Music from the 50s changed the course of music history forever. This decade was the one that changed it all. It is the decade that gave the world rock and roll and changed not only the fabric of popular music but also the fabric of society. There is not a single modern musician around who does not owe some debt of gratitude to the music from the 50s.
Music from the 50s - Understanding the Backdrop
The music from the 1950s didn't come out of nowhere. Instead, it was a product of several cultural forces that had been brewing for years. The end of World War II and the post-war economic boom were major factors. Although their parents had struggled through economic struggle and global conflict, many of the young people coming of age in the 1950s were too young to recall or be shaped by this strife. Some weren't even born.
Instead, in the 1950s, a time of prosperity, young people began to feel confined by conservative society and the birth of repetitive suburbs, subdivisions and supermarkets. They didn't have to face going off to war and they generally had enough money to have their needs met. Instead of financial and social struggles, they began to struggle against their parents' ideas. In fact, the 1950s was the first time "teenagers" were recognized as a distinct group with specific interests, lifestyles and habits.
While cultural shifts made teens hungry for something of their own, another change set the stage musically for what would become rock and roll. During the Great Depression, communities - especially communities in the southern US - became integrated like never before. Suddenly country music, blues music and gospel music were colliding across racial lines. This collision - especially the combination of sounds and showmanship of Pentecostal churches in the South and the blues (and early R&B) music heard in many African American music clubs - formed the basis for rock and roll. Take those sounds, add the backbeat, and rock music is born.
The Birth of Rock and Roll
Although the 50s are inexorably linked with the birth of rock, it wasn't until the middle of the decade that rock and roll took over. There is endless debate over what is the "first" rock song and who started the movement, but the one thing that everyone agrees on is that the first number one rock single came in 1955 with Bill Haley and His Comets' Rock Around the Clock.
That single didn't just go to number one - it was the number one single of the year. From there, rock music ruled the charts.
Post-1955 is when some of rock music's biggest giants made their appearances. These were the days of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Ritchie Valens - the list goes on and on. The influence of this music and these performers can be heard in just about every form of popular music that came after them.
Of course, the story wasn't all about rock in the 50s. Country music enjoyed a radio surge thanks to the likes of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and rock-country crossover star Johnny Cash. Singers like Nat King Cole, The Platters, Rosemary Clooney and more also challenged - and inspired - rock musicians.
The Day The Music Died
One of the saddest days in music history happened in 1959 - the so-called Day The Music Died. On February 3, 1959, a plane carrying rock music stars Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper crashed in Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all on board.
The group was on the plane together because they were all taking part in the Winter Dance Party tour of the Midwest. The tour was a logistical nightmare, with dates at far flung venues. Another problem was the tour bus, which kept breaking down. The tour was actually not supposed to go to Clear Lake, but at the last minute, the venue offered them a date and the manager accepted.
Buddy Holly in particular was upset about the tour bus and the surprise tour date. He decided to charter a plane. The Big Bopper was not supposed to be on the plane, but he had the flu and asked Holly band member Waylon Jennings to give up his seat. Jennings agreed, and when Holly teased, "I hope your old bus freezes up," Jennings said, "Well, I hope your old plane crashes."
Ritchie Valens was also not supposed to be on the plane, but he had never flown before and was eager for the experience. He convinced Holly band member Tommy Allsup to flip a coin for the seat. Valens won the coin toss.
It is believed that a combination of weather and pilot error caused the crash.
Listen to 50s Music
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