Song of the Century: 50th Anniversary
Of "Rock Around the Clock"

Bill Turner  © 3/2004 - - March 10, 2004

Part One: The Band
           The story of this song goes back to the late 1940's, into the very early 1950's when the leader of a small combo eastern Pennsylvania "Cowboy" band, Bill Haley was performing at local bars in and around the Philadelphia waterfront.
           Beginning with "The Four Aces Of Western Swing" and later re-named "The Saddlemen" Bill Haley was a champion yodeler along the lines of fellow cowboy entertainers Elton Britt and Kenny Roberts.
           Haley would shortly begin working at a Chester Pennsylvania radio station WPWA as Program Director, and would also perform live country music segments with his Saddlemen band. A program that aired directly before his own was called "Judge Rhythm's Court" and was hosted by a disc jockey spinning the popular "Rhythm & Blues" recordings of the time. Some historians speculate that it was here that Bill Haley would hear Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" and much of the 'jump blues' of Louis Jordan and the Tympani Five; and Big Joe Turner, the latter two being highly influential black artists in that particular field. Bill Haley has stated in past interviews of his equal admiration for Joe Turner and Hank Williams, who played a pivotal part in his musical development as the archetypal Rock & Roll bandleader. Other cited influences were: Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, a western styled 'big band'; and the Treniers, a family band of R&B entertainers. As a guitarist, Haley's own lead playing bore the influences of Arthur Smith and the Delmore Brothers, both of whom were riding the crest of the then popular 'Hillbilly Boogie' style of post war country music.
           Bill's earlier travels, performing  with a medicine show, and subsequent country vocal groups "The Down Homers" and "Range Drifters" led him to locations such as Chicago, Texas, Oklahoma and New Orleans where he heard the indigenous Dixieland and black blues bands firsthand, by his own personal account. These were not successful years for Haley ... the band nearly starved to death, despite some radio success on the WLS Barn Dance broadcast out of Chicago.

Part Two: The Record labels
           In nearby Media, Pennsylvania (20 minutes south of Philadelphia) was a local independent record label Essex Records, headed by Dave Miller a musical visionary who, like Haley, was looking for a new sound to record and market. He certainly found it in Bill Haley & His Saddlemen, who by now were leaning towards a strange new mixture of Cowboy Boogie and this early R&B...and who were creating a local "buzz" in the Greater Philadelphia and Delaware Valley club scene....gaining new fans, as well as detractors who were against mixing these two kinds of music.
           The 'original' R&B music owes its existence (on record) not to the major record labels, but to the small local independent labels like Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis, Leonard Chess' Chess Records in Chicago, Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic Records in New York and Sid Nathan's King Records in Cincinnati, who along with Essex, were interested in the 'specialty markets' of black and hillbilly music -- and recording these artists, not with the big band/orchestra accompaniment like the major labels, but with the artists' own bar and club band musicians, sounding exactly the same as when they worked the local juke joints. The sound was raw and unrefined on all counts, but full of infectious spirit and vitality.
           Bill Haley took the two and combined them into a brisk, beat-driven, uptempo kind of 'jump-country music,' as it were. Drums were an afterthought ... the percussion was meted out by the 'slap' bass and 'sock' style of rhythm guitar ... and there wasn't even an official name for this strange music--the band referred to it as "Cowboy Jive", an oxymoron, but clever play on words. The name "Rock & Roll was yet in the future!

