U.S. Popular Music and the Formation of Rock

Popular music, or pop music, is music that appeals either to a wide cross section of the public or to sizable subdivisions within the larger public based on age, region, or ethnic background (e.g., teenagers, southerners, and Mexican Americans). U.S. pop music today encompasses styles as diverse as blues, country, Tejano, salsa, jazz, rock, reggae, punk, hip-hop, and dance. The word pop has also been used to distinguish popular music from classical music, which is written primarily for ballet, opera, ensemble, or symphony. As various subcultures have intersected, U.S. popular music has developed organically, constantly creating new forms and reinvigorating older musical styles.

The Rise of Pop Music

SCOTT JOPLIN (1868–1917) published more than fifty compositions during his life, including “Maple Leaf Rag”—arguably his most famous piece.
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Although it is commonly assumed that pop music developed simultaneously with the phonograph and radio, it actually existed prior to these media. In the late nineteenth century, the sale of sheet music for piano and other instruments sprang from a section of Broadway in Manhattan known as Tin Pan Alley, a derisive term used to describe the sound of these quickly produced tunes, which supposedly resembled cheap pans clanging together. Tin Pan Alley’s tradition of song publishing began in the late 1880s with such music as the marches of John Philip Sousa and the ragtime piano pieces of Scott Joplin. It continued through the first half of the twentieth century with the show tunes and vocal ballads of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and into the 1950s and 1960s with such rock-and-roll writing teams as Jerry Leiber–Mike Stoller and Carole King–Gerry Goffin.

At the turn of the twentieth century, with the newfound ability of song publishers to mass-produce sheet music for a growing middle class, popular songs moved from being a novelty to being a major business enterprise. With the emergence of the phonograph, song publishers also discovered that recorded tunes boosted interest in and sales of sheet music. Thus, songwriting and Tin Pan Alley played a key role in transforming popular music into a mass medium.


As sheet music grew in popularity, jazz developed in New Orleans. An improvisational and mostly instrumental musical form, jazz absorbed and integrated a diverse body of musical styles, including African rhythms, blues, and gospel. Jazz influenced many bandleaders throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Groups led by Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller were among the most popular of the “swing” jazz bands, whose rhythmic music also dominated radio, recordings, and dance halls in their day.

The first pop vocalists of the twentieth century were products of the vaudeville circuit, which radio, movies, and the Depression would bring to an end in the 1930s. In the 1920s, Eddie Cantor, Belle Baker, Sophie Tucker, and Al Jolson were all extremely popular. By the 1930s, Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby had established themselves as the first “crooners,” or singers of pop standards. Bing Crosby also popularized Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” one of the most covered songs in recording history. (A song recorded or performed by another artist is known as cover music.) Meanwhile, the Andrews Sisters’ boogie-woogie style helped them sell more than sixty million records in the late 1930s and 1940s. In one of the first mutually beneficial alliances between sound recording and radio, many early pop vocalists had their own network of regional radio programs, which vastly increased their exposure.

Frank Sinatra arrived in the 1940s, and his romantic ballads foreshadowed the teen love songs of rock and roll’s early years. Nicknamed “the Voice” early in his career, Sinatra, like Crosby, parlayed his music and radio exposure into movie stardom. Helped by radio, pop vocalists like Sinatra were among the first vocalists to become popular with a large national teen audience. Their record sales helped stabilize the industry, and in the early 1940s, Sinatra’s concerts caused the kind of audience riots that would later characterize rock-and-roll performances.

Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay

ROBERT JOHNSON (1911–1938), who ranks among the most influential and innovative American guitarists, played the Mississippi delta blues and was a major influence on early rock and rollers, especially the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. His intense slide-guitar and finger-style playing also inspired generations of blues artists, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. To get a sense of his style, visit the Internet Archive’s Robert Johnson collection: www.archive.org/details/RobertJohnsonMp3AudioSongs.
Photo by Robert Johnson Estate/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The cultural storm called rock and roll hit in the mid-1950s. As with the term jazz, rock and roll was a blues slang term for “sex,” lending it instant controversy. Early rock and roll was considered the first “integrationist music,” merging the black sounds of rhythm and blues, gospel, and Robert Johnson’s screeching blues guitar with the white influences of country, folk, and pop vocals.15 From a cultural perspective, only a few musical forms have ever sprung from such a diverse set of influences, and no new style of music has ever had such a widespread impact on so many different cultures as rock and roll. From an economic perspective, rock and roll was the first musical form to simultaneously transform the structure of sound recording and radio. Rock’s development set the stage for how music is produced, distributed, and performed today. Many social, cultural, economic, and political factors leading up to the 1950s contributed to the growth of rock and roll, including black migration, the growth of youth culture, and the beginnings of racial integration.

