"Race Music" and the Beginning of Rock and Roll

Last month we highlighted Elvis Presley. He may have been the “King of Rock and Roll,” but in no way did he invent the music. In fact, he merely copied the music that had been invented and played in the Black community for years.
Not to diminish the importance of Elvis, though. He would eventually develop his own style. But more importantly, he introduced Rock and Roll to a whole new audience.

Billboard, January 1, 1949 Public Domain

Like Blues and Jazz before it, Rock and Roll music was developed by Black musicians in Black communities. But it was not known as Rock and Roll, however. It was, at the time, called “rhythm and blues,” or “R & B.” Which, according to Little Richard, stood for “real Black.”

To White America, however, it was called “Race Music.” Major record labels refused to record it. White-owned establishments did not put the music in their juke boxes. White performers did not record the music, either. At least, not yet.

This was a pattern that had played out in the Jazz world, too. Early Jazz, which was developed in New Orleans, was also described as “race music.” There was an attempt to segregate music in a segregated America. The first recorded Jazz recorded was made by White musicians in 1917, even though the music had been around for over a decade and developed by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and others.

Before Elvis, Rock and Roll music came from many artists and was born from jazz, blues, boogie-woogie and doo-wop. Adding electrified guitars, and a back-beat, this new style was developed by artists such as Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and others. It wouldn’t have a name until 1954, when a Cleveland DJ called it “rock and roll.” Alan Freed worked the midnight show at Cleveland’s WJW radio station. And he did something that no one else was doing at the time: playing songs by original Black artists—not the cover versions by White artists that were being played on other radio stations.

White kids began clamoring for this music. Record labels became more open to recording Black artists. 

And then, in 1954, a young White kid walked into Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee and plopped down some cash to record a song. By 1956, he would be the most famous singer in America, if not the world.
Music has the ability to bring people together---and that has been the history of popular music in America. Music has broken down barriers. White kids danced to this music that adults called “race music.” They did it in 1917, throughout the 20s and 30s, and again with this new music in the early 50s. At concerts by Black artists, White kids and Black kids danced together, in spite of segregation norms. In the Jim Crow South, this was alarming. Attempts were made to ban the music.

But the music just grew in popularity.

It was these kids – Black and White – who grew up on early rock and roll who would, a decade later, engage in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and ride through the South on busses, purposefully breaking segregation laws.

The Civil Rights Movement and Rock and Roll have a connection – a connection tethered to the stands of music, played first in Black communities, transmitted through the airwaves, first in Cleveland and then New York, and then exploded in light and sound on national television.

That is Rock and Roll.

The first rock and roll record.
It is generally accepted that the first rock and roll song was released in 1951. It was called “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. The song was written by Ike Turner. You can find it on our playlist, along with other early rock and roll songs.



For more information about the early history of Rock and Roll Music:

"Race, Hegemony, and the Birth of Rock & Roll" by  Paul Linden. Journal of the
Music & Entertainment Industry Educators Association Volume 12, Number 1 (2012)

History of Rock and Roll: Episode 2 "Good Rockin' Tonight" (1995)

"Will the creator of modern music please stand up?" by Alex Petridis. The Guardian (2004)

"Elvis Rocks. But He's Not the First" by Christopher John Farley Time Magazine (July 06, 2004)

Are you wondering why "Black" and "White" are capitalized in this article?  This discussion goes all the way back to the 1920s in regard to how we discuss race in writing. The Center for the Study of Social Policy has a great explanation and I decided to follow their guidance when writing about issues concerning race. Check out the article here.


This article was written by Bruce Janu, the head librarian at Hersey High School. He was a history teacher for 30 years and taught about the history of popular music in both history and sociology classes, most notably the history of Jazz and Rock and Roll. 

Popular posts from this blog

Artists of the Month: Jerry Butler and Betty Everett

Summer Reading Book #6: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo