In 1955, a little black-and-white B-movie hit cinema screens and helped change music forever. Blackboard Jungle starred Glenn Ford as a teacher trying to make changes in a inner-city school — a theme not unusual now but ground-breaking then.
It wasn’t the subject matter that caused a sensation, however, but the song featured throughout the movie. It was so striking it had kids dancing in the aisles.
“Rock Around the Clock” is not the first rock ‘n’ roll song but it is certainly one of the most important ones. Other records may lay claim to really being the first but “Rock Around the Clock” was the first heard by millions around the world.
When it was played during the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle, kids who had never heard rock ‘n’ roll before rushed out and turned what was originally a B-side into a massive hit and the 30-year-old, kiss-curl-wearing Bill Haley into an unlikely teen hero.
The song itself wasn’t written by Haley but by songwriters James E. Myers (under the name Jimmy DeKnight) and an almost 60-year-old Max Freedman in 1952. Myers had been working on the song for several years and was playing it one day in his office when his friend Freeman popped in and begun adding words to his tune. Myers later told the Rockabilly Hall of Fame:
“When we finished it, he said, ‘What are you going to call it?’ I said, ‘Rock Around The Clock.’ And he said, ‘Why rock? What’s that mean? Why not “Dance Around The Clock?”’ And I said, ‘I just have a gut feeling, and since I’m half writer and whole publisher, I’m the boss! Right!’ So, we called it ‘Rock Around the Clock.’”
Myers already had a long working relationship with Haley when he offered the song to him, having written Haley’s first ever single, “Ten Gallon Stetson” (recorded with his country band the Saddlemen) in 1950. Haley loved the new song and began performing it in concert but he almost didn’t record it due to a dispute with Haley’s record producer at the time, Dave Miller, owner of the label Essex Records.
Despite Haley’s enthusiasm for “Rock Around the Clock”, Miller hated Myers and refused to let any of his artists record his songs. Haley later recalled, “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.”
Undeterred, Myers knew he was onto something big and was determined to get the song out there, offering it to an instrumental group called Sonny Dae and His Knights. Their version of “Rock Around the Clock” was the very first released, hitting stores in March 1954 but sunk without a trace and the band never made another record.
Thankfully for Myers, Haley left Essex Records in early 1954 to sign with major label Decca Records. Everything had been working against Haley and his band recording “Rock Around the Clock,” and his first recording session with Decca was no different.
First, the ferry taking them from Philadelphia to New York got stuck making them late, then once at the studio their new producer Milt Gabler (who also happens to be actor and comedian Billy Crystal’s uncle) wanted the band to instead work on a track called “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town),” a novelty song about a nuclear bomb blast that leaves just 14 people alive that had previously been recorded by Dickie Thompson.
This was to be, Gabler had decided, the band’s first Decca single (most likely because Gabler was said to have a stake in its publishing).
It was only after they had finished recording this track that Haley and the boys were allowed to give “Rock Around the Clock” a try with the aim of it being the B-side. With Sammy Davis, Jr. impatiently waiting for his turn in the studio, there was only time (30 minutes in all) for two takes, and these were spliced together for the single.
When Haley recorded “Rock Around the Clock,” he had already released numerous singles, first as a country artist with his band the Saddlemen and then, after a name change in 1952 (inspired by Halley’s Comet), with the Comets.
Born in Michigan in 1925 to a musical mother and father, Haley was interested in music from an early age and when he attempted to make a guitar out of cardboard, his parents knew it was time to buy him a real one. Their faith in him soon paid off when, by the age of 13, Haley was already playing professionally, albeit for just a dollar a night.
By 15, he had left home to pursue a career in music, singing on local radio, in a traveling medicine show, and with a number of bands, including the Four Aces of Western Swing, where he earned a reputation as one of best cowboy yodelers in the country.
He soon found a job as a DJ on a radio station in Pennsylvania, and it was here that he began broadening his musical palette and was soon incorporating R&B and boogie woogie into the Saddlemen. Although primarily a Western swing band by 1951, they had recorded “Rocket 88” (the track some call the first rock ‘n’ roll song), and it wasn’t long before the Saddlemen abandoned country and became the Comets.
Haley and his bass player Marshall Lytle wrote the song “Crazy Man, Crazy” inspired by the slang they heard teens using at their shows, and it became the first ever rock ‘n’ roll song to appear on the American charts (peaking at #12 in June 1953).
