Cradle of Rock?
Two Towns Stake Their Claims

Published: July 10, 2007
South Jersey Journal- by Robert Strauss

WILDWOOD, N.J. Dennis and Tammy Galligan, proprietors of Jack's Twin Bar in Gloucester City, N.J.

Dick Richards was pounding the drums and thinking of the girls on the beach. It was Saturday night during Memorial Day weekend in 1954, and more than 500 people were jammed into the HofBrau Hotel here to hear his band, the Comets, kick off the summer.

"We had just recorded this song in April," he said, "and that night we introduced it to the crowd. I guess that was the first real night of rock 'n' roll."

The song was "Rock Around the Clock," by Bill Haley and His Comets, considered by many to be the first rock-'n'-roll hit, and the first song with the word "rock" in the title to hit the top of the Billboard charts.

Now officials and residents in Wildwood, which in recent years has put a high polish and a healthy dose of kitsch on its 1950s- and '60s-era motels to promote tourism, are saying that their town near the southern tip of New Jersey in Cape May County is the birthplace of rock 'n' roll.

After all, for a few summers Dick Clark held record hops in Wildwood while he was the host of "American Bandstand." And there are plaques where the HofBrau once stood, as well as the site of the former Rainbow Club (now a nightclub called Kahuna's), where Chubby Checker first performed "The Twist."

But Gloucester City, another New Jersey town, about an 80-mile drive northwest of Wildwood, wants to cut in right there. And on Saturday, Mr. Richards and other Comets plan to headline a show in Gloucester City, in Camden County along the Delaware River, to commemorate an 18-month span in the early 1950s when Mr. Haley led the house band at the Twin Bar.

The thing is, though, at the time that band was Bill Haley and the Saddlemen - not the Comets - and it started out playing traditional country-and-western music.

"Before I joined them, they had started playing a song called "Rock This Joint," which had a rhythm-and-blues beat, but mostly they were a western swing band," said Mr. Richards, who today is 83 and has homes in Ocean City, N.J., and in Missouri, near Branson, where the Comets play at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater about 80 times a year.

"Then they added a drum and a lead guitar and became the Comets," Mr. Richards added, "and the rest is history."

Or maybe not.

No matter what claim these two towns make, competition for the birthplace of rock 'n' roll stretches from Philadelphia, the home of "American Bandstand"; to Cleveland, where the disc jockey Alan Freed came to fame and home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum; to Memphis, the site of Elvis Presley's Graceland home.

"I don't know that rock was born - more that it evolved," said Bob Santelli, a former education director at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a former chief executive of the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle. "Memphis, New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta all significantly helped the American music scene after World War II, though certainly these New Jersey towns played roles." Still, he acknowledged that Bill Haley, who died at age 55 in 1981, "has rarely been given his due."

Mr. Santelli said of Mr. Haley, "He was among the first to blend black and white music and saw that country and western and rhythm and blues could have a hybrid."

Steve Martarano, 78, who still lives in Gloucester City, said he was just back from the Navy when he started hanging out at the Twin Bar.

"Ladies weren't allowed in the front room of the bar, but they could go back in back where the Saddlemen played," said Mr. Martarano.

Dennis Galligan, a trucking executive from Williamstown, about 20 miles south of Gloucester City, was looking for a business that he and his wife, Tammy, could run while caring for her sick father. He ended up buying Burt's Shamrock Bar in 2004, and soon afterward had an out-of-towner come in and look around.

"It was a guy named Marshall Lytle, and he said he played there as one of the Comets," Mr. Galligan said.

Mr. Lytle, indeed, played bass with the Comets in the 1950s, and still does along with Mr. Richards, and Mr. Galligan's business was the former Twin Bar. Mr. Galligan painted the exterior yellow and renamed the place Jack's Twin Bar. It has outdoor seating by Gloucester City's main intersection, and the front doors are copies of the original hardwood-and-glass ones that Mr. Haley strode through.

While Gloucester City's rock commemoration will feature an afternoon of music, Wildwood is planning an entire weekend - its fourth annual Fabulous '50s Weekend - in October, with performers like the Coasters and, the Cadillacs and Little Anthony and the Imperials.

"We'll let them have their version if they let us have ours," said Paul Russo, the owner of Cool Scoops, a '50s-themed ice cream parlor in North Wildwood and a promoter of the weekend celebration. "It's just important that people know South Jersey wasn't a backwater, but an innovator of a great part of American culture."

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