Monday, July 29, 2013

Bill Haley & the Comets--Rock Around the Clock (1955)

     Growing up, I was always under the impression that "Rock Around the Clock" was the "first" rock and roll song. Time and a broader view of music (and history in general) has shown that rarely does something develop out nothing. Rock and roll developed over a series of years, a mix of rhythm and blues and country that culminated in this song and others becoming the watershed moments. However, Bill Haley DID have a major hand in this development.
     Haley was born in Michigan, but spent much of his childhood near Chester, Pennsylvania. Both of his parents were musicians with his Dad, from Kentucky, playing the guitar and mandolin and his mother, from England, being a pianist. It was his father's influence which won over as the  youngster took up the guitar and soon was playing in western swing bands.
     It was in this genre where Haley began to get notice, as his band, "The Four Aces of Western Swing" began recording in 1948. A year later the group was disbanded and Bill formed, "The Saddlemen". The first singles were Bob Willis' influenced Western Swing, but over the next few years the band took a decidedly bluesy turn with their take on Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats', "Rocket 88'" in late 1951 and then, "Rock This Joint" in 1952. It was this turn in musical style that convinced Haley to change the name of the group, "The Comets".
      Listening to the music by now, it was obvious that the lines between rhythm and blues and country were getting blurred. Listening to the The Comets' first hit, "Crazy, Man Crazy" in 1953 and "Shake Rattle and Roll" in 1954, it was easy to see that this was a new kind of music, even if the public at large had not truly identified it as of yet. We know it now as Rockabilly.
     There is speculation concerning the first recording of "Rock Around the Clock". There are some who suggest it was first recorded in 1953, but the latest and probably best evidence points to early 1954, but still well before it became a hit. The Comets had five top twenty hits on the pop charts before a movie propelled the group and the song into superstardom.
     "Blackboard Jungle", starring Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier, and Vic Morrow, started and ended the the Comets song. It became a phenomenon in England and was also a hit here in the states. More importantly it linked this new music that had been given a name (courtesy of DJ's like Allen Freed), to juvenile delinquency and began the initial firestorm of protest by parents and those who felt the need to defend moral decency.
      As for Haley and the Comets, "Rock Around the Clock" not only became a number one song, but became the first musical touchstone for a new generation . The big hits didn't last long however as the top twenty hits stopped coming after 1956, although they kept charting songs all the way up to 1960. He was already 30 by the time Elvis appeared on Ed Sullivan, and with influx of younger, (and sexier) personalities, Haley was already seen as old in a young man's game.
     Throughout the 60's he continued to tour around the world as his star never abated in Europe and Latin America. He began to become "rediscovered" in the 70's because of the song's use as the opening theme of ABC's, "Happy Days" in 1974 (the song actually went back into the top 40 for a few weeks). During all of this time, he had problems with alcohol, and this contributed to his death in 1981. The remaining members of The Comets continued to perform until the mid-00's.



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