The 1950s evokes many thoughts in people’s minds. Those can range from the golden age of Americana to final years of segregation in America. One things is for sure the music scene began to significantly change.
The United States during the 1950s
America experienced an economic boom after the Second World War. However, America was involved again in other conflicts such as the Cold War (where the country and the Soviet Union, who were allies in World War II, became enemies) which helped shape a politically conservative climate in the country. The country also saw the election of World War II hero and retired Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1950, the Korean War broke out, and this increased efforts on the part of the US to create a weapon that would become much deadlier than the atomic bomb — the hydrogen bomb.
Aside from the economic boom, there is also the baby boom, and this is where large families began — and this meant that there were also an increased need for more houses. Because of the population explosion, big housing developments flourished. With the advent of television, it was starting to become a part of every day life with shows like Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and Fathers Knows Best being popular. In 1954 the first color television sets were introduced in the market. Initially, color TV sets on the market had 15-inch screens. By 1955 all sets were made with 21 inch screens. Because of the popularity of this squared apparatus, it had gradually become a way of American life. In 1950, there were only about six million households who had television, but five years later that number jumped to about 39 million.
After experiencing austerity during the Second World War, the 1950s were an era of a renewed prosperity, which led to fashion and the concept of glamour. Gone were the sharp, square shoulders and short skirts, and there came the long, sweeping and billowing skirts, fitted waists, round shoulders and stiletto heels that had been inspired by Christian Dior’s “New Look” contour. This characterized much of the 1950s fashion — which was emphasized by fragile femininity. Men’s fashion, on the other hand, consisted of conservative coat-and-tie and gray flannel suits. Hats were becoming less and less popular among both men and women.
Much of the United States during the decade is generally characterized by conservatism and conformity to the social norms. However, rebellion was slowly emerging too particularly among American adolescents. The first wave of youth culture began in this decade, where, for the first time, youngsters started to disregard whatever their elders acted, dressed or listened to. American youngsters started to invent their own clothing fashion and and new styles of music. Not surprisingly, these changes among the youth were frowned upon by their more conservative elders, who saw these youngsters as ruffians and troublemakers.
The teenage fashion of the 1950s reflected a more expressive, loose and informal style. Leather jackets, sneakers, and greased-up “duck’s ass” haircuts became a stereotypical feature of rebels and nonconformists, and these styles were further popularized by films such as Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean. But there’s no doubt about it, teenage fashion during this decade was translated into a huge industry in its own right.
Along the presence of rock and roll, there also came other newer musical genres that became popular during this decade. But it’s no doubt that rock and roll opened the door to other musical styles that we listen to today. We discuss some of the movements and trends that changed the musical landscape of the 1950s.
Music of the 1950s
The 1950s — a decade that endured remarkable cultural changes while still adhering to the societal norms of the past. Those cultural changes were mirrored, not least of all, in the musical styles which developed and prevailed during that decade.
This is true in the Western world most especially in the United States, which, after the Second World War, embarked on a musical journey that would change the face of music in the following decades. The beginning of the civil rights movement further strained racial tensions, and the musical styles during the decade were a mirror of these tensions. The advent of rhythm and blues (R&B) and rock and roll were the key to popularizing “black” music. As a result, many African-American artists rose to fame and enjoyed huge successes. Other black artists, on the other hand, were buried in obscurity after a minor hit or two, or denied access to many venues due to racial segregation.
Other people believe that the rise of rock and roll and R&B music helped bridge the gap between the whites and the blacks, and further helped fuel the civil rights movement.
The rise of rock and roll and R&B in particular became the harbingers of what music would become in the future. Despite that, there were some musical genres which, while still harking back to the past, managed to remain popular during much of the decade traditional pop, big band music, and country in particular. There were also a myriad of covers that even topped the charts. To sum it up, music in the 1950s was an era of discovery and innovation, helped shaped everything that we listen to in the present.
Major musical movements of the 1950s
1. Rock and roll
The 1950s witnessed the birth of rock and roll music, which would later spawn other related genres such as rockabilly (which also originated in the 1950s), garage rock and pop music, among a huge myriad of other derivations. In short, it is one of this decade’s most defining musical styles. Rock and roll was originated from a immediate fusion of several styles. These include “black” music (rhythm and blues and gospel), country & western and pop elements.
In 1951, a white radio disc jockey from Cleveland, Ohio named Alan Freed started spinning up-tempo rhythm and blues hits, and wanted to aim his program beyond his African-American audience base. Freed eventually gained a multi-racial audience, consisting mostly of teenagers. He is also credited with first using the phrase “rock and roll” to emphasize the cross-current of different musical styles and influences that he featured on his show —
- electric blues,
- gospel and,
in addition to rhythm and blues.
