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The 50-year-old song that started it all

'Rock Around the Clock' made Bill Haley the first rock star

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Fifty years ago Saturday, "Rock Around the Clock" hit No. 1 and stayed there for eight weeks.

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(CNN) -- He was, James Miller wrote in "Flowers in the Dustbin," "the world's first -- and to this day, least likely -- rock and roll star."

Bill Haley was 30 in 1955, a family man with several children and a job as leader of a mildly popular band, the Comets. With his spit curl and paunch he looked like a salesman or, maybe, a disc jockey -- which, indeed, had been one of his previous jobs.

He'd had a couple major chart hits but didn't think much of rock 'n' roll; it was simply the hot thing at the time, something popular with the kids that got the dance halls jumping and paid the bills. Haley's background was in Western swing, a la one of his influences, Bob Wills.

So he may have been destined to be a musical footnote if it weren't for a movie, "Blackboard Jungle," and the song that blasted over the opening credits: "Rock Around the Clock."

Fifty years ago Saturday, "Rock Around the Clock" hit No. 1, a position it held for eight weeks on the Billboard charts. "Rock 'n' roll," an expansive term coined a couple years earlier by DJ Alan Freed, had now been to the pop mountaintop, a position it would never quite relinquish.

Within six months, a trickle of rock 'n' roll hits -- by artists such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Carl Perkins -- would become a flood as the king of them all, Elvis Presley, emerged with a hip-shaking frenzy and changed the course of pop music for good.

Elvis, Little Richard, Berry, Domino, Perkins -- they're all considered founding fathers, legendary names still recognized as rock 'n' roll pioneers. But Haley? How did a pudgy, un-rock 'n' roll guy become the man who made the first huge rock 'n' roll record?

Kevin Phinney, author of the forthcoming "Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture" (Billboard Books), puts it succinctly.

"He was the right man at the right place at the right time," Phinney says.

Following the trend

"Rock Around the Clock" -- its full title is "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" -- wasn't the first rock 'n' roll record. Wynonie Harris did "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1947; Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" came out in 1949; the Ike Turner Band's "Rocket 88," credited to Turner saxophonist Jackie Brenston, was released in 1951. The latter generally gets the rock historians' vote, though the music can be traced back to blues and country records from much earlier.

But Haley knew a trend when he saw one, and rock 'n' roll was starting to get noticed amid the Teresa Brewer, Perry Como and Patti Page records that dominated the charts.

A handful of disc jockeys, including Cleveland's Freed; Nashville's John R. and Gene Nobles; Atlanta's Zenas Sears, and Los Angeles' Hunter Hancock were playing the music on their radio stations, some of which were clear-channel 50,000-watt broadcasters with a nighttime listening area extending hundreds of miles away.

But rock 'n' roll was a niche music. The DJs often worked the night shift. The songs could be raw; after all, "rock 'n' roll" was a euphemism for sex. And -- in the largely segregated 1950s -- most of the artists making the music (called "race" music until the mid-1950s) were black, recording for small, independent labels. Their versions sold well, but didn't get played on mainstream radio.

By watering down the beat and the message, it was folks like the Crew Cuts, who covered the Chords' "Sh-Boom," and Pat Boone, who did "Ain't That a Shame," who had the big radio hits. Radio was still waiting for a white man who could really sing this black music.

Haley and his band had recorded "Rocket 88" not long after it came out, and with the Comets (the name changed from Saddlemen) he had a hit with "Crazy Man Crazy" in 1953. That success led to a contract with a major label, Decca.

The band recorded "Rock Around the Clock," a song written for them, in 1954 under the tutelage of producer Milt Gabler. Gabler made the drums sound huge: He "placed three microphones around [session drummer Billy Guesack's] drum kit, and asked him to hit rim-shots on the snare drum, in order to produce a heavy backbeat," Miller wrote.

And then ... nothing. The song topped out at No. 23 on Billboard's charts.

That may have been the end of the "Rock Around the Clock" story if it hadn't been for Peter Ford, actor Glenn Ford's son.

According to a story Ford tells on his Web site (http://www.peterford.com/ratc.html), as his father was working on a hard-nosed juvenile delinquent drama called "Blackboard Jungle," director Richard Brooks heard Peter Ford's copy of "Rock Around the Clock." Brooks decided the song was perfect for the movie.

"Blackboard Jungle" was released on March 25, 1955, and -- very quickly -- "Rock Around the Clock" was everywhere. Perhaps the last people to notice were Haley and his Comets.

"We just really didn't realize until it was being played all over the place and we were getting calls from Ed Sullivan," Comets saxophonist Joey Ambrose told CNN.

'Tension and release'

The song was a phenomenon. Teens danced in the aisles in theaters where "Blackboard Jungle" played; in some places, there were riots.

Rock 'n' roll had arrived -- and it was a menace. It would carry the stigma -- or badge -- of being not quite fit for polite society (Frank Sinatra called it "music for cretins"; white Southerners called it much worse) for years to come.

But Haley couldn't capitalize much. He had a couple more hits (notably "See You Later Alligator") and made a quickie movie (called, naturally, "Rock Around the Clock"), but was gone from the charts by 1957. The singer had a burst of popularity in Britain -- Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend and Graham Nash credit Haley shows with their own love of rock -- but he had become an oldies show anachronism by the time he died of a heart attack in 1981. He was 55.

Phinney believes that Haley, in some ways, was a fluke. If he hadn't ushered in the rock era, it would have been someone else.

"Look how quickly he was outstripped by other white rockers," he says, mentioning Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly in quick succession.

And then there was Elvis, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips' answer to his perhaps apocryphal statement, "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars."

Elvis was handsome. Elvis was charismatic. Elvis was dangerous. Elvis could sing "all kinds," as he himself once said. And, as he also said, "I don't sound like nobody." When a major, RCA, bought him from the independent Sun for $35,000, all bets were off.

"I think the miracle of Elvis wasn't just that he was telegenic," says Phinney. "It's that all of the music melted together in his mind. He was a man able to articulate what people wanted and reached for. ... It was all about tension and release."

Though Haley's Comets were a crack band, the leader of the group just didn't have that charisma. Miller describes his voice as "solid as a plank -- and as wooden."

But rock 'n' roll is often a series of accidents -- the right people, the right chemistry, the right sound. Bill Haley created an outstanding rock 'n' roll record, and he knew how to put it across.

Haley himself knew what he had.

"No matter how bad a show might be going some night, I know that song will pull us through," he said. "It's my little piece of gold."

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