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Top 10 Rock and Roll Pioneers

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Originating in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, rock and roll is a musical genre that mixes blues, country, jazz and gospel. These artists set the blueprint for the genre, defined its sound and helped to popularize it in the mainstream. Without them, rock music wouldn't be what it is today. Join as we count down our picks for the top 10 rock and roll pioneers.

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It’s only rock and roll, but we like it. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 rock and roll pioneers.

#10 – Ritchie Valens

Even without a full-length album to his name, Ritchie Valens opened doors for Chicano and Latin rock. All he needed was the number-two hit “Donna” and a rocking rendition of the Mexican folk song “La Bamba” to become one of rock and roll’s first teen idols. Though he died too soon in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper, Valens’ sound continues to shape music today.

#9 – Carl Perkins

This “country boy’s dream” became reality after the self-penned “Blue Suede Shoes” topped country charts. Thanks to his superb guitar licks and singing style, Carl Perkins became an expert at combining rock and country music. The King of Rockabilly was also an excellent songwriter whose tunes were later performed by greats like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jimi Hendrix.

#8 – Fats Domino

Credited with writing and performing one of history’s first rock and roll records, Fats used his welcoming vocals and blues-influenced piano playing to score over thirty top 40 hits. He brought together electric guitar, drums and saxophone and soon became the best-selling black rock and roll artist of the 1950s. By expanding on the New Orleans R&B sound, Fats Domino also inspired the later creation of ska.

#7 – Bill Haley & His Comets

Accompanied by His Comets, Bill Haley unleashed rock and roll into the mainstream with the hit, “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” He made sure rock and roll was here to stay with his chart-topping “Rock Around the Clock,” and cemented himself as the genre’s first white superstar in the process. With 100 million albums sold, it’s no wonder he’s called The Father of Rock and Roll.

#6 – Bo Diddley

He may have only had one album crack Billboard and one top forty hit, but Bo Diddley wasn’t dubbed The Originator for nothing: along with his blues and R&B-tinged rock and roll driven by electric guitar, he crafted a rhythm that’s been adopted by countless rock and pop musicians, the Bo Diddley beat. Meanwhile, his booming voice and animated playing on square guitars made for very memorable performances.

#5 – Jerry Lee Lewis

Though he dabbled in blues and country, Jerry Lee Lewis molded the sound of rockabilly with his unique piano playing. Add his fiery voice and a “‘whole lotta shakin’” on stage, and you’ve got “rock and roll’s first great eclectic” and “first great wild man.” Despite the backlash around his marriage to his teenaged cousin, The Killer regained popularity and earned a platinum-certified record almost 50 years after his debut.

#4 – Buddy Holly

In under two years, Buddy Holly did more for rock and roll than many bands will in their entire careers: as one of the first to write, produce and sing his own songs, he appealed to both blacks and whites with his rockabilly, country and R&B mix. Holly also popularized the use of two guitars, a bass and drums with The Crickets. Despite his tragic death, he left us albums worth of material to discover and enjoy.

#3 – Little Richard

He could wail, croon, moan, scream and shout! By merging R&B and boogie-woogie with mischievous lyrics, the architect of rock and roll planted the seed for soul and funk. He could also “rip it up at the ball” with his lively moves and smooth personality. Thanks to his secular and faith-based music, “the wild and frantic Little Richard”’ remains one of rock’s most influential entertainers. “Good Golly, Miss Molly!”

#2 – Chuck Berry

“Roll Over Beethoven” ‘cause “This is Chuck Berry!” By introducing R&B and guitar solos to the genre, he laid down the law when it came to playing rock and roll. The “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”’s original beats, stage bravado and accompanying dance moves set the tone for the genre’s growth and subsequent explosion. Even today, Chuck Berry continues to exude a rock and roll attitude at his shows.

#1 – Elvis Presley

After fusing R&B with country, Elvis amped things up with electric guitars and added his emotional and versatile vocals to his rockabilly style. Flaunting good looks, sexy dance moves and a rebellious image on stage and in film, the King of Rock and Roll had “something for everybody.” By selling more records than any other solo artist, he also defined the genre and transformed pop culture, and for that, we love him tender.

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