The 1950s also saw the emergence and popularity of the electric guitar which was developed and popularized by the legendary guitarist and inventor Les Paul. By the early 1950s the electric guitar had become commercially available, and been quickly adapted by both R&B and pop artists.
Some artists were responsible for early rock and roll hits which were mostly influenced by rhythm-and-blues. These artists include Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Big Joe Turner and Gene Vincent, among others.
In 1953, a social commentary film The Blackboard Jungle featured “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets. The song caused a national sensation as teeangers began tearing up the seats and dancing in the theater aisles.
Many more black artists such as Berry, Domino, and vocal group the Platters were finding their way onto the pop charts. White artists like Pat Boone and the Crew-Cuts, on the other hand, found success by covering R&B numbers and turning them into their own hits.
Because of the growing popularity of rock and roll, many independent lablels were quick to cash in on the rise of this new musical genre. Notable recording labels during that decade include Sun Records, Ace, Vee-Jay, Chess, and Specialty Records, to name a few. These rising independent labels had begun to sign new artists and release rock and roll records.
Elvis Presley, who began his musical career in the mid-1950s, soon became the leading figure of this rising musical genre. Compared to other artists during that decade, Presley enjoyed a remarkable series of high-charting hits, television and film appearances.
American Bandstand, a musical variety show hosted by Dick Clark, helped popularize the more clean-cut brand of rock and roll. Towards the end of the decade, artists such as Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, Neil Sedaka were dominating the charts. R&B-influenced artists like The Platters, The El Dorados, The Penguins and The Turbans were enjoying hits on both the R&B and pop spectrum.
Blues also lent a huge impact to the American music scene in the 1950s. Blues, of course, is the foundation of many genres, including rock and roll. Artists such as Ray Charles and Fats Domino were responsible of bringing blues into the mainstream market. The enthusiastic playing of blues artists such as Chuck Berry and Bo Didley departed from the more somber aspects of blues and influenced rock and roll. Many original blues numbers are popularized by white artists such as Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and “Ball ‘n’ Chains.”
3. Traditional pop
Traditional pop predated the advent of rock and roll music in the mid-1950s. It is also known as “classic pop” or “pop standards.” Although this genre is believed to have begun as early as in the days before the first World War (the music of Cole Porter as well as George and Ira Gershwin, for example), it became more popular from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s. Traditional pop draws from a repertoire of songs penned by seasoned and professional songwriters and performed by vocalists who were backed by either an orchestra or a small combo. Big band music can also be tied to traditional pop, as the genre can also refer to orchestra leaders and arrangers who provided the instrumental back-up for the singers.
Well-known traditional artists include
- Frank Sinatra,
- Rosemary Clooney,
- Dean Martin,
- Doris Day,
- Nat King Cole,
- Bobby Darin,
- Peggy Lee,
- Johnny Mathis,
- Andy Williams, and
- a lot others.
Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Bobby Darin, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, and a lot others.
Hank Williams and Johnny Cash were among the artists who defined country and western music during the 1950s. With Cash, his music was best described as a country music fused with a considerable amount of rockabilly influence. Like with many other country and western artists, Cash’s songs revolve around heartbreak, hard times, sorrows and relationships. He also sought to inject humor in his songs to make his repertoire of songs more well-balanced and respected from various audiences.
Williams, on the other hand, helped popularize the honky-tonk style of country music. The legendary singer was also a master of certain themes such as hearbreak, loneliness, despair and alcoholism (Williams died at the age of 29 from a heart failure worsened by alcohol and pills). Among his most famous songs are “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin'” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” — songs that came to define the 1950s country music.
Other country artists began their career during the 1950s but it was not until the next decade that they were finally able to taste commercial success — like Conway Twitty and Patsy Cline. Some non-country artists like Connie Francis and Pat Boone would also record very few country songs.
One of the subgenres of rock and roll, rockabilly was one of the very popular genres during this decade and has now been enjoying a major revival in recent years. It is a fusion of rock and roll with hillbilly music, and some elements like rhythm and blues and swing. The artist who first led the rockabilly movement was a group called The Maddox Brothers and Rose. They played hillbilly music with such enthusiasm; one of the group members, Fred Maddox, also developed the “slap bass” technique.
The mid-1950s saw the popularity of the rockabilly genre, with artists such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and of course Elvis Presley recorded and released rockabilly recordings with much success.
