Thursday, July 10, 2008

Chart Toppers: Rock Around the Clock

The following post is the first of a new feature called Chart Toppers. In these posts, I'll discuss a song/album that was #1 on one of the Billboard charts. It's only fitting to begin this feature with the song that launched the rock and roll era... "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and his Comets.

"Rock Around the Clock" was not the first rock and roll song (that's been a source of endless debate). It wasn't even the first rock and roll song to hit the Billboard pop chart (that honor goes to 1953's "Crazy Man Crazy", also by Bill Haley and his Comets). However, when "Rock Around the Clock" climbed to #1 on the Billboard chart on July 9th 1955, it signaled the beginning of the end of the Tin Pan Alley/Your Hit Parade era. Although there was no way to know it then, rock and roll was here to stay.

Considering the history of "Rock Around the Clock", it's amazing that it ever became a hit. When it was recorded in April 1954, it was just a throwaway B-side (the A-side was the nearly forgotten tune "Thirteen Women"). Not only that, but the final recording had to be ingeniously patched together by producer Milt Gabler from two unusable takes. This was done because the next session (featuring Sammy Davis Jr.) was due to start shortly. When DJs began to favor "Rock Around the Clock" over "Thirteen Women", it gained some popularity. However, it originally only peaked at #23 on the charts in the summer of 1954. As it stood, "Rock Around the Clock" was destined to be nothing but a faint malt shop memory. But not so fast...

In the fall of 1954, production began on the film Blackboard Jungle starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. While at the home of Glenn, one of the film's producers heard a record that belonged to Glenn's son Peter... "Rock Around the Clock". Later, when selecting a song that they could use over the credits of Blackboard Jungle, the producers chose "Rock Around the Clock". When kids heard the song blaring over the movie credits, they went wild. The song was re-released and quickly shot to the top of the charts. Recognizing a cash cow, Hollywood summoned Bill Haley and his Comets to Tinseltown where they filmed the 1956 quickie Rock Around the Clock (the first rock exploitation movie).

Another factor in the success of "Rock Around the Clock" is the guitar solo by Danny Cedrone. Although he wasn't a Comet, Cedrone was a well-regarded session player that Haley had used previously. His superb guitar solo on "Rock Around the Clock" is still one of my favorites and considered one of the greatest and most influential in rock history. Several guitarists (including Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townsend, and Brian Setzer) cited Cedrone's solo as an influence on their own work.

Sadly, Cedrone died at the age of 33 from a broken neck suffered during a fall shortly after the recording of "Rock Around the Clock" and never lived to see the song's success. Franny Beecher replaced Cedrone as Haley's session guitarist and soon became a Comet. Since there is no known footage of Cedrone performing with the Comets, Beecher is usually seen as the group's guitar player. There has been a push by members of Cedrone's family to get him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the "Sidemen" category. I say the honor is deserving and long overdue.

Although Bill Haley and his Comets had some hits after "Rock Around the Clock", they never matched that song's success. However, Haley (with various incarnations of the Comets) continued to record and tour all over the world. His last performance was in 1980; he died a year later of a heart attack at the age of 55. However, thanks to "Rock Around the Clock", his and the Comets' place in rock history is secure. According to Wikipedia, it's been said that the song is playing somewhere in the world every minute of the day.

Below is a clip of Bill Haley and his Comets performing their signature song on The Dick Clark Show, which aired on Saturday nights on ABC from 1958-1960. One of the sponsors of the show was Beechnut Gum (notice the shots of the kids in the audience doing some serious chewing).


Candy Minx said...


You know, my parents had this album. I found it so fascinating to read the stories behind it. Made me wonder if this wasn't a song they must have danced to when they first met...because it would have been on the radio at the time.

Great stuff Malcolm!

Jessica said...

Yay! I'm excited about your new feature! :D As a lover of history, and music...I can't wait.

pjazzypar said...

Whenever I hear this one I think about the first season of "Happy Days" when they used the as the show's theme. This is my kind of Rock and Roll!

Malcolm said...

Candy: I am glad you enjoyed the stories I wrote about in this post. If you are interested, there is an excellent book called "Rock Around The Clock: The Record That Started The Rock Revolution!" that provides even more details/info about the song.

You are probably right about your parents; I'll bet they danced to "Rock Around the Clock" too.

Jessica: Cool... I've got ideas already for the next couple of posts.

Pjazzy: I almost included a paragraph in this post talking about the many movies/TV shows that have featured "Rock Around the Clock". For the sake of brevity, I cut that paragraph out. When "Rock Around the Clock" was the theme to "Happy Days", I think the show was so much better.

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