What Kids Want

With local teens in mind, Bill Haley recorded rock ’n’ roll’s seminal anthem.

What do kids like? Corporations spend millions to find out. But William John Clifton Haley Jr. just listened. Then he used what he learned to invent rock ’n’ roll.

Rock ’n’ roll legend Bill Haley In 1952, while packing up after a gig at Eddystone High School, the leader of a little-known rockabilly band asked an audience member what he thought of the performance. It was, the kid answered, “like, crazy, man, crazy.” Crazy meant very good, the ’50s equivalent of “awesome.”

Haley wrote down the phrase. Then the young musician from Booth’s Corner drove home and, with a fellow band member, began throwing tunes and lyrics together. Written in 30 minutes, “Crazy Man, Crazy” was recorded in April 1953. It was the first rock ’n’ roll recording to appear on the U.S. music charts, peaking at No. 12.

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But the blockbuster came two years later when Haley and his band, the Comets, released “Rock Around the Clock,” the biggest-selling rock ’n’ roll single of all time. At least 25 million copies were sold, according to The Guinness Book of World Records. Among all vinyl records, that would place “Rock Around the Clock” second only to Bing Crosby’s 1942 hit, “White Christmas.” An estimated 100 million copies were sold in other forms. Supposedly, “Rock Around the Clock” is playing somewhere in the world every minute of the day.

Born near Detroit, Haley was the son of an auto mechanic from Kentucky who played country music on mandolin and banjo. His mother had studied classical piano in her native England and played the church organ. In 1929, after the elder Haley lost his job, the family moved to Boothwyn to stay with relatives. Haley Sr. eventually found a 25-cents-per-hour factory job, moved his family to Chester and, in 1933, to Booth’s Corner.

Haley was a loner. When he was 4, a bungled ear operation severed an optic nerve, leaving him blind in the left eye. At first, no one noticed. Then, one day, Haley was looking up at a passing airplane, and his father saw he was shading only one eye.

It was a Tom Sawyer sort of childhood for Haley. He swam in Naaman’s Creek and played in the woods, but his partial blindness made him unsuited for sports. He couldn’t hit or catch a baseball. Instead, he preferred to read adventure books and dream of becoming famous. His parents gave him a guitar, which he carried everywhere and played when the family sang together.

Once, a group of local girls chanced upon Haley giving a “concert” in the woods. “After Billy sang each song, he would bow as if pretending the trees were his audience,” one told historian John von Hoelle (co-author of Sound and Glory). “Then, one of the girls coughed or something, and Billy—who didn’t know we were there—looked startled and ran home.”

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Given Haley’s background, his success in show business is remarkable. In 1940, he quit school after the eighth grade to work at a bottling plant, filling 5-gallon bottles for 35 cents an hour. Later, he drove a delivery truck.

“The day Bill Haley got his driver’s license, the people of Booth’s Corner began walking on the telephone lines,” said former co-worker Bob Miles. “Boy, did Bill like to drive fast.”

Haley’s first stage performance, in 1941, was at an amateur night sponsored by Siloam Methodist Church. It was a disaster. Haley—who carried his guitar everywhere—had fallen on his bicycle and damaged the instrument. Only four strings worked. He lost to a teen who performed “Wreck of the Old 97” on harmonica. Haley didn’t play in public again for two years, and only then by accident.

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Haley's house in Bethel Township. His parents lived on the same 5-acre property in what was said to be a converted chicken coop.In 1943, Haley was doing odd jobs around the Booth’s Corner Farmers’ Market. The owner had heard that the 18-year-old had a good voice and requested a private performance. Unbeknownst to Haley, the man had switched on his microphone to the market sound system. When the locals heard “Has Anyone Seen My Gal?” and “My Old Kentucky Home” pouring from the speakers, many thought Gene Autry was on the radio.

Soon, Haley was dressed like his singing cowboy heroes, standing on a wooden table in the parking lot and singing for $5 an hour. It was a gimmick to attract market traffic, but it made Haley a star in the neighborhood.

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The following 10 years were lean. After his day job—now at Baldwin Locomotive—Haley sang at birthday parties and picnics. Gradually, his gigs became more impressive. He opened a concert for Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers before a crowd of 10,000. He learned to yodel and traveled with a series of cowboy bands.