Another “black” music, doo-wop was developed in African-American communities of many cities in the US, from New York and Washington to Chicago and Los Angeles. It was named so after the sound usually made by the artists; this is quite appropriate since doo-wop is strongly based on performers’ vocals. Since “a capella” is one of the genre’s stylistic origins, the performances in doo-wop are often unaccompanied by instrumentation. Instead, the emphasis is centered on the lyrics and harmonies made by the singers’ multiple vioces.
Doo-wop came to mainstream popularity in the 1950s and the early 1960s. The first doo-wop record in history was The Turbans’ 1955 hit “When You Dance.” The other popular doo-wop groups also include The Platters, The Drifters, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. White groups — mostly consisting of Italian-Americans — also gave significant contributions to the doo-wop scene. They include The Demensions, The Capris, The Duprees, The Mystics, and most popularly Dion and the Belmonts, among others.
Bluegrass is an American roots music that had been first performed by British immigrants to the US for many centuries. Later, bluegrass was also influenced by African-Americans who incorporated some elements of jazz into it. Traditional bluegrass is purely based on acoustic stringed instruments such as the fiddle, the five-string banjo, guitar, mandolin and upright bass.
In the late 1940s, bluegrass first emerged as a genre and was placed under country and western genre for radio airplay. During the 1950s traditional bluegrass became popular, and well-known first-generation bluegrass artists include Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, as well as Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys, Red Allen, Bill Clifton and so many others.
Gospel is a form of Christian and worship music commonly found in the churches of African-Americans. It became immensely popular during the 1940s and the 1950s. Especially after the Second World War, gospel music moved from churches into major auditoriums, and concerts became much more elaborate. Despite this, many churches in their own communities still held gospel performances, often involving both choirs and soloists. Touring gospel artists were also common. Mahalia Jackson and Ward Singer were some of the gospel artists who made best-selling recordings. Many subgenres have emerged since, including urban contemporary gospel and progressive Southern gospel.
9. “The Twist” dance craze
Although “The Twist” has been frequently associated with the 1950s, it actually came very, very late. The origins of this dance craze began in 1959, starting from a Hank Ballard B-side original. But it wasn’t until 1960 when “The Twist” eventually caught the spotlight — this time, from Chubby Checker’s more famous version which fueled the Twist dance craze. Although it inspired other dances such as the Jerk, the Mashed Potato and the Funky Chicken, none of them became as popular as the Twist.
Best selling artists of the 1950s
Here are some of the following artists who made the greatest commercial impact on the music of the 1950s, based on worldwide sales of singles and albums. Here are some bits of information on them:
1. Elvis Presley – See Our Profile
Born: January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi
Died: August 16, 1977 in Memphis, Tennessee
Also known as: The King of Rock and Roll, The King
Genres: Rock and roll, rockabilly, country, blues, pop, gospel, soul, R&B, adult contemporary
Elvis Presley was one of the leading figures of the 1950s music scene, and is now regarded as one of the celebrated cultural icons of the 20th century. He is known not only for his classic rock and roll records, but also for films, his strong appeal towards his fans, his as well as his rags-to-riches story. After his career stalled in the early 1960s, Presley staged a successful return via his ’68 Comeback Special and from then on, he practically became engaged in doing successful tours until his death in 1977. Simply a legend.
Biggest hit singles in the 1950s only:
- Heartbreak Hotel
- I Want You, I Need You, I Love You
- Hound Dog
- Don’t Be Cruel
- Love Me Tender
- Love Me
- Too Much
- All Shook Up
- (Let Me Be) Your Teddy Bear
- Jailhouse Rock
- Don’t,” “I Beg of You
- Wear My Ring Around Your Neck
- Hard Headed Woman
- I Got Stung
- One Night
- (Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I
- I Need Your Love Tonight and
- A Big Hunk o’ Love.
2. Frank Sinatra
Born: December 12, 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey
Died: May 14, 1998 in Los Angeles, California
Also known as: Ol’ Blue Eyes, Chairman of the Board
Genres: Traditional pop, easy listening, jazz, swing, big band, vocal
Frank Sinatra was one of the leading pop vocalists during his time, especially in the 1940s to the 1950s. Starting out as a crooner for the big bands such as those led by Tommy Dorsey in the late 1930s, Sinatra became a successful solo singer by the early 1940s. By the early 1950s his career stalled, but it was revived after he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in From Here to Eternity. It was then followed by a string of best-selling and era-defining recordings with Capitol Records. He was the member of the famous “Rat Pack” along with his celebrity buddies, who were immortalized in such films as Oceans Eleven. Although he went out of the spotlight in the early 1970s, he came out of his retirement to perform for his adoring fans at sold-out concerts. Even when he was about to turn 80, Sinatra even managed to top the charts with 1993’s Duets.
