When we think of early rock and roll, we immediately conjure up pictures of Elvis swinging his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show or Bill Haley performing “Rock Around the Clock” for the first time. However, many overlook the abundance of African-American artists that were the true pioneers of rock and roll as we know it. We all know that rock and roll’s origins derive from the rhythm and blues movement, but we forget to relate that to the black community who were driving the R&B movement of the 1940s and 50s. Although there were plenty of white musicians who helped popularize rock and roll, it was black artists who were creating the magic behind the scenes.
Chuck Berry paved the way for rock and roll with his blend of electric guitar and soulful blues that connected with audiences everywhere. His famous duck walk and showman status set the tone for what rock and roll would become. Rock and roll became music for the people, especially teenagers, who resonated with the spirits of unabashed freedom that rock and roll provided. Berry wasn’t the only pioneer for this new genre; legends like Fats Domino and Little Richard broke through the racial barriers to create music just as popular and influential as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, who we now know had re-recorded music originally written and performed by black artists and made them chart toppers. Despite the appropriation of R&B, black artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Fats Domino used it to their advantage and established themselves as pioneers for rock and roll.
However, rock and roll’s legacy is not limited to the influential male artists of the 1950s. Rock and Roll’s real roots trace back to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also known as the godmother of rock and roll. Her distinctive guitar style combined with a mix of soulful blues and roots in gospel established the concoction that we know as rock and roll. Tharpe was immensely popular among black soldiers during WWII and even collaborated with Duke Ellington and other famous artists at the time. By the 1950s, her popularity dwindled as white males began to dominate the rock and roll scene. However, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s legacy continued to live on through future artists. From the aforementioned men that pioneered rock and roll, to the women who were about to burst onto the scene, Sister Rosetta Tharpe will always be recognized for her grand contribution to the genre. Etta James and Aretha Franklin also brought forth their own spin to rock and roll and showed us that women were just as talented, and even more so, than the popular male performers. These women showcased the immense talent emerging from african american women, pushing the boundaries of desegregation during the 1960s. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, made her way into white radio stations with ease during a time where radio was heavily segregated. These incredible artists, male and female, led the way toward change and civil rights for all.
By the late 1960s, black musicians were more welcome than ever before. However, their presence in rock and roll shifted as the genre split into soul, hard rock, psychedelic rock, and pop. One of the most influential rock artists of the late 60s during the famous “hippie movement,” and even of all time, was Jimi Hendrix. His inventive guitar skills and innovative recording style made Hendrix one of the most inspiring guitar players of all time. His substantial impact in rock set the course for a new generation of rock stars. Over the next few decades, other black artists ventured out into different territories and were no longer fixed into the blues genre. Tina Turner and Michael Jackson took inspiration from their roots in soul and blended it with the new pop scene. Turner, after shedding the shackles of her tumultuous relationship with Ike Turner, had a massive comeback in the mid 1980s as a solo artist. Her electric energy and gravelly vocals led her to become a pop phenomenon. Although pop is an entirely separate genre from rock today, there was a point where most pop had deep roots in the early rock and roll and blues scenes. From stealing hearts as the baby in The Jackson 5, to becoming the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, one of the highest selling artists of all time, dominated the 1980s with his powerful energy and hit songs. Despite conflicting feelings of the person he is seen as today, it would be false to diminish his legacy permeating throughout the music industry and artists today.
Black legacy in rock and roll is not limited to the past, but much of rock and roll today is primarily dominated by white men. That is not to say that you cannot find incredible black rock artists now. Gary Clark Jr.’s influence comes from legendary artists such as B.B. King and Curtis Mayfield, creating a sound that is unorthodox in modern rock. He is bringing blues back into rock and roll and his sound is unprecedented, especially in comparison to the drivel of radio rock today. It’s only a matter of time before Gary Clark Jr. takes over the rock scene. Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes has also brought back the roots of rock and roll with her powerful vocal style, reminiscent of Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin rolled into one. These artists are keeping the roots of rock and roll alive and continue to prove that rock is also a black genre.
These artists helped create rock and roll and have kept it going after all these years. Despite the harsh criticism rock faces on the modern era, the genre is still thriving with so many subgenres and incredible talent coming through. The past, present and future is rock and roll. The future of rock rests with talented musicians who have yet to emerge. Nandi Bushell, an adorable nine year old girl, has been rapidly increasing in popularity on Instagram through her covers of famous rock songs. Although she is currently popular for her covers, her talent on drums and bass at such a young age will provide for a promising future as a rock artist. Sixteen year old, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, is another talented up and comer. His raw talent shines through his incredible guitar skills and strong song writing abilities. Although these two are just kids, it’s clear that they will be the future of rock and roll.
Black artists have and always will shape the true rock sound; the melting pot of blues and soul with the dominance of an electric guitar. It is time that we recognize that rock and roll cannot be a singular medium, and that it needs to become even more diverse in order to open the doors to more trailblazers in rock and roll.
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