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The 1950s—Bill Haley and Rock 'n' Roll

The first rock 'n' roll record to achieve national popularity was "Rock Around the Clock" made by Bill Haley and the Comets in 1955. Haley succeeded in creating a music that appealed to youth because of its exciting back beat, its urgent call to dance, and the action of its lyrics. The melody was clearly laid down by electric guitar; the lyrics were earthy and simple. Haley abruptly ended the ascendancy of the bland and sentimental ballads popular in the 1940s and early 50s. He also succeeded in translating black rhythm and blues into a form that adolescent white audiences could understand.

Blues, and rhythm and blues, were too adult, sexual, angry, and solely identified with black culture to be acceptable either emotionally or commercially without adaptation. Major record companies had for years been producing records for black audiences called "race records." The emergence of rock 'n' roll signified a slight weakening in resistance to black culture. The unadulterated black rock 'n' roll that Haley transformed can be heard in the sexually adult work of such artists as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters ("Work with Me, Annie") or "Big" Joe Turner ("Shake, Rattle, and Roll"), the latter song adapted by Haley for white audiences and the former transformed into "Dance with Me, Henry."

Rock 'n' roll was for and about adolescents. Its lyrics articulated teenage problems: school, cars, summer vacation, parents, and, most important, young love. The primary instruments of early rock 'n' roll were guitar, bass, piano, drums, and saxophone. All aspects of the music—its heavy beat, loudness, self-absorbed lyrics, and raving delivery—indicated a teenage defiance of adult values and authority. Influential performers of the 1950s include Chuck Berry ("Johnny B. Goode"), Little Richard ("Good Golly Miss Molly"), Sam Cooke ("You Send Me"), Buddy Holly ("Peggy Sue"), Jerry Lee Lewis ("Great Balls of Fire"), and Carl Perkins ("Blue Suede Shoes").

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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