Biggest hit singles of the 1950s:
- Goodnight Irene
- One Finger Melody
- I’m Walking Behind You
- Young at Heart
- Three Coins in a Fountain
- Learnin’ the Blues
- Love and Marriage
- (Love is The) Tender Trap
- Hey, Jealous Lover
- All the Way and
3. Nat King Cole
Born: March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama
Died: February 16, 1965 in Santa Monica, California
Genres: Traditional pop, jazz, vocal
Nat King Cole initially rose to prominence as a jazz pianist. But soon his warm, soft baritone voice launched him as a hugely successful singer who brought classic hits such as “Mona Lisa” and “Smile.” He was the first African-American artist to host a television show, The Nat King Cole Show. Even after his death in 1965, his legend is still certainly assured.
Biggest hit singles in the 1950s:
- Mona Lisa
- Frosty the Snow Man
- Too Young
- Somewhere Along the Way
- Answer Me, My Love
- Darling Je Vous Aime Beacoup
- If I May
- Send for Me and
- Looking Back
4. Perry Como
Born: May 18, 1912 in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania
Died: May 12, 2001 in Jupiter Inlet Colony, Florida
Also known as: Mr. C
Genres: pop, easy listening, big band, jazz, swing, country, adult contemporary
Perry Como was a singer and television personality known for his smooth, baritone voice. He sold millions of records with RCA Records, and also pioneered a weekly musical variety TV show which set standards for the genre. Como was one of the most successful singers who enjoyed a long career that spanned over six decades.
Biggest hit singles in the 1950s:
- You’re Just in Love
- Say You’re Mine Again
- No Other Love
- You Alone (Solo Tu)
- Papa Loves Mambo
- (There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays
- Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So)
- Tina Maria
- Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)
- Juke Box Baby
- Round and Round
- Catch a Falling Star
- Magic Moments and
- Kewpie Doll
5. Harry Belafonte
Born: March 1, 1927 in Harlem, Manhattan, New York
Genres: Vocal, folk, pop, international
Harry Belafonte is a multi-talented artist who has made a significant mark in films, theater and on television as well as in the world of singing and recording. He achieved lasting fame for such songs as “Banana Boat (Day-O)” and also earned praises for his humanitarian work.
Biggest hit singles in the 1950s:
- Banana Boat (Day-O)
- Mama Look at Bubu
- Cocoanut Woman
- Island in the Sun and
- Mary’s Boy Child
6. Bill Haley and His Comets – See Our Profile
Formed: 1952 in Chester, Pennsylvania
Disbanded: 1981 (due to Bill Haley’s death)
Genres: Rock and roll, country, rockabilly
Bill Haley and the Comets were one of the significant pillars of the rising new genre called rock and roll. From 1954 to 1956, the group placed nine Top 20 singles, including three Top Ten hits. Their famous number “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” is one of the songs that defined rock and roll in its early stages during the 1950s.
Biggest hits in the 1950s:
- Shake, Rattle & Roll
- Dim, Dim the Lights
- (We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock
- Mambo Rock
- Burn That Candle
- See You Later, Alligator
- The Saints Rock n Roll
7. Johnny Mathis
Born: September 30, 1935 in Gilmer, Texas
Genres: Easy listening, pop, soul, jazz
Johnny Mathis is one of those crooners who survived the dominant rock and roll scene. He more than managed to score commercial successes through his albums that achieved gold or platinum status and multiple singles that placed on the Billboard charts. The suave singing balladeer remained popular as a nightclub performer.
Biggest hit singles of the 1950s:
- Wonderful! Wonderful!
- It’s Not for Me to Say
- Chances Are
- The Twelfth of Never
- A Certain Smile and
8. Frankie Laine
Born: March 30, 1913 in Near West Side, Chicago
Died: February 6, 2007 in San Diego, California
Also known as: America’s Number One Song Stylist, Mr. Rhythm, Old Leather Lungs, Mr. Steel Tonsils
Genres: Traditional pop, standards, jazz, R&B, gospel, easy listening, folk, country
Singer-songwriter and actor Frankie Laine enjoyed success who scored numerous hits on the Billboard chart. He also sang well-known for many films of the Western genre, including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Blazing Saddles. An eclectic singer, Laine had the ability to sings songs from the usual traditional pop to jazz and rock and roll. He enjoyed a long career that spanned 75 years.
