Study Guide

History of Rock & Roll People

  • Adolph Rickenbacker

    Adolph Rickenbacker (1886–1976) was a German-American guitar manufacturer who in 1931 founded the Electro String Instrument Corporation. His company was the first in the United States to produce solid-bodied electric guitars.

    In 1932, Adolph Rickenbacker and his business partner George Beauchamp produced the first cast aluminum versions of the electric lap steel guitar, also known as the "frying pan." 

    The original design wasn't perfect and the sticker price was high. Still, his invention would help change the sound of blues and rhythm & blues forever.

  • Jerry Lee Lewis

    Jerry Lee Lewis (1935–) is an American rock and roll singer and musician best known for his unpredictable on-stage antics and hits such as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire."

    In 1956, Jerry Lee Lewis auditioned for Sun Records, the home of the up-and-coming Elvis Presley. By early 1957, two of his most energetic compositions, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire" had blazed up the music charts. 

    By 1958, however, Lewis' popularity had become mired in controversy around his marriage to a teenage cousin. In the summer of 1958, he published a full-page ad in Billboard that read, "I confess that my life has been stormy. [...] I hope that if I am washed up as an entertainer, it won't be because of this bad publicity."

  • Fats Domino

    Fats Domino (1928–) is an African-American singer songwriter who was one of the best-selling rhythm & blues and rock and roll music artists of the 1950s. He's best known not only for his rotund figure, but also for his charisma on stage and in front of his piano.

    In 1949, singer Fats Domino recorded several tracks for Imperial Records, including "The Fat Man," a rhythm and blues track that is today regarded by some as the first rock and roll record. 

    In 1954 and 1955, Domino performed on the lineups for some of Alan "Moondog" Freed's "Rock 'N' Roll" showcases drawing Black as well as white fans.

  • J. D. Salinger

    J. D. Salinger (1919–2010) is an American writer best known for his controversial 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, which was popular among teens who identified with the disillusioned protagonist Holden Caulfield.

    Holden became a popular icon for alienated teens seeking to rebel against a society full of "phonies." In 1980, a man named Mark Chapman claimed the book inspired him to murder Beatles singer John Lennon.

  • Les Paul

    Les Paul (1915–2009) is an American musician who is credited with radically improving the original Rickenbacker solid-body electric guitar by streamlining the "frying pan" design and sharpening the amplified sound of the instrument.

  • Leo Fender

    Leo Fender (1909–1991) was an American radio repairman and inventor who improved the design of early solid-body electric guitars and introduced the first "precision bass" guitar.

    In 1952, Leo Fender and business partner Doc Kaufman produced a better sounding version of both the Rickenbacker and the Les Paul solid-body electric guitar. Their design was fairly simple and could be inexpensively produced. The Fender guitar became the first relatively cheap electric model on the market and remains today the preferred instrument for many musicians.

  • Sam Phillips

    Sam Phillips (1923–2003) was a record producer and owner of Sun Records. He's credited with scouting some of the first and most legendary rock and roll artists such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1986, he became one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    Sam Phillips launched Sun Records in February 1952. The label became the home for artists like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.

  • Elvis Presley

    Elvis Presley (1935–1977) was a working-class Southerner who rose to fame in the 1950s as a rock and roll superstar. A memorial outside his childhood home proclaims, "Presley's career as a singer and entertainer redefined popular music."

    In July 1953, 18-year-old Elvis Presley entered Sun Records Studio to record two songs for his mother as a birthday gift. Within one year, Presley had become Sun Records' most promising artist with the hit single "That's All Right (Mama)," a cover of a blues song by Arthur "Big Boy" Cruddup. 

    By 1957, Presley had a string of hits including "Don't Be Cruel," "Hound Dog," "Love Me Tender," and "All Shook Up." He earned a tremendous fanbase, but also drew criticism from those who found his hip-shaking performances to be profane, becoming one of rock and roll's first controversial superstars.

  • Alan Freed

    Alan Freed (1921–1965) was a charismatic 1950s disc jockey known as "Moondog" who organized large concerts featuring African-American rhythm & blues artists. He's thought by some to have coined the term "rock and roll," a phrase he used in marketing his events to concertgoers.

