The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in 25 Songs: Bill Haley and the Comets – "Rock Around The Clock"

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll is 17 Track’s attempt to squeeze more than sixty years of music onto a mixtape.There are many ways to tell a story, and the story of rock ‘n’ roll is one that has been told many times in many ways. It’s messy, complicated and difficult to follow in some parts, and the entire history of it could fill volumes. But what if you didn’t have volumes? What if you only had a blank CD-R and you had to tell the story through songs? Each song in this list represents a moment or movement in the development of popular music. It’s not a list of the best, most important or most influential songs, it’s exactly what it professes to be – a history.

The second song, Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Rock Around The Clock,” tells the story of rock ‘n’ roll reaching the mainstream, and the challenges it faced along the way.

Song 2: “Rock Around the Clock”

Bill Haley and the Comets


Bill Haley and his Comets Rock Around The Clock Single Sleeve Art The History of Rock N Roll in 25 SongsDecca Records

Writers: Max C. Freedman and James E. Myers

Producer: Milt Gabler

Released: May 20, 1954

“Rock Around The Clock” was a revolutionary song, but explaining that can easily elicit blank stares. To modern ears, the song sounds dated, hokey and quaint. It’s not exactly the type of song one can mosh to. But “Rock Around The Clock” was a landmark. It literally started riots.

The song became the first rock ‘n’ roll record to go No. 1 when it topped Billboard’s three main charts the summer of 1955. “Rock Around The Clock” symbolized the beginning of an era, marking the closest thing that resembles a sort of  BC/AD split between the pre-rock era of pop crooners and the rise and reign of rock ‘n’ roll. Listening to it alongside songs that preceded it atop the charts that year – songs like “The Ballad of Davey Crocket” and “Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White)” – illustrates this perfectly.

For scoring the first big rock ‘n’ roll hit, Bill Haley and the Comets were unlikely rock stars. By the time the song became a smash, Haley was in his thirties. Pudgy, blind in his left eye and sporting a signature curl in his hair, he lacked the charisma you’d expect from the lead singer of a chart topping band. In fact, the success of “Rock Around The Clock” was largely a fluke. Had Haley and his band not been there to usher in the brave new rock era, someone else with a different song would have sooner or later. The story of “Rock Around The Clock” is a story about being in the right place at the right time.

The phrase rock ‘n’ roll was still new when the song went No. 1. The words “rockin’” and “rollin’” had been used for years in rhythm and blues songs – sometimes separately, sometimes together and often with a sexual connotation – but the first person credited to using the words together to describe the new emerging genre of music was Cleveland DJ Alan Freed.

Freed began his career spinning classical music, but soon switched to “rock ‘n’ roll,” which he championed on his program, the Moondog Show. The work of Freed and others who promoted rock ‘n’ roll not only helped the infant genre grow its audience, but it chipped away at the color barrier. Much of the music Freed played was by black artists, and it reached young white ears. Freed also endorsed concert shows – his “rock ‘n’ roll revues” – where artists performed in front of racially mixed crowds, an uncommon practice at the time.

In 1954, Freed moved to New York station WINS and continued to play rock ‘n’ roll, but to a much larger audience. His support of black artists drew criticism, however. In 1957, for example, the plug was pulled on a TV show he sponsored after an African-American singer was shown dancing with a white girl. A year later, a fight broke out at one of his concerts in Boston, and he was arrested. In the early ’60s, Freed was prosecuted for accepting bribes to play songs, a widespread practice called payola. Although disc jockeys around the country were known to engage in the illegal practice, many who played white singers and bands were not prosecuted, leading some believe Freed’s support of black artists made him a target.

Although rock ‘n’ roll was growing in popularity in the mid-to-late ’50s, the resistance disc jockeys like Freed faced, made it obvious that racism was holding it back from gaining widespread acceptance. This provided ample opportunities for white singers and bands to cash in on the craze. It wasn’t uncommon for songs originally recorded by black artists to be re-recorded by white artists. The original would be forgotten and the new, sanitized, white version would go on to become a hit.

“Rocket 88″ was one such song to be re-recorded by white artists. Months after Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats recorded the song in Memphis, Bill Haley and the Saddleman, a country group fronted by the Michigan-born Haley, recorded the song. “Rocket 88″ was a turning point for the group, signed to a small Pennsylvania record label, and they began moving further from their country roots and slipping in more R&B covers into their setlists.