Biggest hit singles in the 1950s:
- The Cry of the Wild Goose
- Rose, Rose I Love You
- Jealousy (Jalousie)
- High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)
- I Believe
- Hey Joe!
- Moonlight Gambler and
- Love is a Golden Ring
9. Doris Day
Born: April 3, 1922 (or 1924) in Cincinnati, Ohio
Genres: Traditional pop, big band
Doris Day was one of the most popular female singers of her day. Like many other solo singers of the yesteryears, she also started as a vocalist for big bands. When she went solo, she became a contract artist for Columbia — her only recording label — where she remained for over 20 years. Known for her squeaky-clean, all-American image, Day released 30-plus albums, and singles that spent a total of 460 weeks on the Billboard chart. She also became a box-office darling, having starred in films such as Calamity Jane, Young at Heart, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Pillow Talk, Teacher’s Pet and so many others.
Biggest hits in the 1950s:
- (Why Did I Tell You I Was Going to) Shanghai
- A Guy is a Guy
- Mister Tap Toe
- Secret Love
- If I Give My Heart to You
- Que Sera, Sera (What Will Be, Will Be)
- Everybody Loves a Lover
10. Pat Boone
Born: June 1, 1934 in Jacksonville, Florida
Genres: Traditional pop, country, gospel
Pat Boone was one of the popular and successful pop singers during the 1950s — in fact, he was the second biggest charting artist during that decade, only trailing behind Elvis Presley. Much of his commercial success rested on covering original songs by black artists (Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”) and turning them into big hits. Towards the 1960s he focused on gospel music and has been doing it ever since.
Biggest hits in the 1950s:
- Ain’t That a Shame
- At My Front Door
- I’ll Be Home
- Long Tall Sally
- I Almost Lost My Mind
- Chains of Love
- Friendly Persuasion
- Don’t Forbid Me
- Why Baby, Why
- Love Letters in the Sand
- Remember You’re Mine
- April Love
- It’s Too Soon to Know
- Sugar Moon
- If Dreams Came True
11. Fats Domino – See Our Profile
Born: February 26, 1928
Also known as: The Fat Man
Genres: Rock and roll, R&B, blues, boogie-woogie, country, jazz, traditional pop
American blues singer and pianist Fats Domino is also one of the cornerstones of rock and roll, and helped define the distinctive New Orleans sound. He also enjoyed considerable success from his records that sold millions before 1955.
Biggest hits of the 1950s:
- Ain’t That a Shame
- I’m in Love Again
- Blueberry Hill
- Blue Monday
- I’m Walkin’
- Valley of Tears
- It’s You I Love
- Whole Lotta Loving
- I Want to Walk You Home and
- Be My Guest
12. Eddie Fisher
Born: August 10, 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: September 22, 2010 in Berkeley, California
Genres: Traditional pop
Eddie Fisher was one of the most successful traditional pop artists who managed to weather the dominating rock and roll trend. The “bobby sox idol” sold millions of records and also hosted his own television show. However, he later suffered negative publicity when he left his first wife, actress Debbie Reynolds, to marry another actress Elizabeth Taylor (who was Reynold’s best friend). This scandal practically derailed his career.
Biggest hits in the 1950s:
- Thinking of You
- Turn Back the Hands of Time
- Tell Me Why
- Forgive Me
- That’s the Chance You Take
- I’m Yours
- Wish You Were Here
- Lady of Spain
- Outside of Heaven
- Even Now
- I’m Walking Behind You
- With These Hands
- Oh! My Pa-Pa (O Mein Papa)
- A Girl, a Girl (Zoom-Ba Di Alli Nella)
- Green Years
- I Need You Now
- Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)
- Heart and
- Cindy, Oh Cindy
13. Patti Page
Born: November 8, 1927 in Claremore, Oklahoma
Died: January 1, 2013 in Encinitas, California
Genres: Traditional pop, country
Patti Page was one of the female chart-toppers during the 1950s. Her song “Tennessee Waltz” became her signature tune, and obviously one of the best-selling singles of the 20th century. Primarily a pop artist, Page also incorporated country music into her songs, magnifying her crossover appeal and helping her score numerous hit singles on the country chart.
Biggest hits in the 1950s:
- All My Love (Bolero)
- The Tennessee Waltz
- Would I Love You (Love You, Love You)
- Mockin’ Bird Hill
- Mister and Mississippi
- So I Sleep Again
- Come What May
- Once in a While
- I Went to Your Wedding
- You Belong to Me
- Why Don’t You Believe Me
- (How Much Is That”) Doggie in the Window?
