Since its beginnings more than 50 years ago, rock and roll has become one of the world’s most popular and familiar forms of music. Although many music experts argue that rock has been in decline for years, giving way to hip hop and pop music, all of these music genres can be linked back to American jazz, blues and gospel music from the late 19th and early 20th century. While New Orleans is largely considered the birthplace of jazz and Chicago gained prominence as the Blues Capital of the World, other American cities may have had more of an impact with regards to the legacy of rock and roll, and the debate of what American city deserves the most credit will continue for years. This list includes five of the best rock ‘n roll cities in America, with honorable mentions to the cities of Austin, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Seattle.
Cleveland can lay claim to hosting what’s generally considered the first ever rock concert in 1952. Hosted by then Cleveland disk jockey Alan Freed, who’s credited for coining the term “rock and roll,” the Moondog Coronation Ball was held at Cleveland Arena, yet ended abruptly when police and fire authorities shut down the show due to overcrowding. Cleveland is also home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a museum dedicated to rock history and the music industry. Although many worthy rock bands and musicians have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, many others have been left out, most notably Chicago, the Moody Blues, Deep Purple and Jethro Tull. Still, the city has been host to several memorable concerts from music legends like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd all making appearances at the former Cleveland Municipal Stadium or the Public Auditorium in downtown Cleveland. More recently, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrated its 25th Anniversary Concert in New York with U2, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon among the star-studded lineup of performers.
The list of rock bands and musicians to come out of L.A. is like a who’s who of rock history. Among the biggest names are The Eagles, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, Van Halen, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Crosby Stills and Nash and Maroon 5. During the 1960s, Hollywood-based Capitol Records was perhaps the most dominant record label in the world, with the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd signed to recording contracts and in later years, Queen, David Bowie, Coldplay and Radiohead. The Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece album “Pet Sounds” was recorded in L.A. and was ranked #2 on the Rolling Stone magazine 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2005. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” still the largest selling album of all time, was also recorded in Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles has been the scene of several important live shows, including The Doors and Led Zeppelin concerts at the Whiskey a Go Go, Elton John’s first American concert at the Troubadour, The Beatles’ performances at the Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium, Neil Diamond’s “Hot August Nights” at the Greek Theatre, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk at the Motown 25th Anniversary Concert and the Human Rights Now! benefit at the L.A. Coliseum. Los Angeles is also the scene of many contemporary music award shows, like the Grammy Awards, American Music Awards and the MTV Video Music Awards.
Cleveland is widely accepted as the “Home of Rock and Roll,” but Memphis may have had more influence in developing the popular music genre. Many of rock’s most famous names got their start in recording studios on the city’s historic Beale Street, including Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding, Jerry Lee Lewis, Booker T and Carl Perkins. Presley, also known as “The King of Rock and Roll,” has been credited by Rolling Stone magazine for recording the first real rock and roll record “That’s All Right” in 1952, a recording also ranked #1 on the Top 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll. Each year, thousands of visitors come to Presley’s former home, Graceland and the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum. Tennessee is also home to one of the country’s biggest rock festivals, the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester.
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From The Beatles’ first appearance on American television on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park with more than 500,000 fans in attendance, no other American city has hosted more famous concerts than the Big Apple, even though arguably the most famous Woodstock was held in 1969 two hours away in Bethel, N.Y. Madison Square Garden has been the scene for numerous historic concerts, like George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, Led Zeppelin’s three shows that spawned the live album “The Song Remains the Same,” John Lennon’s “Live in New York City” and Lennon’s final stage appearance at an Elton John concert in 1974. New York has been home to a host of other memorable benefit concerts, such as The Concert for New York City, Music for UNICEF at the United Nations and the No Nukes Concert. Today, the music scene is just as strong with historic venues like the Beacon Theater, Webster Hall and Radio City Music Hall all featuring the biggest names in rock music. One of the first rock songs, Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock” was recorded in New York City, as was Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” considered by many rock critics as the greatest song in rock history.
In 1967, the city’s Haight-Ashbury district drew worldwide recognition as the place to be for the flower power movement in protest of the Vietnam War. Local bands like Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Grateful Dead gained prominence from one of the most famous concerts ever at the Monterey Pop Festival in June. Weeks later, during the iconic “Summer of Love,” local bands performed regularly, along with Jimi Hendrix, The Who, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Doors and many others at the legendary Fillmore West, hosted by concert promoter Bill Graham. Among San Francisco’s most famous concerts: The Beatles’ final live show ever at Candlestick Park, Led Zeppelin at Kezar Stadium and several Winterland shows, like Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive” concert and The Band’s “Last Waltz,” heralded as the “greatest rock concert movie ever.” Other famous bands to come out of the Bay Area are Credence Clearwater Revival, Journey and more recently, Metallica and Green Day.
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Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com.