Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” raised the curtain on the age of rock, a jarring (for its time) but highly danceable tune featured in the film Blackboard Jungle in 1955. With the release of the movie, the song vaulted to number one on the Top 40 and stayed there for eight weeks.
It pulsated urban rhythm, a perfect accompaniment to the movie’s lurid depiction of juvenile delinquency — the “teenage savages who turn big-city schools into a clawing jungle,” as the narrator intoned in the trailer.
The sound was raw, primal. It hardly mattered that Haley with his trademark spit-curl hairstyle grew up in small-town Pennsylvania and the band performed in matching sport coats.
So it is no surprise that even today “Rock Around the Clock” is often cited as America’s first rock ’n’ roll song. With its launch, “a dam had burst,” the New Yorker wrote in a 2015 story marking the song’s 60th anniversary.
It went on to dominate the Billboard pop chart, a space hitherto reserved for the McGuire Sisters, Patti Page, and other singers emblematic of America’s post-war search for reassuring normality.
Was “Rock Around the Clock” truly the first rock ’n’ roll hit? Its impact was undeniable, but many rock connoisseurs and critics say it was not the first, and at best may have been derivative of earlier rock-type hits. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame credits the 1951 single “Rocket 88” as number one of rock’s number ones. The song is credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. (Brenston was Ike Turner’s saxophonist, and the Delta Cats were Turner’s backup band. Brenston sang the lead vocal and is listed as the songwriter, but Turner is the actual author of the song.)
Not everyone agrees that there even was a “first” rock hit. The phenomenon that set rock ’n’ roll in motion “took place over time,” says Kenny Vance, singer in Jay & the Americans on all their 1960s hits, including “Cara Mia” and “Come a Little Bit Closer.” He points out that records by Black artists, that had been marketed mainly to Black adults, started becoming increasingly popular with white teenagers in the early 1950s — and it’s probably no coincidence that this was also when the civil rights movement was being born.
Record executives were puzzled at first at the surge in sales of Black music, says Vance, a student of rock history who today leads his own vocal group, The Planotones. “No one really knew why. But when they realized [they were] selling to the mainstream teenage market, it created a revolution.”
Mark Naison, professor of African-American history at Fordham University, calls white-teen consumption of Black music the industry’s “big bang.”
“What you had on the airwaves was African-American popular music with an upbeat message, conspicuously danceable and also a little bit erotic,” Naison says. “As it got on the airwaves, young white guys started listening to this music, liking it, and started going to Black neighborhoods to buy it. What some entrepreneurial-minded people began to realize was ‘man, if we could sell this as a non-racial music, we could make a fortune!’”
Looking back, it’s hard to ignore the parallel tracks of the surge in rock music popularity and the growth of the civil rights movement. One was cultural and economic, the other was political and social. But in many ways they arrived at the same station at the same time. “I wouldn’t want to make it seem like this was part of the civil rights movement, because it was motivated by money, sex, fun,” Naison says. “Race was almost never mentioned in these songs, but they brought together whites, Blacks, and Latinos in settings where they didn’t previously connect.”
It’s significant that rock music in those early days was mostly doo-wop, so called because of its nonsense lyrics, lines like “Do-Bopsy-Do” and “Uhlee-Popa-Kah-Popa-Kah.” It actually had deep roots in the history of African-American music, growing out of the long tradition of gospel harmony singing by groups like the Pilgrim Travelers and the Golden Gate Quartet.
Doo-wop came of age in an era of relative prosperity for African Americans in northern cities. Despite racism, segregation, and inner-city poverty, Black workers had prospered in union jobs during World War II. After the war, African Americans had enough disposable income to underwrite not only Black-oriented companies like the legendary Atlantic Records, but also the clubs and radio stations — the economic underpinnings of doo-wop.
