January 03, 2016

Rock Around the Clock: B-side Find Accidentally Launched Rock Anthem


For years Hollywood composer Max Steiner lived in a Beverly Hills mansion in which was the China Room — one of 22. It was his office, where he played piano and whose walls were rendered in gold leaf and oriental tableaux. 

(Here is a list of Max Steiner's work. It's considerable!
Helen Of Troy mentioned here.)

As a boy he had taken piano lessons in Vienna from Johannes Brahms; his godfather was Richard Strauss.

By 1939 he was America’s most prolific and respected film composer and, working away in the China Room, wrote the music for Gone with the Wind and Casablanca.

But his China Room was the setting for an outwardly prosaic moment that helped make a hit out of Rock Around the Clock.

Rock Around the Clock changed everything, but let’s start with what it is not: it is not the first rock ’n’ roll song; it was not Bill Haley’s first hit; it was not original; and it was not even an A-side.

But it is rock music’s national anthem and the most influential record of the 20th century.

Rock Around the Clock is the foundation stone on which a cultural force was built.

It was the first No 1 hit of the rock era, whose music became, for a short time from the mid-1960s, the repository of contemporary Western thought.

The man who wrote its famous lyrics had been born on January 8, 1893, 42 years to the day before Elvis Presley.

When Max Freedman entered the world in Philadelphia, Tchaikovsky was alive, Waltzing Matilda was unwritten and Australia consisted of six colonies.

Much of the early story of Rock Around the Clock is lost, confused or contested; its success, predictably, has many fathers.

But its fathers were few until actor Glenn Ford’s son, Peter, aged nine, played an accidental hand in its fortunes.

The song was recorded on April 12, 1954, at 135 West 70th Street, New York City, once the home of the Masonic-like Knights of Pythias. Haley and his band arrived late for the session, their ferry having hit a sandbar.

Once there, and with their allotted time running down, they set to work on recording the bomb-era curio Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town), reportedly because producer Milt Gabler — his nephew is Billy Crystal — had a stake in its authorship and, in any case, Gabler had said before that he didn’t like Rock Around the Clock.

There had already been least one unrelated song by that name, and the word “rock” as slang for sex had been common in song for decades, but the clearest starting point for it is Hank Williams’s 1947 country hit Move It on Over.

It is inconceivable Freedman — who co-writer James E. Myers (as Jimmy De Knight) admitted already had the words and a basic piano tune — had not heard Wil­liams’s song and did not lean on it.

Myers maintained Freedman’s original was called Dance Around the Clock and that he’d changed it.

The song’s progress was stilted.

Thirteen Women — too odd to be a big hit — stalled at No 23, while timid disc jockeys were reluctant to play B-sides.

Fifth-grader Peter Ford bought a copy at the Beverly Hills Music Shop. 

His parents — Glenn and actress and dancer Eleanor Powell — both had large record collections that coalesced when they bought Steiner’s house. Young Peter began adding his own rock­abilly 78s to the shelves.

He had liked Haley’s previous record, Crazy Man Crazy, and quickly found Thirteen Women’s flip side, thinking Decca had made a mistake.

MGM had signed his father to star in a film about a then hot topic: juvenile delinquency. Blackboard Jungle’s producer Richard Brooks was a friend of the Fords and while working on the film would drop by to discuss its progress.

During one evening visit, retiring to the China Room, Brooks heard the young Ford play Rock Around the Clock. That, he thought, was the song his film needed.

MGM paid $5000 for the rights and book ended the picture with Haley’s soon-to-be hit.
Blackboard Jungle opened on February 2, 1955.

(Ed: Here's Trailers from Hell's Take on 'Blackboard Jungle'. Incredible cast. I remember I was not allowed to see it, or 'High School Confidential' but I managed.)


By July 9, Rock Around the Clock topped Billboard’s chartand that November began its run atop the British charts. The future was coming.

Haley was an unlikely leader of youth revolt. He turned 30 the week his famous recording reached No 1 and in his plaid suit looked every bit the country-and-western crooner he had not long since been.

Even by 1954, his spit-curl hairdo was dated, but he kept it to divert attention from his blind right eye, whose optic nerve was severed in a childhood operation.

Rock Around the Clock — both its risque title and spirited arrangement — would not have surprised any of the black artists making what were then called “race” records, but it was news to Middle America.

And its frantic guitar solo — taken from an earlier song, Rock the Joint — made an instant legend of Danny Cedrone, who was paid $21 for the session and whose 16-second explosion and downscale run after the second chorus inspired a generation of guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend.

But Cedrone never lived to see it. Thirty-five days after changing the course of music history he fell down some stairs, broke his neck, and was killed instantly.

By Alan Howe

With many thanks to The Australian

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