March 27, 2014

45 RPMs 4: Bill Haley ~ Rock Around the Clock

45 RPM
photo by Styrous®

There was an event 59 years ago I will never forget if I live to be a thousand: the opening of the film, Blackboard Jungle. From the instant of its sudden count-down (or should I say, count-up) start, I was transfixed as if I had been hit by a lightning bolt. What was this strange, throbbing and exciting sound that was bursting from the screen? It was a sound like none I'd ever heard before and I was struck senseless. I remember after the film was over I had no recollection of how it started (the action of the movie, that is; I had to see the film again to find out). I only remembered that I had heard something new, different, primal yet sophisticated and incredibly fantastic! It took a few minutes for me to come down from the ceiling to finally focus on the movie when the song ended. 

The music was, of course, Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets. Until that moment my entire pop music experience had been Mitch Miller, Johnnie Ray, Frank Sinatra, Vaughn Monroe, Patti Page, The Four Lads, Tony Bennett and on and on. The only thing that came even remotely close to what I was hearing was some of the big band jazz groups I'd heard at the Sweet's or on 78 RPM records that my mom and dad had. This was NOTHING like any of those. It was a completely new breed of music and it snagged me the instant I heard it!

The Rock and Roll Era is generally dated from the March 25th, 1955, premiere of the motion picture, "The Blackboard Jungle." This film’s use of Bill Haley and His Comets(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock over its opening credits, caused a national sensation when teenagers started dancing in the aisles. I was one of them.

I had already been a collector of music by then with a library of 45's by the aforementioned artists. I immediately ran out and bought the 45 RPM of the song. In the years that followed, when I was at parties with friends and they played their 45's which sounded more like they were being played by cement trucks rather than phonograph players because of the peanut butter 'n jelly and who knows what embedded in the grooves, I never let anyone touch my 45's. If I liked a song, I would buy two copies of it and the crappiest pressing of it (45's didn't have great quality control back then) would go to the parties. Thus mine are almost as good as the day I bought them those 60 or so years ago.

So, back to the artist that created this sensation. Actually, it was a series of artists and events that did the deed but I'm layin' the blame on Haley as he is the one who hooked me, so to speak.

Bill Haley started out in country and western music with some blues influences. He was considered one of the top cowboy yodelers in America. I have some of his old 45's from that period on Essex records. After recording a country and western-styled version of Rocket 88, a rhythm and blues song, he changed musical direction to a new sound which came to be called rock and roll; a term coined by the American disc jockey James "Alan" Freed.

A new name was needed to fit the new musical style. A friend of Haley's, making note of the common alternative pronunciation of the name Halley's Comet to rhyme with Bailey, suggested that Haley call his band The Comets. This event is cited in the Haley biographies "Sound and Glory" by John Haley and John von Hoelle, "Bill Haley" by John Swenson and in "Still Rockin' Around The Clock", a memoir by Comets bass player, Marshall Lytle.

rehearsing at the 
Dominion Theatre, Camden, London,
in 1957 for their first British show. 
photo by Harry Hammond
(Keystone/Getty Images)

The new name was adopted in the fall of 1952. Members of the group at that time were Haley, Johnny Grande, Billy Williamson, and Marshall Lytle. Grande usually played piano on record, but switched to accordion for live shows as it was more portable than a piano and easier to deal with during musical numbers that involved a lot of dancing around. Soon after renaming the band, Haley hired his first drummer, Charlie Higler, though Higler was soon replaced by Dick Boccelli (a.k.a. Dick Richards). During this time and as late as the fall of 1955, Haley did not have a permanent lead guitar player, choosing to use session musicians on record and either playing lead guitar himself or having Williamson play steel solos.

In 1953 Haley scored his first national success with an original song called Crazy Man, Crazy, a phrase Haley said he heard from his teenage audience.  Crazy Man, Crazy was the first rock and roll song to be televised nationally when it was used on the soundtrack for a 1953 television play starring James Dean. This is one of the songs I have on Essex records.

Haley and His Comets then recorded Rock Around the Clock, Haley's biggest hit, and one of the most important records in rock and roll history. Sales of Rock Around the Clock started slowly but eventually sold an estimated 25 million copies (per the Guinness Book of World Records) and marked the arrival of a cultural shift. In 2010, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) listed the soundtrack of the movie on its list of the Top 15 Most Influential Movie Soundtracks of all time.

 photographer unknown

Over 400 titles were recorded and released by Bill Haley and his musicians over a period of forty years, The vocals were sometimes done by other artists, but the back up was Bill's Comets or one of his earlier country-western bands. Haley also recorded over a hundred titles on at least four different Latin American labels: Dimsa, Orfeon, Maya and Dim. Many were sung in Spanish, while others were instrumentals with a strong Spanish flair. Those records sold in the tens of millions thoughout Latin America and South American where "Bill Haley y sus Cometas" remained very popular during the 1960's

Rock Around The Clock lyrics:

One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock
Five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock rock
Nine, ten, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock rock
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight

Put your glad rags on, join me, Hon
We'll have some fun when the clock strikes one
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight
We're gonna rock, rock, rock, 'til broad daylight
Wer're gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight

When the clock strikes two, three and four
If the band slows down we'll yell for more
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight
We're gonna rock, rock, rock, 'til broad daylight
We're gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight

[Instrumental Interlude]

When the chimes ring five, six, and seven
We'll be right in seventh heaven
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight
We're gonna rock, rock, rock, 'til broad daylight
We're gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight

When it's eight, nine, ten, eleven too
I'll be goin' strong and so will you
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight
We're gonna rock, rock, rock, 'til broad daylight
We're gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight

[Instrumental Interlude]

When the clock strikes twelve, we'll cool off then
Start a'rockin' round the clock again
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight
We're gonna rock, rock, rock, 'til broad daylight
We're gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight

Rock Around The Clock
(Max Freedman and Jimmy DeKnigh)

There is a book about Haley titled, "Sound and Glory", by John W. Haley (Bill's son) and John von Hoelle. Published by: Dyne-American Publishing, 2070 Naamans Rd., Suite 103, Wilmington, DE. 19810, 1990.
There's WAY more information available on Wikipedia about Bill Haley and the Comets; it's really worth the time it to check it out.


Net links:

Rock Around the Clock on YouTube
Blackboard Jungle scenes on YouTube
Blackboard Jungle movie credits on IMDb

One, two, three o'clock . . .

Styrous® ~ Tuesday, March 25, 2014

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