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What Is '50s Music?

By Susan Grindstaff
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term '50s music is typically used to describe music that was popular during the 1950s. This era saw a decline in popularity of the big band sounds of the 1940s, and an ushering in of rock and roll and country western. Some music historians believe that the rising availability and popularity of television played an important role in the success of many '50s music artists and the genres they represented.

Rock and roll probably defines popular music of the 1950s better than any other type of genre. Early rock and roll combined the sounds of American southern rhythm and blues with country western and gospel. The music that was created by this combination soared to popularity and quickly eclipsed most other sounds on the music landscape of the era. Popular rock and roll artists such as Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker and Buddy Holly gained tremendous fame during the era.

Up until the 1950s, country and western music was primarily popular only in the western part of the United States. The spread of its popularity during the 1950s is in part due to artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, who brought a touch of rock and roll to the country sound, giving it a wider appeal. He is usually credited for developing a type of music referred to as rockabilly, a combination of what was termed hillbilly country blended with rock and roll bass lines.

Dance was another medium that helped cement the hold that rock and roll had on the era, and dance popularity was widely influenced by television. Dance shows such as American Bandstand not only influenced '50s music and dance, they also influenced fashion, hairstyles, and other areas of pop culture. In addition to television, both radio and the print media helped define '50s music by listing the nation’s top 40 songs on a weekly, rather than monthly basis.

Elvis Presley is probably one of the most widely recognized music stars of the '50s. He grew up in the southern U.S. where he developed a love of blues and gospel music. His musical performances thrilled fans, but drew criticisms from some church and civic leaders. Many felt that his provocative way of moving as he sung was a bad influence on the younger generation. His popularity became so vast that many young men began to copy his hairstyle and manner of dress.

Today, many historians view '50s music as the era when musicians began to explore musical freedom and experiment with sounds that were outside of the typical music genres. Music of the 1950s is believed to have paved the way for the more complex sounds of 1960s rock. In addition, '50s music is also credited with playing a huge part in the ever-increasing influence of pop culture.

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Discussion Comments

By Cageybird — On Jan 20, 2014

One thing I think people lose sight of about 50s music is that rock and roll didn't completely wipe every other kind of pop music off the charts. A lot of people were still listening to crooners such as Perry Como, Dean Martin and a young Tony Bennett. Jazz groups like the Dave Brubeck trio were still selling records during the late 50s. Female torch singers like Julie London were still more popular than a lot of teen idols. 50s music didn't just change gears when Bill Haley and Elvis and Chuck Berry showed up.

To me, there will never be another time for music fans like the 50s. There were so many small record labels that were willing to take a chance on new groups and singers, even if those performers never had a number one hit. Now, there are a handful of powerful music labels that won't even bother to listen to a group unless it can guarantee a million dollars in sales for the company. The music business has definitely lost its innocence since the 50s.

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