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The First Rock 'n' Roll Movie - Sixty Years Ago This March

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 19/02/2016 Bob Bell

Sixty years ago this March the movie 'Rock Around The Clock' was released. Starring Bill Haley and His Comets, Alan Freed, The Platters and Freddie Bell & The Bellboys, the film threw gasoline on the Rock 'n' Roll fire  - a huge whoomph heard around the world. 
Growing up in England, I had first encountered the exciting music of Mr Haley in late 1954, when staying with my godparents in London. I was 8. The record was 'Shake, Rattle and Roll', although at the time I thought Bill was singing 'Sheikh of Raddlin' Row'. My few visits to London had exposed me to both the city's exotic visitors from overseas, and to its rather peculiar street names, e.g. Rotten Row. Hence the confusion of an eight year old, and the rather delightful ensuing multiple malapropisms.
About a year later, recovering at home after having my tonsils out, my parents bought me a wind up gramophone, and a copy of 'Rock Around The Clock'. And life was never the same again. 'Clock' was anthemic, enchanting and most definitely rocking, but the other side saw just as many spins. 'Thirteen Women', with it's gorgeously heavily reverbed and bending guitar lines set over a relentlessly hypnotic and bluesy saxophone riff really opened my ears. Unbeknownst to me, it was my introduction to the blues. Over the ensuing months I spent my pocket money on 'See You Later Alligator', 'Rock-A-Beatin' Boogie' and other odes to frenzy and celebration. Life buzzed with enthusiasm and excitement, and all to a Rock 'n' Roll beat.
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The movie of 'Rock Around The Clock' was shown in the UK very shortly after its US debut in March 1956. I wasn't allowed to go and see it due to the riots it was causing around the country. 'We don't want you mixed up with those awful Teddy Boys - and anyway, you are much too young'. The Teddy Boys - named after the Edwardian dress they wore - were Britain's first post war youth movement. Although they had started in the late forties, wearing draped jackets with velvet collars, bootlace ties, drainpipe trousers and thick crepe soled shoes, charmingly known as brothel creepers, by the mid fifties they were synonymous, in the eyes of the public, with Rock 'n' Roll. They thronged the movie houses showing the Haley film, and outraged the authorities by dancing in the aisles, and on one or two occasions, ripping up the seats. The English press loved it, of course, and blew it all up out of proportion. As a result, Bill Haley and violence became linked for decades in Europe. When I finally did get to see the movie a few years later, I realized it was pretty tame, and really rather awful. Apart from the music, that is. That was as fresh as ever.
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Haley's star waxed and waned rather quickly. He toured the UK in 1957, the subject of immense publicity, sold out everywhere he went, returned to the USA and then faded out. His record sales slowed, and then, as the years passed, a rather sad and strange thing occurred. The critics, the fledgling music historians, started re-writing history. Haley was derided as 'middle aged', 'looks like a butcher'. As he was just thirty in 1955, 'middle aged' seems a bit of a stretch. Not a word about his music, which was genuinely exciting. Sure, he took from R & B, but he didn't slavishly copy the tunes. He re-arranged them, put them to a Western Swing instrumentation, and in doing so really did create something new. Hell, he was produced by Milt Gabler, in the same New York studio, The Pythian Temple, that Gabler had produced such R & B greats as Louis Jordan and Buddy Johnson. The records he cut for Decca, under Gabler's supervision, were exceptionally well recorded and sound as exciting today as they did all those years ago. Even Big Joe Turner, whose 'Shake Rattle and Roll' Haley has been accused of bowdlerizing, said of Haley's version; 'He done a pretty good job on it' and indeed Joe was very friendly with Haley during the later fifties, and recorded an album with the Comets in Mexico.
Appropriately, Bill Haley and his music came along just as rationing was drawing to a close in the UK. So let's have a shout out for William John Clifton Haley, whose music became a rallying cry for celebration and joy during those grey post war years in the early fifties. He may not have single handedly invented Rock 'n' Roll, but he surely was the one who introduced it to the world.

Bob Bell.
Born in London in 1946, Bob worked for Island and Trojan Records from 1965 to 1972, during the golden age of reggae. Moved to the USA in 1980, and spent 22 years managing Roomful of Blues, then the world's premier jump blues band. He now manages the musician Rusty Zinn.

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