The migration of southern blacks to northern cities in search of better jobs during the first half of the twentieth century helped spread different popular music styles. In particular, blues music, the foundation of rock and roll, came to the North. Influenced by African American spirituals, ballads, and work songs from the rural South, blues music was exemplified in the work of Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey, Son House, Bessie Smith, Charley Patton, and others. The introduction in the 1930s of the electric guitar—a major contribution to rock music—gave southern blues its urban style, popularized in the work of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy.16


BESSIE SMITH (1895–1937) is considered the best female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. Mentored by the famous Ma Rainey, Smith had many hits, including “Down Hearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues.” She also appeared in the 1929 film St. Louis Blues.
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During this time, blues-based urban black music began to be marketed under the name rhythm and blues, or R&B. Featuring “huge rhythm units smashing away behind screaming blues singers,” R&B appealed to young listeners fascinated by the explicit (and forbidden) sexual lyrics in songs like “Annie Had a Baby,” “Sexy Ways,” and “Wild Wild Young Men.”17 Although it was banned on some stations, by 1953 R&B continued to gain airtime. In those days, black and white musical forms were segregated: Trade magazines tracked R&B record sales on “race” charts, which were kept separate from white record sales tracked on “pop” charts.

Another reason for the growth of rock and roll can be found in the repressive and uneasy atmosphere of the 1950s. To cope with the threat of the atomic bomb, the Cold War, and communist witch-hunts, young people sought escape from the menacing world created by adults. Teens have always sought out music that has a beat—music they can dance to—from the waltz in eighteenth-century Europe to the Charleston in 1920s America. More recent musical forms like disco and hip-hop began as dance and party music before their growing popularity eventually energized both record sales and radio formats.

Perhaps the most significant factor in the growth of rock and roll was the beginning of the integration of white and black cultures. In addition to increased exposure of black literature, art, and music, several key historical events in the 1950s broke down the borders between black and white cultures. In 1948, President Truman signed an executive order integrating the armed forces, bringing young men from very different ethnic and economic backgrounds together at the time of the Korean War. Even more significant was the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. With this ruling, “separate but equal” laws, which had kept white and black schools, hotels, restaurants, rest rooms, and drinking fountains segregated for decades, were declared unconstitutional. A cultural reflection of the times, rock and roll would burst forth from the midst of these social and political tensions.

Rock Muddies the Waters

In the 1950s, legal integration accompanied a cultural shift, and the music industry’s race and pop charts blurred. White deejay Alan Freed had been playing black music for his young audiences in Cleveland and New York since the early 1950s, and such white performers as Johnnie Ray and Bill Haley had crossed over to the race charts to score R&B hits. Meanwhile, black artists like Chuck Berry were performing country songs, and for a time Ray Charles even played in an otherwise all-white country band. Although continuing the work of breaking down racial borders was one of rock and roll’s most important contributions, the genre also blurred other long-standing distinctions between high and low culture, masculinity and femininity, the country and the city, the North and the South, and the sacred and the secular.

High and Low Culture

ROCK-AND-ROLL PIONEER A major influence on early rock and roll, Chuck Berry, born in 1926, scored major hits between 1955 and 1958, writing “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode.” At the time, he was criticized by some black artists for sounding white, and his popularity among white teenagers was bemoaned by conservative critics. Today, young guitar players routinely imitate his style.
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In 1956, Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” merged rock and roll, considered low culture by many, with high culture, thus forever blurring the traditional boundary between these cultural forms with lyrics like “You know my temperature’s risin’ / the jukebox is blowin’ a fuse . . . / Roll over Beethoven / and tell Tchaikovsky the news.” Although such early rock-and-roll lyrics seem tame by today’s standards, at the time they sounded like sacrilege. Rock and rollers also challenged music decorum and the rules governing how musicians should behave or misbehave: Berry’s “duck walk” across the stage, Elvis Presley’s pegged pants and gyrating hips, and Bo Diddley’s use of the guitar as a phallic symbol were an affront to the norms of well-behaved, culturally elite audiences.


