-- NEWS --
POSTED: March 20, 2015
Blackboard Jungle turns 60
It was a little film noir-inspired black-and-white film, yet it changed the world.
In March 1955, Blackboard Jungle was released to an unsuspecting moviegoing public. Based upon a novel by Evan Hunter and directed by Richard Brooks, the film addressed racial tensions and violence in an inner-city school - topics that were rarely touched upon in American cinema of the era. The film starred Glenn Ford, and is credited with revitalizing the screen icon's career, while also helping launch, or accelerate, the acting careers of many of its young cast members, including future Oscar-winner Sidney Poitier, future MASH star Jamie Farr (then known as Jameel Farah), Vic Morrow, future director Paul Mazursky, and others.
But it was the music chosen to play over the opening credits - Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" - that changed everything. Although there had been popular rock and roll songs before, including several by Haley dating back to 1953 (in particular "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in 1954), Blackboard Jungle propelled "Rock Around the Clock" to No. 1 on the US music charts and officially made rock and roll part of the popular culture mainstream. Within months, Elvis Presley would join Haley, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and others on the scene and the world never looked back.
Earlier this month, I wrote a story on the 60th anniversary of the film for the Calgary Herald, in which I discuss the film and its significance with Jamie Farr, Peter Ford - Glenn's son and the man now credited with indirectly getting "Rock Around the Clock" into the film, Comets Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards, and legendary Vancouver DJ Red Robinson. You can check out the story here (link active as of March 20, 2015).
POSTED: March 20, 2015
Sonet-era producer Sam Charters dies
Samuel "Sam" Charters, a legendary music producer and musical scholar who worked to update Bill Haley's style in the 1970s, died on March 18, 2015 at the age of 85.
Charters was renowned for his work in popularizing (or, as the case may be) repopularizing the work of many previously obscure jazz and blues musicians, and was widely known for his work with Country Joe and the Fish, a 1960s group that is remembered protesting against the Vietnam War through its music. Charters, who was married to Ann Charters, an author known for her works related to the Beat Generation, himself left the US in 1970, relocating to Sweden where he joined Sonet Records as a producer.
As it happened, his work with Sonet ended up taking him back to the US soon after, as he was assigned the task of helping Bill Haley & His Comets update their style for a new decade with a series of recording sessions in Nashville.
During the same week Canada was gripped by the domestic terrorism incident known as the FLQ Crisis, Haley, under Charters' supervision, recorded Rock Around the Country, an album that took the oldtime rockabilly star out of his comfort level and into performances of songs like Joe South's "Games People Play", Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain", and Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee". Haley also recorded updated versions of a few of his more-obscure 1960s tracks such as "Dance Around the Clock" and "No Letter Today." (The album was also released under the title Travelin' Band.)
The album didn't set the world on fire, but Haley fans today acclaim it as one of the rocker's best. Charters went on to produce three more Sonet albums for Haley and the Comets: Rock and Roll Music (a.k.a. Just Rock and Roll) (1973), again recorded in Nashville; Rudy's Rock: The Sax That Changed the World (1975), an instrumental non-Haley album featuring Rudy Pompilli and the Comets and recorded not long before Pompilli died of cancer; and R-O-C-K (1976), an album of updated versions of songs dating back to the Essex Records era that was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Beyond producing, Charters also wrote books as well as poems and fiction. In the mid-2000s, Charters donated an archive of papers, recordings and other materials (including documents related to his work with Bill Haley) to the University of Connecticut.
POSTED: June 6, 2014
60 years of Shake, Rattle and Roll
Bill Haley and Big Joe Turner in a rare performance together in this cropped screen capture from a 1966 episode of Orfeon a Go-Go
that surfaced on YouTube in 2013. Despite recording rival versions of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in 1954,
the two men were close friends for many years.
In the history of rock and roll, it's an often-overlooked milestone. Sixty years ago this month, on June 7, 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets returned to the Pythian Temple recording studio in New York City for what could almost be called a do-over.
Their first attempt at recording a single for Decca Records, "Thirteen Women", backed by a novelty number called "Rock Around the Clock," had done reasonably well on the charts, but had failed to generate that much excitement. But Decca and producer Milt Gabler were encouraged enough to bring the guys back to record another two songs for a follow-up.
This time, both Haley and Gabler were likely in agreement as to which song would be the A-side. Big Joe Turner had recently had a major success with "Shake, Rattle and Roll," a rhythm and blues tune by Jessie Stone (writing as Charles Calhoun). Turner recorded his version for Atlantic Records on Feb. 15, 1954 and it had been released in April, around the time the Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock," scoring solid reviews in Billboard and immediately hitting the top 10 on regional R&B charts. By early May, it was in BillBoard's R&B Best Sellers Top 10.