But singing in bars was a hard life. Haley drank too much and had a string of one-night girlfriends. But he also learned about music—jazz-hillbilly in the Oklahoma oil fields, rhythm-and-blues in East St. Louis, Latin-flavored Tex-Mex in South Texas, Dixieland in New Orleans. Somewhere on the road, his band dissolved. In 1946, Haley arrived home in Booth’s Corner, sick, broke and discouraged. “I wasn’t getting anywhere,” he later recalled. “I needed to get a steady job, forget my foolish ideas, and accomplish something that was real.”

For $30 a week, he took the first of several jobs as a radio disc jockey. His first gigs were short because station owners objected to Haley’s music choices—especially the sounds one dismissed as black music. His break came in 1947 when WPWA opened in Chester, with an owner who wanted to reach the factory town’s ethnically mixed workers. Haley became musical director, which included selling ads, maintaining a record library, hiring DJs and sweeping up.

With a steady, though grueling, job to sustain him, Haley resumed live performances. His groups—the Four Aces of Western Swing and later the Saddlemen—experimented with sounds he’d heard on the road. Traditional country music fans disliked these innovations, but not the bar crowds. Beginning in 1950, the Saddlemen began an 18-month run at Gloucester City’s Twin Bar, where the volume, instrumental technique and driving beat of what Haley called “cowboy jive” drew a new following.

At the Twin, they played “Rock the Joint,” an old song retooled with lyrics about knocking down walls, getting high, and jitterbugging “until the law come knocking.” The Saddlemen replaced its original shuffle with a rrroom-pah beat, and leaned heavy on the bass. “It was our private joke,” Haley later said. “Then I looked around and, so help me, people were dancing. I turned to the guys and asked, ‘What on earth did I do?’”

Not everyone liked it. “It was a shame how they abused their instruments,” said one woman. “I was a music teacher, and no real musicians treat their instruments like that.”

But Dave Miller did like it. The president of Palda Records had been looking for white men who could play like black men. He offered a recording contract but insisted they ramp up the sound even more and ditch the cowboy image. “With a name like yours, you ought to call yourselves the Comets,” Miller told Haley, noting the similarity of his name to that of Halley’s Comet.

After all, the Space Age was dawning, and interest in the heavens crossed cultural lines that cowboy music did not.

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“Rock Around the Clock” was not a new song, or even the first with that name. According to historian Jim Dawson (author of Rock Around the Clock), the song was heir to rhythms and lyrics long popular in jazz circles, where the word “rock” was a synonym for sexual intercourse. Back in 1922, black vaudevillian Trixie Smith recorded “My Man Rocks Me,” which has its own clock references.

By the 1950s, “rock” was a musical buzzword for producers and musicians looking for acceptable ways to bring black music to white audiences. The product had to be cleansed of sexual references, but maintain its danceable beat. As a form of test marketing, the Comets played free at high schools. “I knew I was on the right track because the kids began clapping in rhythm and yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!’ as they dug that beat,” Haley told the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1953.

Written in 1952, “Rock Around the Clock” had sunk quickly after it was recorded by another performer. Haley thought his group could do better. But Miller refused to have anything to do with the song because he’d had contract disputes with its co-author. The Comets eventually left Miller.

The band finally recorded “Rock Around the Clock” in Manhattan at a 1954 session that was nearly cancelled. The Commodore Barry Bridge was not yet built, and the Chester-Bridgeport Ferry carrying them across the Delaware got stuck on a sandbar. Another group was waiting for the studio, so the Comets recorded two quick versions. Neither was perfect, but technicians mixed them.

Haley’s version of “Rock Around the Clock” was released as a B-side to another single—and most DJs ignored it. Oddly enough, the record company labeled the song a foxtrot.

Apparently, the adults screwed up—but teenagers saved “Rock Around the Clock.” In 1955, director Richard Brooks made it the soundtrack for his classic teen-rebellion movie, Blackboard Jungle. “Rock Around the Clock” soon became wildly popular around the world. In Liverpool, 14-year-old John Lennon first heard it on the radio while lying on his bed.

“It just grabbed me, like mentally,” the former Beatle remembered in a late-’70s interview. “That afternoon, I borrowed a few bob and bought the record. That was when I knew I wanted to go into pop music.”

For that—and much of what followed—the ’50s youth of the Delaware Valley deserve their fair share of the world’s thanks.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at dixon_mark@verizon.net.

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