One genre in American music, rock ‘n’ roll, is considered one of, if not, the most influential 20th century genre in the United States. When talking about these influential artists we hear names such as The Rolling Stones, Guns N Roses, David Bowie, Queen, Led Zeppelin – but rarely do we ever hear of the ones who built and catapulted the genre into what it is today.
Rock music, originally called “rock ‘n’ roll,” originates from rhythm and blues, as well as using riffs from the electric guitar prevalent in country music, the heavy and powerful vocals. Originating in the Southern United States, rock became a fusion of multiple genres. Black artists, such as Sister Rosetta Thorpe and Big Mama Thornton, blended the two genres together along with gospel to create the foundation for what we know as rock today. Chuck Berry, nicknamed the forefather of rock, may not have been behind as much of the creation of the genre as Thorpe, but he developed the “attitude” part of being a rockstar. Both Thorpe and Berry had heavy usage of electric guitar and elements of storytelling in their songs, two things that are distinct and paramount to rock music.
Although legends in creating the genre, neither of the two are remembered as well as their white counterparts. White audiences paid no attention until the likes of Elvis Presley, the so-called “King of rock and roll,” emerged. Many of Presley’s songs are “inspired” by Thorpe and other artists. And that famous Elvis personality, well, that was also very “inspired” by Berry. Though Elvis was the first artist in the genre to take such heavy “inspirations” from Black artists, he would not be the last.
In the 1960s, rock began to take on the sound that we know and love today. All of this is thanks to the legendary Jimi Hendrix, an experimental guitarist who focused mostly on psychedelic rock. Hendrix’s rendition of the star spangled banner at Woodstock is probably his most notable performance ever. Hendrix was known for his unique sound and spontaneity, as he never played any of his songs the same, because he never learned how to read music.
Hendrix started this trend, within the rock scene, of creating a distinctive new sound with each performance. Hands-down Hendrix is one of, if not the most talented guitarist of all time. He took inspiration from Berry and Thorpe, creating those early rock sounds and completely changed them forever.
We heard the build up of rock in the 1950s, the classic and experimental sound of the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s was the introduction of some of the most famous rockstars of all time — Tina and Ike Turner, Lenny Kravitz, Prince and Rick James among others. What sets each and everyone of this new generation of rockers apart from previous generations is the distinct sound that each of them have, whilst also staying true to their rock roots.
The 1990s saw a renaissance-like era for rock as a whole. Though it had never gone away, there was a large return to the classic rock of the 1970s, as well as the hard rock movement. This movement like all other subgenres of rock was started by Black artists – Living Colour, Fishbone and 24-7 Spyz to name a few. Hard rock, unlike other subgenres, focused mostly on vocals as the majority of these bands had frontmen with very powerful voices. This stemmed from Big Mama Thornton, who originally gave rock its voice back in the 1950s.
Many argue that rock died in the 21st century. Others still say that it’s alive and well, pointing to bands such as Green Day, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Greta Van Fleet. All white groups/artists. Greta Van Fleet has been receiving praise especially for bringing back the classic rock sound, but not nearly as many have given this same praise to Brittany Howard and her work towards bringing back blues, the original original rock sound.
As we see a resurgence of more classic and original rock sounds, we are also once again witnessing the emergence of new sound. Artists and bands, like NoMBe and BLACKSTARKIDS, have been playing around with alternative and indie sounds within rock music.
Rock is one of the most American genres of music to exist. Something that’s exemplified with the majority of these huge rockstars being American and all, but it still has a largely white audience despite its Black roots. Without these artists, we never would have the insane range that is rock music.
Originally Published 2/23/23