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In the Spring of 1954, when the nation's top record was Perry Como's "Wanted" and the top album was the soundtrack from The Glenn Miller Story, a new musical style was germinating. Bill Haley and the Comets cut "Rock Around the Clock"; Elvis Presley held his first recording session at Sun Records; and Alan Freed became a disc jockey at WINS in New York. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and The Platters were beginning to break the radio color barrier.

Rock 'n' roll provided a vehicle through which urban, rural, and suburban youths declared their independence from parental standards and expressed their desire for pleasure. When the first rock 'n' roll concert took place at Cleveland Arena on March 21, 1952, some 30,000 teens packed a building that could seat only 10,000, while 15,000 others waited outside. Rock 'n' roll spoke to the alienation and boredom of teenagers in newly built suburbs. The new music exuded sexuality; indeed, the phrase rock 'n' roll was a slang term in certain black communities referring to sexual intercourse.

Musically, rock 'n' roll was a style of popular music marked by guitar based instrumentation, blues-based composition, electronic amplification, high volume, and dance-ability. In contrast to jazz, which depended upon brass instruments, rock 'n' roll emphasized the electric guitar and drums. During the 1950s, it became the soundtrack of the lives of those between twelve and twenty-one. Much of the new youth music of the 1950s self-consciously celebrated the teenage years. Groups like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers embraced the word "Teenagers," and many songs, like Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel" and Dion and the Belmonts' "Teenager in Love," had the word teen in their title.

What made this new music possible was the movement of Southerners, black and white, to the cities of the upper South and North during and after the war. This movement brought diverse musical traditions together and forged a new sound out of the propulsive beat of rhythm and blues and the twang of country and western.