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Tuesday 16 August 2011

Bill Haley – Destination Rock and Roll!

Side One
1. Rocket 88
2. Green Tree Boogie
3. Rock The Joint
4. Rockin' Chair On The Moon
5. Real Rock Drive
6. Crazy Man, Crazy

Side Two
1. Wat'cha Gonna Do
2. Fractured
3. Live It Up
4. Farewell, So Long, Goodbye
5. I'll Be True
6. Chattanooga Choo Choo

With thanks to Joan K for the pics and audio. A couple of years back Joan sent in a whole heap of Bill Haley vinyl rips and label scans. I’ve distilled the material down to this twelve track compilation of his Holiday and Essex sides which I hope shows his importance to the development of early rock and roll. Aside from the history, it’s good entertainment. I just can’t get “I’ll Be True To You” and “Rockin’ Chair On The Moon” out of my head!

These are rips from 1950s vinyl, so there is more than a little surface noise. But what care we, the fans of true rock and roll? But to our tale ...

He was Yodelling Bill Haley back then in the years before he became the first King of Rock and Roll. A country-music crazed kid who lived in Chester, Pennsylvania, about 15 miles from Philadelphia, he worshipped at the altar of Gene Autry the singing cowboy. By the mid 1940s Bill had his own ten gallon hat and the rest of the required cowboy costume as he embarked on a country and western career. His first full time professional gig was as singer and rhythm guitarist with Shorty Cooke’s Down Homers in early 1946. A salary dispute led to Bill and several other group members leaving to form their own four man country combo called the Range Drifters.

It ended in tears a few months later with Bill heading back home to Pennsylvania tired, broke and busted before the summer of ’46 had run its course. It was time for a career change, and Bill heeded the call of the turntable, becoming a radio disk jockey initially in New Hampshire, then Connecticut, and moving ever nearer to Chester, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

When a new station, WPWA, opened in Bill’s home town he landed the job of musical director and instituted a policy of programming “specialist” forms of music such as R&B, Hillbilly, Polka and Jazz. He formed a new musical group called the 4 Aces of Western Swing but once more this turned out to be a short lived band as Bill buckled under the strain of managing a radio station while at the same time playing the honky tonks and bars with the Aces. He disbanded the group and apparently gave up on his dream of being a musician.

The dream was revived in late 1949 when Bill was approached by pedal steel guitarist Billy Williamson and accordionist / pianist Johnny Grande with a view to forming a new group. Bill was persuaded and the three became partners in The Saddlemen. This time round there was a determined effort to succeed, with the band rehearsing every day at the WPWA studio as they worked on developing a danceable sound with a heavier than usual beat (for country music, that is.)

In 1950 bassist Al Rex was brought in as a non-partner salaried member of the Saddlemen. The band did acquire a fourth and final partner, a part-time WPWA announcer, ex-carney and pal of Colonel Tom Parker, one “Lord Jim” Ferguson who became the group's manager. These arrangements would bear bitter fruit a few years down the line. The boys recorded some sides for Atlantic, including a cover of Ruth Brown’s “Teardrops from my Eyes” but the sides remained unreleased.

Local record label owner Dave Miller approached Bill in June 1951 with a view to the Saddlemen recording a cover version of the year’s big R&B hit, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats who, as followers of Be Bop Wino know, were really Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm with sax player Brenston on vocals and a crazily distorted electric guitar by Willie Kizart buzzing frantically throughout the disc. Of course the whole shebang was just a slightly updated rendition of the 1947 Jimmy Liggins jump blues “Cadillac Boogie” but that is by the by and may distract us from the thread of our tale.

For “Rocket 88” The four Saddlemen were augmented by electric guitarist Bob Scaltrito who provided tasty lead guitar licks over Al Rex’s slap bass, Bill’s rhythm guitar and Billy Williamson’s steel guitar. The resulting opus, complete with automobile sound effects, was released on Miller’s Holiday label and sold well enough locally. Bill’s next stab at R&B wasn’t until April 1952 when the band recorded a cover of fellow Chester PA musician Jimmy Preston’s wild “Rock The Joint.” Although the Saddlemen had released several records on Holiday after “Rocket 88” they were pure country with the more uptempo numbers such as “Green Tree Boogie” and “Sundown Boogie” being in the hillbilly boogie style.

By the time the band came to record “Rock The Joint” Al Rex had left and had been replaced by Marshall Lytle on bass. The recording featured a blistering guitar break by Danny Cedrone who would play on many of the boys’ subsequent recordings. As he was leader of his own group, The Esquire Boys, Danny never became a permanent member of the Saddlemen. “Rock The Joint,” released on another Dave Miller label, Essex, was even more successful than “Rocket 88” and although it failed to chart nationally it sold strongly in several territories in the States.

