American Icons: Rock ‘n’ Roll

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here To Stay

Rock ‘n’ Roll continues to be one of the most popular musical genres today, especially among young people. But where did the term “Rock ‘n’ Roll originate? The term evolved over many years from the African American slang of “rock”, meaning “dance”, and “roll”, meaning having sex. African American Rhythm and Blues songs were released with titles like “My Baby Rocks Me with a Steady Roll”, by Trixie Smith in 1922. In 1931, Duke Ellington released “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and in 1939 “Rockin’ Rollin’ Mama” was recorded by Buddy Jones. This music form that came to be know as Rock ‘n’ Roll continued to evolve, with its roots based in upbeat Chicago Blues and the Rhythm and Blues of African Americans. Of course, the African American Blues sound originated in the early days of slavery in America, so the roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll run very deep in this country. These two sounds combined, (Chicago Blues and R&B), and the result was a whole new sound that became known as “Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Ironically, it was a white DJ from Cleveland that helped bring this musical genre into the mainstream.

The celebrated Cleveland disc jockey, Alan Freed was in a record store in 1952 when he noticed a great number of white teenagers buying African American R&B albums. In response to this new trend, and with the encouragement of the storeowner, Freed changed the name of his radio program from “Record Rendezvous” to “Moon Dog’s Rock ‘n’ Roll House Party” and began playing R&B songs for his mainly white audience, referring to it on the air as “Rock ‘n’ Roll”. He helped close the racial gap in music by bringing rock into the mainstream. To further market this new sound, he promoted a rock concert at Cleveland Stadium (a 10,000-seat venue), which had to be shut down after it attracted more than 20,000 fans.

In 1954 a band called Bill Haley and the Comets recorded “Rock Around the Clock”. The song didn’t do very well, until it was used as the theme song in the teen movie “Blackboard Jungle”. The 1955 movie featured Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow. The song was heard during four different parts of the movie and it caught the notice of audiences. It was number one on the charts for eight weeks, selling millions of copies. This one song served to launch the Rock ‘n’ Roll phenomenon.

Rock ‘n’ Roll music appealed to young people (and still does) because it is rebellious and irreverent with explicit lyrics and a beat sure to drive a lot of parents crazy. As one of a generation that was taught that “children should be seen, not heard”, Rock ‘n’ Roll provided a voice and also an outlet.

Elvis Sign


Elvis became famous during the Rock ‘n’ Roll revolution of the 1950s, hitting the scene playing music referred to as “Rockabilly”. This music form was influenced by Country music, Blues and Swing. He became a national sensation with the song “That’s All Right”, released in 1954.

In the 1960s the motto was “Sex, drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll”. The music style was that of “garage rock”, a more underground, low-budget, poorly recorded style of music. One of the first bands to be successful playing garage rock was Paul Revere and the Raiders. Garage bands paved the way for Punk Rock and bands of the British Invasion, like The Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones.



Woodstock 1969 was a landmark moment in Rock ‘n’ Roll history and was driven by the hippie culture that was moving across the US. Over half a million people attended. Some of the bands that performed were The Who, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The 60s and 70s saw the development of Arena Rock (bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles), ushered in with The Beatles’ performance in 1965 at Shea Stadium.  The 1970s saw the introduction of Heavy Metal bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin. By the late 1970s, the Heavy Metal trend was overshadowed by Punk Rock featuring British bands like The Clash, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. Punk became popular on the East Coast of the US, but the trend followed The Sex Pistols as they toured the US and eventually performed in California.

Punk led to the New Wave music of the 1980s and bands like The Police, Blondie and The Cars. Also in the 1980s was the rise of the Glam Bands like Motley Crüe, Twisted Sister, and Quiet Riot. (It was all about the big hair, tight clothes and lots of makeup). These bands and their crowd-stopping images were responsible for putting MTV on every television in the US. Music videos became all the rage and were so successful, that even older bands turned to this form of entertainment. Parallel with the Glam movement was Alternative Rock, which was music that didn’t fit into the other categories. Originally called “College Rock”, this music was played at first mostly on college campus radio stations. Bands in the Alternative genre were those like R.E.M., The Cure and The Violent Femmes. Grunge was a form of Alternative Rock that began in the Seattle area. This movement was brought to the forefront with the success of Grunge band Nirvana’s album, “Nevermind” in 1991. The 1990s also saw the rise of Nu Metal in bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

There are many more subsets of rock—too many to go into here. One thing is for sure; Rock is here to stay, in whatever form or sub-genre. It has evolved over many years, and will continue to do so. It is a true American icon that has grown from our American culture and has become a vital component of our self-expression.

Last updated: Jun 22, 2009
Filed under: American Icons Tagged with: Rock & Roll, Rock 'n' Roll, Rock and Roll