- Changing Partners
- Cross Over the Bridge
- Steam Heat
- What a Dream
- Let Me Go, Lover!
- Allegheny Moon
- Old Cape Cod
- Left Right Out of Your Heart
14. The Platters
Formed: 1954 in
Los Angeles, California
Genres: R&B, doo-wop, rock and roll, soul
The Platters enjoyed a lofty position as one of the most popular and successful R&B and doo-wop vocal groups during rock and roll’s infancy. They scored 40 singles on the Billboard pop chart, including the now-classics “Only You” and “The Great Pretender.”
Biggest hits in the 1950s:
- Only You (And You Alone)
- The Great Pretender
- (You’ve Got) The Magic Touch
- My Prayer
- Twilight Time and
- Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
15. Dean Martin
Born: June 7, 1917 in Steubenville, Ohio
Died: December 25, 1995 in Beverly Hills, California
Also known as: The King of Cool
Singer, actor and comedian Dean Martin emerged to become one of the most popular and enduring entertainers of the 20th century. His effortless charisma and crooning voice helped him score numerous hits such as “That’s Amore” and “Memories Are Made of These.” Of course, he was one of the members of the famous “Rat Pack,” which included his friends Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
Biggest hits of the 1950s:
- That’s Amore
- Memories Are Made of This
- Return to Me
- I’ll Always Love You
- You Belong to Me
- Sway (Quien Sera) and
- Volare (Nel Blue Dipinto Di Blu)
Technological advancements and breakthroughs in music during the 1950s
The 1950s saw many remarkable advancements that contributed to the 1950s music scene:
Electric guitar – although the origins of the electric guitar date back as early as the 1930s, the instrument became more prominent in the 1950s. One of the earliest proponents of the electric guitar on record during this decade is Les Paul, who introduced the Gibson Les Paul in 1952. Several other notable models that came out include the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster. If it not for the electric guitar, rock and roll music wouldn’t have been complete, for the instrument was a major component of this rising, popular music genre.
Transistor radio – though there are many claimants to the title of the first company to come out with the revolutionary transistor radios, the most notable among these is Bell Laboratories. In the mid-1940s, the company demonstrated the first transistor, and in 1954 they finally came out with the world’s first pocket-sized radio transistor. The small, portable device later occupied the pockets of rock-and-roll-crazy teens across the country. Later, two companies — Texas Instruments and Industrial Development Engineering Associates — jointly manufactured and unveiled the Regency TR-1, the world’s first mass-produced transistor radio. Around the same time, Japan’s Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation — which would later become Sony — licensed Bell’s transistor and eventually enjoyed a huge success in radio sales.
The “Elvis” microphone – one of the most recognizable things during the 1950s is the Shure Unidyne 55s Microphone. This iconic microphone is popularly referred to as the “the Elvis mic” due to its frequent use by Elvis Presley. This single-element, unidirectional unit set the audio and visual standards for both rock and rollers and pop crooners alike.
Electric bass guitar – Sure, the upright bass is one of rock and roll’s enduring icons. However, the huge and heavy instrument wasn’t practical for traveling musicians. Musician and inventor Paul Tutmarc was the first to develop the electric bass guitar around 1935, but it didn’t become a sales success. About 15 years later, Fender came out with its Precision Bass (“P-Bass”) which became a hit in the market and a widely copied standard.
Fun Facts about the Music of the 1950s
The 1950s were a decade of major cultural change, and music significantly shaped the era. This decade saw rock and roll’s rise, the teenager’s birth as a cultural force, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement. Here are some fun facts about the music in the 1950s:
1. Rock and roll changed the culture of the 50s.
Rock and roll emerged as a new style of music in the 1950s, combining elements of rhythm and blues, country, and western swing. The music glued people close to their radios, featuring black voices charged with intense emotion and wildly kinetic rhythm. Back then, people reacted as if they had never heard anything like it, so a music sensation and a movement were born. It was more vital and alive than any music people had heard before, so it warranted a new category: rock and roll.
Rock and roll produced both positive and negative changes in society. On the positive side, it helped promote social change and break down racial barriers. It also gave the youth a new form of expression and a way to connect with each other. Rock music promoted freedom of thought and self-expression, allowing people to speak up for themselves. It also influenced people’s political views and, thus, the government. It helped a lot of people overcome their racial prejudices and brought people of different races closer.
But rock and roll were also often blamed for the rise in teenage delinquency and violence. The music often caused controversy, especially in conservative societies, due to its sometimes suggestive lyrics and dance moves.
