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Music in the 1950s – Introduction

In the beginning was the word. And the word was A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!

When Rock & Roll exploded on the world in the mid-Fifties with the successive thunderclaps of Bill HaleyElvis Presley and Little Richard, it all seemed to come from nowhere.

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Rock & Roll started, like the universe itself, with a big bang – or perhaps a rapid succession of big bangs, followed by a lot of smaller ones. Or so it seemed.

Rock & Roll was, in fact, a music with a long history – or rather, several parallel histories, for it was the result of years of foundation work in the worlds of country music, blues, gospel, bluegrass, swing, rhythm & blues (R&B), Doo-Wop and jazz. None of these forms became Rock & Roll, but each played some part in the process from which Rock & Roll was distilled.

When the fermentation was complete, Rock & Roll was greeted in the US with fear and trepidation by racial and religious segregationists, political opportunists, self-appointed arbiters of public morality and the previously ultra-complacent old-guard of the record industry.

In Britain, similar claptrap spouted from predictable mouths, culminating in May 1958 with the public pillorying of Jerry Lee Lewis.

British bandleader Ted Heath said; “I don’t think the Rock & Roll craze will come to Britain. You see, it is primarily for a coloured population. I can’t ever see it becoming a real craze” . . .

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By the time Heath had said that – in May 1956 – he was already wrong and the ‘craze’ had arrived. Bill Haley and The Comets already had six British chart entries, Lonnie Donegan had two hits to his credit, and on the very day that Heath’s prophecy was published, Elvis Presley first entered the British Top 20 with Heartbreak Hotel.

A week later Carl Perkins was in the chart too, shortly followed by Frankie Lymon and The TeenagersFats DominoGene Vincent and The Platters.

The invasion of American Rock & Roll irrevocably changed the lives of many British teenagers of the 1950s and the first British artists specifically promoted as Rock & Rollers began to appear.

By 1959 there were as many British rockers vying for success as there were American originators.