The 1950s were pivotal in the formation of modern music, especially rock and roll. These 25 best 1950s musicians played a vital role in its development:
1. Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley is an artist who scarcely needs an introduction. “The King of Rock and Roll” was and remains an era-defining figure for music, dance, and live performance. From popularizing old hits like Hound Dog to recording lesser-known works like I Forgot To Remember To Forget, he was a major cultural hit. His dance style was famously sexually provocative, and his performances helped bring attention to African-American music across America. His industry-changing career was cut dramatically short when he died in 1977 at age 42.
2. Bill Haley & His Comets
Bill Haley & His Comets was a breakout band formed in 1952. They continued performing until 1981 when Haley passed away. The group had nine singles in the Top 20 from 1954 to 1956 alone. Their biggest hit of all time, Rock Around The Clock, remains one of the most popular songs in the rock and roll genre.
3. Fats Domino
Fats Domino was renowned for his prowess at the piano and as a vocalist. He wrote some of the most pioneering songs of early rock and roll. He was born to a French Creole family in New Orleans in 1928. His first single The Fat Man is often credited as the first rock and roll single in history. He topped the charts 11 times between 1955 and 1960. Domino’s work was vital to later artists, notably Elvis Presley and The Beatles.
4. The Coasters
Formed in 1955, The Coasters straddled the line between rock and roll and R&B. Their career reached its height with a number of big hits in the second half of the 1950s. Both Searchin’ and Young Blood kicked off this ascent in 1956. Their influence on later music was so great that The Coasters became the first band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
5. Chuck Berry
The legendary Chuck Berry is often remembered as the “Father of Rock and Roll.” He earned this title for his irreplaceable role in refining R&B themes into the new genre. A string of hits from 1955 to 1958, including Maybellene and Johnny B. Goode, set him immediately apart. He was renowned for his incredible performance style and stellar guitar solos.
6. Etta James
Etta Jones is famous for her fantastic work in blues, gospel, rock and roll, jazz, soul, and more. She began her career in 1954 with powerful hits like Tell Mama and At Last. Her voice was rich, deep, and stirring, and her performances gained her dozens of prominent awards. She is often listed as one of the 100 best singers and artists of all time. She even made a strong comeback in the late 1980s, leading to her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
7. Ray Charles
It’s no surprise to fans of 1950s music to see Ray Charles make this list. This maestro of vocals and piano is one of the most important singers in all of history. It was not uncommon for colleagues to simply call him “the Genius,” though he personally preferred “Brother Ray.” Nevertheless, he trailblazed in soul music throughout the 1950s. Modern genres such as country, pop, and R&B owe great debts to his work.
8. Buddy Holly
The inestimable Buddy Holly has become an artist of mythic proportions. Born Charles Hardin Holley, he was a central artist in 1950s rock and roll. He learned to play guitar and sing as a child with his siblings during the Great Depression. His career was tragically cut short by a plane crash in 1959 that also killed Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, and pilot Roger Peterson.
9. Ritchie Valens
Ritchie Valens was a pioneering guitarist, singer, and lyricist. Remembered as a forefather of the Chicano rock movement, his no-doubt legendary skill was taken from the industry by his premature death. He died in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, just eight months into his career. Nevertheless, he had multiple hits. His most notable is La Bamba, which he adapted from a Mexican folk song to create one of rock and roll’s greatest lasting hits.
10. The Everly Brothers
The Everly Brothers were a rock duo whose steel-string acoustic guitar and close harmonic singing made them infamous. Their music brought together influences from pop, country, and rock and roll, giving birth to the country rock genre. These two brothers gained notoriety in Nashville while still in high school, achieving their first hit song in 1957 with Bye Bye Love. Their act influenced Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, Bee Gees, and even The Beatles.
11. Little Richard
Richard Wayne Penniman or Little Richard was a singer, songwriter, and musician who influenced music culture for seven decades. His charismatic and dynamic act captured audiences in the mid-1950s. His works are notable for frenetic piano, pounding beats, and raspy vocals. His 1955 Tutti Frutti became an instant success and led to his status as one of the first prominent crossover Black musicians.
12. Bobby Darin
Bobby Darin was a musician whose work spanned jazz, country, rock and roll, swing, folk, and pop genres. His hit single Splish Splash landed in 1958, selling over a million records. He achieved worldwide fame with Beyond The Sea. He began his acting career with Come September, for which he won a Golden Globe. He died at 37 after a heart operation.
13. Big Mama Thornton
Elvis Presley’s rendition of Hound Dog may be more widely known, but it’s Big Mama Thornton’s that’s the real classic. While this was her biggest hit, remaining at number one for seven weeks and selling about two million records, it was far from her last. She wrote and performed the original Ball And Chain. She was also a talented drummer and harmonica player.