2. Rock and roll originated from R&B
The 50s era saw a decline in the popularity of the big bag sounds of the 40s, and out of the other types of a genre popular in the era, rock and roll is the most definitive. It combined American southern rhythm and blues sounds with country western and gospel.
According to Fats Domino – one of the pioneers of rock and roll music – rock and roll is nothing but rhythm and blues. R&B and the black pop music of the late forties to the early fifties fundamentally influenced all fifties rockers. Rock and roll were somehow perceived simply as a new marketing strategy for the style of music being recorded since the late 40s.
3. At that time, rock and roll was the only form of music tailored to teenagers
There have been adult genres and kiddie records throughout history, but nothing for the population between childhood and adulthood. But with rock and roll, teenagers had the opportunity to express themselves freely, not as purveyors of R&B but as a dominant force in the marketplace. It has put the youth at the forefront of popular culture, representing a musical revolution that includes a generational upheaval.
This new music became an obsession and a way of life for the youth of the era. Parents were horrified or dismissive of their teenagers, who gained new freedom to break away from their conservative beliefs. Teenagers found their own identity through songs as they symbolized resistance. The new development of technologies, like TV’s widespread use, enhanced rock and roll’s appeal. Plus, who else loved loud, electric guitars? Mostly teenagers and the youth.
4. Elvis Presley is the most widely recognized music star of the era
Many rock and roll artists arose and became popular in the 50s, including Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Bo Diddley, Johnny Otis, Ruth Brown, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, The Crickets, The Teenagers, The Clovers, The Penguins, and many more. But none of them can hold a candle to Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley is the most widely-known music artist of the 50s. Growing up in the southern US, he developed a love for blues and gospel music. His musical performances were legendary at the time, thrilling fans but drawing criticism from church and civic leaders. He became widely popular that many young men began copying his hairstyle and fashion.
His song “Heartbreak Hotel” was a single that became the most popular song in 1956. The next year, he recorded “All Shook Up,” and it became the number-one song in 1957.
To this day, he remains the biggest-selling artist of all time, even in the time of digital downloads and streaming.
5. Elvis Presley was a controversial figure
Along with superstardom comes controversy. Elvis Presley was a widely controversial figure in the 1950s, with many adults fearing that his music would corrupt young people. His hip-shaking performances on television were particularly notorious, and many believed that the provocative dance moves he performed were a bad influence on the younger generation.
6. The term “rock and roll” is used to describe the motion of a ship
“Rock and roll” was a phrase used to describe the movement of a ship by seamen in the 17th century. But the 50s gave it a whole new meaning – during this era, the term referred to the motion of moving back and forth with the music of that genre. And it also helps that rock and roll music was something the listener could head-bang or dance to.
7. The ’50s rock and roll reversed the trend in the recording industry
The rise of rock and roll in the mid-50s created a major reversal in the record business. Rock and roll artists became famous almost overnight. The likes of Sam Phillips, who had no pre-rock and roll counterpart, transformed their tiny, local record labels into a company whose artists sold millions of records worldwide. At that time, the rise of rock and roll meant that small, formerly specialized record labels were invading the upper reaches of pop charts – which was the exclusive domain of major record labels at the time. Rock and roll reversed the trend: the counterculture became pop culture.
This is perhaps why the term “rockstar” is used to describe anyone who is renowned and well-known in their field.
8. Pop music originated in the 50s
The music of the 50s is credited with playing a huge part in the ever-increasing influence of pop culture. The term “popular music” refers to music that appeals to a wide audience, but the music genre “pop” is completely different from rock music. But pop music was first popularized in the 50s and has kept evolving ever since.
Many historians view 50s music as an era when musicians started to explore their freedom and experiment with sounds that were out of the ordinary music genres. It has paved the way for the more complex sounds of 1960s rock.
9. The civil rights movement influenced music
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s significantly influenced music. Many black musicians, such as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, began incorporating racial equality messages into their music.
Rock and roll, in particular, was introduced to the US when the racial tension among white and black people was at its peak. While many white people have racist tendencies, a lot of them started growing out of it and believed in destroying social barriers based on color. Rock and roll also provoked social changes that appealed to the teenage generation, while the parent generation wanted things to remain as they were. It impacted the civil rights movement that began in 1954.
10. Chuck Berry “invented” rock and roll
While it was Elvis who made the genre popular, it was Chuck Berry who made the new music genre distinctive. Berry was also the man who popularized the genre in the mid-’50s.
