Elvis Presley and

the Rise of Rock and Roll:

Changes in American Life in the 1950s

Elvis Presley rises to fame in American in 1954 and changes race relations in America

Bill Haley and the Comets performing a live concert

New technology of the 1950s, such as the 45 RPM jukebox and electric guitars, changed the way people created and listened to music. White teenagers began to listen and to buy traditionally black music, like Rhythm & Blues.

In the 1950s in America, segregation was still an everyday practice. Black and white students went to different schools, lived in separate neighborhoods, and were expected to listen to different styles of music. However, during this decade, music styles began to cross. A combination of blues, boogie, jazz, gospel, R&B, and country formed the style known today as Rock and Roll. Both black and white musicians created the style in the 1950s, reaching a larger audience than ever before. In 1953 and 1954, R&B artists began to appear on the Pop Charts, signaling the popularity of Rock and Roll.

Alan Freed hosting his radio show, the Moondog Show

Musicians continued to have cross over hits in the early 1950s. The new styles of music were broadcasted to a new audience over the radio, which increased the popularity of the songs. Alan Freed, a Disc Jockey from Cleveland, Ohio, aimed his broadcast, titled Moondog Show, at both black and white teenagers. This had previously never been done.

The invention of the transistor radio  in 1954 increased music's popularity and had a tremendous impact on the music industry. Small record labels, such as Sun, Ace, and Vee-Jay began to discover new talent in the Rock and Roll industry. The labels released new records from the Rock and Roll artists and found instant success.

One of the most successful musicians of the 1950s, Elvis Presley, earned his start with Sun records. He crossed styles and audiences in a way that was never done before. Parents hated his new provocative style, and teenagers loved his fresh sound and appearance. This variety in opinion led to the generation gap .

Presley's first single, "That's All Right," was first played on the Memphis radio in July 1954 and was an instant hit. The radio Disc Jockey, Dewey Phillips, invited Elvis to the radio station for an interview. Dewey Philiips discussed his interview with Elvis by saying,

"I asked him where he went to high school, and he said, 'Humes.' I wanted to get that out, because of lot of people listening had thought he was colored (The Last Train to Memphis)."

Elvis Presely reached across racial lines and connected the 1950s teenage generation. As mentioned earlier, schools in the south were segregated, meaning white students attended one school, and black students attended another. Philips asked Presley what high school he attended to portray to radio listeners that Presley was a white artists. Most listeners assumed he was a black musician based on his musical style.

Soon, both black and white artists scored hits on the Pop Charts with Rock and Roll songs. Elvis signed to a major record label, RCA Records and by 1956, only two years after he began, Elvis had nine singles on the Hot 100 Charts at one time. He forever changed the music industry.

Elvis Presley and Rock and Roll Music changed the life of American teenagers in the 1950s. New fashions, dance moves, and inventions reached high schoolers, an audience previously overlooked. Teenagers controlled what was played in the 1950s and they showed it by record sales. In 1957, rock and roll artists were reguarly placed on the Pop Charts and by 1959, 43% of all records sold were rock and roll. 

In 1954, the monumental court case, Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregation in schools. Music both races together and paved the way for the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s.


Elvis performing for screaming teenage fans.