    In May 1952, DJ Alan "Moondog" Freed organized a concert at the Cleveland Arena in Ohio, which featured artists such as the Dominoes and Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams, and attracted nearly 25,000 young concertgoers, mostly African Americans. 

    In the following years, Freed continued throwing events featuring popular rhythm & blues artists, and billed his shows as "Rock 'N' Roll" parties, perhaps single-handedly popularizing the term.

  • Bill Haley

    Bill Haley (1925–1981) was an early rock and roll musician who, with his group Bill Haley & the Comets, helped popularize the genre in the 1950s with hits like  "Shake, Rattle, & Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock," a song featured in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle.

    In 1953, Bill Haley recorded "Crazy Man Crazy," which is considered by some to be the first rock and roll hit by a white artist.

  • Little Richard

    Little Richard (1932–) is an African-American singer-songwriter and musician recognized as one of the first rock and roll stars, and a contender for the title of "Father" of rock. He's known for hits like "Tutti-Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," and "Good Golly, Miss Molly."

    Little Richard first hit the pop charts in 1955, and by 1956, he'd recorded his biggest hit, "Long Tall Sally," which reached #6 on the charts. 

    Richard would enjoy a string of other hits including "Good Golly, Miss Molly" before he chose to leave the rock and roll life to pursue a life of religion in 1958.

  • Chuck Berry

    Chuck Berry (1926–2017) was an African-American singer and musician who, like Little Richard and Elvis Presley, is recognized as one of the greatest influences on the evolution of rock and roll.

    Chuck Berry enjoyed his greatest success in the 1950s, scoring his biggest rock and roll hit in 1958 with "Sweet Little Sixteen." By the 1960s, Berry, like many early Black rock musicians, had all but disappeared from the mainstream rock music scene.

  • Jimi Hendrix

    Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970) was an African-American rock musician who blew apart the rock scene with his mind-blowing stage performances, haunting vocals, and innovative guitar compositions.

    In the summer of 1967, Jimi Hendrix played in the Monterey International Pop Festival, giving what would become one of his most notorious performance in which he ignited his Fender Stratocaster guitar during his final number. 

    Although his life was cut short in 1970, Hendrix continued to be a major influence on other singers and musicians like Lenny Kravitz, Prince, Santana, Eddie Van Halen, Perry Farrell, Kanye West, and Timbaland.

  • Jim Morrison

    Jim Morrison (1943–1971) was the lead singer for the rock band the Doors. He's recognized today as one of the most unique, unpredictable, and mysterious frontmen in the history of rock.

    In May 1969, during a concert in Miami, Florida, a drunk Jim Morrison encouraged the crowd to take their clothes off, and seemed to flash his genitals (although accounts of the event vary). The Miami Herald reported, "Morrison appeared to masturbate in full view of his audience, screamed obscenities and exposed himself." 

    Morrison was promptly arrested, charged, and convicted for profanity and indecent exposure. The incident left the band forced to cancel much of their concert tour. The Doors would never be the same again. Two years later, Morrison was found dead of a heart attack.

  • Bob Dylan

    Bob Dylan (1941–) is an American folk singer, songwriter, poet, and social activist who's been a vital influence on many of rock and roll's biggest stars, including Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Green Day.

    On his third album, Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix recorded a wailing, powerful version of "All Along the Watchtower," a song written and first recorded by folk singer Bob Dylan. Hendrix's version of the song, with its many electric guitar solos and wailing vocals, was vastly different from Dylan's quiet, harmonica-infused track. Dylan eventually changed the way he performed his own song to better reflect Hendrix's style—perhaps the greatest compliment ever paid to a young man who adored the folk singer's work.

    Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature—yep, literature—in 2016.

  • Grace Slick

    Grace Slick (1939–) is a singer-songwriter and classically trained musician who helped launch the band Jefferson Airplane to commercial success with such hits as "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit." 

    With Slick's good looks and dynamic stage presence, the band earned international exposure and by 1967, had become one of the highest-paid rock groups in America.

    Jefferson Airplane's first album featuring Grace Slick, entitled Surrealistic Pillow, hit the charts in 1967 and made the band a "Summer of Love" sensation. By the mid 1970s, however, Slick had left the band for another group, Jefferson Starship. She and Starship managed to rack up several Top Ten hits in the 1980s, most notably "Sara" and "We Built This City (On Rock 'N' Roll)."