One of the pioneers of early rock music, Chuck Berry, introduced guitar solos and visual performances to rock and roll music, helping the genre develop. Rock and roll music typically sounds like the pentatonic scale we find in blues music on an electric guitar, and it’s one of the most-liked music genres to date.
11. What goes around comes around for Chuck Berry
The iconic riff that opens Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit song “Johnny B. Goode” was not as original as it may seem. Berry appears to have borrowed it almost directly from a Louis Jordan song from 12 years earlier, entitled “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman.”
Later, both The Beatles and The Beach Boys were criticized for “borrowing” from the works of Chuck Berry.
12. There was a debate as to who originated “doo-wop”
Besides rock and roll, the musical genre most associated with the 50s would have to be doo-wop, which is a style involving vocal harmonies built on nonsense syllables like “doo” and “wop.” There was a debate among fans of this genre as to who started using the term, as the two earliest known songs to feature it – “In the Still of the Night” and “When You Dance” – came out the same year.
13. Critics predicted that Pat Boone would be more popular than Elvis
When Elvis Presley stormed the music scene in 1956, Pat Boone was the biggest recording rock and roll star. These two young artists, born months apart and both raised in Tennessee, matched one another record for the record on the hit lists for the next year and a half. As their professional rivalry continued, the media and the public took a major interest in who would ultimately become the king of rock and roll. Though we all know now just how successful Presley would be, critics at the time predicted that Boone’s more conventional singing style would outlast Presley’s new and innovative singing style.
14. The first rock and roll song was “Rocket 88”
“Rocket 88,” recorded in 1951 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, is considered by many to be the first rock and roll song. It was produced by Sam Phillips, who went on to find Sun Records and discover Elvis Presley.
15. The Twist was the most popular dance craze in the 50s
The Twist, a dance created by Chubby Checker, became a popular craze in the late 1950s. The song “The Twist” was originally recorded by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, but it was Chubby Checker’s cover version that became a hit.
16. The “Payola” scandal rocked the music industry
In the late 1950s, the music industry was rocked by a scandal involving payola, or the practice of paying disc jockeys to play certain songs. The radio payola scandal of the era saw many lose their jobs. Several high-profile disc jockeys were indicted, and the scandal led to the downfall of several prominent record labels. The practice went underground but reappeared several times in the subsequent years.
17. “American Bandstand” premiered in 1952
“American Bandstand,” a television show that featured teenagers dancing to popular music, premiered in 1952. It was hosted by Dick Clark and became a cultural phenomenon, helping to popularize rock and roll music. In this show, Dick Clark hosted a daily to weekly dance show featuring the latest hit music for the attending teens to dance to. Due to his pioneering efforts at American Bandstand, Clark became known as “America’s oldest teenager.” With the show, he helped advance the careers of countless pop artists until 1989, starting with the artists of the 50s.
18. The first Grammy Awards were held in 1959
The first Grammy Awards ceremony was held on May 4, 1959. The awards night recognized musical accomplishments by performers, and it has continued ever since. That time, two separate ceremonies were held simultaneously on the same day – the first in Beverly Hills, California, and in Park Sheraton Hotel in New York.
The Album of the Year award went to “The Music from Peter Gunn” by Henry Mancini, while the Record of the Year award went to “Volare” by Domenico Modugno.
19. Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash
In 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (also known as “The Big Bopper”) died in a plane crash in Iowa. The event, which came to be known as “The Day the Music Died,” had a profound impact on the music industry and on popular culture as a whole.
The three musicians were on their Winter Dance Party Tour, which started off with failing logistics due to terrible winter conditions. Their tour bus broke down, so they sought a private plane for travel to complete the tour dates. The plane crashed in Clear Lake the day they were scheduled to perform, and no one survived, including the pilot. Holly was one of the most innovative musicians in rock history at the time, and he was only 22 at the time of death, with a pregnant wife at home.
The 1950s saw America (as well as the rest of the world) regaining its economic prosperity after World War II. Because of the devastation brought about by that recent war, there was a need to cling back to the conformity and social norms. However, these norms faced newer challenges due to escalating political conflicts, racial tensions, civil rights movement, and teenage rebellion. These factors reflected the beliefs, attitude, fashion, music and the whole culture of the people during this decade.
Rock and roll, in particular, is what really defined the music of the 1950s. It became synonymous with rebellion and non-conformity, but it also turned into a cultural and commercial success on its own merit. More importantly, it opened doors for aspiring young artists dreaming to make it big in the music business, and helped influence everything that we listen to and follow up to the present.
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