Even though doo-wop didn’t have “a political bone in its body” as Naison notes, some white parents actually found these mysterious lyrics threatening — even starting movements to ban “jungle music” from the airwaves. Sherman Garnes, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ giant (6-foot-6) bass singer, may have served up the group’s collective response in singing “I’m not a juvenile delinquent!” at the start of one song. But concerned white parents and would-be censors never had a chance against the music’s compelling appeal to yearning white teens.
At first, the record industry relied on saccharine white-cover versions of Black hits in its attempts to profit from the crossover trend. “Sh-Boom,” a bass- and sax-laden hit for the Chords, was transformed into a light-harmony ditty by The Crew-Cuts singing a chorus of “Sh-boom sh-boom, ya-da-da da-da-da da-da-da da.”
Other Black songs, like “Sincerely” by the Moonglows, got a similar treatment when covered by the McGuire Sisters. But by the end of 1955, after 13-year-old Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” reached the Top 10 and earned him and the Teenagers a spot in Alan Freed’s movie Rock, Rock, Rock!, Black vocal groups themselves began to step front and center.
So, with mid-century cultural forces in play, the rise of rock may have been inevitable. And despite the ongoing debate about “Rock Around the Clock,” it may be impossible to name the single song that “started” rock ’n’ roll. But Freed arguably did more than any single individual to turn it into a cultural juggernaut, including coining the actual phrase (based on “I rock ’em, roll ’em all night long,” from the R&B hit “60 Minute Man” by Billy Ward and the Dominoes, the first Black R&B song to break the white-dominated pop chart).
A lively D.J. and energetic promotor, Freed started playing all-Black R&B in Cleveland in 1951 at the behest of a local record store owner who noticed the uptick of R&B sales to white teenagers. The show, along with Freed’s live events, was so successful that Freed was able to bring his formula to New York’s AM powerhouse station WINS in 1954. The frequency and market power of WINS eclipsed the lower-powered stations, so the music, now heard by many for the first time, seemed new and revolutionary — even if it wasn’t. While New York was ground zero of sorts, the rock ’n’ roll revolution also caught fire in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, and numerous other American cities.
Doo-wop, of course, was not the only ingredient in the rock ’n’ roll mix. Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Records in Memphis recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis — twangy Southern-sounding music that also was in part derived from Black music like “Rocket 88” (also recorded by Phillips).
Elvis’s first hit, “Hound Dog,” in 1956 actually was a cover of the original by Big Mama Thornton. Chuck Berry and Little Richard formed their own tributaries, all of which flowed into the river of what became rock ’n’ roll. “It all got marketed together; look at American Bandstand,” says Naison, referring to Dick Clark’s TV show from Philadelphia that did so much to solidify rock’s dominance. “Everybody got there. It was all music to be danced to.”
Actually, not everyone “got there.” Few groups survived the “one-hit wonder” stage, and their members were forced back into jobs as school janitors or bus drivers. Unscrupulous promoters attached their own names to songs they did not write, garnering royalties they didn’t deserve. The groups themselves often saw little or no money until litigation decades later won some of it back.
In 1961, Barry Mann, a white Brill-Building type singer-songwriter, scored a hit with a parody of the doo-wop era, “Who Put the Bomp.”
When my baby heard “Bomp bah bah bomp bah bomp bah bomp bomp”
Every word went right into her heart
And when she heard them singin’
“Rama lama lama lama lama ding dong”
She said we’d never have to part.
Although Mann’s singing voice dripped with barely concealed sarcasm, the song became a hit precisely because it emulated the doo-wop formula so well. It was a perfect coda to rock ’n’ roll’s opening movement.
Dan Freedman was longtime regional correspondent at Hearst Washington Bureau and is currently senior editor at Moment Magazine.
This article is featured in the January/February 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Excavating rock: Cultural historians say rock ’n’ roll went mainstream after white teens began consuming Black music in the early ’50s. “Rocket 88,” written by Ike Turner (in white suit), was the first rock hit, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Southern Stock Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)
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