A Brief History of Rock ‘n’ Roll

In 1922, the words “rock” and “roll”, which was black slang for sexual intercourse, appear on record for the first time in Trixie Smith’s “My Baby Rocks Me With One Steady Roll”.

The transition was steady and seamless. Big Band dance music and Western Swing had long since absorbed the 1/4/5 blues progression from Jazz players. The flatted 7th chords in major or minor keys had become an integral part of the tension and suspension of progressions in American music. The 2 to 4 minute song (or instrumental) had been refined for the prevailing recorded music format of the day: records. Radios from coast to coast had already settled on music program delivery formats for popular music. By the start of World War II, all the pieces were in place.

The recording ban, starting in 1942 and finally ending in 1945, turned out to be the death knell for Big Bands. They never fully recovered. This coupled with the wartime 20% live entertainment tax (“Cabaret Tax”) had a profound impact on live music: closing nightclubs and dance halls across the country. Records became more important to a music-loving public than ever.
Soldiers returning from tours of duty in foreign lands and with some money in their pockets were ready to start new lives. Many quickly married and started families. Birth rates skyrocketed in 1946 and beyond. It was the start of the Baby Boom generation. The music was destined to change with the times.

Smaller musical ensembles made up of non-union musicians and singers (vocalists were exempt from the recording ban) jumped in to fill the void for popular music. Vocal groups flourished and trios and small band formats experimented with all forms of available music to meet popular demand. Former Western Swing bands paired down to minimal ensembles like Bill Haley and the Comets: four members: guitar, rhythm guitar, drums and bass. The guitarists also did the singing. The songs were similar to what had fitted the larger band format, just simpler.

In 1946, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” by Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five becomes the biggest hit ever in the increasingly popular jump blues style. The new music was adapting to the smaller band format pretty well. This tune is barely different from the 1939 Big Band hit “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller – but the format was new and the ‘sound’ was updated.
Later that year Les Paul began experimenting with ways to make the guitar more musically expressive. It needed the power and sustain of a saxophone or clarinet, particularly if the smaller bands didn’t have a wind section. Amplification had solved half the problem – there was no difficulty in getting the instrument to be loud enough. It simply needed the sustain. He attached a guitar neck to a 4×4 and screwed some body pieces to the side to make it feel like a guitar. The experiment worked: the strings fastened to the solid wood had much more sustain. Les Paul took the experimental model to Gibson. They were not yet ready for this idea and didn’t see the potential yet.

Elsewhere in California the same year, Clarence Leonidas Fender (“Leo” Fender) had started a new business to build guitars and amplifiers. The business was called the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company. The first Spanish style design was the solid body, single pickup “Esquire”, followed by a two pickup version called the “Broadcaster’. It embodied exactly what Les Paul had tried to sell to Gibson.

Early in 1947, Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith was one of the first musicians to use a prototype Fender Broadcaster (later to be renamed the Telecaster) to record “Guitar Boogie”. This changed everything. Arthur Smith took a simple jump-blues tune (very similar to “In the Mood” and “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”) and managed to capture the entire feel on a simple electric guitar. He distilled a decade of popular music into a simple instrumental – onto a single instrument. He had shown the way – now anything seemed possible.
West Coast musicians began to buy Leo Fender’s strange creations and form small bands. They could play to large venues and proved to be just as musically expressive as the Big Bands. They were young, the music seemed to be brand new and the horizon opened to Rock ‘n’ Roll. By 1952, Gibson saw the growing interest in Leo Fender’s creation and called Les Paul back to their offices to have another look at his experiment. The final product was the Les Paul model – the first Gibson solid body.
Some historians feel that 1959 marked the decline of Rock & Roll:

  • Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens had died in a plane crash.
  • Little Richard had retired from music to become a preacher.
  • Elvis Presley had joined the Army.
  • Both Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were being prosecuted.
  • Alan Freed and others were under indictment and scrutiny for bribery and corruption in the payola scandal.

The music industry was under siege – Change was inevitable.


There is a simplicity to Rock ‘n’ Roll that appeals to just about everybody, regardless of cultural background. Some theorize that the basic back-beat of rock ‘n’ roll is similar to the syncopated rhythm of the beating of the human heart. For whatever reason, the believers claim that “Rock ‘n’ Roll will never die!”.

There is a raw simplicity to the music. The tunes are short and easy to understand. The arrangements and instrumentation are often ragged – without the complex harmonic intricacies and precision of the Big Band era that preceded it. Distortion is embraced and some of the greatest hits of the 1950s and 1960s have recorded mistakes and speed up or slow down during the two and one half minute pop tunes. As a musical genre, however, the emotion comes clearly through. Though the instrumentation may be spare and the players far from considered virtuosos, the music is full of motion and passion.

Suddenly it was possible for the average person to pick up an instrument and express themselves. You can get some pleasing sounds out of a guitar right away, unlike a violin or clarinet. During the 1950s, all sorts of new musical possibilities were available: rural blues, urban jazz, country, swing, classical (in all its forms), singing cowboys, movies, television, many radio stations, vocal groups, instrumental groups, the list goes on and on. What was new – what was different – was that the music did not have to be perfect to be profound. A garage band could motivate a dance crowd just as well as the Big Bands could. The possibilities are endless…