#923: Don’t Knock The Rock by Bill Haley And His Comets
Bill Haley was born in Michigan in 1925. His dad played the mandolin and banjo while his mom played the piano. In a story Haley would relate years later in a biography, he recalled as a child when he made a simulated guitar out of cardboard, his parents bought him a real one. Sleeve notes accompanying the 1956 Decca album, Rock Around The Clock, describe Bill Haley’s early life and emerging career: “Bill got his first professional job at the age of 13, playing and entertaining at an auction for the fee of $1 a night. Very soon after this he formed a group of equally enthusiastic youngsters and managed to get quite a few local bookings for his band.”
The sleeve notes on the album further related, “When Bill Haley was fifteen he left home with his guitar and very little else and set out on the hard road to fame and fortune. The next few years, continuing this story in a fairy-tale manner, were hard and poverty-stricken, but crammed full of useful experience. Apart from learning how to exist on one meal a day and other artistic exercises, he worked at an open-air park show, sang and yodelled with any band that would have him, and worked with a traveling medicine show. Eventually he got a job with a popular group known as the “Down Homers” while they were in Hartford, Connecticut. Soon after this he decided, as all successful people must decide at some time or another, to be his own boss again – and he has been that ever since.’ These notes fail to account for his early band, known as the Four Aces of Western Swing. During the 1940s Haley was considered one of the top cowboy yodelers in America as “Silver Yodeling Bill Haley.”
The sleeve notes conclude: “For six years Bill Haley was a musical director of Radio Station WPWA in Chester, Pennsylvania, and led his own band all through this period. It was then known as Bill Haley’s Saddlemen, indicating their definite leaning toward the tough Western style. They continued playing in clubs as well as over the radio around Philadelphia, and in 1951 made their first recordings on Ed Wilson’s Keystone Records in Philadelphia.”
After recording a number of R&B cover tunes in the early 50s, the band recorded “Crazy Man, Crazy” in 1953. This was the first rock ‘n roll record to make it into the American pop charts. It peaked at #11 on the Cashbox charts and was the first rock ‘n roll song to be seen live in television in America. The song spent three months in the Top 30 and was a sign of something new musically. Contrast the song with what was number one during this time: “Song From Moulin Rouge” by Percy Faith, “Vaya con Dios” by Les Paul and Mary Ford and “No Other Love” by Perry Como.
In June 1954 Big Joe Turner’s suggestive song, “Shake, Rattle And Roll”, made it to #1 on the American R&B charts. He had lines like “over the hill and way on underneath…/you make me roll my eyes and baby make me grit with my teeth.” Bill Haley & His Comets decided to record a less sexually explicit version passed the American censors in the music and broadcasting industry and went on to peak at #7 in August 1954 and spend six months on the Billboard Top 40 pop charts.
In 1955 Bill Haley & His Comets had the first number one rock ‘n roll hit with “Rock Around The Clock.” It would sell over 25 million records and remains in 2017 the fifth biggest selling single in over a hundred years of recorded vinyl music sales. The song got exposure in the 1954 movie about juvenile delinquency called Blackboard Jungle. The song was inducted into the Grammy Award Hall of Fame in 1974 for its “historical significance.” Haley would score seven more hits into the Top 20 in the American charts before the end of 1956. His most successful follow up was “See You Later Alligator” which peaked at #6 in February 1956.
In 1956 Haley’s band starred in two rock ‘n roll films: Rock Around the Clock, featuring “See You Later Alligator” and Don’t Knock the Rock. This gave additional exposure to singles they released that year as the films exclusively showcased “white” teenagers dancing to rock ‘n roll. African-American performers in the films were The Platters in the first movie and Little Richard in the second.
Bill Haley & His Comets appeared on The Texaco Star Theatre hosted by Milton Berle in May 1955, and The Ed Sullivan Show in August. Berle had commented that the song would go nowhere, but by August, Ed Sullivan had to have the band on his show. The band also appeared twice on both of Dick Clark’s TV shows (American Bandstand and Saturday Night Beechnut Show) between 1957 and 1960.
Don’t Knock the Rock was a 1956 American musical film starring Alan Dale. Directed by Fred F. Stiles, the film also features performances by Bill Haley & His Comets, Little Richard, The Treniers, and Dave Appell and the Applejacks. The title of the film comes from one of Haley’s hit singles of 1956. The Haley recording is played over the opening credits, but it is Alan Dale who performs the number in the film. Don’t Knock the Rock premiered in New York City on December 12, 1956.The film was an immediate follow-up to the earlier Rock Around the Clock, which had also starred Haley and Freed. (The film Rock Around the Clock had been titled after the hit single in 1955 featured originally in the film Blackboard Jungle). Although Bill Haley and the Comets were the top-billed stars of the film, their role in it was relatively minor. The film failed to duplicate the box office success of its predecessor. Today it is mostly remembered for introducing Little Richard to a mass audience. In the film Little Richard sings “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti-Frutti”. Both were hits that had done well for Little Richard earlier in 1956 on the R&B charts. The title track from the film did not chart in the USA, but it peaked at #3 on local Vancouver charts in January 1957.
In “Don’t Knock The Rock”, Bill Haley mentions a number of other dances, or dance steps, that were popular in the mid-50s. The Do-si-do was a dance step involving a circular movement where two people, who are initially facing each other, walk around each other without or almost without turning, i.e., facing in the same direction (same wall) all the time. In most cases it takes 6-8 counts to complete. The movement is basically defined by as follows: a) Dancers advance and pass right shoulders.
b) Without turning each dancer moves to the right passing in back of the other dancer. At this moment the partners face away from each other, and c) Then moving backwards dancers pass left shoulders returning to starting position. (The actual steps vary in specific dances). Considering the amount of space in which to accomplish the figure, the partners might adjust their shoulders slightly diagonally to allow for less sideways movement during the shoulder passes. The advancing pass may also be by the left shoulders, although it will be called as a “left do-si-do.”
