The Roots of Rock

April 9, 2006 - Gary Corsair

           Ask 10 people who invented rock 'n' roll, and you might get 10 different answers. Then again, perhaps all 10 would say, "Elvis Presley."
           They would be wrong.
           Contrary to popular belief, rock 'n' roll wasn't born on July 5, 1954, when a 19-year-old truck driver recorded "That's All Right Mama" at Sun Studio, which bills itself "The Birthplace of Rock 'N' Roll."
           "Part of the problem is Elvis has a much better public relations machine behind him," said Alex Fraser-Harrison, a writer for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. "For me, ŚRock Around the Clock' was the single most important recording of the second half of the 20th century. Literally nothing sounded the same after it."
           Move over, Elvis. Bill Haley and the Comets beat you by three months. "Rock Around the Clock" was recorded on April 12, 1954. The following year, the song became the first rock record to reach No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard chart. Marshall Lytle, who played bass on "Rock Around the Clock," said it is about time Bill Haley and the Comets got their due.
           "We get a little irritated when people lay claim to being the creators of rock 'n' roll," said the 74-year-old Lytle, who still tours with Bill Haley's Original Comets. "I was there when (disc jockey) Alan Freed coined the phrase Śrock 'n' roll.' It was 1952 and the Comets were in Cleveland to promote ŚRock the Joint' on Freed's show. While the record played, he yelled over the airways, ŚRock and roll everybody! Rock and roll!' I truly believe that was the night that rock 'n' roll was named." Most music historians agree that Freed coined the expression "rock 'n' roll."
           The trailblazers So Freed named it. But did Bill Haley really invent rock 'n' roll? If he didn't, who did? Elvis was still in high school when "Rock This Joint" was recorded by Haley in 1952. Jerry Lee Lewis was selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Little Richard was singing blues. Buddy Holly was in junior high school.
           "Actually, Bill Haley was probably the first thing that was close to rock 'n' roll. I saw him many times. He was unique. He was different," said Francis Markey, a 72-year-old resident of The Villages who was a Philadelphia teenager when Haley developed a sound unlike any other. In 1952, Haley didn't know the uptempo fusion of rhythm and blues and western swing he created would be labeled "rock 'n' roll," he just knew that the sailors at the Twin Bars in Gloucester, N.J., went ape whenever his band roared into "Rock This Joint." "In '52 through '54, it was like a dream for Bill and the guys," Haley's widow Joan "Cuppy" (Haley) Hahn told the Daily Sun. "They had tried for so long to come up with the right concept in music. Something they loved and believed in. They actually felt the beat, and all of a sudden the kids were feeling it too and loving it."
           Encouraged by the modest success of "Rock This Joint," Haley and his cowboy band the Saddlemen all but abandoned country and western, changed their name to the Comets, and began injecting a rockin' pace and distinctive guitar and saxophone solos into tame rhythm and blues songs. No stopping the rock.
           The following year, 1953, Haley proved "Rock This Joint" wasn't an aberration or accident. "Crazy, Man, Crazy," a song Haley wrote at his kitchen table while Cuppy prepared lunch, became the first rock 'n' roll song to crack the Billboard Top 40. Ironically, Haley's record label, Decca, described "Crazy, Man, Crazy" as a "foxtrot." But the kids weren't fooled.
           "I caught Bill Haley in Columbia, S.C., in 1953," said Tony Falo, a 75-year-old resident of The Villages. "He was wild. We were jumping up and down. I had never heard anything like him. I didn't realize how famous he was going to be."
           From '52 through '56, Haley and the Comets had four Top 10 hits. Twelve other songs made the Top 25. "Bill Haley played out the entire history of rock 'n' roll about two years before anybody ever heard of rock 'n' roll," writes Nick Tosches in his book "Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll." Not that rock caught on overnight. "Rock Around the Clock" (the best-selling rock single of all time with sales estimated at 25 million-45 million) sold only 75,000 copies when it was released in 1954. It was only after "Rock Around the Clock" was featured over the opening credits of the 1955 movie "The Blackboard Jungle" that Haley ‹ and rock 'n' roll ‹ were embraced by the masses.
           "Rock Around the Clock" spent five weeks at No. 1 and 36 weeks on the Billboard chart. Most significant, it inspired a generation of Bill Haley wannabes.
