Music in the 1950s was dominated by the birth of rock and roll. Rock and roll was a powerful new form of music that combined elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), pop, blues, and hillbilly music to create a sound that truly shook America. Musician Ray Charles (1930–) described the music this way: "When they get a couple of guitars together with a backbeat, that's rock and roll." Rock and roll was raw, powerful, and compelling; it drew young people on to dance floors and into record stores in a way that no music had done before.
The undisputed king of rock and roll in the 1950s was Elvis Presley (1935–1977). Presley's hip-shaking stage performances made teenage girls swoon. Other rock stars of the day included Fats Domino (1928–), Chuck Berry (1926–), Little Richard (1932–), Jerry Lee Lewis (1935–), Buddy Holly (1936–1959), and Johnny Ray (1927–1990).
Rock and roll was a social as well as a musical force. In an era when much of American culture was segregated (blacks and whites were distinctly separated), rock and roll was integrated. Blacks and whites played in bands together, recorded each other's songs, and were played on the same radio stations. Rock and roll was made popular by a new kind of radio programmer called a disc jockey. Disc jockeys chose the music that they played and helped introduce new rock bands to thousands of devoted listeners. The most popular of the disc jockeys—like Alan Freed (1922–1965) or, later, Wolfman Jack (1938–1995)— became celebrities themselves.
Jazz was also undergoing a process of transformation. In the 1940s, jazz had been the music of urban hipsters. The jazz of the 1940s was heard in nightclubs, most often in black neighborhoods. In the 1950s, jazz was brought out of the cities and into new respectability in popular jazz festivals. The Newport Jazz Festival (after 1986, called the JVC Jazz Festival), held in Newport, Rhode Island, became the granddaddy of American jazz festivals and attracted twenty-six thousand fans in its second year. Soon, however, the hippest jazz players boycotted the festival. Many of them returned to playing before small audiences who they thought better understood their increasingly difficult and intellectual music.