The Rocking 60th Anniversary of Teenage Rebellion
July 8, 2015 5:15 p.m. ET
Bill Haley and His Comets in New York, c. 1955. Photo: James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
July 8, 2015 5:15 p.m. ET
‘Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets is routinely hailed as rock ’n’ roll’s first recording. But the distinction is unfair, since it assumes that the many R&B recordings that came first had little or nothing to do with rock’s development. What is true is that the song marked the start of a new form of music that championed teenage rebellion against parents and other authority figures. Rock can thank Hollywood for that.
When “Rock Around the Clock” was first released in May 1954, the song barely reached No. 23 on Billboard’s pop chart before fizzling. The single lacked an urban edge, and Haley’s voice sounded square, like a county-fair barker. Then, in one of the oddest flukes in pop music history, “Rock Around the Clock” was included in “Blackboard Jungle,” a feature film starring Glenn Ford and Anne Francis about the looming peril of juvenile delinquency in the nation’s schools.
Surprisingly, when the film was released in March 1955, many teenage moviegoers laughed off the film’s frightening morality tale and, instead, danced in theater aisles to “Rock Around the Clock,” which played during the opening and closing credits. Within weeks, the single was re-released by Decca and soon re-entered the charts. By July 9, 1955, the song became the first R&B dance hit to reach #1 on all three of Billboard’s pop charts at the time: in-store sales, disc jockey spins and jukebox plays.
The reason for the song’s appeal the second time around owed much to the film’s teen-noir imagery and the single’s clear fidelity, which allowed the song to be played loud in theaters without distortion. In addition, there was a hypnotic, extended drum solo added to the song’s intro in the film that both excited young audiences and built suspense for the song that followed.
But the jump-blues hit about a 12-hour dance-a-thon did more than generate record sales. By crossing over to the white teenage market nationwide, “Rock Around the Clock”—with its powerful backbeat and twangy guitar—widened the appeal of country-flavored R&B and popularized an emerging genre known as rockabilly. As more white R&B acts like Elvis Presley gained momentum in the months ahead, R&B needed a new, race-neutral radio name. More disc jockeys began calling the music “rock ’n’ roll.”
Hollywood also took note. Though many teens rejected the fear-mongering of “Blackboard Jungle,” the movie was first to explore teens’ angst and their rejection of adult values. A flood of films about misunderstood teens soon followed, including “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), “High School Confidential” (1958), “Blue Denim” (1959) and “A Summer Place” (1959).
The evolution of “Rock Around the Clock,” from commercial flop to social fuse, began soon after producer Milt Gabler signed Haley to Decca in 1954. Gabler, a jazz and R&B producer, brought Haley and the Comets to New York in April to record their first single for the label at the Pythian Temple on West 70th St. The exotic-looking building with its Egyptian Revival facade had been built by Thomas Lamb in 1927 for a fraternal order and featured a large vaulted auditorium that Decca leased for studio space.
“Rock Around the Clock” was written by Max C. Freedman and James E. Myers and clearly was inspired by Hank Williams’s “Move It on Over.” The song was first recorded in March 1954 by Sonny Dae and His Knights, but their version lacked cohesion or excitement. In April, Haley and the Comets studied Dae’s version the night before their Decca recording session and crafted a bouncier arrangement.
The next day, Haley and the Comets were scheduled to record two sides of a single—“Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town),” a song about the aftermath of a hydrogen bomb detonation that Gabler chose for the A-side, and “Rock Around the Clock.” Since most of the Comets could not read music, the first song took 2½ hours to learn and record, leaving them just 30 minutes to complete two takes of “Rock Around the Clock.” A master was made using the vocals from one and the instrumental from the other, with additional sax and guitar overdubbed. But despite the big sound, the song dropped off the charts by the summer.
At roughly the same time in Los Angeles, movie producer Pandro Berman was reading the galleys of Evan Hunter’s new novel, “The Blackboard Jungle.” When Berman finished, he urged Dore Schary, MGM’s president, to buy the rights. The book, described later by Time magazine as “nightmarish but authentic,” detailed the near-deadly struggle by fictional teacher Richard Dadier to control and inspire delinquent students at a New York high school.
Schary agreed to the purchase, and Richard Brooks was chosen to write the screenplay and direct. Actors Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow and Paul Mazursky were cast as students, and Glenn Ford signed on in October 1954 to play Dadier. When shooting on MGM’s “New York” set wrapped in December, Berman dropped by Ford’s home to float the idea of adding a jukebox single to the credits to juice the movie’s plot.
Ford told Brooks that Peter, his 10-year-old son, couldn’t seem to get enough of a record called “Rock Around the Clock.” Brooks borrowed Peter Ford’s 78 single and several others from his collection. Back at MGM, Brooks played the records for his assistant director, who agreed that “Rock Around the Clock” had the right energy. MGM purchased the song’s rights for $5,000.
After the film came out in late March 1955, “Rock Around the Clock” was re-released in May and remained a No. 1 hit throughout the summer. It was the same song that had been released a year earlier, but this time it was identified with the movie’s gritty storyline. Haley was no longer viewed as a hayseed but as the voice of leather jackets, switchblades and terrorized teachers.
Over the next 60 years, rock evolved steadily to become a multi-billion-dollar industry, with white and black artists performing today at sold-out concert halls well into their 70s. But perhaps most surprising of all has been rock’s retention of the accidental lesson it first learned when “Rock Around the Clock” was paired with “Blackboard Jungle”—that siding with teens in the struggle against parents and teachers is good for business.
Mr. Myers, a frequent contributor to the Journal, writes daily about music and the arts at JazzWax.com.