It was the rim shot heard 'round the world.
"One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock. Five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock rock. Nine, ten, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock rock. We're going to rock around the clock tonight."
Fifty years ago today, on April 12, 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets stepped into New York City's Pythian Temple to record their debut single for Decca Records, "Rock Around the Clock," which became the first No. 1 rock 'n' roll record and the opening salvo in a worldwide pop revolt.
"I never realized 'Rock Around the Clock' would last 50 years," said Marshall Lytle, who played bass on the record. "I hope it lasts another 50."
For more than a year, Haley would reign as the first king of rock 'n' roll. His record sold more than 25 million copies, putting it behind only Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" as the all-time best-selling 45-rpm single. More than 200 other singers, as wildly disparate as Mae West and the Sex Pistols, have since recorded the song. John Lennon credited the record with starting him in music.
Today Haley is largely a forgotten figure, swept under the carpet of history by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and dozens of other more flamboyant '50s rockers who have come to represent the era. When he is remembered, Haley is often portrayed as a marginal, transitional artist who sanitized ribald rhythm-and-blues lyrics and spoon-fed young whites watered- down versions of the real thing.
The stocky man with the kiss curl in the middle of his forehead was certainly an unlikely character to lead a revolution, and "Rock Around the Clock" was more fluke than the natural-born sure thing it sounds like in retrospect. But Haley was a brash, ambitious musician whose bandleader instincts served him well in scouting new musical territory.
Although "Rock Around the Clock" would by no means qualify as the first rock 'n' roll record, Haley's 1951 cover of Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" might. Haley was a yodeling cowboy singer out of Chester, Pa., looking for a new wrinkle, working under the name of Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, recording rhythm-and-blues tunes for a Pennsylvania record label called Essex Records run by a small-time operator named Dave Miller.
With the breathtaking success of Haley's 1952 single "Rock the Joint," he and the band threw away their cowboy hats and put on tuxedos. They changed the band's name to the Comets. Haley bought his first Cadillac. The next year, "Crazy Man Crazy" made No. 15 on the national charts.
Philadelphia songwriter and music publisher James Myers, who first met Haley when he was playing for 5 bucks on Saturday nights in a farmers' market in Booth's Corner, Pa., wrote the song "Rock Around the Clock" (under the name Jimmy De-Knight) with a more successful professional Philly songwriter, Max Freedman, whose 1947 song "Heartbreaker," originally recorded by the Ferko String Band, had been covered by the Andrews Sisters. Myers, who shared an office with Haley's manager, wrote the song in 1952 with Haley in mind.
Haley tried on several occasions to record the number, but Essex Records' Miller hated Myers and refused to allow Haley to cut the song. When Myers brought Haley to Decca Records artist and repertoire man Milt Gabler, he played Gabler the song (most likely the little-known original version by Sonny Dae and the Knights). Gabler, who began his career recording jazz giants such as Billie Holiday and Lester Young, was more significantly the man who supervised all the breakthrough Decca recordings of Louis Jordan, one of the few black recording artists of the era who sold records to the mainstream audience. Jordan's tightly focused small combo would provide the template for Haley's new rock 'n' roll records (Haley was still country and western enough to carry a steel guitarist with the band).
The historic session concentrated on the song Gabler thought would be the A side, "Thirteen Women," a bizarre post-atomic fantasy about a world with 13 women and only one man, to which Gabler apparently owned some publishing rights. "Rock Around the Clock" was tossed off in two takes at the end of the three-hour session. The master was edited from both takes.
"We rehearsed it the night before the record session in Bill's basement," said bassist Lytle, 70, who lives in Tampa, Fla. "The guitar player, Danny Cedrone, wasn't at the rehearsal, but Bill always wanted a guitar solo on his records. So I suggested he play the same solo he played on 'Rock the Joint.' "
Released in May with the words "Fox Trot" printed on the label, the record quickly sold a healthy 75,000 copies, not enough to make the charts, but adequate to guarantee that Decca picked up the band's option. The musicians returned to Pythian Temple in June 1954 to record a cover of the Big Joe Turner rhythm and blues hit, "Shake, Rattle and Roll."
Nowhere in the script to "Blackboard Jungle," Richard Brooks' 1955 film about juvenile delinquency, was rock 'n' roll as much as mentioned. But so rapid was the music's rise to prominence in youth culture of the day, the song was slapped behind the credits in postproduction. Director Brooks is said to have borrowed the single from Peter Ford, young son of one of the movie's stars, Glenn Ford. When the film played in England, teens tore up the cinema seats as the credits ran.
The movie was released in March 1955. By July 5, 1955, the day before Haley's 30th birthday, the record made No. 1.
His reign was short. By 1960, Haley had slipped off the charts entirely. His '50s recordings remain underrated. His version of "Rip It Up" may be a more powerful, fully realized rocker than the original by the song's author, Little Richard. He was certainly no feckless imitator of black musical styles a la Pat Boone, but a bona fide enthusiast who could produce the raucous sound with authenticity and feeling.
He retreated to Mexico City (his 1961 record "Florida Twist" became the best-selling record in Mexican history). By the time of his death from a heart attack in 1981 at age 55, he was a paranoid recluse living in a Texas border town and reduced to showing disbelieving visitors to the local diner his driver's license to prove he was who he said he was.
After his brief moment of fame, he may have spent the rest of his life playing countless one-nighters all around the world. But he always had "Rock Around the Clock."
"No matter how bad a show may be going one night, I know that song will pull us through," Haley told a British newspaper in the '70s. "It's my little piece of gold."