and roll emerged as a defined musical style in America in the 1950s, though elements of rock and roll can be heard in rhythm and blues records as far back as the 1920s. Early rock and roll combined elements of blues, boogie woogie, jazz, and rhythm and blues with influences from traditional Appalachian folk music, gospel, and especially country and western. Going back even further, rock and roll can trace a foundational lineage to the old Five Points district of mid-19th century New York City, the scene of the first fusion of heavily rhythmic African shuffles and sand dances with melody-driven European genres, particularly the Irish jig. Rocking was a term first used by black gospel singers in the American South to mean something akin to spiritual rapture. By the 1940s, however, the term was used as a double entendre, ostensibly referring to dancing, but with the hidden subtextual meaning of sex; an example of this is Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight." This type of song was usually relegated to "race music" (the music industry code name for rhythm and blues) outlets and was rarely heard by mainstream white audiences.
During the 1920s and 1930s, many white Americans enjoyed seeing and listening to African-American jazz and blues performed by white musicians. They often objected to experiencing the music as performed by the original black artists, but found it acceptable when the music was performed by whites. A few black rhythm and blues musicians, most notably Louis Jordan, achieved crossover success with whites and blacks, but most were rewarded with poverty and eventual obscurity. While increasingly it would became the fashion for rock and roll musicians to write their own material, many of the earliest rock and roll hits were covers of earlier rhythm and blues or blues songs. Blues recordings by such artists as Robert Johnson and Skip James also proved in the 1960s to be important inspirations for British blues-rockers such as The Yardbirds, Cream, and Led Zeppelin.
In 1951, Cleveland, Ohio, disc jockey Alan Freed began playing this type of music for a multi-racial audience, and it is Freed who is credited with coining the phrase "rock and roll" to describe the rollicking R&B music that he brought to the airwaves. While working as a disc jockey at radio station WJW in Cleveland, Ohio, he organized the first rock and roll concert called "The Moondog Coronation Ball" on March 21, 1952. The event, attended mainly by African Americans, proved a huge drawing card — the first event had to be ended early due to overcrowding. Thereafter, Freed organized many rock and roll shows attended by both whites and blacks, further helping to introduce African-American musical styles to a wider audience.
There is much debate as to what should be considered the first rock and roll record. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was recording shouting, stomping music in the 1940s that in some ways contained major elements of mid-50s rock and roll. She scored hits on the pop charts as far back as 1938 with her gospel songs, such as "Rock, Daniel," "Up Above My Head", "Down By The Riverside", and "Rock Me". Another artist who was singing hard-rocking blues/gospel to a boogie piano player was Big Joe Turner, whose 1938 recording, "Roll 'em Pete," is almost indistinguishable from 50's rock and roll. Other significant recording artists of the 1940s and early 1950s included Roy Brown ("Good Rocking Tonight", 1947), more Big Joe Turner ("Honey, Hush", 1953, and "Shake, Rattle and Roll", 1954), and Fats Domino ("The Fat Man," 1949).
Rolling Stone magazine argued (with much controversy) in 2005 that "That's All Right (Mama)" (1954), Elvis Presley's first single for Sun Records in Memphis, was the first rock and roll record. And Bo Diddley's 1955 hit "Bo Diddley" backed with "I'm A Man" introduced a new pounding beat and unique guitar playing that inspired many artists. However, it is important to note that, if the heart of rock and roll is the beat, then rock and roll and boogie woogie are nearly the same. Both are 8 to the bar, 12-bar blues; the essential difference is that rock and roll has a greater emphasis on the back beat than boogie woogie...if you take any boogie woogie record of the 1930s or '40s, and sit a drummer down to play snare on the back beat, then you have essentially turned it into rock and roll.
Little Richard exploded onto the music scene, combining boogie-woogie piano with a heavy back beat and over-the-top raspy, shouted, gospel-influenced vocals never before heard in recorded music. He has been credited by Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, and many other artists for starting a new kind of music. Further, James Brown and others have credited Little Richard's band for first putting funk in the rock and roll beat. Elvis Presley once told Little Richard, "Your music has inspired me. You are the greatest."
The first artists to score in a big way with secular rock 'n' roll hits were the influencial and pioneering: Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. After Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" (1954), became the first rock and roll song to top Billboard magazine's main sales and airplay charts in early 1955, the door was opened for this new wave of popular culture. Within the decade crooners such as Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, and Patti Page, who had dominated the previous decade of popular music, found their access to the pop charts significantly curtailed.