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History Essay:
Rock 'n' Roll in the Fifties

It all started back in the mid-fifties. A strange new synergy of rhythm & blues, soul, jazz, harmony, black & white gospel, and country & western music took hold of the younger North American generation. This music snared their senses with a rhythm, back beat, energy and tribal passion they had never before encountered. It's initial appeal was to middle class white teenagers who soon came to feel it was their own. Perhaps it was -- their parents hated it. In this era, so called "race music" was largely censured by America's white establishment as being too rebellious, sexual and anti-social to be acceptable. To the ears and eyes of the elder generation, this new music style or "rock 'n' roll" as it came to be known, was nothing less than evil incarnate. (The term "rock 'n' roll was first coined by disc jockey Alan Freed who featured the music on his radio programs in the early fifties).


The early forms of rock 'n' roll ushered in new ways of both performing and dancing. Artists like Bill Haley and the Comets adapted the work of many earlier black artists to come up with their sound. Rock 'n' roll bands like Haley's used instruments such as bass, acoustic and electric guitars, drums, piano and saxophone. The music's solid rhythm and heavy back beat inspired new forms of dancing that exist to this day. Though quite precious in retrospect, the lyrics were often defiant in nature and shockingly energetic when judged by the "Tin Pan Alley" standards of the day.

Soon there were stars - Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Carl Perkins. Chuck Berry established the ground rules. Lewis and Perkins contributed a country and western feel with Little Richard topping it all off in a dynamo of showmanship. But it took a truck driver from Tupelo Mississippi by the name of Elvis Presley to put all these styles together in a way that would change popular music for all time. Elvis possessed an incredible two and one-half octave voice that could communicate any rock 'n' roll style to near perfection. Weather it was a slow gospel ballad or a screaming rocker, Presley connected with his material -- and with his audience. Rock 'n' roll now had a "king". The Elvis hit-record era encompassed 1956-1963. During this period the recording companies, buoyed by growth and financial gains, attempted to remove the original raw, blues derived sentiments of the music. Their executives were convinced that the whole Rock 'n' Roll bit was just a fad and proceeded to engineer new "sanitized" acts in the hope of sustaining the windfall. By the end of the fifties many schlocky, sentimental songs designed in record company boardrooms were being marketed as "rock 'n' roll". Dissatisfied with this, many serious fans started paying attention to other music forms (such as folk) and soon found themselves quite detached from the era's rock 'n' roll mainstream.

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