SONG: Rock Around the Clock
ARTIST: Bill Haley & His Comets
Listen to it here:
There is some debate as to when Rock Around the Clock was first written, some sources say 1953 and others indicate it was 1952. It was written by Max C. Friedman and James E. Myers (Myers using the pseudonym Jimmy Dee Knight). They copyrighted the song in 1953 and again there’s some dispute us to who actually wrote the song, as there are lots of similarities in melody to previous songs such as a Hank Williams hit, a Charlie Patton song from 1929 and a Count Basie song. Apparently when Bill Haley got his hands on the song he attempted to record it in the studio twice with Dave Miller, his producer, ripping up his sheet music every time. Myers decided to give this song to an all white Italian American group called Sonny Dae and his Knights which turned out to be a regional success but sounded different from the Bill Haley version that we all know. After leaving his oppressive record contract Bill Haley signed with Decca and recorded a few songs in studio. Towards the end of the session the band finally recorded Rock Around the Clock but Bill Haley could not be heard over the sound of the band. On the second take they did minimal accompaniment and put the song to tape, in a bit of a rush because apparently Sammy Davis Jr was waiting in the hallway as it was his time to record.
Rock Around the Clock was a B side to the song 13 Women (And Only One Man in Town). It was considered a flop and a commercial disappointment until 1955 when the song was used as the opening credits to the movie Blackboard Jungle featuring a young Sidney Poitier. On July 9, 1955 Rock Around the Clock became the first rock and roll song to break Billboard’s pop charts and stayed on the charts at number one for seven weeks. The song became popular with teenagers around the world and was actually the biggest selling recording in Australia at the time. Bill Haley would re-record Rock around the Clock many times but never recaptured the magic of his original recording. The song was seen as being the clear cut start of the rock ‘n’ roll era, a clear delineation of before and after.
William John Clifton Haley was born in Highland Park, Michigan on July 6, 1925. His parents were accomplished musicians and after he crafted himself a cardboard guitar, his folks bought him a real one. He started writing and performing his own material at 13 years old and by 15 he left his parents’ house and set out on his own, seeking fame and fortune and picking up every gig he could along the way. In the 1940s he formed the group the Saddlemen and signed a record contract in 1951. In 1952 the Saddlemen changed their name to Bill Haley and Haley’s Comets and their 1953 recording of Crazy Man, Crazy became the first rock and roll song to chart on Billboard. In 1954 the newly renamed Bill Haley & His Comets recorded and released Rock Around the Clock to moderate success and worldwide hit with Shake Rattle and Roll. It wasn’t until 1955 when the movie Blackboard Jungle featured Rock Around the Clock as its theme song that Haley became a household name. He performed the hit on the Texaco Star Theater, the Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand. Unfortunately Haley’s popularity was short lived as his appeal was soon eclipsed by that of the younger and more attractive Elvis Presley, but toured Europe , Australia and Latin America through the 1960.
Unfortuntely, Haley battled alcoholism which started to negatively effect his mental health and contribute to increasingly erratic behaviour into the 1970s. It was widely reported that Haley had a brain tumour, but this was refuted by his wife at the time as well as his close friend, and that Haley had used it as an excuse to not tour anymore and play the sympathy card. Haley’s drinking got worse and worse until his wife kicked him out and he lived in her pool house. In the weeks leading to his death, Haley would call friends and relatives late at night where he would ramble and be living in the past. He was found dead of possible cardiac arrest on February 9, 1981, age 55.
A botched mastoid operation left Haley blind in his left eye for his whole life. It was said that he adopted his trademark curl over his right eye to take attention away from the left.
Maaaaan this song is so damn iconic, how do you review objectively?? An ongoing issue here. I’ll try and give it a go! First of all, the song itself is super catchy, and I guess we can credit the arrangement as well. It’s what I imagine when the cool kids these days call something a ‘bop’. Can we also bring back the term ‘glad rags’? This might be the only time I’ve heard it used. Bill’s voice is fine – nothing incredible, I would say serviceable for this song. The band is good and tight, a slight ‘a-ricky-ticky’ vibe with the drums. If I were the engineer or producer, I would have turned that bass up a lot more! It almost sounds like everyone else is standing around the mic, except the bass player is in the closet. I KNEW as soon as I heard that sax solo we were gonna have problems! I knew Holly would have something to say about it, because I’m pretty sure you could give that sax solo to a grade 8 sax player and as long as they were in tune and competent with rhythm, they too could be the sax player on Rock Around the Clock. At least he’s in tune. The guitar player is fine and the sound is that prototypical electrified big fat hollow body guitar sound of the 1950s but I hate that solo, especially the first bar or two. Anyway, I know this blog isn’t political, but I do have to say I know it wouldn’t have been as popular if a Black man had sung this, but god damn it would have rocked harder. Even listen to someone like Sam Cooke (especially his Live at Harlem Square record) and imagine him singing it. Just better. Anyhow, I still like the song and have good memories tied to it.
For me, probably for my sister, and for many listeners, today’s listen is a ubiquitous song that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Hard to look at objectively, but here we go! I’m listening to the little details instead of the song as a whole. First, what the heck is with the tickey sound? There are super messy sounding drums which are mic’ed super weird and washy, but then there’s a clip clop tickey sound overtop which, once you start hearing, you can’t unhear. I know it’s super simplistic, but this tenor sax “solo” just yells early rock to me, and for that, I like it. It’s nice to know that there were good saxophone players playing rock or rockabilly saxophone in the 1950s, because I know we’re going to come across a few I can not stand when we get into the 1960s. I’m not sure I realized this when I was a little kid and this song’s importance was explained to me, but man, does Bill Haley ever sound white. I just can’t get behind his voice. It’s Wonderbread to me; bland, bland, bland. The guitar isn’t very prominent until the last few seconds of the song as well. Listening in chronological order as we have been, this song now sounds like it’s taken a couple of steps back in time compared to what we’ve been hearing recently. I’m trying to give my mark out of 10 mostly on the quality of the song as I see it and not because of its historical importance, so this one gets a bit of a lower mark than I originally thought it would. Sorry, Bill Haley!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
The OG recording by Sonny Dae
This Harry Nilsson mess:
Intro to Blackboard Jungle:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: