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On This Day In Music… April 12, 1954: Bill Haley & His Comets Record 'Rock Around the Clock' - Riots Ensue

The song would take a year to break into the mainstream – but once it did, it changed the world.

bill haley
Source: mega

'Rock Around the Clock' was the first rock 'n' roll song to top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Bill Haley did not look like a cultural revolutionary. In 1954 he was approaching his 30th birthday, a portly, pudgy man with chubby cheeks and thinning hair fashioned into a rather ridiculous kiss curl. Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, he was not. But it was Haley who lit the fuse that would set the second half of the century on fire.

“Rock Around the Clock” was not the first rock ‘n’ roll record – that title belongs to either 1951’s “Rocket 88”, or 1946’s “That’s All Right Mama”, or 1947’s “Good Rocking Tonight”, depending on who you want to argue with – but it was the first rock ‘n’ roll song to capture the imagination of millions of kids across the world, and the first rock ‘n’ roll record to top the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K.

By modern standards, “Rock Around the Clock” seems almost laughably tame. Compared to the overt suggestiveness of Elvis’s 1956 hit “Hound Dog” or Jerry Lee Lewis’s white hot 1957 track “Great Balls of Fire”, Haley’s bouncy, upbeat delivery smacks more of a chaperoned Lindy Hop than a teenage riot… but such comparisons, being made with hindsight, are also bogus. At the time, “Rock Around the Clock” did cause teenage riots. Literally.

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bill haley teenage fans
Source: mega

Bill Haley became an unlikely teenage pin-up.

Speaking to Ultimate Classic Rock in 2021, Ringo Starr remembered the effect that the song had on young audiences when it was used in the opening credits to the film Blackboard Jungle.

In the spring of 1955, Ringo was hospitalized with tuberculosis, and had been allowed a rare outing to visit the movies for his 15th birthday. “I had been there a year or so and was doing pretty good,” he recalled. “I had my seventh day in the hospital on my 14th birthday, and I didn’t want to spend my 15th there.”

As a treat he was taken to see Blackboard Jungle. “I’m sitting there — I’d been in the hospital, don’t know much about what’s going on lately — and they ripped up the cinema,” he recalled. “They just threw the chairs, went crazy. I said, ‘Wow, this is great!’ I remember that moment like it was yesterday.”

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The song that would send teenagers wild began as a B-side. Bill Haley, a sometime Pennsylvania DJ who had formed the Comets (initially called the Saddlemen) in the late 1940s, had enjoyed some success in the U.K. with the single “Shake Rattle and Roll” in January 1954 – and on April 12, 1954, he entered the studio to record the follow-up single “Thirteen Women”. After spending the day fruitlessly trying to pin down the track, and with only 40 minutes left of the session, the band instead opted to jam out a tune that had become a favorite of their live shows.

“Rock Around the Clock” was recorded in two takes – the second being necessary purely because the band played so loudly first time around that Haley’s vocals were drowned out – and included a lightning-fast, semi-improvised guitar solo that would go on to be recognized as one of the most influential solos ever recorded.

By the accepted standards of the day “Rock Around the Clock” was never going to be good enough for a single in its own right, but the record company deemed it fun nonetheless, and despite being laid down in 40 minutes flat, it was used as the B-side to “Thirteen Women”. On 20 May 1954, the single was released.

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“Thirteen Women” was a minor, if unspectacular, success, troubling the lower reaches of the charts for the remainder of the summer… and would have stayed that way, had it not been for a 10-year old boy in Los Angeles who one day decided to flip the single over.

Peter Ford was the son of the actor Glenn Ford, who was set to star in the upcoming film Blackboard Jungle, a drama about teenage delinquency in an inner-city school. The producers of the movie were looking for music that reflected the tastes of young troublemakers at the time… and after Ford heard his son play the B-side of “Thirteen Women”, he suggested the track.

“Rock Around the Clock” was duly chosen to play over the opening credits – and from the moment the movie hit theaters in 1955, it became a smash. The kids may have ripped up the cinema aisles, but they also bought the song in their millions. “Rock Around the Clock”, now repackaged as the A-side, duly rocketed to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and made Haley the unlikely first rock ‘n’ roll pin-up.

Within a year Elvis would play to record-breaking TV audiences on Ed Sullivan, and less than a decade after that the Beatles would conquer the world… but it all began with a pudgy-faced 30-year-old, and a semi-improvised B-side laid down in two takes and 40 minutes.


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