Transition from Pop to Rock & Roll

In the late Forties and early Fifties, big band swing and smooth crooners were still favored by the major record labels, which were Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca, Capitol and Mercury.

In the late Forties, a large number of independent labels entered the record business. It is estimated that by 1949 over four hundred new labels came into existence. Most important among these were Atlantic in New York; Savoy in Newark; King in Cincinnati; Chess in Chicago; Peacock in Houston; and Modern, Imperial, and Specialty in Los Angeles. The independent labels presented artists and styles previously ignored by the major labels. By the end of the 50s, small labels had made a huge impact on the music industry, launching the careers of many huge stars and allowing more obscure artists the freedom to continue innovating new sounds and styles. But, many of the artists (as well as the new sounds and styles) developed by the independents were poached by the majors, particularly in the late 50s when they snapped up a slew of singers after initially deciding to wait out the “passing fad” of Rock & Roll.

Technological developments also paved the way for the Rock & Roll phenomenon. Prior to the 1950s recordings were mostly on 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) discs. Records were played on rather awkward record players that were usually part of a large piece of furniture (console), which often was located in the house’s living room. In the 1950s, recording technology changed with the development of the 33 rpm and 45 rpm records. The advantage of the new technology was that more music could be put on a record, and it was of higher technical quality. Thus, the 33 became a standard because more music could be put on a 33 than several 78’s, and it sounded much better. The 45s, or “singles”, were much smaller in size and contained one song on each side. Not only were 45s much cheaper to buy than the old 78s and the larger 33s, but they could be played on a small record player that teenagers could purchase inexpensively and keep in his or her room.

The 45 rpm format was officially introduced on March 31, 1949. Capitol was the first major label besides RCA to issue 45s (and the first of any label to use both new formats), followed by MGM and Mercury, with Decca, Coral and Brunswick being the last semi-majors to put them out. RCA used a different color of plastic for each category of music, which they claimed “helps you determine the type of record at a mere glance.” Their categories were folk and country (on “grass green” vinyl); “blues and rhythm” (encompassing the new R&B sound as well as blues and some jazz, on orange vinyl); “international music” (polkas, rhumbas etc. on light blue vinyl); light classical (dark blue vinyl); serious classical (Red Label titles, on red vinyl); children’s music (yellow vinyl) and pop songs (regular black vinyl). The price of 45s was set at 65 cents when they first came out (except for Red Seal 45s, which were 95 cents, just as Red Seal 78s had always cost more.) This was lowered to 49 cents after initial sales were disappointing. By comparison, pop 78s had long cost 50 cents or less, and Columbia’s first LPs were priced at $1.25. In 1952 sales of 45s were more than double that of LPs. The 78 was fading fast by then: 45s surpassed them in sales in 1955, and most North American companies stopped making 78s in 1959.

While phonograph records were improving, the “transistor radio” was invented and popularized. This meant that radios became much smaller and much less expensive, and, like the small phonographs, these radios soon found their way to young people’s rooms. Car radios were also becoming more popular, and more people were listening to the radio while driving. For a long time, the radio was an expensive option in a car. In the 1950s, radios were only beginning to become standard equipment in cars.

Rock & Roll didn’t overwhelm the mainstream pop music of the day. Popular music in the early to mid-1950s was essentially a continuation of the ”crooner sound” of the 1940s, with less emphasis on the jazz-influenced big band style and more emphasis on a conservative, operatic, symphonic style of music. Popular “sophisticated pop” performers included Eddie Fisher, “O My Pa-Pa” (1954); Harry Belafonte, “Jamaica Farewell” (1957); Johnnie Ray, “Cry” (1957); Peggy Lee, “Fever” (1958); Patti Page, “Tennessee Waltz” (1950); “Doggie in the Window” (1953); Doris Day, “Whatever Will be, Will Be” (“Que Sera Sera”) (1956); Debbie Reynolds, “Tammy” (1957) Other 1950s “pop” performers were Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Lena Horne, Julie London, Rosemary Clooney, and Dinah Shore.

In 1956, two years after Elvis Presley released “That’s Alright Mama,” the biggest hits on radio included Mitch Miller’s “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (six weeks at the top of the charts) (, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” (six weeks) (, Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This” (six weeks) (, Louis Armstrong’s “Mac the Knife” (four weeks) (, Doris Day’s “Whatever Will Be Will Be” (“Que Sera Sera”) (seven weeks) (, Perry Como’s “Hot Diggity” (“Dog Ziggity”) (five weeks) ( and Johnnie Ray’s “Just Walking in the Rain” (nine weeks) ( . So, out of the 52 weeks in the year, “pop,” as compared to Rock & Roll, was on the top off the charts for 43 weeks. Even by the late 50s, there was still plenty of more sedate, “easy listening” music to be found on the Billboard top twenty—music from artists such as Andy Williams, Perry Como, Pat Boone, Tab Hunter, and others.

White teenagers began listening to black radio stations that played R&B (Rhythm & Blues), black music. Early rhythm & blues hits that were popular among both black and white audiences included Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” for Imperial (1950), Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” for Modern (1951), Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” for Specialty (1952), and Joe Turner’s “Chains of Love” (1951), “Sweet Sixteen” (1952), and “Honey Hush” (1953) for Atlantic. All of these labels were independent companies. So-called “white” radio stations began playing Big Joe Turner’s song “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” while the “white” record companies started looking for white musicians that played something resembling R&B. Very soon, new white musicians joined the music scene, like Bill Haley and His Comets (originally a country band called the Saddlemen) and soloists like Elvis Presley, who also brought a strong country background to the music, and this combination of R&B and Country was marketed as Rock & Roll.

At the height of the initial pandemonium, in 1955-56, a select number of front-runners emerged, stars whose personalities and performing antics set the stage for all that was to follow: Elvis, of course; Chuck Berry, whose definitive guitar style (rooted in swing jazz and the uptown band blues of T-Bone Walker) was as widely emulated as his brilliant, vividly economical lyrics of teenage tribulations and triumphs; Little Richard, the archetypal Rock & Roll screamer and ambisexual striptease artist, with the toughest, most influential road band of the period, the mighty Upsetters; friendly, reliable Fats Domino, who mixed New Orleans blues and jazz with Tin Pan Alley pop and quietly racked up more hit records than anyone but Elvis; Jerry Lee Lewis, the prototype of the Rock & Roll wild man, his stage persona and lifestyle perfectly matched; Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the paradigm of the singer-songwriter-fronted guitar band; Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the 5 Royales and a young James Brown, all of whom enacted Pentecostal religious ecstasies on the Rock & Roll stage and Eddie Cochran, who combined teen-idol looks with a probing musical intelligence and who understood early on that the recording studio was a musical instrument. Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (1958) ( encapsulates the rebelliousness of youth, the hypocrisy of politics, and the growing generation gap of the Fifties.

More than 68 percent of the music played on the radio in 1956 was Rock & Roll. By 1958, 70% of all records were purchased by teenagers (TFC, 136) What Rock & Roll did was divide and conquer. Kids with ears and passions rejected the bland ballads and the phony emotions. 1956 was also the year of “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” 1957 would be the year of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,”, Chuck Berry’s “School Days”, Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ “That’ll be the Day”, Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”, Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,”, “Lucille” and “Jenny, Jenny”, and Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock” . Few other years can boast so many classic Rock & Roll songs.