Doug Thompson: “(WE’RE GONNA) ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK” AGAIN

Doug Thompson

This column is the first of what hopefully, will become more of a regular one on DBAWIS by yours truly.  My intention (and we all know what happens to intentions, especially good ones) is to take a closer look at some of the hit records and hit makers from the rock era using some of my interview archives.

During my broadcasting career, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been able to travel the world to interview well over a thousand musicians, producers, engineers, songwriters and record company executives, quite a few who have sadly passed away – Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, Gene Clark (The Byrds), Denny Doherty and John Phillips (The Mamas and The Papas), Dave Prater (Sam & Dave), Mike Smith (Dave Clark Five) along with Motown artists Jr. Walker and Mary Wells (her final interview was with me in her Los Angeles hospital room mere weeks before she passed away).  Plus I’ve interviewed hundreds more that are still alive and kicking.   Since this is a new type of column for me, I couldn’t think of a better song to start with than the one that helped launch the rock and roll era – “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets.

Bill Haley & His Comets on the Ray Bolger Show 1956

William John Clifton Haley was born on July 6, 1925 in Highland Park, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit).  According to the liner notes of the 1955 Decca album, “Rock Around The Clock”, “Bill got his first professional job at the age of 13, playing and entertaining at an auction for the fee of $1 a night.  When Bill Haley was 15, he left home with his guitar and very little else and set out on the hard road to fame and fortune.”

Bill Haley

Bill Haley could never be described as a ‘rock and roll god’ or even a ‘teen idol’.  Yet his music helped usher in the greatest musical era of all time.  At the time Bill and His Comets recorded “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” on April 12, 1954, Haley was 28 years old.

The SaddlemenBefore they became Bill Haley and His Comets, they were known as Bill Haley and The Saddlemen.  A name change to Bill Haley with Haley’s Comets occurred over the Labour Day weekend in 1952.  It wasn’t until 1953, when their hit “Crazy Man Crazy” climbed to # 15 on Billboard and # 11 on Cashbox (the two music industry ‘bibles’ of the era) that the name was revised to Bill Haley and His Comets.  On stage, the band wore identical plaid suits and would definitely be considered ‘not hip’ by today’s rock standards, yet playing their ‘new music’, they had teen audiences going wild, and this even BEFORE Elvis Presley swiveled his hips and made teenage girls scream.  In Britain’s New Musical Express, in October of 1955, Haley was quoted as saying: “Frankly, our market is the teenagers.  They are the ones we constantly try to please.  We keep very close to them, listening for their new expressions and asking what they want in the way of music.”    

The late Milt Gabler (he died on July 20, 2001) was the producer of “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock”.  Milt had been hired as a producer by Decca Records on November 17th, 1941.  He remained on staff for the next 30 years.  Gabler founded Commodore Records, America’s first independent jazz label, which he named for his record store, the Commodore Music Shop.  Besides handling the recording career of Bill Haley and His Comets for Decca, Gabler also produced Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, The Weavers, The Andrews Sisters, Lionel Hampton and The Ink Spots.

Milt and Bill

Milt and Bill

Milt Gabler by the way, is the uncle of comedian and actor Billy Crystal.

Billy Crystal Presents The Milt Gabler Story.

Gabler signed Bill Haley and His Comets to a recording contract with Decca Records in 1954.  That same year, they hit the record charts with “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, which climbed into Billboards’ Top Ten chart at # 7.  Gabler has said that recording Bill Haley and His Comets was only slightly different than recording his other acts: “All the tricks I used with Louis Jordan, I used with Bill Haley.  The only difference was the way we handled the rhythm.  With Jordan, we used a perfectly balanced rhythm section from the swing era, but Bill had the heavy backbeat.”     

Myers and Haley(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” had been written in 1953 by Max C. Freedman and James Myers (using the pseudonym Jimmy De Knight).  Author Jim Dawson claims to have  found documents that puts the actual writing of the song in late 1952.  Nonetheless, the song was copyrighted with the Library of Congress on March 31, 1953.

When “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” was initially released by Decca Records in May of ’54, on both 45rpm Freedmanand 78rpm records, it was the ‘B’ side to “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town)”, but radio stations quickly turned over the record and began playing the ‘B’ side.                                             Above: Myers with Haley

Left: Freedman

Nonetheless, it was a disappointing minor hit for Decca – it only reached # 23 then was gone from the chart the following week.  It also didn’t make Billboard Magazine’s ‘Top 30 Songs of 1954’ list, although Bill Haley and His Comets “Shake, Rattle and Roll” did at # 26.  The number one hit that year was “Little Things Mean A Lot” by Kitty Kallen.  Other top artists of the day that made the ‘Top 30 Songs of 1954’ list include Perry Como, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Patti Page, Dean Martin, Jo Stafford, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Kay Starr, Eddie Fisher and Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s aunt).  From that group of stars from sixty years ago, only Tony Bennett is still successful today.  Of course, most of the others are dead, so they can be excused from not being able to perform any more.

