39. Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock (1955)

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Finally! After nearly 40 blogs, rock’n’roll has arrived. Although not the first song of the genre (nobody really knows if such a song actually exists, although Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats is often credited as such), and not the best either, Rock Around the Clock is understandably credited as the tune that brought it to a wider audience, and influenced millions, including many youngsters who were taking note and went on to become star musicians themselves. Rock’n’roll was about feeling rather than form, about stripping away such soppy, sappy lyrics over flowery, string-packed instruments. There’s no wonder it helped bring about the dawn of the teenager. Why should young adults grow from children to instant adulthood? Why not have some fun first, before life gets too dull and dreary? Haley may have been way too old to be a teenager, but it didn’t matter. Rock Around the Clock represented the new young energy that would help sweep the country out of the post-war doldrums.

The song is believed to have been first written in 1952. Credited to Max C. Freedman and Jimmy De Knight (a pseudonym belonging to James E. Myers), it was first recorded by Sonny Day and His Knights, although apparently they’d always had Haley’s group in mind.

William John Clifton Haley was born in Highland, Michigan on 6 July 1925. When he was four he underwent an inner-ear mastoid operation which accidentally severed an optic nerve. This left him blind in his left eye for the rest of his life, and may explain why he grew a kiss curl over his right eye.

The Haley family moved to Bethel, Pennsylvania due to the effects of the Great Depression when he was seven. Both his parents were musicians (his mother originally came from Ulverston in Lancashire) and by the time he was 13, their son was singing and playing the guitar.

Two years later Haley left home to find fame. He spent the 40s in several bands, including The Down Homers and The Four Aces of Western Swing, and was even known as Silver Yodelling Bill Haley at one point.

By 1951 he was leading a country music act known as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, but they changed their name to Bill Haley with Hayley’s Comets and adopted an early rock’n’roll sound after covering Rocket 88. They had their first hit with Crazy Man, Crazy, which is perhaps the first song of the genre to be shown on television, used on the soundtrack to a play starring James Dean. Soon after, they settled on Bill Haley & His Comets, and they were pianist Johnny Grande, steel guitarist Billy WIlliamson and bassist Marshall Lytle. Before long they had their first drummer, Earl Famous, who was soon replaced by Dick Richards.

In spring 1954 they began working with Milt Gabler, who had worked on several proto-rock’n’roll tracks previously. In their first session they recorded Rock Around the Clock as a last minute B-side to Thirteen Women And Only One Man In Town, a track about the survivors of a nuclear bomb.

Luckily for Haley and co, the son of a famous actor had become quite the fan of that B-side. 10-year-old Peter Ford was Glenn Ford’s son, and Glenn was due to co-star alongside Sidney Poitier in a film about teenage delinquents called Blackboard Jungle. He suggested to director Richard Brooks to stick the song over the opening credits. Swiftly capitalising on the attention, the song was re-released and spent two months at number 1 in the US. It was only a matter of time before their success was repeated in the UK, a nation starving for the return of the good times.

I’m stating the obvious by saying it sounds quaint compared with the songs it later influenced, but there’s more raw energy packed into the opening of Rock Around the Clock than any UK number 1 up to that point. Haley’s voice commands you to take note and to have a good time, and the Comets ably assist, and so does guitarist Danny Cedrone, on loan from The Esquire Boys, who couldn’t think of a new solo and simply redid his performance on their earlier track Rock This Joint. It didn’t matter, it’s blistering and is easily the highlight of the song.

In a genre full of tragedy, Cedrone was one of the first victims. He never had chance to enjoy the group’s fame as a month after they had recorded Rock Around the Clock, he fell down some stairs and broke his neck, dying at the age of 33. By the time they became number 1, the Comets were a different group to the ones that recorded the song. In addition to Cedrone’s death, three other members left the group over money issues.

Before long, the younger acts they had helped influence suddenly made Bill Haley & His Comets look old and staid by comparison. They had become victims of the youth movement they helped usher in. Stardom lasted longer in Europe, where they enjoyed a few more years of being mobbed by fans. But rock’n’roll came and went many times over the years, with several revivals, and Rock Around the Clock was re-recorded several times and often reissued.

Haley battled the booze during the 70s, and towards the end of his life he had a brain tumour. He died on 9 February 1981, aged 55 of ‘natural causes, most likely a heart attack’, according to his death certificate. But in a sense Rock Around the Clock‘s influence has made him immortal.

Written by: Max C Freedman & Jimmy De Knight

Producer: Milt Gabler

Weeks at number 1: 5 (25 November-15 December 1955, 6-19 January 1956) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE DECADE*

Births:

Singer Billy Idol – 30 November
Conservative MP Philip Hammond – 4 December
The Clash bassist Paul Simonon – 15 December
Presenter Angus Deayton – 6 January
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby – 6 January
Actress Imelda Staunton – 9 January
Singer Paul Young – 17 January 

Deaths:

Ecologist Sir Arthur Tansley – 25 November

Meanwhile…

2 December: The Barnes rail crash in Barnes, South London, left 13 dead and 35 injured.

7 December: Long-running Labour leader Clement Attlee resigned. For all the positive changes he helped bring about after the war, it was time for him to pass on the torch if the party was to usurp new Tory Prime Minister Anthony Eden. One week later, Hugh Gaitskell, a right-wing politician by many Labour members’ standards, defeated Nye Bevan and was named as the new leader.

10 thoughts on “39. Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock (1955)

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