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The following year, they covered another song by a black artist, Jimmy Preston’s “Rock The Joint,” before dropping their cowboy image and swapping the name Saddlemen for the far more exciting Comets. The group’s next single was “Crazy, Man, Crazy,” a rhythm and blues influenced track written by Haley. The track became their biggest hit yet, rising to No. 12 on the Billboard Juke Box June 1954. The success of the song led to an offer by a much larger record label, Decca Records, which Haley and the Comets accepted.

At Decca, the band worked with producer Milt Gabler, a man with a background in rhythm and blues who was responsible for a string of hits for Louis Jordan, an African-American artist known as “The King of the Jukebox”. Gabler’s influence further pushed Haley and the Comet’s sound further from country to rock ‘n’ roll. He tripled-miked the drums to make them louder and had session drummer Billy Guesack hit rim-shots on his snare for a heavy backbeat sound.

They spent most of their first recording session working on their first single for Decca, “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town),” and only at the end did they lay down “Rock Around The Clock.”  Recorded in two takes, “Rock Around The Clock” was relegated to to the B-side.

The single was released May 20, 1954, but was a relative flop, peaking at No. 23 and tumbling down the chart shortly thereafter. “Rock Around The Clock” almost faded away, a forgotten B-side to an unsuccessful single by an upstart band, but it was given a second chance.

In 1955, the producers of the film Blackboard Jungle were in need of a rock ‘n’ roll song for the opening credits. Set in an inner city school, the movie featured rebellious students prone to fistfights and was intended to serve as a warning of the dangers of the emerging teenage culture. Actor Glenn Ford, who played one of the school’s teachers in the film, borrowed his son’s record collection in hopes of finding the perfect song, and among the records was Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Thirteen Women.” The producers chose the single’s B-side, and Haley and his band finally got their big break.

Blackboard Jungle posterBlackboard Jungle incited riots at showings around the globe. From Minneapolis to London, teenagers committed acts of vandalism in theaters, and a 15-year-old John Lennon was disappointed when no riot broke out after a showing in Liverpool. One psychiatrist said that violence incited by rock ‘n’ roll was a “communicable disease” spread by a “cannibalistic and tribalistic sort of music.” A rock ‘n’ roll rebellion had begun, and “Rock Around The Clock” was its anthem.

Renewed interest in the song led to its re-release. It immediately shot to the top of Billboard’s Best Sellers in Stores chart and stayed there for two months. The Most Played by Jockeys and Most Played in Jukeboxes charts came next. The song’s success even took the band by surprise.

“”We just really didn’t realize until it was being played all over the place and we were getting calls from Ed Sullivan,” Joey Ambrose, the Comet’s saxophonist, told CNN in 2005.

Before “Rock Around The Clock” fell from the top slot, Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” reached the top ten, and other rock ‘n’ roll songs were to soon to follow. It was as if the floodgates had opened. But rock’s cultural dominance still wasn’t assured. As rock ‘n’ roll grew louder, so did its critics, and a telling sign of the uphill battle it faced came in the form of the song that replace “Rock Around The Clock” at No. 1, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” by Mitch Miller.

Although the band had some minor hits with follow-up singles like a cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “See You Later, Alligator,” they failed to match the success of “Rock Around The Clock.” Before long, a new crop of rock stars oozing sex and celebrity in a way Haley and the Comets couldn’t overtook the attention of rock ‘n’ roll fans.

Previously: Song 1: Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – “Rocket 88″

Bibliography:

Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. New York: Billboard Books, 2003.

Dawson, Jim. Rock Around the Clock : The Record that Started the Rock Revolution. San Fransisco: Backbeat Books, 2005.

Judge, Mark. “Redemption Song.” The American Spectator. August 19, 2005. http://spectator.org/archives/2005/08/19/redemption-song

Leopold, Todd. “The 50-year-old song that started it all.” CNN. July 8, 2005. http://articles.cnn.com/2005-07-07/entertainment/haley.rock_1_rock-n-roll-jackie-brenston-roll-guy?_s=PM:SHOWBIZ

Starr, Larry and Waterman, Christoper. American Popular Music: The Rock Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

 

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