Song of the Century: 50th Anniversary|
Of "Rock Around the Clock"
Bill Turner © 3/2004 - email@example.com - 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
Joe D'Ambrosio(70)-Tenor Sax
Deceased Band Members, also from the 1950's:
Billy Williamson-Steel Guitar
Rudi Pompilii-Tenor Sax
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
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