The blurring of cultures works both ways. Since the advent of rock and roll, some musicians performing in traditionally high-culture genres such as classical have even adopted some of rock and roll’s ideas in an effort to boost sales and popularity—for example, performing in casual dress or in untraditional venues, like bars and subway stations.

Masculinity and Femininity

Rock and roll was also the first popular music genre to overtly confuse issues of sexual identity and orientation. Although early rock and roll largely attracted males as performers, the most fascinating feature of Elvis Presley, according to the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, was his androgynous appearance.18 During this early period, though, the most sexually outrageous rock-and-roll performer was Little Richard (Penniman).

Wearing a pompadour hairdo and assaulting his Steinway piano, Little Richard was considered rock and roll’s first drag queen, blurring the boundary between masculinity and femininity. Little Richard has said that given the reality of American racism, he blurred gender and sexuality lines because he feared the consequences of becoming a sex symbol for white girls: “I decided that my image should be crazy and way out so that adults would think I was harmless. I’d appear in one show dressed as the Queen of England and in the next as the pope.”19 Little Richard’s playful blurring of gender identity and sexual orientation paved the way for performers like David Bowie, Elton John, Boy George, Annie Lennox, Prince, Grace Jones, Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga, and Adam Lambert.

The Country and the City

Rock and roll also blurred geographic borders between country and city, between the white country & western music of Nashville and the black urban rhythms of Memphis. Early white rockers such as Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins combined country or hillbilly music, southern gospel, and Mississippi delta blues to create a sound called rockabilly. At the same time, an urban R&B influence on early rock came from Fats Domino (“Blueberry Hill”), Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (“Hound Dog”), and Big Joe Turner (“Shake, Rattle, and Roll”). Many of these songs, first popular on R&B labels, crossed over to the pop charts during the mid to late 1950s (although many were performed by more widely known white artists). Chuck Berry borrowed from white country & western music (an old country song called “Ida Red”) and combined it with R&B to write “Maybellene.” His first hit, the song was No. 1 on the R&B chart in July 1955 and crossed over to the pop charts the next month.

Although rock lyrics in the 1950s may not have been especially provocative or overtly political, soaring record sales and the crossover appeal of the music itself represented an enormous threat to long-standing racial and class boundaries. In 1956, the secretary of the North Alabama White Citizens Council bluntly spelled out the racism and white fear concerning the new blending of urban-black and rural-white culture: “Rock and roll is a means of pulling the white man down to the level of the Negro. It is part of a plot to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation.”20 These days, distinctions between traditionally rural music and urban music continue to blur, with older hybrids such as country rock (think of the Eagles) and newer forms like alternative country—performed by artists like Ryan Adams, Steve Earle, the Avett Brothers, and Kings of Leon.

The North and the South

KATY PERRY Many of today’s biggest pop music stars show off not just catchy radio-ready singles but also eye-grabbing fashion, memorable music videos, and multimillion-dollar live shows. Perry’s 2014 Prismatic World Tour featured a spectacular concert production with at least seven different “acts” and costume and set changes.
© Paul Martinka/Splash News/Corbis


Not only did rock and roll muddy the urban and rural terrain, but it also combined northern and southern influences. In fact, with so much blues, R&B, and rock and roll rising from the South in the 1950s, this region regained some of its cultural flavor, which (along with a sizable portion of the population) had migrated to the North after the Civil War and during the early twentieth century. Meanwhile, musicians and audiences in the North had absorbed blues music as their own, eliminating the understanding of blues as a specifically southern style. Like the many white teens today who are fascinated by hip-hop, musicians such as Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly—all from the rural South—were fascinated with and influenced by the black urban styles they had heard on the radio or seen in nightclubs. These artists in turn brought southern culture to northern listeners.

