The American Legion and the Boy Scouts denounced it. The New York Times called it “nightmarish and bloodcurdling.” And after it incited a near riot in a local theater, the city of Memphis banned it. 50 years ago, when The Blackboard Jungle hit screens across the country, the controversial opening salvo of the film was a shot of amplified fury called “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets.
Music historians may disagree about who recorded the first rock ’n’ roll song (Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” and Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” are two leading contenders), but there’s no doubt about what record punched an electric guitar–shaped hole in the society at large.
Bill Haley was an unlikely rock ’n’ roll hero. Born July 6, 1925 in Highland Park, Michigan to musical parents, he became known as a teenage yodeler, then worked for a time as a DJ. In his 20s, he led a country swing band and had his sights set on becoming the next Gene Autry. It was one of his band members, a Philly kid named Joey Ambrose, who introduced Haley to rhythm and blues. By the early 1950s, Haley had cut two songs, “Crazy Man Crazy” and “Rock the Joint,” that pointed the way to his future. He’d also started wearing the Brylcreem spit curl that would become an iconic image of early rock ’n’ roll.
“Rock Around the Clock,” copyrighted in 1952, is credited to Max C. Freedman and Jimmy DeKnight, whose real name was James Myers. Myers, a publisher and hustler who “dabbled” in songwriting, had collaborated with Haley on a few tunes in the late 1940s when the singer was with the Saddlesmen. According to what Myers told NPR in 2000, he had “most of the song written” when Freedman helped him finish it. Freedman, who died in 1962, wasn’t around to dispute that account, but others, including founding Comets member Johnny Grande told NPR, “Freedman wrote the song.” Whether Myers pulled an Irving Mills and put his name on it, in a publishing arrangement, we may never be known.
But without Myers, the song may never have been recorded. He championed it, pitching it first to his old friend Bill Haley. At the time, Haley was recording for the Essex label, a company owned by Dave Miller. “Myers and Miller didn’t like each other,” Haley recalled in his biography. “Three times I took the tune in the recording studio. Every time Miller would see it, he’d come in and tear it up and throw it away.”
While Haley played the song in his live set, another act, Sonny Dae and His Knights, cut the first record on it. It went nowhere. By then, Myers had landed a new deal for Haley with Decca. Milt Gabler, the man behind all the great Louis Jordan sides of the early 1950s, was slated to produce the sessions.
On April 12, 1954, Haley and the Comets were booked into the Pythian Temple studio, a converted Masonic temple in downtown New York, to record two songs—“Thirteen Women” and “Rock Around the Clock.” That afternoon, the band got stranded in the Delaware River when their ferry ran aground. They arrived at the studio hours late, with time running out.
Milt Gabler had a stake in the publishing of “Thirteen Women,” so he spent most of the session on it. Two takes were cut on the B-side, with Haley shouting out his vocal above the raucous joy of the band. Comets bass player Marshall Lytle recalled in Haley’s bio, “We spent two-and-a-half hours on the A-side and 30 minutes on the B-side, and in 30 minutes, we came up with what is now the anthem of rock ’n’ roll.”
An explosive snare drum, a thumping bass, a spirited vocal—there were several magical elements to this two-minute, eight-second recording, but what really gave it a jolt of electricity was Danny Cedrone’s fiery, staccato guitar solo. 50 years later, it’s still thrilling. Cedrone, a session player, apparently had done a similar solo on several songs cut prior to “Clock,” including Haley’s “Rock the Joint.” As Lytle would comment, “It was his gimmick.”
“Thirteen Women” failed to ignite the charts, but still Myers didn’t give up on his favorite B-side. He mailed copies to everyone he knew in Hollywood. Though his solicitations were refused, his timing was right. Director Richard Brooks was bringing Evan Hunter’s novel The Blackboard Jungle to the screen, with Glenn Ford starring as an inner city teacher. Brooks needed an opening song to set the mood. Ford’s teenage son Paul had Haley’s 45 of “Thirteen Women,” and with the smarts of youth, knew that the flipside was the hip side. Brooks borrowed the record.
While the movie was being shot, Haley moved on to his next single, a cleaned-up cover of Big Joe Turner’s raunchy “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” It went to No. 1 and made him a star. He followed with “Mambo Rock” and “Dim Dim the Lights,” both of which went Top 20. “Rock Around the Clock” came to bat clean-up and hit a grand slam.
Within a month of The Blackboard Jungle’s release, rock ’n’ roll was a worldwide craze. Over the year, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly all emerged from their respective local scenes to dominate the entire music industry.
Though he scored a few more hits, most notably “See You Later Alligator,” Haley never matched the success he had in 1955. He continued to tour through the next two decades, finding an enthusiastic audience in Europe. In 1974, his signature song re-entered the charts when it was used as the theme of George Lucas’s American Graffiti. The year after, Haley cut a new version for the theme of the TV show Happy Days. After his last public performance in 1979, he endured a sad decline into alcoholism and paranoia. He died in 1981.
Bill Haley and the Comets were the first rock ’n’ roll band to get signed to a major label, the first to have a national hit, the first to have a song in a feature film and the first to appear on a major TV show (Ed Sullivan). “Rock Around the Clock” started a tradition of “counting” songs in rock ’n’ roll, from Chuck Berry’s “Thirteen Question Method” to Gene Vincent’s “Five Days, Five Days.” It has sold over 25 million copies (200 million if you count more than 500 cover versions cut in 32 languages) and appeared in 36 movies.
—By Bill DeMain
Photo by David Redfern
From Performing Songwriter Issue 84, March/April 2005