  • Janis Joplin

    Janis Joplin (1943–1970) had one of the most exciting—and most tragic—careers in rock. As the raspy-toned lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, and later as a solo artist, Joplin delivered legendary rock classics like "Piece of My Heart," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," "Move Over," and "Summertime."

    Janis Joplin debuted as the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966 and by 1967, she'd launched her career as a rock and roll star, delivering phenomenal performances at major music festivals including the Monterey International Pop Festival. 

    Her career was cut short when in October of 1970 she was found dead in her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood. The coroner's report stated that the cause of death was a heroin overdose.

  • Stevie Nicks

    Stevie Nicks (1948–) is a vocalist and songwriter who gave the group Fleetwood Mac its signature sound, transforming it from an average band to one of the biggest selling rock groups in history.

    In September 1967, Peter Green, John McVie, Jeremy Spencer, and Mick Fleetwood formed the band Fleetwood Mac. Bassist McVie's wife Christine joined the band in 1970, and Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined in 1975, giving the group its signature sound. 

    The group's 1977 release Rumours is still recognized as one of the top selling albums in music history.

  • Sid Vicious

    Sid Vicious (1957–1979) was a drummer for Siouxsie & the Banshees and subsequently, a bassist for the British punk rock group the Sex Pistols, which formed in 1975. Vicious replaced the band's original bassist Glen Matlock in 1977. Just one year later, Vicious would be in jail for murder.

    On October 12th, 1978, Vicious, a heroin addict, stabbed girlfriend Nancy Spungeon to death in their room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. 

    Four months later, Vicious would die of a heroin overdose while out on bail.

  • Prince Rogers Nelson

    Prince Rogers Nelson (1958–2016), better known by his stage name, Prince, was a rock virtuoso—a singer, songwriter, musician, and actor.

    Prince first blazed up the pop charts in the early 1980s with his ferocious guitar playing and his salacious—some would even say X-rated—lyrics. Inspired by rock great Jimi Hendrix, Prince aspired to be an outstanding entertainer, second to none, and he strove to titillate—and shock—listeners with each new album. 

    He inspired many artists—not only rock singers, but also R&B artists like Jon Legend, hip hop performers like Outkast, and pop singers like Justin Timberlake—to push the envelope. Posthumously, a shade of purple, Love Symbol #2, was named after him.

  • Mark David Chapman

    Mark David Chapman (1955–) is the mentally unstable man who assassinated singer-songwriter John Lennon.

    On the evening of December 8th, 1980, Mark David Chapman shot and killed Beatles singer John Lennon outside the musician's home in New York. Chapman claimed that J. D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye inspired him to murder the musician.

  • Kurt Cobain

    Kurt Cobain (1967–1994) was a singer-songwriter and the frontman for the band Nirvana. The group's debut album, Nevermind, was a smash hit that ushered in a new trend in rock—coined "grunge" rock—based in the American Northwest.

    On April 8th, 1994, the body of Kurt Cobain was discovered in the singer's home near Seattle, Washington. Autopsy reports concluded that Cobain died approximately three days earlier of a "self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head." 

    Cobain's suicide crushed a generation of rock fans who'd been inspired by the singer's introspective lyrics.

  • Rick Rubin

    Rick Rubin (1963–) is a punk-rock musician and record producer best known for producing Licensed to Ill (1986), the Beastie Boys' groundbreaking debut album.

    Rick Rubin's responsible for giving early hip-hop pioneers, the Beastie Boys, their signature sound. His production on the group's debut album Licensed to Ill is chock full of heavy guitar licks, thumping bass lines, and rock bravado. The record put the Beasties on the map. 

    Rubin is also the man behind the "Walk This Way" collaboration between hip-hop group Run-D.M.C. and rock band Aerosmith. Rubin continues to produce hit records for some of the biggest names in the industry, including rap superstar Jay-Z, who scored a major hit with "99 Problems," a track produced entirely by Rubin.

  • Perry Farrell ()

    Perry Farrell (1959–) is one of the founding members of the rock group Jane's Addiction, which was first created in the 1980s and went through several disbandings and reunions. Farrell has also been a member of the group Porno for Pyros, a collaboration with his Jane's Addiction bandmate Stephen Perkins.

    Inspired by a music festival he attended in California, Perry Farrell, frontman for the rock band Jane's Addiction, organized Lollapalooza, a series of concerts featuring a diverse mix of performers. 