It was common practice for performers to cover each other's records in 1954; Haley's own "Crazy Man Crazy" had been covered by a number of groups in 1953, including the Ralph Marterie Orchestra, and Haley's first true hit record, 1952's "Rock the Joint," had been a cover of an R&B standard from the 1940s. "Shake, Rattle and Roll" also seemed to fit in with Gabler's apparent attempt to mould Haley into a new Louis Jordan. But there was a problem with the lyrics.
Turner's song included some racy lines. It began in the bedroom, described a woman in a see-through dress, and also included a reference to a "one-eyed cat" which had sexual connotations too. In rearranging the song for the Comets (and to increase its airplay-friendliness on so-called "white radio") some of the lyrics were toned down. Although Haley is often criticized for this, in fact the decision to do this is believed to have been made by R&B veteran Gabler. The bedroom became the kitchen, and the dress reference changed to a compliment about a woman's hair; it's ironic that, by 2014 political correctness standards, the alterations may actually be considered more offensive to some than if they'd left those lyrics alone. It's not known why the "one-eyed cat" lyric (the most explicit of the lot) was kept in Haley's version; he was blind in one eye due to a childhood operation gone wrong (that's why Haley occasionally seems to have a "wandering eye" in some of his photographs), so it might have appealed to his sense of irony. It's unlikely the savvy Gabler would have not recognized what the line really meant. Regardless, it stayed in and Haley continued to sing the off-colour lyric for the rest of his life.
Unlike "Clock," where the musicians have been clearly identified, there was some confusion over who played on "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in June 1954. Of course, the core Comets were present: Billy Williamson (steel), Johnny Grande (piano), Marshall Lytle (bass), and Joey Ambrose (sax). Drummer Dick Richards made his Decca debut, though once again the decision was made to use a session drummer, though this time Richards was able to help out on additional percussion (a triangle) for the flipside, the novelty "ABC Boogie." It is likely, though unconfirmed, that he assisted in the group chorus singing during "Shake, Rattle and Roll" as well.
The identity of the session drummer was a mystery for years. It was believed by some to have been Savoy Sultans drummer David "Panama" Francis, but Gabler himself confirmed years later that it was Billy Gussak, who had been the drummer on "Rock Around the Clock." And on guitar, Danny Cedrone returned the fold, making what would be his final known recordings before his accidental death on June 17.
In other words, the complete original line-up that had played on "Rock Around the Clock"/"Thirteen Women" was reunited for the last time for this session.
Released on July 12, 1954, Bill Haley's version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" made its chart debut on the Cashbox chart in early August, peaking there at No. 6, and entering Billboard Best Sellers in Stores chart at 26 on Aug. 21. By mid-October, it was in the top 10, peaking at No. 7, though it reached No. 1 on various regional charts. It would become the Comets' first confirmed million-seller, and their first single to be popular internationally.
This is significant in the history of rock and roll because, while "Clock" is given the credit for launching the rock and roll era, it was not the first rock and roll song to be a major success. That honour clearly belongs to "Shake Rattle and Roll." What is even more amazing is it did it with relatively little promotion. There is no evidence of any major national TV performances by the Comets doing this song during 1954, for example (unlike "Clock" which was performed on numerous major shows in 1955, most notably Ed Sullivan's and Milton Berle's programs). That said, it was one of three songs the Comets performed in a movie short for Universal International titled Round-Up of Rhythm that was released in late 1954. And it was the lead and title track of Decca's first album collecting Haley's recordings for the label (with "Clock" once again relegated to the B-side).
Both Haley and Turner's versions of the song are stone-cold classics, but they also illustrate the vivid difference between rhythm and blues and early rock and roll. The beats are different, the cadences are different, and the sense of fun is different. Turner's was a true classic of the R&B genre, and Haley's version set the bar for rock and roll. Like many of Haley's accomplishments, revisionists have tried to downplay his influence. He's been accused of outright racism in covering the song (while Elvis gets a free pass for making his name covering songs by Rufus Thomas, Big Mama Thornton and Little Richard), and the decision to make the lyrics less sexy is used to illustrate how "unsexy" Haley was, how "unsuitable" he was for rock and roll.
