For a song destined to rock around the centuries, "Rock Around the Clock" — recorded 60 years ago this week — had the humblest and least expectant of beginnings, starting life as a lowly B-side that didn't even have a genre to call its own.
Bill Haley & the Comets recorded it on April 12, 1954 almost as an afterthought, devoting 40 minutes and two takes to the tune at the tail end of a session otherwise devoted to "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)," a novelty song about the happy benefits of sexual inequity after a nuclear blast. After being patched together from those two hastily recorded takes, "Rock Around the Clock" was relegated to flip-side status when first released a month after the session, taking a back seat to A-side "Thirteen Women," which did not rock anyone 24/7.
The biggest indignity of all: When it came time to assign a genre or dance mode to "Rock Around the Clock" on the 45's label, as was common in that day, the term "rock & roll" hadn't yet been assigned to the nascent style of music the song represented. So Decca Records designated it as a fox trot record.
But the kids were not ready to trot, trot, trot till broad daylight. They were ready to rock, and although Haley is not as cool a figure as Elvis or Chuck Berry to cite as ushering in the new movement — squares with receding hairlines don't make the most picturesque revolutionaries, right? — there is no disputing that "Clock" was the single that suddenly seemed to change everything, at least when it finally hit No. 1, a little more than a year after it was recorded.
Although rockists might like to imagine that this music had the power to change the world on its own without help from any other medium, it was a movies tie-in that made the difference. "Clock" was used as the opening and closing theme song for the juvenile delinquency drama Blackboard Jungle in early 1955, and the effect it caused blaring out over theater speakers was so immediate that censorship boards convened amid rumors of riots. It's hard to imagine what caused such a ruckus when you see the film today, especially since the bulk of the film is tamely and conventionally scored. The trailers for the film might bear a greater responsibility for energizing (or scaring) audience, since the previews did use Haley's cheery song to score a montage of delinquents fighting.
And to think that Haley had been an aspiring country yodeler not long before he was being blamed — or hailed — for corrupting the morals of American youth with his ode to pre-Red Bull all-nighters.
On April 12 of '54, Alan Freed had still not adopted and popularized the term "rock & roll," although there'd been a song by that name as early as 1934, and "Good Rockin' Tonight" had been a hit in 1948. The title "Rock Around the Clock" had been used for an entirely different (and unsuccessful) R&B tune in 1950. And Haley himself had what some would consider the first real pre-rock "rock hit" on the pop charts with "Crazy, Man, Crazy" in '53. Nonetheless, at the time Haley went into the studio and recorded "Clock," the hit parade was dominated by a guy famous for rocking a sweater, Perry Como. The people we think of as rock's pioneers — Presley, Berry, Little Richard, et al. — were still working their day jobs. Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was released the day Haley recorded "Clock," coincidentally... but that was seen in the tradition of "race music," not the beginning of a revolution.
"Rock Around the Clock" had been a part of Haley's live performances since 1953, so they were eager to put it on record when the group signed to Decca. But producer Milt Gabler "had a piece of the action on 'Thirteen Women,' so we had to record it first," Comets bass player Marshall Lytle said. When they found they had 40 minutes left in their studio time to record "Clock," there was still some arranging to be done. A solo section that had been set apart for a sax solo turned into a staccato riffing climax that had the whole band joining in with the horn player.
The famous guitar solo also happened fairly spontaneously. A session player, Johnny Cedrone, was paid $21 to come in and lay down that famous part. Since he didn't have much time to improvise, Cedrone lifted the same solo he'd played on a number of previous records, even including one of Haley's. The re-run was highly effective, to say the least.
After "Thirteen Women" ran its course as a minor hit in '54, its B-side seemed destined to languish in obscurity, until it was taken up by Hollywood. Stories have differed over the years as to how it ended up in Blackboard Jungle. But the most reliable-sounding recounting of the tale has director Richard Brooks coming across it at the home of his leading man, Glenn Ford. The actor's son, Peter Ford, then in the fifth grade, was a music aficionado who had the 45 in his collection. And Brooks either heard it playing in the music room or borrowed a stack of records to consider for an idea he had to open the movie with a blast of aural youth culture.
As Peter Ford wrote decades later, "I’ve often wondered if I’d never purchased a copy of Bill Haley and His Comets’ 'Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)' in 1954 how the history of rock & roll might have changed." Although, as Ford noted in another article, "I hated 'Thirteen Women,'" he sure loved its flip side, and was thrilled when his dad's director turned out to have loved it, too. Soon both the song and the movie were making headlines. One in Variety went: "Police Seek to Finger ‘Blackboard Jungle’ as Root of Hooliganism.”
Long after "Clock" paved the way for Elvis and the rest of the hooligans to break through, Haley re-recorded the song multiple times, one of which was for its use as the opening theme to the TV series Happy Days in its first two seasons in the 1970s. George Lucas also used it to open American Graffiti. These re-popularizations ensured that Haley's place in rock history wouldn't be forgotten, even if his run of luck on the charts had run out by 1960.
Haley died in 1981, but he was far from the first player on the landmark recording to pass away. Danny Cedrone, who laid down the celebrated guitar part, fell down the stairs and broke his neck just six weeks after "Clock" was recorded in 1954, never living to know that he'd played a part in changing music history. Sixty years later, players in bar bands are still figuring out his signature licks. Although no one could have guessed at the time that the craze would last, rocking around the clock has been extended to rocking around entire lifespans.