Part Three: The Song; its Writer and Publisher
           Songwriter Max C. Freedman had previous success in the Country & Western field as the composer of "Sioux City Sue," but nothing could have prepared him for what was to follow with the song he wrote in 1953, "We're Gonna Rock Around The Clock Tonight" which would by far prove to be his biggest success. His publisher, James E. Myers (aka Jimmy DeKnight) was a radio and music business personality in the Philadelphia-Chester area, and had initially met Haley at Radio station WPWA, where Bill would play the records brought to him by Myers. The two became friends, and in preparation for an upcoming Essex recording session by Haley & The Saddlemen, Myers pitched this new song to him. Haley liked it and agreed to record it; but as strongly as Haley may have felt about the song, Dave Miller refused to allow the song to be recorded on his Essex label, as he and Myers were not on friendly terms.
           Haley had already racked up an impressive set of single releases with Essex, recording such early rockabilly trailblazers as "Real Rock Drive"; "Green Tree Boogie"; "Yes Indeed!"; all of which were garnering quite a bit of local attention, but the three most important Essex sides would prove to be "Rocket 88" in 1951; "Rock The Joint" in 1952; and "Crazy Man, Crazy" in 1953.
           Bill's first attempt to record an R&B or "race" record was "Rocket 88" and at the time it was an extremely risky career move--especially for a white 'cowboy' band, yet Dave Miller had very definite ideas about his musical experiments, and Haley a willing accomplice, especially with Miller's efficiency at getting the records into the region's jukeboxes.
           By the fall season of 1952 the band changed its name to "Bill Haley & His Comets" and wore suits and dinner jackets, thus retiring the 'western' image for good. Their musical direction was now in hot pursuit and development in this new sound.
           Full blown, big beat 'Rock & Roll' came to a head with their 1953 Essex recording of "Crazy Man, Crazy" when this small rockabilly combo finally settled on adding drums as a permanent component (drums were used only occasionally on earlier cuts) and the drum intro to this song is a musical acknowledgement to the swing drumming of Gene Krupa, though with a heavier, more Dixieland backbeat throughout the song. This 'big beat' would remain a Bill Haley trademark all throughout his career.
           The final ingredient added to the band was the saxophone, which began with their final few Essex sides, and rounding out the group to a seven piece combo consisting of Bill Haley on rhythm guitar; Billy Williamson on steel guitar; Joe D'Ambrosio on tenor sax; Marshall Lytle on string bass; Johnny Grande on piano; and utilizing session musicians on drums and lead guitar played by Billy Gussak and Danny Cedrone, respectively...though the steady positions would be occupied by Dick Boccelli on drums, and Francis Beecher on lead guitar, following the untimely death of Danny Cedrone.

Part Four: The Clock Strikes One ... At Decca Records
           While independent record labels may be long on vision and artistic freedom, they are always notoriously low on cash...and virtually every recording artist seeks a contract with a major record label. Bill Haley & His Comets were no exception, and with Dave Miller turning his attention to another musical concept which ironically, earned him his biggest money as well as his longest lasting musical success; the "101 Strings" series of instrumental albums issued by the dozens throughout the 50's 60's and 70's. These were simply lavish instrumental orchestral treatments of romantic, pop and movie themes performed by anonymous German symphonic orchestras ... at a fraction of the cost of an American orchestra, and pressed and distributed by Miller International, or on Miller's Somerset labels. Dave Miller would eventually to score big with these on the "Easy Listening" charts, but his attention was not on the future of what was to become "Rock & Roll".
           With the expiration of their Essex contract, Haley & The Comets were brought to the attention of Decca Records in New York, who signed them and assigned Milt Gabler as their A&R/Producer. Gabler already had a well-proven track record with Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five, among the top artists on the Decca roster, and he seemed like the perfect producer for the job of recording Bill Haley & His Comets.
           The first recording session for Decca was scheduled for April 12, 1954 at the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street in New York City; and almost didn't take place, due to a ferry delay on the Delaware River, thus preventing the band from arriving for their scheduled 11am session until after 1pm. Ironically, "Rock Around The Clock" was the "B" side to the strange postwar fox trot "Thirteen Women" about one man and 13 women surviving the Hydrogen Bomb. According to the band members of the Comets, the majority of time in the studio was invested in rehearsing and recording "Thirteen Women", while "Rock Around The Clock" went on the back burner and was quickly run through in only two takes, only during the remaining half hour before the 5pm close of the session.
           The regular Comets members had previously rehearsed the song at Bill's house, working it out to their satisfaction, but session guitarist and close friend of the band, Danny Cedrone hadn't yet thought out a suitable solo to his liking. Bassist Marshall Lytle suggested he replicate the solo he'd used on a previous Essex record by the band, "Rock The Joint," a frenetic, almost 'mandolin-like' single string 'trill' which would forever occupy a special place in rock & roll guitar history, once it became recorded into the song.
           50 years later, this Cedrone solo is still a mystery and a challenge to guitarists around the world, remaining one of the most difficult rock guitar solos of all time! Bill Haley too, interpreted his own changes into the song, altering the melody slightly, bringing it to closer resemblance to Hank Williams' "Move It On Over," a move that actually modernized the song's delivery, for the original sheet music presented the song as a somewhat quaint 'fox trot,' with stylistic leanings to the pop music of the 1940's.
           When the recording was finally released, it enjoyed only modest success ... particularly because Decca was pushing "Thirteen Women" as the featured "A" side, and most radio disc jockeys hadn't bothered listening to the "B" side. At this point in time, Jimmy Myers (who was the Publisher, and who claimed a co-authorship deal on the song) began travelling all over the eastern seaboard visiting radio stations, campaigning for the "B" side, "Rock Around The Clock."
           Fortunately for all concerned, Decca had already released a quick follow up single on Bill Haley & His Comets, featuring "Shake Rattle & Roll" as the "A" side, and which was an instant hit on the charts, as "Rock Around The Clock" seemed destined to quietly languish away as an undiscovered "B" side to a soon to be forgotten record. At some point, the word got around the radio industry to flip the record and play "Rock Around The Clock" as the feature side, and shortly thereafter Bill Haley was faced with a quick succession of almost side by side hits!

