The British Music Scene of the 1950s

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Age-net takes a look back at the decade that defined modern music as we know it today

The music of the 1950’s in the United Kingdom was a diverse form. The music of this generation was a compilation of Britain’s most popular forms. These include dance bands from earlier generations, brass and silver band music, music halls and folk music.  Music from Britain was to become a modern platform for the world.  Some of the influences that happened in this era were jazz, traditional pop and swing. Many of these came through in an American form at first because of records and films.Youth of Britain became more interested in the new form of music that was burgeoning. This started to occur in the mid 1950’s as a youth market was beginning to take root. Initially, the music was based on the acts and music that were popular in the United States. It didn’t take long for the British music genres to develop.  Skiffle was one of the biggest crazes to come to the United Kingdom. This genre blended folk music with other forms. The music forked off from folk music with national traditions as a base into what eventually took shape as British rock and roll.


While traditional dance bands ruled in the 1930s and 1940s, jazz had started to integrate itself into British culture.

The American musicians had ragtime and other jazz forms and they introduced it to Britain through performers travelling to their country and also in the form of recordings. In the late 1950s “modern jazz” was becoming notably more pronounced and it was a combination of jazz and the new “bebop” music of America.

Some of the first performers were Ronnie Scott, George Webb, John Dankworth, Ken Colyer and Humphrey Lyttelton. A couple of these artists had a more pronounced attitude toward New Orleans traditional jazz; however, they made the music their own. Scott’s Soho Club was one of the biggest success stories of the times.

Listen to Humphrey Lyttelton performing Bad Penny Blues

Traditional Pop

Traditional pop was still being dominated by America in record sales and performers in the early 1950s. War time music stars were able to capitalise on the songs and many reached chart status.

It also brought about new British performers such as Jimmy Young with two number one chart topping hits in 1955. The music was often re-recorded hits from American songs, but it started a new generation of musicians that would lead Britain into Rock and roll.

Jimmy Young performing Unchained Melody


Skiffle combined several music forms to produce this new sound. Country, folk music and jazz were implemented in its creation.

The instruments used were improvisational or homemade. Lonnie Donegan hit the charts in a big way with his rendition of “Rock Island Line” by Leadbelly. The song and artist commanded eight months as part of the Top 20, reaching number 6. This was also the first gold record debut in Britain. While this genre didn’t have a long life, it was a stepping-stone to British rock performers that included The Beatles, Tommy Steele and The Shadows.

Watch some Lonnie Donegan songs below:

Folk Music Revival

The revival of folk music was inspired by politics and with the network of folk clubs that sprang up in the 1950s it enjoyed success again. Festivals and the Blues and Ballads Club in London were quite popular. Not only were there musicians from England, Wales and Scotland also produced many folk performers.

Hamish Henderson, Jimmy MacBeath and Fiona Macneill were only a few of the names that played in the clubs and at festivals.

British Rock and Roll

The big music stars of the 1950s in America included the one and only Elvis Presley. It was music and performers of this ilk in the mid-1950s that led to the propulsion of Britain into this music genre. One of the draws of this type of music was its cross culture appeal. While the 1950s saw little competition to the American success stories, it was the seed that began to grow and produce the British invasion of the 1960s. Many of the names in music that are known today were born in this era. They include Billy Ocean, Peter Gabriel, Danny Kirwan of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton and Bernie Taupin.

Elvis Presley’s albums and songs manage to continue selling today as the original rock ‘n roll king. Even into the 70s his singles were topping the British charts in the number one spot despite being after his death. The influence of his artistry and songs continues through the various decades enlivening music forms. Yet, it took longer for Elvis to make an impact on Britain in the 50s because the music industry had to cross the pond without MTV. It relied more on lesser known shows and radio.

Chart Toppers of the 1950s

At this time the number one selling records in Britain were American artists. Elvis Presley had two number one selling recordings with “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock”. Paul Anka became a chart topper with “Diana” and Bill Haley and His Comets hit it big with “Rock Around the Clock”. While maybe not as well-known, Emile Ford and The Checkmates took the number one spot with “What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?” and “Living Doll” by Cliff Richards and The Drifters sold over 900,000 and 700,000 respectively.

The 1950s were the start of change for music industry professionals. Big Bands and swing may have remained, but by the middle of the next decade they were losing their hold. Elvis and rock ‘n roll opened the doors to huge hits like the Beatles. Yet there were also bands like the Osmonds that managed to cross the pond with just as much success.

The Osmonds began in the late 50s first as a quartet of brothers. Their American based show took off with TV appearances in the next decade too. Yet, without the 50s and emerging stars not only in Britain but the US, the next decades would have been extremely different. The change from Big Band and Swing to solo artists having the power to top charts is something the decade has to be recognised for.

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