WILDWOOD — It’s the song that was the anthem of a decade and continues to provide us with happy days. It caused a generation of teenagers to put on their poodle skirts, comb their hair into pompadours and jitterbug the night away.
On April 12, the first recording of “Rock Around the Clock,” a song instrumental in introducing a new style of music, rock and roll, celebrates its 60th anniversary. Some historians say the song was first introduced by Bill Haley & His Comets during the group’s performance at the HofBrau Hotel in Wildwood.
According to Bill Haley’s son, Bill Haley Jr., “Rock Around the Clock” was almost a song that wasn’t. Originally relegated to the “B” side of a record, the song received little attention when it was first released in 1954. Only due to a movie about juvenile delinquency did a tune destined for obscurity find its way to becoming part of the American lexicon.
Written by James Myers who wrote under the penname Jimmy DeKnight and Max Freedman, the song was initially presented to the Philadelphia-based Essex Record label for Haley & His Comets for possible recording.
“The owner of Essex Records did not like Myers,” said Haley Jr. “and therefore refused to let my father record it for Essex Records. In that summer of ’53, when Myers was trying to get my dad to record the song, the band started playing the song live during their residency at the HofBrau Hotel in Wildwood.” Haley Jr. said the band was playing the song live but the song had not yet been recorded.
At the end of 1953 the record contract between Bill Haley & His Comets and Essex Records came to an end. Through Myers, Haley and his band were able to get a recording contract with Decca Records in New York.
“Their first recording session was set up for April 14, 1954,” recalled Haley Jr. “The deal with Decca was that they would chose the ‘A’ side of each record and my father would get to choose the ‘B’ side.” Haley Jr. said because Myers was instrumental in getting the record deal with Decca, his father agreed to use one of Myers songs on the “B” side of the first four records.
Haley & His Comets went to their first recording session in New York and spent the majority of their time recording the “A” side, “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town),” a song about the aftermath of the hydrogen bomb blast. “Decca thought that would be the hit,” said Haley’s son.
With only 45 minutes left of studio time, the band recorded “Rock Around the Clock” in two takes and ran out of time. “They did two quick takes of the song and the first take they got the band but they didn’t get the vocals. So they did a second take of the song and turned off all the microphones except for the lead vocal. Then they had to leave the studio,” said Haley Jr.
Haley Jr. said the song’s producer, Milt Gabler, cobbled the two versions. “It was the first time they ever used overdubs,” he said. “They put that on the ‘B’ side.”
When released, “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)” sold approximately 75,000 copies. “Rock Around the Clock was a forgotten record,” said Haley Jr. “No one listened to it.”
The summer of 1954 the Comets found themselves back in Wildwood. Haley Jr. said in January, 1955 his father received a phone call informing him “Rock Around the Clock” had been selected to be part of the soundtrack of a movie, “Blackboard Jungle.” Two months later the movie was released and “Rock Around the Clock” was used as the opening song.
Haley Jr. said teenagers who saw the movie loved the song and made their way to record shops to find the record. “Decca realized it and they re-released the record, only this time they said “Rock Around the Clock” was the ‘A’ side. The record sold tremendously well and by July of 1955 ‘Rock Around the Clock’ became the very first number one rock and roll record.” According to Haley’s son, over the course of the past 60 years the song has sold over 30 million copies, making it the third best selling single of all time.
“Bill Haley & His Comets as well as the HofBrau Hotel are synonymous with Wildwood and the birth of rock and roll,” said Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano. “It is with great pride when we talk about the history of rock and roll that we can talk about Bill Haley & His Comets and the HofBrau Hotel. This is a great source of pride in our community.”
Haley Jr. said as a child he spent summers in Wildwood while he father performed. “It was part of my childhood. I love Wildwood.” He added he still visits the city when time allows. He currently performs throughout the world as part of the group Bill Haley Jr. and the Comets. His song list includes many of his father’s classics such as “Shake Rattle and Roll,” “See You Later Alligator” and, of course, “Rock Around the Clock.”
“It’s a magical song that just makes people feel happy,” said the younger Haley of the song that is still going strong as it enters its sixth decade. “It’s had a tremendous impact on our culture. The song speaks for itself. It’s a record that endures. It evokes the image of a simpler time. This music and that song in particular are still incredibly popular. ”