Blackboard Jungle

It wasn’t until “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” was used under the opening credits for the 1955 film “Blackboard Jungle”, then was re-released by Decca following the success of the movie, that the song zoomed to # 1 on Billboard, and remained there for the next eight weeks. It also was # 1 for seven weeks in Cashbox.  The movie producers of “Blackboard Jungle” had been looking for a song that represented the type of music that kids were listening to in 1955.  Star Glenn Ford brought some of his son Peter’s records to the studio and producers picked “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock”.  Billboard Magazine ranked it as the # 2 song of the year.  The song also crossed over into the Rhythm & Blues chart where it made it to # 3.

Producer Milt Gabler didn’t read music, yet he knew instinctively what worked and what didn’t work in the recording studio.  During our interview in Manhattan in October of 1984, Gabler told me that he knew  “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” was unique: “’Rock Around The Clock’ had it all the way.  I felt that it was going to be a hit record or at the very least, a good seller, but I didn’t know it would revolutionize the British scene and what happened in America. 

Pythian Temple - 135 West 70th Street, New York, NY

We recorded that at the Pythian Temple, where the Knights of Pythias had meeting rooms, but it was really an old ballroom with a stage on West 70th TempleStreet, just east of Broadway in Manhattan.  Now, Bill didn’t have a voice with a real cutting edge and he certainly wasn’t a blues shouter.  Once we got all the instruments balanced, you couldn’t hear Bill above the band and that band played loud, so in order to not have the guys drown out Bill, I put them up on the stage and instead of putting Bill in a corner, like we used to hide the singer far away from the musicians, Bill had to feel the band, so I put him on the dance floor in front of the band and the loud notes that came from the guitar amp and the drums and everything, went right over Bill’s microphone, so I was able to mix Haley’s voice on it properly.”

To date, “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” has sold over 30 million copies worldwide.

Bill Haley passed away in Harlingen, Texas on February 9, 1981 at the age of 55.  On the death certificate, Haley’s immediate cause of death was listed as ‘Natural causes, most likely heart attack’, although he had previously been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Bill Haley 2

FUN FACTS:

  • Prior to being known as Bill Haley and His Comets, other groups Haley was involved with included The Downhomers, The Four Aces of Western Swing, Johnny Clifton and His String Band and Bill Haley and His Saddlemen.
  • Hillbilly HaleyIn the 1940’s, Bill Haley was considered to be one of the top yodelers in America. He was billed as ‘Silver Yodeling Bill Haley’.
  • In the 1950’s, Decca Records used to categorize their songs using the various dance styles as a guide. On the 45rpm record label, “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” was listed as a ‘Fox Trot’.
  • Bill Haley and His Comets were the first ‘rock and roll act’ to perform on the CBS television network’s now iconic variety program “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Sunday August 7, 1955 (although at that time, the program was still known as “Toast Of The Town”).
  • “We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock was the first recording to sell over one million copies in both England and Germany.
  • “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” appeared in George Lucas’ 1973 film “American Graffiti”. A re-recorded version of the song was used as the opening theme for the first season of “Happy Days” in 1974.
  • Rolling Stone Magazine listed “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” at # 159 on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time”.
  • In 1982, “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which honours songs of ‘qualitative or historical significance’.
  • Rock Around The Clock The Record That Started The Rock Revolution” by Jim DawsonBill Haley was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. The Comets were inducted as a band in 2012.
  • Producer Milt Gabler was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 by his nephew, Billy Crystal.
  • In 2004, “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” made # 50 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Songs”, a list of the 100 most important songs featured in motion pictures.
  • A book titled “Rock Around The Clock: The Record That Started The Rock Revolution” by Jim Dawson was published in 2005 and is still available at amazon.com.
  • To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Bill Haley’s death, the International Astronomical Union in 2006 announced the naming of asteroid 79896 as Billhaley.    Billhaley asteroid

    =DT=

    Doug’s column appears here every 4th Monday.

    Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

    DBAWIS_ButtonDoug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. and has won 152 awards for his work.  He worked with Canadian actor John Candy for 17 years, writing and producing commercials, specials and several weekly radio programs.

    Currently, he’s writing and producing the second season of a television program for the Hi Fi channel in Canada called “Hi Fi Salutes”, a series of short biographical documentaries on Canadian musicians, producers and record industry pioneers.  One of those programs recently won a Platinum Award at the World Film Festival in Houston.

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