But the key to record sales and the spread of rock and roll, according to famed record producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records, was to find a white man who sounded black. Phillips found that man in Elvis Presley. Commenting on Presley’s cultural importance, one critic wrote: “White rockabillies like Elvis took poor white southern mannerisms of speech and behavior deeper into mainstream culture than they had ever been taken.”21

The Sacred and the Secular

Although many mainstream adults in the 1950s complained that rock and roll’s sexuality and questioning of moral norms constituted an offense against God, in fact many early rock figures had close ties to religion. Jerry Lee Lewis attended a Bible institute in Texas (although he was eventually thrown out); Ray Charles converted an old gospel tune he had first heard in church as a youth into “I Got a Woman,” one of his signature songs; and many other artists transformed gospel songs into rock and roll.

Still, many people did not appreciate the blurring of boundaries between the sacred and the secular. In the late 1950s, public outrage over rock and roll was so great that even Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, both sons of southern preachers, became convinced that they were playing the “devil’s music.” By 1959, Little Richard had left rock and roll to become a minister. Lewis had to be coerced into recording “Great Balls of Fire,” a song by Otis Blackwell that turned an apocalyptic biblical phrase into a sexually charged teen love song that was banned by many radio stations but nevertheless climbed to No. 2 on the pop charts in 1957. The boundaries between sacred and secular music have continued to blur in the years since, with some churches using rock and roll to appeal to youth, and some Christian-themed rock groups recording music as seemingly incongruous as heavy metal.

Battles in Rock and Roll

The blurring of racial lines and the breakdown of other conventional boundaries meant that performers and producers were forced to play a tricky game to get rock and roll accepted by the masses. Two prominent white disc jockeys used different methods. Cleveland deejay Alan Freed, credited with popularizing the term rock and roll, played original R&B recordings from the race charts and black versions of early rock and roll on his program. In contrast, Philadelphia deejay Dick Clark believed that making black music acceptable to white audiences required cover versions by white artists. By the mid-1950s, rock and roll was gaining acceptance with the masses, but rock-and-roll artists and promoters still faced further obstacles: Black artists found that their music was often undermined by white cover versions; the payola scandals portrayed rock and roll as a corrupt industry; and fears of rock and roll as a contributing factor in juvenile delinquency resulted in censorship.


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ELVIS PRESLEY AND HIS LEGACY Elvis Presley remains the most popular solo artist of all time. From 1956 to 1962, he recorded seventeen No. 1 hits, from “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Good Luck Charm.” According to Little Richard, Presley’s main legacy was that he opened doors for many young performers and made black music popular in mainstream America. Presley’s influence continues to be felt today in the music of artists such as Bruno Mars.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

White Cover Music Undermines Black Artists

By the mid-1960s, black and white artists routinely recorded and performed one another’s original tunes. For example, established black R&B artist Otis Redding covered the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and Jimi Hendrix covered Bob Dylan’s “All along the Watchtower,” while just about every white rock-and-roll band, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, established its career by covering R&B classics.

Although today we take such rerecordings for granted, in the 1950s the covering of black artists’ songs by white musicians was almost always an attempt to capitalize on popular songs from the R&B “race” charts by transforming them into hits on the white pop charts. Often, not only would white producers give cowriting credit to white performers for the tunes they merely covered, but the producers would also buy the rights to potential hits from black songwriters, who seldom saw a penny in royalties or received songwriting credit.

During this period, black R&B artists, working for small record labels, saw many of their popular songs covered by white artists working for major labels. These cover records, boosted by better marketing and ties to white deejays, usually outsold the original black versions. For instance, the 1954 R&B song “Sh-Boom,” by the Chords on Atlantic’s Cat label, was immediately covered by a white group, the Crew Cuts, for the major Mercury label. Record sales declined for the Chords, although jukebox and R&B radio play remained strong for the original version. By 1955, R&B hits regularly crossed over to the pop charts, but inevitably the cover music versions were more successful. Pat Boone’s cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” went to No. 1 and stayed on the Top 40 pop chart for twenty weeks, whereas Domino’s original made it only to No. 10. Boone’s record sales at the time were second only to Elvis Presley’s, and Boone found this success through releasing dozens of covers. Slowly, however, the cover situation changed. After watching Boone outsell his song “Tutti Frutti” in 1956, Little Richard wrote “Long Tall Sally,” which included lyrics written and delivered in such a way that he believed Boone would not be able to adequately replicate them. “Long Tall Sally” went to No. 6 for Little Richard and charted for twelve weeks; Boone’s version got to No. 8 and stayed there for nine weeks.


