The music of the 1950s flourished as a result of the previous decade. The 50s saw the emergence and rise of what would come to be known as Rock ‘n Roll, but it was also witnessed the popularity of Country and Western music in a variety of forms.
Musicians like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Hank Williams helped to redefine the entertainment industry with the types of music that they created during this time period. After the harmful effects of World War II, the United States was about to embark on a musical journey that changed the face of music for decades to come.
Carl Perkins was one of the pioneers in the creation of rock music. His styles is often referred to as “rockabilly” that sounds like a combination of country and R&B music with rock influences. This movement started in Memphis in the early 1950s and it is probably the most prominent type of music to appear this decade. Carl Perkins wrote and recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1955 and the song was a huge success. It was a chart-topper for Perkins on the country and R&B charts, but it enjoyed even more success after Elvis Presley covered the song following Perkins’ almost fatal car accident. In later years, his songs would also be made popular by other famous musicians, including The Beatles. Perkins also joined with Johnny Cash and quit his drug addiction soon after. He helped to form the “Million Dollar Quartet,” which consisted of himself, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. His influence continues as he is consistently rated as one of the Top 100 Greatest Artists of All-Time in polls done by Rolling Stone Magazine.
A discussion of 1950s music would not be complete without talking about the King of Rock and Roll – Elvis Presley. He is the epitome of the 1950s musical revolution and he set many records during his career. His rockabilly style followed in the tradition of Carl Perkins, but he had a great deal of success with every form of music he tried, including country, gospel, and R&B. Elvis began his career by recording a song for his mother as a birthday present. He began a relationship with Sam Phillips – a studio owner that wanted to market “black” music to a “white” or mainstream audience. After hearing the recording, he felt that Elvis would be the perfect match for this endeavor. Elvis emerged through many critics who told him he would not be famous after his performance at the Grand Ole Opry. He also encountered a great deal of controversy due to his hip gyrations on the Milton Berle Show in 1956, but over 80% of the television audience watched Presley’s subsequent performance on The Ed Sullivan Show a couple weeks later. Soon after achieving success, Elvis turned his focus to movies and enjoyed a great deal of success in that entertainment medium, too.
Johnny Cash and Hank Williams defined the Country and Western style of music during this decade. Cash’s music was more of a country sound with a rockabilly influence and his songs often centered around a certain theme, including life, sorrow, and relationships. He also strived to integrate humor into his lyrics to make his collection well-rounded and respected by a variety of audiences. Because of his compassion for his fellow human being, he performed many times for inmates in several prisons across the country and his most famous performances resulted from Folsom Prison. In similar musical style, Hank Williams was a prominent singer and songwriter of the decade. He continues to be a country music icon and helped to popularize the Honky Tonk style of country music, characterized by the piano and ragtime sound combined with country and rockabilly harmonies. His most popular songs, including “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” have come to define the country style of the 1950s. He also helped to create the Outlaw Country genre – a style which included songs about spirituality and rowdy times.
The 1950s was a time of change in the United States following World War II. Racial tensions were being strained with the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Many say that Elvis helped to bring the two races together by with his popularizing of “black” music. Others say he only worsened the strain because many people felt he stole the music for his own benefit while the original artists were forgotten. Either way, this decade was a time of innovation that helped to influence everything that we listen to on the radio today.
Below are some of the popular artists and groups from the 1950’s. Were you lucky enough to see them live in concert?
Nat King Cole
Bill Haley and the Comets
Jerry Lee Lewis