5 Key Moments in the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll

  • The Beatles
The Beatles
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It’s hard to say precisely when rock ’n’ roll began, though the genre has its roots in African American music such as jazz, rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, and gospel, as well as country music. Ask a room full of music historians what the first rock ’n’ roll record was and you’ll likely receive a number of different answers. Was it Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day” in 1944? Or perhaps “Rocket 88,” first recorded in Memphis by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats in 1951? Or Bill Haley & His Comets’ 1955 single “Rock Around the Clock?” It’s hard to say for sure. 

What we do know is that rock ’n’ roll became a defined mainstream genre during the 1950s, when the sound and the image coalesced around one man: Elvis Presley. Elvis took rock music to new and giddy heights, bringing about a seismic shift in popular culture — and causing deep concern among certain sections of society that considered rock the “devil’s music.” Once unleashed, however, there was no going back: Rock ’n’ roll was here to stay. Here are some of the most defining moments in the history of the genre, from the King himself to the rise of MTV.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Elvis on Ed Sullivan 

On September 9, 1956, Elvis Presley made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. At this point, Elvis had already put out a number of successful singles, and his debut album, Elvis Presley, released in March 1956, was the first rock ’n’ roll album to make it to the top of the charts. Elvis had yet to cement his status as the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll,” but his first performance on Ed Sullivan can be seen as his coronation. He performed a number of songs — including “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” and “Love Me Tender” — in front of screaming audience members at the studio and watching from home. Despite ongoing fears that his hip-shaking gyrations would corrupt the nation’s youth, viewers were given full head-to-toe shots of the 21-year-old singer’s performance. The show was a massive success, as 60 million people — 82.6% of the entire television audience at the time — tuned in to watch the then-21-year-old perform. 

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