Overt racism lingered in the music business well into the 1960s. A turning point, however, came in 1962, the last year that Pat Boone, then aged twenty-eight, ever had a Top 40 rock-and-roll hit. That year, Ray Charles covered “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” a 1958 country song by the Grand Ole Opry’s Don Gibson. This marked the first time that a black artist, covering a white artist’s song, had notched a No. 1 pop hit. With Charles’s cover, the rock-and-roll merger between gospel and R&B, on one hand, and white country and pop, on the other, was complete. In fact, the relative acceptance of black crossover music provided a more favorable cultural context for the political activism that spurred important Civil Rights legislation in the mid-1960s.

Payola Scandals Tarnish Rock and Roll

The payola scandals of the 1950s were another cloud over rock-and-roll music and its artists. In the music industry, payola is the practice of record promoters paying deejays or radio programmers to play particular songs. As recorded rock and roll became central to commercial radio’s success in the 1950s and the demand for airplay grew enormous, independent promoters hired by record labels used payola to pressure deejays into playing songs by the artists they represented.

Although payola was considered a form of bribery, no laws prohibited its practice. However, following closely on the heels of television’s quiz-show scandals (see Chapter 6), congressional hearings on radio payola began in December 1959. The hearings were partly a response to generally fraudulent business practices, but they were also an opportunity to blame deejays and radio for rock and roll’s supposedly negative impact on teens by portraying rock and roll (and its radio advocates) as a corrupt industry.

The payola scandals threatened, ended, or damaged the careers of a number of rock-and-roll deejays and undermined rock and roll’s credibility for a number of years. When Chicago deejay Phil Lind broadcast secretly taped discussions in which a representative of a small independent record label acknowledged that it had paid $22,000 to ensure that a record would get airplay, he received calls threatening his life and was given police protection. At the hearings in 1960, Alan Freed admitted to participating in payola, although he said he did not believe there was anything illegal about such deals, and his career soon ended. Dick Clark, then an influential deejay and the host of TV’s American Bandstand, would not admit to participating in payola. But the hearings committee chastised Clark and alleged that some of his complicated business deals were ethically questionable, a censure that hung over him for years. Congress eventually added a law concerning payola to the Federal Communications Act, prescribing a $10,000 fine and/or a year in jail for each violation (see Chapter 5).

Fears of Corruption Lead to Censorship

Since rock and roll’s inception, one of the uphill battles the genre faced was the perception that it was a cause of juvenile delinquency, which was statistically on the rise in the 1950s. Looking for an easy culprit rather than considering contributing factors such as neglect, the rising consumer culture, or the growing youth population, many assigned blame to rock and roll. The view that rock and roll corrupted youth was widely accepted by social authorities, and rock-and-roll music was often censored, eventually even by the industry itself.

By late 1959, many key figures in rock and roll had been tamed. Jerry Lee Lewis was exiled from the industry, labeled southern “white trash” for marrying his thirteen-year-old third cousin; Elvis Presley, having already been censored on television, was drafted into the army; Chuck Berry was run out of Mississippi and eventually jailed for gun possession and transporting a minor across state lines; and Little Richard felt forced to tone down his image and left rock and roll to sing gospel music. A tragic accident led to the final taming of rock and roll’s first front line. In February 1959, Buddy Holly (“Peggy Sue”), Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba”), and the Big Bopper (“Chantilly Lace”) all died in an Iowa plane crash—a tragedy mourned in Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie” as “the day the music died.”


Although rock and roll did not die in the late 1950s, the U.S. recording industry decided that it needed a makeover. To protect the enormous profits the new music had been generating, record companies began to discipline some of rock and roll’s rebellious impulses. In the early 1960s, the industry introduced a new generation of clean-cut white singers, like Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, Ricky Nelson, Lesley Gore, and Fabian. Rock and roll’s explosive violations of racial, class, and other boundaries were transformed into simpler generation-gap problems, and the music developed a milder reputation.