Rock and roll began like a hunger – a muffled stomach growl that grew into something insistent, insatiable and loud. During the early 1950s you might not have been able to locate rock music on the radio, but you could feel its reverberations as it crept out of the juke joints and licked at the windows of suburban American teenagers.
By the time Bill Haley hit the big time in 1955, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Bo Diddley had already filled the tanks and put the pedal to the metal on tempos, but it was Haley who held the megaphone up to the type of music they were creating. Haley’s succession of rock singles – 1953’s “Crazy Man, Crazy,” 1954’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and especially 1954’s “Rock Around the Clock” – introduced the whole world to the thrilling new genre heretofore heard predominantly by African Americans.
Within just a few years, rock and roll would raid the airwaves. Elvis Presley would capture everyone’s hearts and The Beatles would drive us mad, but it was Bill Haley who popularized the genre with “Rock Around the Clock.” This was music that throbbed and ached, gyrated and squirmed. You couldn’t bring this music home to Mom and Dad. “Rock Around the Clock,” which may or may not have been about dancing all night, seemed to insinuate something naughtier – that it wasn’t dancing but sex that would be happening “’til broad daylight.”
Beginning on July 9, 1955, “Rock Around the Clock” pulled up a chair at the top of the charts and had an eight-week stay there. It was the first rock song to hit #1. Teenagers around the world ate it up, and Bill Haley & His Comets became the first international rock stars.
Written by songwriting pair James E. Myers (also known as Jimmy DeKnight) and Max Freedman, “Rock Around the Clock” actually debuted in the spring of 1954 – more than a year before it climbed the charts. The song initially achieved some modest success on the charts but didn’t make waves until it was used for the opening credits of the film Blackboard Jungle.
After the film’s premiere, “Rock Around the Clock” was blamed for inciting riots in Dublin and London, where teenagers danced in theater aisles and tore up their seats. The song soon became the anthem of rebellious teenagers everywhere. When 15-year-old John Lennon went to see Blackboard Jungle in Liverpool, he was disappointed not to witness a riot.
In fact, in a 1980 interview with Playboy, Lennon stated: “I had no idea about doing music as a way of life until rock and roll hit me.”
Playboy: “Do you recall what specifically hit you?”
Lennon: “It was ‘Rock Around the Clock.’”
Bill Haley didn’t invent rock and roll, and he wasn’t the first white artist to cut a rock song. “Rock Around the Clock” wasn’t even his first rock and roll achievement. But it was Haley who brought rock into the mainstream. In his dapper dinner jacket, with a spit curl centered on his forehead and a wide, beckoning smile, he seemed to be saying there’s nothing to be afraid of here.
In 1952, Bill Haley with Haley’s Comets began their history-making – releasing their single “Crazy Man, Crazy,” which became the first rock and roll song to hit the American charts, peaking at #15 on the Billboard charts. Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson were having some early success with rock and roll, too. They’d figured out a winning formula – borrowing songs from Little Richard and Fats Domino. By shucking away the innuendo and grit of the black artists’ originals, they could make inoffensive R&B hits. There were many such precursors to the music made by Haley, who was born to musically inclined parents in Michigan, raised in Pennsylvania and gifted with his first real guitar after he’d fashioned one out of cardboard.
Having already ventured outside his Western swing roots with great success, Haley knew the reward of risk. He’d left home at age 15 with little more than his guitar and made a name for himself as a dynamic frontman – but not before weathering long stretches of poverty and hunger. In fact, it was his risk-taking cut of “Crazy Man, Crazy” that won him the consideration of “Rock Around the Clock” songwriters Freedman and Myers, who handpicked Haley to record their song. As the former musical director of a Chester, Pennsylvania, radio station, Haley understood the malleability of radio listeners. The color of his skin would make the rock genre more palatable to other white people.
The two-minute-and-eight-second “Rock Around the Clock” broke records everywhere it played. Among other distinctions, it’s known today as the biggest-selling vinyl rock and roll single and the most-played song of all time. It was also the highest-charting song ever recorded by Haley, who died in 1981. Now that Americans have weathered the rancor and raunchiness of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, “Rock Around the Clock’s” racy theme sounds benign beyond belief, but in 1955 it was a sign: That rumble in the belly had given way to a gnawing hunger.