It was 60 years ago today that the rock era of popular music began. Yes, there may have been rock and roll before the date of July 9, 1955, but the American rock era, as pretty much universally determined by the music industry, began when Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock” hit the top of the Billboard singles chart 60 years ago today.
The original release of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” was not the chart-climbing success that we have come to recognize it as. In fact, in 1954, Decca Records put the song on the B-side of the Comets’ single “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)”, which was released prior to the group’s breakthrough single in 1954, the cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”.
“Rock Around The Clock” would have remained a forgotten flip side of a not-so-successful single had it not been rescued from obscurity thanks to one Peter Ford, who was the teenage son of popular actor Glenn Ford, the star of the 1955 film “Blackboard Jungle”…the story of a teacher trying to cope with a classroom filled with juvenile delinquents. According to the website TodayIFoundOut.com (http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/01/how-the-momentous-rock-around-the-clock-nearly-never-was)…
“Ford and the producers decided that they needed some music in the film that represented what the kids were listening to. So, they decided to raid Peter Ford’s record collection where they found “Rock Around the Clock”. It fit the bill perfectly, so they set the opening and closing credits to the song. “Blackboard Jungle” was released on March 25, 1955. The movie and the song both proved to be smash hits. Kids flocked to the theater, but for an unprecedented reason: they often came not to watch the film, but to hear its theme song play in the credits. After it was hastily reissued as an A-side after its success in the movie, “Rock Around the Clock” shot to #1 on the charts. It stayed there for eight weeks. It would go on to sell 25 million copies, making it one of the bestselling records of all time, in any genre of music.”
And Bill Haley began to be touted as the King of Rock and Roll. But I’m thinking that even Bill Haley knew that his reign would be a short one. See the video of Bill Haley and His Comets performing “Rock Around The Clock” on a 1955 “Ed Sullivan Show”. Bill Haley was a man who gravitated to rock ‘n’ roll after years of being a country performer. One of his early bands was known as “Bill Haley and the Four Aces of Western Swing”; and, according to Hill-Billy.com, “During the 1940s Haley was considered one of the top cowboy yodelers in America as ‘Silver Yodeling Bill Haley’.”
When “Rock Around The Clock” hit number one, Bill Haley had just turned 30 years old. The instruments the Comets played included an accordion and a pedal steel guitar. Bill Haley himself wore a curly-Q on his rather substantial forehead. To be frank, if you were a teenager at the time, Bill Haley probably looked like someone your dad would talk to at the hardware store about a problem with the boiler in the basement. Today, he looks like a cross between financial reporter Lou Dobbs and Lurch from “The Addams Family”.
Also, if you notice Bill Haley’s singing style in this video, you notice that he either has his eyes closed while singing, or he keeps looking up. My thoughts lead me to believing that Bill Haley did that because he saw the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, knowing that someone younger, more handsome, and more electric a performer would come along and dethrone him as King of Rock. That ascendant to the throne, at the time, was just beginning to hit the national country charts on Sun Records, was headlining shows that were literally creating riots in the South, and, by the end of the year, would have his record contract purchased by RCA Records for the greatest amount of money ever paid a label for an artist. And we all know that this new King of Rock and Roll was a lot younger, much more handsome, and made Bill Haley’s electricity look like static from a blanket sitting in a dry room for days. I refer you to the excellent Showtime special, narrated by the Band’s Levon Helm, “Elvis ’56” to witness the new King’s ascent. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kz4iKAAuiqs)
Yes, Bill Haley to rock was what the stars of baseball’s dead ball era were prior to Babe Ruth’s emergence as a diamond titan. Somebody had to open the door to a mass audience for rock, and that performer was Bill Haley. These days, some refer to Bill Haley as the “Father of Rock and Roll”. Still, Bill Haley covered a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs rather than originating them, so calling him a “father” is kind of misleading, because rock was fathered by black performers. The blues greats leading up to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and others—including “Shake Rattle and Roll” writer Big Joe Turner—were the real fathers of the music. Bill Haley? As I said, he was a fellow not old enough to be a teenager’s dad, but an older figure in their life…a pal with a guitar that sang these swingin’ rock and roll numbers in a plaid jacket with his bar buddies. He wasn’t a sex symbol. He wasn’t a father. Bill Haley was like your uncle, which returns us to the title of this post.