Part Five: "Blackboard Jungle" - Rock & Roll Goes To The Movies
           How "Rock Around The Clock" got to be the theme of "Blackboard Jungle" is a matter of debate. Jimmy Myers has always contended that it was he who pitched the song to the movie's producers; but the commonly known version was that it was the film's director Richard Brooks' daughter's enthusiasm for the song that led to it being used to symbolize the zeitgeist of the 'teenage cultural rebellion'; while a third version contends that it was the movie's star Glenn Ford's son who had the record of it and played it for Director Richard Brooks and Producer Pander Berman.

Epilogue: Born Again ... and Again ...
           Today, a full 50 years after its release - "Rock Around The Clock" still continues to inspire and mystify musicians, television, radio and movie producers as well as media journalists, historians and video documentaries. The song truly captures the spirit of the turbulent 1950's, a time of post war runaway prosperity, when both the US and Britain were at the zenith of their respective prosperity and power. The song even manages to transcend both its creator Bill Haley as well as Elvis, who came on the scene in its wake..and even into the 1960s when British musicians cited "Rock Around The Clock" as the first song to catch their attention and initially point them in the direction of Rock & Roll.
           Although Bill Haley's hit records may have ended in the late 1950's, he did remain an international  touring attraction for the rest of his life, although at times "Rock Around The Clock" seemingly embarked on a career of its own, regularly resurfacing in movies, most notably "American Graffiti" and television's "Happy Days" in the early 70's and fueling a 50's nostalgia craze in that decade right alongside the height of the "Disco Era."
           Sadly, Bill Haley died at 55, on February 9, 1981 and while he did not live to see his recordings surface on the new digitally remastered CDs, his original band members regrouped in October 1987 and resumed touring internationally. Today in 2004, they range in age from 70 to 82 and are still recording and carrying on the musical legacy and the same Original Big Beat ... as if Bill himself, were still there.

The Original Comets are:
Marshall Lytle (70)-Upright Bass
Francis Beecher(82)-Lead Guitar
Johnny Grande(74)-Piano
Joe D'Ambrosio(70)-Tenor Sax
Dick Boccelli(80)-Drums

Deceased Band Members, also from the 1950's:
Billy Williamson-Steel Guitar
Rudi Pompilii-Tenor Sax
Ralph Jones-Drums
Bill Haley-Band Leader; Rhythm Guitar

Deceased Prominent Musicians who were not regular band members, but who frequently recorded with the band in the 1950s:
Danny Cedrone-Lead Guitar
Billy Gussak-Drums

Back to the "Take Note" Main Page


Promotional Products, Discount Labels, Post-it Notes, Rubber Stamps, etc.