“Rock The Joint” was the B-side of the disc, the A-side being a Hank Williams rip off called “Icy Heart.” It was the rocker that sold, and this was as strong an indication as Bill could get that the way ahead lay down the road of heavily R&B tinged music rather than country. The next issue on Essex in August 1952, “Dance With A Dolly” b/w “Rockin’ Chair On The Moon” was the group’s last release as the Saddlemen. On their November 1952 release, “Stop Beatin’ Around The Mulberry Bush” b/w “Real Rock Drive,” they were billed as Bill Haley with Haley’s Comets. On these sides session drummer Billy Gussack was brought in as the band’s sound moved further away from country. He would play on most of the subsequent Essex records although he didn’t play with the band on the road.

It all came together on their next release, “Crazy Man, Crazy” which is a strong candidate for the title of the “first rock and roll record.” Well we can argue about that all day, but “Crazy Man, Crazy” with its teen hep talk title and shouted chorus of “Go! Go! Go, Everybody!” is most definitely rock and roll. It reached number 12 in the Billboard pop chart in May / June 1953. “One for the Money, two for the show, three to get ready, and here I go!” shouted Bill on the intro to the B-side, “Wat’cha Gonna Do” which was another good rocker.

The next release on Essex, in July 1953, was a weaker effort with an annoying “nursery rhyme” rocker “Pat-a-Cake” backed with a not-so-good original “Fractured.”

The Comets release in October 1953 was a considerable improvement – “Live It Up” b/w “Farewell, So Long, Goodbye.” On these numbers baritone sax player Tony Lance provided strategic honking blasts. He was also on the December release of a good cover version of the Faye Adams R&B stomper “I’ll Be True To You.” The B-side was another rock and roll nursery rhyme, “Ten Little Indians.” God help us. It was on this record that the band was first billed as Bill Haley and His Comets.

The final release on Essex was in March 1954. It had a so-so version of the old Glenn Miller favourite, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” while the reverse side “Straight Jacket” was notable for having Joey d’Ambrosio on tenor sax as the band chanted the song title in a manner similar to the Big Jay McNeely number “Mule Milk.” Billboard gave it an optimistic review: “The younger set could go for this novelty with its crazy lyric: two words repeated hundreds of times before the end is reached.” They didn’t go for it. The success of “Crazy Man, Crazy” was now but a memory. Something new was needed to revive the band’s chart career. Dave Miller let the Essex contract lapse and major label Decca moved in for the Comets. Would this move return our heroes to the charts? Stay tuned for further posts on Bill Haley and His Comets!

Ripped from ‘50s vinyl at 192 kbps.

Download from here:

Special non-crackly version sourced from non-vintage sides is now available here:

1. Rocket 88
2. Green Tree Boogie
3. Rock The Joint
4. Rockin' Chair On The Moon
5. Real Rock Drive
6. Crazy Man, Crazy
7. Wat'cha Gonna Do
8. Fractured
9. Live It Up
10. Farewell, So Long, Goodbye
11. I'll Be True
12. Chattanooga Choo Choo

Recommended listening:

For Dancers Only (Rev-Ola CR Rev 95). This is probably the most accessible and affordable comp of Bill’s Holiday, Essex and early Decca sides. 25 tracks from “Rocket 88” to “Dim Dim The Lights” with liner notes by Dave Penny. Midprice and easily available in the UK.

From Western Swing to Rock (Properbox 118). 4 CD set charting Bill’s progress from hillbilly yodeller to rock ‘n’ roll star. Includes some Jodimars tracks.

The Real Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Bear Family – Rollercoaster). Astonishingly thorough 5 CD exploration of Bill’s early career with all sorts of rarities (including those Atlantic sides.) Also astonishingly expensive. The Rollercoaster label released comps of Bill’s Holiday and Essex sides years before any other reissue company in the UK. Their definitive “Rock The Joint” collection is still available as a 22 track CD.

Recommended Reading:

“Rock Around The Clock: the record that started the rock revolution!” by Jim Dawson. Backbeat Books, 2005. Entertaining and detailed account of Bill’s rise to rock and roll fame. Loads of great background info. Every fan of 50s rock and R&B should have this book.

Chris Gardner’s Bill Haley Database is the web site for all the facts on Bill’s recordings. Where, when and who. The product of years of hard work.

And to complete this post, here’s a selection of Bill Haley EPs released on Essex, probably around 1954. The resemblance to the posted LP cover is of course purely coincidental. Many thanks to Joan for making this post possible.