14. Brenda Lee
Brenda Lee was more prominent in the 1960s when she topped the US charts nearly 50 times. But her career started to peak in the late 1950s. She recorded Dynamite at just 12 years old. A year later, in 1958, she released the now-classic Christmas song, Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree. She has sold over 100 million records globally and was inducted into the Country and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her later popularity was surpassed only by The Beatles, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley.
15. Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis was a singer, lyricist, and pianist who played a vital role in shaping rock and roll since its beginning. He is known most often as rock and roll’s first truly great “wild man.” His piano performances have influenced rock and roll and rockabilly music since the mid-20th century. His career skyrocketed to global prominence with 1957’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Despite this influence, the public revelation of his controversial marriage at age 22 to his 13-year-old cousin decimated his chart career until the late 1960s.
16. Sam Cooke
Samuel Cook, known by his stage name Sam Cooke, was a singer and songwriter who pioneered soul music. The influence of the “King of Soul” is felt throughout the genre even today. His incredible, unique vocals and originality are renowned globally. Major hits like A Change Is Gonna Come, Good Times, and Wonderful World are just a taste of his dozens of top singles. His eight-year music career was cut short when he was shot to death in 1964 by a Los Angeles hotel manager.
17. The Isley Brothers
The Isley Brothers began as a vocal trio in 1954, but the group’s work has spanned eight decades. They remain one of the longest-performing and most influential music groups in history. After the death of their brother, Vernon, the then-trio moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, to New York City. They quickly rose to prominence in the latter half of the decade. Their first million-copy single was Shout, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959.
18. Ruth Brown
Ruth Brown was a singer, lyricist, and actress often remembered as the “Queen of R&B.” She brought pop influences into R&B starting with songs like So Long, Teardrops From My Eyes, and He Treats Your Daughter Mean. Brown won numerous awards for both her music and film roles. Her first pop hit, Lucky Lips, exploded into popularity in 1957. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
19. Bo Diddley
Bo Diddley, born Ellas Otha Bates, was a vital guitarist in the wider transition from blues to rock and roll. His guitar playing inspired other great performers like Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly, and The Clash. He implemented African rhythms and a signature beat, with a simple five-accent hambone rhythm—still a standard in rock, hip hop, and pop to this day. He innovatively used tremolo and reverb to enhance the sound of his unique rectangular guitars.
20. Johnny Otis
Johnny Otis, born Ioannis Veliotes, was a singer, musician, composer, and writer who majorly influenced R&B and rock. He was also a talent scout who helped numerous important artists in their careers. These include some on this list such as Big Mama Thornton and Etta James. His role as a discoverer of great talent has led to his nickname, “Godfather of R&B.”
21. Frankie Lymon
Frankie Lymon was a singer and songwriter who performed rock and roll as well as R&B. He was most prominent as the boy soprano lead singer of The Teenagers. The group was made up of five boys in their early teens. It was significant for being racially integrated, as three members were Black and two were Puerto Rican. Their first single and biggest hit was Why Do Fools Fall In Love. His life and music career were cut tragically short at age 25 after a fatal heroin overdose.
22. The Del-Vikings
The Del-Vikings or Dell-Vikings were a doo-wop group with multiple hit singles in the 1950s. Their songs Whispering Bells and Come Go With Me are musically exquisite, and historically significant because of their racial integration. The group started in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, while the original members were stationed with the Air Force. This initial setup led to numerous interruptions to their work when members would be transferred. But by 1957, Come Go With Me hit number five on the Billboard Top 100.
23. Roy Orbison
Roy Orbison was a singer, lyricist, and musician. He is best remembered for his structurally complex songs, dark ballads, and passionate vocals. He was often described as “operatic,” leading to nicknames like “The Big O” and “The Caruso of Rock.” His songs stood out for their emotional vulnerability during an era of high machismo in rock and roll. His performances were famous, with Orbison standing motionless in all-black and sunglasses. His glasses served a practical purpose: they helped reduce his powerful stage fright.
24. The Drifters
The Drifters were a doo-wop and soul group originally made as backup vocalists for Clyde McPhatter in 1953. The next iteration was formed by Ben E. King in 1959, whose group had been formerly known as The Five Crowns. Members continued to drift in and out of these groups into the late 1960s. Soon, few contained any original members. Nevertheless, despite this instability, their 1950s songs are considered a golden era.
25. The Diamonds
The Diamonds are a vocal quartet that rocketed to popularity in the 1950s. Their work stood out for its introduction of R&B to the wider pop music industry. It was formed in 1953 by Dave Somerville and three fellow singers, Ted Kowalski, Phil Levitt, and Bill Reed. Originally signed to perform rock and roll, they were paired with jazz composer Pete Rugolo. This led them to play more to their roots as well as perform more standard songs.
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