           "I had no idea about doing music as a way of life until rock 'n' roll hit me. What specifically hit me? It was ŚRock Around The Clock,'" John Lennon told an interviewer. 'Nuff said.
           Origin of the Haley sound Bill Haley and the Comets launched rock 'n' roll into the mainstream, but it is still debated whether Haley invented rock or just lifted it from black artists who couldn't get major ‹ i.e., white ‹ record companies to give them a listen.
           Artists like Wynonie Harris, who is featured in the book "Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll" primarily because of his rolling 1947 hit "Good Rockin' Tonight." Or how about the Treniers?
           The Treniers were playing "Rocking on Sunday Night," "Rockin' Is Our Business," and "It Rocks! It Rolls! It Swings!" back in '47 when Haley and his group still were wearing cowboy boots, Western shirts and Stetsons ‹ and sounding like they looked.
           "We were around before Little Richard, before Bill Haley and (the) Comets," Claude Trenier told an interviewer in 2001. "We knew Bill Haley when he had a country-and-western band. We were playing the Riptide in Wildwood, New Jersey, in the early '50s. He was playing across the street. He said, ŚMan, I like what you guys are doing.'"
           Did Haley like the sound enough to "borrow" it? Or was he merely influenced by the Treniers? Allie Kradzinski, a Villages resident who saw both bands play in Wildwood, N.J., in the early 1950s, said, "Bill Haley changed music, but he got it from rhythm and blues bands like the Treniers." She has a point. Remember "Rock This Joint," the 1952 hit for Bill Haley and the Saddlemen? Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians did it first ... in 1949. The original "Rock This Joint" reached No. 6 on the rhythm and blues charts. "Shake, Rattle and Roll," another huge hit for Haley, originally was recorded by black artist Big Joe Turner.
           Preston, Turner and Harris never had chart-toppers like Haley and Presley did. Neither did the Treniers, but they were something special.
           "Yeah, the Treniers were great. I worked with them. They were fantastic. Top shelf," said Allie's husband, Dan, who played tenor saxophone in the Philadelphia band, The Rythmrockers, from 1955-58. But were the Treniers rock 'n' rollers?
           "They had a heck of a sound, a full sound. And they were great showmen. They could really hold an audience," said Dan. "But they were rhythm and blues, not rock 'n' roll."
           The unanswerable Which leads us full circle. To pinpoint the inventor of rock 'n' roll, you have to agree on what exactly rock is. And that is subjective. And near impossible. Where one person hears rhythm and blues, another hears rock 'n' roll.
           For the record, the American Heritage College Dictionary defines rock 'n' roll as, "A form of popular music arising from and incorporating a variety of musical styles, especially rhythm and blues, country music, and gospel."
           Maybe "Rock This Joint" was the first rock song. But was it the slower, blusier tune Jimmy Preston recorded, or the more upbeat song Bill Haley cut?
           "If I had to pick one record that was definitely the first, I'd be stumped," Jim Dawson (What Was The First Rock Śn' Roll Record) said. "The consensus among many critics and collectors is that Jackie Brenston's ŚRocket 88' is the major breakthrough record."
           With lyrics about powerful cars, women and booze carried by a driving, beat-heavy rhythm, honky-tonk piano and booming tenor saxophone, the 1951 song certainly had more attitude than anything else on the R&B charts.
           But then again, as a rock record, Brenston's "Rocket 88" doesn't measure up to the 1952 version by ‹ you guessed it ‹ Bill Haley and the Comets.
           Besides, Brenston later admitted he lifted his song from Jimmy Liggin's 1947 "Cadillac Boogie." Perhaps it is impossible to pinpoint the origin of the music that changed the world.
           But one thing is certain: whether or not Haley actually invented it, he was definitely right there. "In my latest book, "Rock Around the Clock," I think I showed beyond a reasonable doubt that Bill Haley was a man ahead of his time in the rock 'n' roll department. Consider that "Real Rock Drive" was 1952, "Crazy, Man Crazy" was '53, and "Rock Around the Clock" and "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" were '54. All were recorded before Elvis went into the studio," says Dawson. Monday: Searching for the birthplace of rock 'n' roll.

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