Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rockin' Around the Clock

Sixty years ago today, Bill Haley and His Comets first released "Rock Around the Clock" — their signature song.

Several versions of this song have been recorded, but Haley's version is the one that comes to mind for most folks.

It wasn't the first recording. It wasn't even the first recording for Haley, who started out as a country/western yodeler. After he made his transition to rock 'n' roll, he and his band came to be regarded by many as being as influential on the youth of their day as the Beatles and Rolling Stones were 10 years later.

In fact, the anniversary of the release of Haley's recording seems to have reignited — in some quarters — the debate over whether Haley is the father of rock 'n' roll.

That is a debate I have been hearing much of my life.

When I was growing up, I was under the impression that Elvis Presley was the father of rock 'n' roll. Presley, of course, was born and raised in Mississippi, and he made his adult home about 100 miles away — in Memphis.

I grew up in the neighboring state of Arkansas; being a good Southern boy, it wasn't hard for me to accept that premise — especially since I always believed Southern blues strongly influenced rock 'n' roll, and Presley's style was obviously influenced by the blues.

But, while Presley did make some demo recordings in 1953, they leaned toward ballads. He didn't record his first real rock 'n' roll song until July 1954 — and, by that time, Haley had already released "Rock Around the Clock."

(In fact, the top–selling recording artists of 1954 were Doris Day, Jo Stafford and Eddie Fisher.)

If Presley wasn't the father of rock 'n' roll, I figured it had to be Chuck Berry. Similarly, Berry started out singing the blues. His first rock 'n' roll single, "Maybellene," was recorded and released in 1955.

According to Margaret Moser in the Austin Chronicle, Haley died "haunted, embittered, and neglected" in 1981.

"Haley bought into the pointless argument of who invented rock & roll," Moser wrote, "believing he deserved the title. He had a legit claim, too, having recorded the genre's first bona fide anthem, 'Rock Around the Clock.' The other firsts he deserves credit for have been marginalized along with his memory."

As Moser observed, "Rock Around the Clock" has been credited with being an anthem for the youth of the '50s, but, for a song that supposedly had such an influence on that generation, Rolling Stone only ranked it #159 on its list of the top 500 songs of all time while other songs from the '50s — Elvis' "Hound Dog," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Jailhouse Rock," "Mystery Train," "Suspicious Minds" and "That's All Right" and Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," and, ironically, "Rock & Roll Music" — were praised more prominently.

Those songs may be better known, but they all came along after "Rock Around the Clock."

The song got its first real exposure when it was played as part of the opening credits for "The Blackboard Jungle" starring Glenn Ford, Anne Francis and Sidney Poitier. With the help of that movie, it shot to the top of the charts, where it stayed for eight weeks.

I think the first time I ever heard it was when it was used as the original theme music for the Happy Days TV show. Haley's recording was part of the soundtrack for the movie "American Graffiti," too, but I don't think I saw that movie until it was shown on TV years later.

(There was no special reason why I didn't see it sooner, I suppose.)

My first exposure to "Rock Around the Clock" came to me courtesy of Happy Days. Being young and naive, I thought it was an original song written for the TV show. I had no idea who Bill Haley and His Comets were.

I do now, of course.