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BACKTRACKING

Time again to rock around the clock

September 05, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

"One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock.... "

Those are the famous opening words of Bill Haley's "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock," the first "true" rock 'n' roll single to go to No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts.

Other rock-tinged hits, including "Hearts of Stone" and "Sincerely," reached No. 1 a few months earlier, but via pop cover versions by the Fontane Sisters and the McGuire Sisters, respectively, rather than the original R&B recordings.

"Rock Around the Clock," by contrast, was a spectacular dose of country, R&B and pop with a beat too seductive to ignore, and it reached No. 1 in July 1955, nine months before Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" topped the charts.

Despite Haley's achievement, there has been much debate over the singer-band leader's place in rock history. The Michigan native was one of the first 25 artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he hasn't received nearly as much critical attention or respect as Presley, Chuck Berry and other rock pioneers.

A new, five-disc set from Germany's invaluable reissue label, Bear Family Records, is, in part, an invitation to reassess Haley's place in rock. The remarkable thing about the set is that all the music -- all six hours of it -- came before "Rock Around the Clock."

Bill Haley and His Comets

"Rock 'N' Roll Arrives ... The Real Birth of Rock 'N' Roll 1946-1954" (Bear Family)

The back story: Haley was 30 -- frightfully old by '50s rock standards -- when "Rock Around the Clock" became a hit, so it wasn't surprising that he was pretty much tossed aside by the music's teenage base as soon as Presley arrived.

Youth, however, wasn't the only thing on Presley's side. The musical instincts of the youngster from Memphis were urgent and sensual, whereas Haley, who headed several country bands before edging into rock with the Comets, leaned toward a lighter, dance-party feel. Where Presley seemed equally influenced by country and R&B, Haley grew up on a much stronger diet of country. You could even call Haley's music R&C.

What is striking about the Bear Family set is how much Haley moved about within country music's boundaries. Recording for various labels, he experimented with western swing, cowboy songs, yodeling, honky-tonk ballads, spirited novelties and lots in between. To add seasoning, Haley often dipped into boogie-woogie and R&B. A 100-page hard-bound book by Chris Gardner is included in the boxed set and it helps you follow Haley's progress in his search for a winning commercial formula.

Though Haley's vocals on his early recordings were plain, he finally showed impressive bite with his 1950 rendition of Ruth Brown's R&B hit "Teardrops From My Eyes." Haley and his Saddlemen band did even better the following year when they made "Rocket 88," the Jackie Brenston hit recorded with Sam Phillips in Memphis. Some music authorities cite Brenston's recording of "Rocket 88" as the moment R&B gave birth to rock 'n' roll, and Haley captures well the spirit of the original.

The next breakthrough for Haley was his 1952 recording of "Rock the Joint," a song that featured many of the characteristics and almost the exact guitar solo that later made "Rock Around the Clock" such an appealing record.

But it was Haley's upbeat novelty "Crazy, Man, Crazy" that became his first national hit in 1953 and paved the way for him to move from tiny Essex Records to powerhouse Decca Records, which released "Rock Around the Clock" and such other Haley hits as "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "See You Later, Alligator."

Of all his hits, "Rock Around the Clock" remained Haley's favorite. The musician, who died in 1981, once told me, "No matter how bad a show might be going some night, I always know that song will pull us through. It's my little piece of gold."

The boxed set, which also contains radio performances and previously unreleased tracks, is so exhaustive that it's easy to see why it took Bear Family founder Richard Weize a decade to put it together. Even if the set doesn't convince fans that these tracks represent the true birth of rock, most listeners will be charmed by the twinkle in Haley's engaging, upbeat style. Information on the Haley package and other Bear Family releases can be obtained through www.bear-family.de or www.ccmusic.com.

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Further listening

There are several ways to hear the Haley hits on Decca -- from a five-disc boxed set on Bear Family Records to various one- and two-disc offerings. Be sure you look for Haley's Decca recordings, not his later efforts for Warner Bros. Records.

In brief

The Allman Brothers Band, "Eat a Peach" (Deluxe Edition)" (Mercury/Chronicles). Here's a remastered version of the brilliant Southern rock band's celebrated 1972 album, complete with a bonus disc of mostly previously unreleased tracks from the Allmans' classic 1971 performances at the Fillmore East. The tenacious "One Way Out" highlights both discs.

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Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues with special attention to artists or albums deserving of greater attention than they received originally.

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