By the time Haley & His Comets had signed with Decca Records, they were ready for another hit, but “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man)” wasn’t it. Fortunately for Haley, one of the few people who did buy the record was a 10-year-old boy called Peter Ford — who just happened to be the son of movie star Glenn Ford — and he could not stop playing the B-side, “Rock Around the Clock.”
Thanks to the young Ford, “Rock Around the Clock” ended up in his dad’s new film, Blackboard Jungle, when the director Richard Brooks, who was looking for a youthful, hip tune to open his film, heard him playing it. Peter Ford later wrote on his website:
“Richard stopped by our house on occasion to visit Dad and talk about the production. It was on one of these visits that Richard heard some of my records. One of them was ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ I now know that he borrowed that record and some others on one of his visits.
Joel Freeman, who was the assistant director on the film, recalled that toward the end of production, which would have been mid-December 1954, Brooks called him into his office to hear some records that he thought might possibly be used in the opening of the film.
He played Joel three songs and they agreed that Haley’s up-tempo ‘jump blues’ tune was the perfect choice for inclusion the film.”
When the film was released in March 1955, the song, which was featured three times in the movie, became an immediate sensation, and by July that year, it became the first ever rock ‘n’ roll song to reach #1 on the Billboard charts, spending eight weeks in all at the top.
The band then became the first rock ‘n’ roll act to appear on a major TV show when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Haley had opened the door and introduced rock music to the mainstream.
Despite its success, the song was also touched by tragedy. Only a month after it was released Danny Cedrone, the guitarist who was paid just $21 to play on the track and provided the striking, much-emulated guitar solo on the song, fell down a staircase and died. He was only 33 years old.
Cedrone sadly never got to see the phenomenal success of “Rock Around the Clock,” but his old band was soon in big demand. Hollywood quickly came knocking, and soon, they were making their own movies, one named after the song (which actually caused some youth riots when shown in the London) and another, Don’t Knock The Rock, named after another Haley hit.
Haley and the Comets then became the first rock ‘n’ roll band to tour Europe in 1957 and were given a rapturous welcome when they visited the UK for the first time. (“Rock Around the Clock” became the biggest selling single of the 1950s there and was the first to sell over a million copies.)
The UK concerts made a huge impact in another way, too, inspiring some future rock superstars. Paul McCartney later told Gibson.com, “The first time I really ever felt a tingle up my spine was when I saw Bill Haley and the Comets on the telly. Then I went to see them live. The ticket was 24 shillings, and I was the only one of my mates who could go, as no one else had been able to save up that amount. But I was single-minded about it. I knew there was something going on here.”
Graham Nash had a similar experience seeing Bill Haley: “I’ve still got the ticket stub in my wallet from when I went to see Bill Haley and the Comets play in Manchester in February 1957 — my first-ever concert. Over the years, I’ve lost houses, I’ve lost wives, but I’ve not lost that ticket stub. It’s that important to me.”
Haley had some great hits after “Rock Around the Clock” such as “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” “See You Later Alligator,” “Mambo Rock,” and “Don’t Knock the Rock,” among others, but the emergence of younger, seemingly cooler acts such as Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly, soon left the band behind.
A British newsreel once called Haley the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but when the handsome Presley hit the scene, wiggling his hips and curling his lips, it was obvious the crown had been stolen by someone younger and sexier than the band of 30-somethings.
Haley and the Comets soon became something of a nostalgia act and, for a long time, didn’t get their due as one of bands responsible for changing music forever even when their most famous song re-emerged in films such as American Graffiti and (in a re-recorded version) as the theme song for the first two seasons of Happy Days.
It’s said that Haley himself became increasingly bitter and succumbed to alcoholism. In 1980, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and sadly died on February 9, 1981 at just 55 years old.
Even after his death, it took a while for Bill Haley and the Comets to get their due. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, he was not among the original inductees but thankfully, this mistake was corrected when he was inducted the following year. (It took until 2012 to finally admit the Comets, however.)
Now, “Rock Around the Clock” is rightly recognized as the song that popularized rock ‘n’ roll and influenced a whole generation of singers and musicians. The last word is best left to the man himself: “I was always proud of ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ It sold many millions of records, and rock ‘n’ roll was born.”