It’s one of those musical oddities. ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock,’ the record widely held to have brought rock ‘n’ roll to Britain, didn’t even get near the UK top ten first time around, and the man delivering this vital message of teenage rebellion, Bill Haley, was already nearly 30 years old at the time. Conversely, he was only 55 when he passed away on 9 February 1981. But the arrival of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in the UK chart, on 7 January 1955, was a major landmark, with a recording made at Pythian Temple Studio on 12 April the year before.
‘Rock Around The Clock’ wasn’t even the first UK chart entry for Bill and his group the Comets, who were simultaneously enjoying a much bigger hit with ‘Shake Rattle and Roll,’ which climbed to No. 4 and had 14 weeks on the chart. The new hit went on to peak at No. 17 and was on the bestsellers for precisely two weeks.
You’d also have to be something of a trivia expert to know the names of the writers of the song that came to represent the commercial explosion of rock ‘n’ roll. It was written by Philadelphia composer Max C. Freedman, who’d had several successes dating back to the end of World War II, with publisher and promoter James C. Myers, whose career also went back to the 1940s. He used the pen name Jimmy DeKnight for the collaboration.
‘Rock Around The Clock’ was first recorded by Sonny Dae on the Arcade label in 1954, with Haley’s version (cut three weeks later) following that May, when it failed to make the US chart. In fact, it’s another real quirky aspect to the story that ‘Rock’ was a chart record in Britain before it was in the US, if only for those two weeks. After being featured in the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle, it then made the American survey in May, and went on to spend eight weeks at No. 1, widely hailed as the first chart-topper of the rock ‘n’ roll era.
That success, on Decca, prompted a re-release on Brunswick in the UK, and this time, the song really took off, spending three weeks at No. 1 in November and December. Then ‘Rock’ showed its staying power, charting again in Britain in September 1956, when it hit No. 5. As subsequent generations learned of its importance, it went to No.20 in 1968 and No. 12 in 1974. That last outing came after the song was prominent in the movie smash American Graffiti, which also took it back to No. 39 in America.
On 28 January 1956, the group entered the US album chart with an LP also entitled Rock Around The Clock, a Decca compilation featuring that and other Haley hits.
‘Rock Around The Clock’ is on Bill Haley and his Comets’ Universal Masters Collection, which can be bought here.
Follow the 50s playlist for more by Bill Haley and his Comets and other key acts of the decade.