Music That Changed America

Memphis record producer Sam Phillips often boasted that with “a white boy who could sing black,” he could make a million dollars. In July 1954, Phillips found his ticket to riches and stardom as nineteen-year-old Elvis Presley recorded his first song for Phillips's Sun Records. Singing the rhythm-and-blues style teenagers coveted at the time, Presley was more acceptable to the racially conscious country because he was white, though parents derided him for his sexual style as he shook his hips. Soon, Presley became known not only as “Elvis the Pelvis,” but as the king of rock 'n' roll.

Who first used the term “rock 'n' roll” to describe a form of music?

In 1951, Cleveland, Ohio, disc jockey Alan Freed began playing, among other types, “race music” for a multiracial audience. Freed is credited with coining the phrase “rock 'n' roll” to describe the rhythm and blues music. He also organized the first rock 'n' roll concert, called “The Moon-dog Coronation Ball” on March 21, 1952.

Truly, rock 'n' roll music provided an escape from Cold War anxieties. Teenagers had more disposable income than previous generations of youth. As music became more portable with transistor radios, teens could listen to whatever they chose. And from 1964 through 1969, teens listened to a British band called the Beatles. Thirty Beatles songs achieved top-ten status in Billboard magazine charts. The band, which formed in 1959, was comprised of four musicians born in Liverpool, England. George Harrison and John Lennon played guitar, Paul McCartney was the bassist, and Peter Best (replaced by Ringo Starr in 1962) played drums.

Although their musical style started fresh with early songs such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” it moved to more innovative and experimental works, culminating in the 1967 release of their album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This was a concept album, with songs centered around a common theme, and it was also admired for its haunting harmony and lyrics. Lennon and McCartney penned many songs for the band. In 1970, the Beatles split up to pursue their own musical interests. Speculation about a proposed reunion continued for years until the 1980 murder of John Lennon outside his Dakota apartment building in Manhattan. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

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