    The music exhibition was the first of its kind to tour throughout the United States and Canada and became a huge success, boosting the popularity of a new generation of rock bands like Jane's Addiction, Living Colour, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, L7, Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, as well as provocative hip-hop groups like Ice T & Body Count, Cypress Hill, Wu Tang Clan, and the Roots.

  • Paul McCartney

    Paul McCartney (1942–) was a founding member of the Beatles, the most successful rock and roll band in history. 

    Along with John Lennon, the English singer/songwriter McCartney was one of the two most important figures in driving the Beatles' artistic evolution (bandmates George Harrison and Ringo Starr also contributed to the band's unique sound). Following the Beatles' breakup in 1970, McCartney went on to have a long and successful career as a solo act and in the band Wings.

    McCartney and Lennon began playing together in a Liverpool band called the Quarrymen in 1957, when both were teenagers. In 1960, they changed the band's name to the Beatles. In 1962, with the band's four-man lineup finalized, they signed their first record contract. The Beatles almost immediately experienced huge success on the British charts—their second single, "Please Please Me," peaked at #2 late in 1962—and became superstars on this side of the Atlantic by early 1964, as "Beatlemania" swept the nation. 

    Over the course of the 1960s, The Beatles would release dozens of top hits and bestselling albums, their musical style evolving from classic rhythm and blues to experimental psychedelic rock. The group long benefited from a creative tension between McCartney's ear for melody and sentimental lyrics and Lennon's more adventurous sonic experimentation, but eventually, the differences between the two men, compounded by the pressures of immense fame and success, tore the band apart. 

    McCartney remains one of the most beloved elder statesmen of the rock world today.

  • John Lennon

    John Lennon (1940–1980) was one of the founding members and driving artistic force behind the Beatles, the most successful rock and roll band in history. A teenage Lennon founded the band as the Quarrymen in 1957, later bringing on board Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr to complete the lineup. 

    The band began performing as the Beatles in 1960, signed its first record contract in 1962, and hit #2 on the UK pop charts later that year. Throughout the remainder of the 1960s, the Beatles would ride an unprecedented wave of success and popularity in both their native Britain and the United States. The Beatles were the original rock stars.

    After personal and creative tensions between Lennon and McCartney led to the breakup of the Beatles in 1970, Lennon's music moved in a more experimental direction, but he continued to find success as a solo act and in partnership with his wife Yoko Ono. 

    In 1980, a deranged fan named Mark David Chapman shot and killed Lennon on the doorstep of his New York apartment building. Decades after his death, Lennon remains an iconic and beloved figure in rock history.

  • Mick Jagger

    Mick Jagger (1943–) is the lead singer and frontman of the Rolling Stones, one of the most successful and longest-lived acts in rock history. 

    The Rolling Stones—comprised of Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards, bassist Bill Wyman, and drummer Charlie Watts—formed in London in 1962, performing music inspired by popular American rhythm and blues acts. By 1964, they'd risen to rival the Beatles as the most popular rock band in Britain. Their style evolved through decades of rock superstardom, they've sold more than 200 million albums worldwide, and they remain today one of the world's most beloved touring bands.

    The charismatic Jagger wasn't only a strong songwriter and singer, but he also became one of rock's most iconic sex symbols. His personal life became the stuff of tabloid fodder, with high-profile marriages to actress Bianca Jagger and model Jerry Hall ending in divorce amidst charges of serial infidelity. (Jagger has fathered seven children by four women.) 

    Even in his "old age," Jagger continues to exude charisma and sexuality in his live performances, keeping millions of fans happy worldwide.

  • Keith Richards

    Keith Richards (1943–) is a founding member and lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, one of the most successful rock acts in history. 

    Richards and his schoolboy friend Mick Jagger founded the band in 1962, and have gone on to record dozens of albums, selling more than 200 million records worldwide and selling out huge stadium venues in concert tours that remain among the most successful of any rock act even today.

    The Rolling Stones began as a band covering American rhythm and blues hits, but Richards and Jagger soon began writing their own material. Their songwriting partnership produced dozens of hits, starting with worldwide #1 single "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" in 1965. Richards has survived decades of struggles with drug abuse, earning him a reputation as one of the biggest outlaws in rock music.