even Elvis was influenced by the early Memphis rockabillers (as well as the blues, country and gospel songs of the day). The early rockabillers routinely had jam sessions(including Elvis’ future band members Scotty Moore and Bill Black) in and around Humes high school where Elvis attended and in the basement of Lauderdale Courts Apts..where Elvis grew up as an early teenager. (See Rock and Roll Trio-WP)

After reading the materials on the subject and listening to the early rock recordings, I think it will be clear that RR evolved from all forms of music available to the founding artist-including jazz,country, blues, gospel and big band swing music. The one common denominator is a upbeat/uptempo version of music that “rocks”. RR makes you move (in your rocking chair or on the dance floor), and to understand RR you have to first look at rock and roll in the context of the dances of the day from the jitterbug to disco dancing. The primary goal was, and still is, to get patrons on the dance floor, and provide the cultural introduction of men and women in a social setting.

The first really uniform presentation of the “Rock N’ Roll” band is found in the numerous rockabilly groups that formed in the mid and late 1950’s.You can see a unified sound in such rockabilly groups as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll trio, Chuck Berry (1953-56), followed by such artist as Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Billy Lee Riley, (1957-1959) and many more.

In the later fifties rockabilly had run its course. A lot of the problems with rockabilly was the fact that many parents objected to the suggestive language of the new sound and many radio stations had problems playing some of these rockabilly artist’s works, even though they are considered RR classics today.

I honestly believe that the untimely death of Buddy Holly had a major contribution to the demise of rockabilly. It was during the mid-fifties that the teenager was expressing their independence and rebellion to authority more than ever. Just view the James Dean classic movie “Rebel Without A Cause”. With rockabilly the teens had their own music, and with all the rebellious overtones throughout. As Don McClean recorded in “American Pie”, both insightful and poetic, in referring to the untimely death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, in the tragic plane crash of 1959, it was “the day the music died”.

When these three young rockabilly stars suddenly passing away all at once, and with bad publicity surrounding a number of the rockabilly stars, I’m sure it put a damper on the teen’s new music of rebellion. Many adults had asserted that RR was the devil’s music and now with the death of these stars, the teens of the day probably took a step back in their new found music and rebellion, at least until the British invasion.

In the early 1960’s there was the emergence of the teen ballad. Such artist as Bobby Vinton, Paul Anka, Franky Avalon and Johnny Burnette( of the trio fame) produced some classic and very popular teen ballads consisting of backup accompaniments of violins, back up singers and the big band orchestras familiar with the styles of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Tony Bennet and a host of early balladiers.

During the early 1960’s the garage band was taking root, especially in England. And in the mid-1960’s there was the British invasion, lead by the Beatles. Followed by many,many other British groups-including The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and so forth.

The interesting fact about the British groups is that all of them for the most part found their roots in Southern Rockabilly and Mississippi Delta Blues. And these British rock groups modeled their music on the early rockabilly/blues sounds and lyrics of the 1940’s and 1950’s. (See WP on the artist mentioned) Obviously, following the British invasion of the 1960’s, and from the mid 1960’s to today, there has been tens of thousands of rock groups to make the music scene.

What made rockabilly so appealing to the 1960’s rockers was that a small group-A rhythm guitar singer, a bass player, an electric lead guitar and a drummer could find a garage and make music. There was no need for the extravagant backup of singers, violins or a full piece orchestra. They could create a catchy sound that they could play at the local club, get people dancing and make a little spending money.

After all said, what was the first Rock and Roll song. If I have to vote, I would have to agree with the Rolling Stones Magazine and vote for “That’s All Right Mama” (1954) by Elvis. This song, more than all the other songs mentioned, had the greatest immediate impact and influence on rock and roll. (However, all the songs mentioned have had an impact). Before “That’s All Right Mama” RR was beginning to show its face in big band swing music, rhythm and blues boogie and hillbilly bop. However, with the unique and novel sound of the Elvis recording in 1954 a new genre of music was alive and well- (Rock and Roll-a song of which to dance, listen and enjoy)

Within a year of the Elvis 1954 recording everyone that knew three cords on a guitar was forming a band and changing their hairstyles, especially in the south where the 1954 release was a big hit, and from where most rockabillers originated. If rockabilly had been performed before 1954, Elvis’ 1954 recording launched it to a new much higher level (Rock and Roll). Rockabilly groups ( the early rock groups) were created by the dozens to follow what Elvis had showed others what could be done with rockabilly and the rockabilly craze was born almost overnight. And, as discussed, rockabilly more than any other form of music had the most significant impact on the contemporary rock and roll artist that followed, and still today. Many might disagree, but few can name a single song that changed the course of music so profoundly and so quickly.

Of course, following “That’s Alright Mama”, Elvis became an international sensation with “Hound Dog” in 1956, and the whole world wanted to hear more from Elvis and the new rockabilly stars that followed Elvis’ lead. And that early rock sound can still be heard today in the contemporary rock artist of today.

In closing, just maybe the best way to define Rock and Roll is in the context of the garage band and the ability of four of five novice teenage musicians to create appealing songs to their generation and have a forum to express these songs in public at the local weekend clubs and dances…As they rock the nights away…And the rest is history…the history of rock and roll..Welcome your comment..God’s speed, David Burlison.