Elvis & the history of music: when was rock and roll born?

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On September 9, 1956, when Elvis Presley appeared on the television program the Ed Sullivan Show, rock and roll was born. About fifty million Americans tuned in and remained glued to the TV screen during his performance, which became famous for its suggestive movements which were very outside the culture of the time.

The King was able to combine the sound of black blues with the new instances of country music in constant evolution, sensing that the new music could not and should not only be heard, but also had to be seen. It is precisely his transformation into Elvis “The Pelvis” (from the movements of his pelvis) that brought him to the pinnacle of success. It was the broadcasted image of Elvis’ body that gave birth to rock’n’roll, a phrase coined in the early 1950s by DJ Alan Freed. It literally translates to “shake and roll”, although the allusion to the sexual act – to rock – is quite evident.

You can watch Elvis Presley making the history of music below, on The Ed Sullivan Show: the moment when rock and roll was born.

Elvis Presley "Don't Be Cruel" (September 9, 1956) on The Ed Sullivan Show

Then came the legendary and fabulous Sixties, which led to the birth of a real rock culture. It had to be pure, authentic, above any compromise with the world and ended up with an ideological connotation, to the point of becoming utopia. The United States was the undisputed reign of rock until the mid-1960s, when a new generation of musicians and bands emerged from the United Kingdom who radically influenced both the British and overseas music scene. The peak of the rock era dates back to 1967 with the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The symbolic event of the period was the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. We could define it as the dress rehearsal for the creation of a new world in which young people had the opportunity to free themselves from the burdens of reality, in a chemical and surreal journey. The beginning of the seventies marks the disenchantment and sees the tragic death of the iconic artists of this generation: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. These figures entered into myth as new cursed poets, symbols of a creativity ready to sacrifice everything.

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From this moment on, rock music branched out into a huge variety of subgenres: from blues rock to progressive rock, from hard rock to grunge. It would be an encyclopedic undertaking to list and introduce you to all these genres. What perhaps must be said and taken into consideration is that all these styles fall within the English expression popular music, a macro-category that includes the currents born and established within the music industry. Pop-music was produced with a logic of mass distribution and aimed at a heterogeneous audience from a socio-cultural point of view. Musicologist Allan Moore describes it as: “that set of common musical activities in the contemporary world ranging from rock songs to film and television music.”

Read more about the history of music in the dedicated Auralcrave book