Haley makes reference to the “swing.” This was a variant of the Lindy Hop, a dance from the 1940s. From the Lindy Hop evolved several “swing” dances on both the east coast and west coast of the United States. The East Coast Swing is a simpler 6-count variation that spawned from the six-count variations of the Lindy Hop. It evolved with swing-band music of the 1940s and the work of the Arthur Murray dance studios in the 1940s. It is also known as Six-count Swing, Triple-Step Swing, or Single-Time Swing. East Coast Swing has very simple structure and footwork along with basic moves and styling. It is popular for its simple nature and is often danced to slow, medium, or fast tempo jazz, blues, or rock and roll. West Coast Swing was developed in the 1940s, as a stylistic variation on the Los Angeles style of the Lindy Hop. It is a slotted dance and is done to a wide variety of music including: blues, rock and roll, country western, pop, hip hop, smooth, cool jazz, R& B, and later, funk music. A third “swing” variant in the 50s was Western Swing. It was the name for jazz-influenced western music of the 1940s and, by extension, two-step, line dancing or swing dance done to such music. It adds variations from other country dances, swing styles, salsa and more. As the name suggests, it is most often danced to country and western music.
“Be-bop” was a jazz term derived from nonsense syllables (vocables) used in scat singing. It originated in the jazz community in the late 1920s and by the 1940s was found in chart topping R&B songs like “Hey, Ba-Ba-Re-Bop!” by Lionel Hampton. While swing music tended to feature orchestrated big band arrangements, bebop music highlighted improvisation. Another term Haley refers to in “Don’t Knock The Rock” is “jive.” In latin dancing, the jive is a dance style that originated in the United States from African-Americans in the early 1930s. It was popularized in 1934 by Cab Calloway. It is a lively and uninhibited variation of the Jitterbug, a form of Swing dance.
Yet another musical term found in “Don’t Knock The Rock” is “boogie.” Boogie is a repetitive, swung note or shuffle rhythm, “groove” or pattern used in blues which was originally played on the piano in boogie-woogie music. The characteristic rhythm and feel of the boogie was then adapted to guitar, double bass, and other instruments. The earliest recorded boogie-woogie songs appeared during World War 1. By the 1930s, Swing bands such as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Louis Jordan all had boogie hits. Some of the best known boogie hits from the 40s include “Caldonia Boogie” and “Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar”.
A final musical term found in “Don’t Knock The Rock” is the “mambo.” Mambo is a Latin dance of Cuba. Mambo was invented during the 1930s by the native Cuban musician and composer Arsenio Rodríguez, developed in Havana by Cachao and made popular by Dámaso Pérez Prado and Benny Moré. In the late 1940s, Perez Prado came up with the dance for the mambo music and became the first person to market his music as “mambo,” meaning “conversation with the gods” in the Kongo language, spoken by Congolese. After Havana, Prado moved his music to Mexico, where his music and the dance was adopted. The original mambo dance was characterized by freedom and complicated foot-steps. The mambo was featured in numerous Mexican musical films in the 1940s. It was further popularized by American pop stars in the 1950s with “Mambo Italiano” by Rosemary Clooney and “Papa Loves Mambo” by Perry Como.
Bill Haley & His Comets would have one more song in the Top 30 in the USA called “Skinnie Minnie” in the beginning of 1958. After that Bill Haley’s band fell off the radar except for rock ‘n roll revival shows that kept them touring until Haley died in 1981. Though they were pioneers in bringing rock ‘n roll to mainstream pop music starting in 1953, their Top 30 presence was a relatively brief five year span ending in early 1958. By 1958 Bill Haley was 33 years old. As teenagers tastes shifted to their peer group they were buying songs like “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” by 14 year old Laurie London, “Just A Dream” by 19 year old Jimmy Clanton, “Do You Wanna Dance” by 17 year old Bobby Freeman and 16 year old Robin Luke’s hit “Susie Darlin’”. By 1958 “Rock Around The Clock” and the juvenile delinquent movie, Blackboard Jungle, were four years old. A whole cohort of teens could hardly remember way back then or care much about Bill Haley, a hit maker of an “oldie but a goodie.”
A changing line up of Bill Haley and His Comets over the decades has included over one hundred musicians. Other original members of The Comets continued to perform with other musicians into the 21st Century.
December 14, 2017
Treva Bedinghaus, “Jive Dance: Jive is a Lively Latin Dance,” thoughtco.com, March 6, 2017.
David F. Garcia, “Going Primitive to the Movements and Sounds of Mambo,” The Musical Quarterly, Volume 89, Issue 4, 1 December 2006, Pages 505–523, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, November 22, 2007.
Erica Janik, “Do-Si-Do: A Swinging History of Square Dancing,” Wisconsin Public Radio, Madison, Wisconsin, September 14, 2015.
John “Nonjohn” Tennison, “Boogie Woogie: Its Origin, Subsequent History and Continuing Development,” non john.com, August 9, 2015
Bill Haley Biography ~ Radio Swiss Jazz.ch
Liner notes, Rock Around The Clock, Bill Haley and His Comets, Decca Records, 1955
Blackboard Jungle ~ opening sequence in film with “Rock Around The Clock,” MGM, 1955
Don’t Knock The Rock, Columbia Pictures, 1956.
Rock Around The Clock, Columbia Pictures, 1956.
Sonny Watson, Bop!, Streetswing.com
For more song reviews visit the Countdown.