Who was the first rock’n’roll star ? No, it wasn’t Elvis, he came a little bit later. It was none other than the Daddy of R’n’R – Bill Haley.
On 14th June here in Moscow, we organised a tribute concert to the Great Man. To help make it extra special we booked the Russian King of Rock’n’Roll, Denis Mazhukov. Regular readers of my Russia’n’Roll articles will know about Denis. He’s acknowledged as the one and only here in Russia. He’s played with the best, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis for example. If you want some proof of just how good he is, go to youtube and type in “Denis Mazhukov – The Russian King of Rock N Roll – We’re Gonna Move”. It’s Smokin’ !
The concert was a special by-invitation-only event, limited to the dancers on my Co-op Jive dance mailing list. I’ve already written in this great magazine about the Co-op Jive free dance co-operative, but you can find more details at www.coopjive.co.uk. As usual, at the start of the concert I ran a dance class.
Denis Mazhukov has a deep knowledge of the history of the rock’n’roll. Turns out I was glad my speech at the start of the event was brief, as Denis gave a great talk on the history of r’n’r and Bill Haley’s role in it. He then proceeded to launch, with his great band, into some iconic Haley classics: “Rock around the Clock”, “Mambo Rock”, “See you later, Alligator”, “Crazy Man Crazy” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll” – they were all there !
Overall it was a wonderful event and a fitting tribute to the the Father of Rock’n’ Roll.
Bill Haley hit the big time even earlier than Elvis. It was in 1954 that he recorded, with his band the Comets, “Rock around the Clock”. It can be argued this was the song that really kick-started the teenage rock’n’roll revolution. Although not the first r’n’r record ever made, it was the number that really brought rock’n’roll into the mainstream in America and then around the World. It was adopted especially by rebellious 1950s teenagers, for example the Teddy Boys in the UK, and became a sort of anthem for them.
The importance of “Rock around the Clock” can be witnessed here in Russia too. Every year in April a big concert is organised in Moscow, inviting the best r’n’r bands in Russia. The event is always advertised as Rock’n’Roll’s Birthday Party i.e. celebrating the release of Haley’s version of “Rock around the Clock” in April 1954. Like I said, it wasn’t the first ever rock’n’roll record and the song had even been released by another artist earlier. But it was Haley’s track that heralded the real birth and explosion onto the world stage of our great music. The decision by the film company MGM to use Haley’s record as the opening and closing music to the film “The Blackboard Jungle” in 1955, made it even more iconic. Many teenagers at that time closely identified with the teenage characters in the film; not least the British Teddy Boys.
When Haley and the Comets toured the UK in early 1957, they took the country by storm. Most of the public were shocked by the violence witnessed at their UK concerts. Teddy Boys throughout the country, towards the end of his performances, took to ripping up cinema / theatre seats and throwing them towards the front; in other words, mayhem and rioting. One of my favourite stories is something Haley did at all his British concerts in 1957. His standard phrase at that time was, “Thankyou for being such a great audience”. Well, he said it at the end of all those performances in the UK, after the Teds had ripped up the seats, thrown them and generally caused fear and shock amongst the rest of the audience – “Thankyou for being such a great audience” ! To the Teds, Haley represented Rock’n’Roll and the culture they had adopted.
Haley was an unlikely figure to be the first rockin’ superstar. He was already over 30 when he really hit the big time, a bit old to be the first teenage music idol. His background was country music and until he converted to rock’n’roll, his music was markedly different to his later classic rockin’ numbers.
A crucial element in his success was his band, the Comets. Although they hardly conveyed the image of rebels, unlike for example Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps, they were superb musicians and the quality of their music was clear for all to witness, even for those not into r’n’r. And hats off to the Comets: I’ve seen them live a few times, when they came to the UK in later years. They were quite old by then, but their sound was still superb and they have to rank as one of the best bands musically in rock’n’roll history.
I also did get to see Bill Haley himself live – once. It was at the 1972 London Rock’n’Roll Show. If you’ve got a good memory, you’ll know I reviewed this show and Haley’s performance in it, in a previous Russia’n’Roll article. He was definitely past his best by then and showing his age a bit. But the musicianship of the Comets was still excellent and it’s great to be able to say I saw the legend live !Haley had his demons. His married life was rocky and ended in divorce. He was a heavy drinker and this was reflected in his health and appearance as he got older, as well as probably being the reason for his premature death in 1981.
But he recorded some of the greatest songs in history. Even after all these years, numbers like “Rock around the Clock”, “See you later, Alligator”, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Rip it up” are a delight to hear. If you don’t believe me, spend a little time on youtube – search out those Haley classics and tell me if they still don’t give the listener a real buzz. They’re the epitome of rock’n’roll at it’s very, very best.
Those songs, plus the vital role Bill Haley played in music history, should make us forever grateful to the man who “Razzle Dazzled” us, as much as any other rockin’ icon !