Well, there are two things you need to consider. In 1955, Big Joe Turner performed "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in the film Rhythm and Blues Revue. He opens the song with a version of Haley's kitchen lyric. In 1956, Elvis Presley recorded his own version of the song for RCA, using Turner's lyrics but Haley's arrangement. And an alternate take unearthed in the 1990s revealed that he originally planned to use Haley's version of the lyrics, too -- as, indeed, he did when he performed the song on national TV. If those aren't endorsements of what Haley and the Comets did with the song, I don't know what is.
Haley would go on to rerecord the song no less than three times in the studio (Warner Bros., 1960; Orfeon, 1966; Sonet, 1968). Unlike "Clock," Haley tried to update the song each time he did it, with radical new arrangements at WB and Orfeon (Turner did this with various remakes of the song too). But the 1968 version went back to basics, and on stage Haley knew to keep things status quo, though in 1979 he started to incorporate the final verse of Turner's version ("I've been over the hill..."), which had previously been omitted.
Another myth is that Haley and Turner were rivals. In fact, they were close friends and in 1957 they even toured Australia together. In 1966, Haley helped Turner, whose career was at a low ebb, by letting the Comets back the blues man for a series of recordings at Orfeon. The Comets even backed Turner on a performance of "Feelin' Happy" for the Orfeon a Go Go TV show; footage of this emerged on YouTube in 2013 and a screen capture is above. The video shows the friendship between the two men. Sadly, despite the opportunity before them, no recording was ever made of the two masters doing a version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" together. That would have been something to hear.
POSTED: April 3, 2014
60 years of Rock Around the Clock
How that clock just keeps turning. It seems like only yesterday this website was marking the 50th anniversary of the recording or "Rock Around the Clock," and now the 60th anniversary is here.
On April 12, 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets gathered in a recording studio in Manhattan for their first recording session for Decca Records after jumping ship from the smaller Essex label. Under the guidance of veteran producer Milt Gabler, they had to record two songs for their first single. The session got off on the wrong foot due to the band being late - they were delayed en route due to ferry problems - and worse yet, Gabler wanted them to focus on a brand-new song, "Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)" rather than the song they really wanted to record, "Rock Around the Clock."
Of course, it all came together, and the band left having recorded their first single for Decca. And while it wasn't a flop, really, it didn't really do much either when it first came out a few weeks later (having "Thirteen Women" as the A-side didn't help). It took a movie soundtrack and a copy of the record borrowed from a Beverly Hills boy's record collection to make "Rock Around the Clock" the legend it became.
Way back in 1999, I wrote a potted history of "Rock Around the Clock" as an add-on to Extra. Over the years I've updated it and added more information, and was happy to see it used as a springboard by a number of researchers. And it also put me in touch with actor Peter Ford, who helped solve one of the greatest mysteries surrounding the song's rise to fame. For 2014 I haven't had to make many changes, expect some tweaking and some updating to reflect the passage of time. You can read my "Rock Around the Clock" tribute page here.
POSTED: March 21, 2014
Rare 1958 TV special unearthed
Franny Beecher's recent passing led to a considerable amount of happy memories and fans and music lovers worldwide paying tribute. It's also led to the uncovering of a legendary TV special Bill Haley & His Comets recorded during their October 1958 tour of Europe.
The special, recorded for TV broadcast in Brussels on Oct. 30, 1958, was part of a larger production that saw various classical music artists perform before the Comets came out to perform "modern-day" classical music -- rock and roll.
John Swenson mentions this program in his biography of Haley, and painted a bizarre picture of stuffed shirts being exposed to Haley-style rock. Few fans ever expected to see this show, until the European streaming media site Cobra.be made it available for viewing a few days after Beecher's death on Feb. 24, 2014. Featuring excellent images and sound, this is the first and, as far as we know, only complete visual record of a Bill Haley concert from this era (indeed, at the present time, its only equivalent is a more-or-less complete concert from March 1979 that was recorded for British TV and later relesed to DVD).
Opening with a strong performance of "The Saints' Rock and Roll" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll," the video also offers a showcase for a member of the 1958 Comets who has been virtually forgotten: Al Pompilli (Rudy Pompilli's cousin or brother, depending on who you believe - Haley calls him Rudy's brother here) provides comic relief and some excellent slap-bass skills on "Rudy's Rock" before taking the mic to sing "Giddy Up Ding Dong". But you're forgiven if you ignore the fact Al is singing to go "Holy ----! Bill Haley's playing the bass!" Yup, a little-known fact (at least today) is that Haley was a skilled slap-bass player - he taught Marshall Lytle - and when Al Pompilli sings his number, Haley grabs the bass and rocks it.
Then, we get a terrific instrumental - the classic "Tequila" - which was a highlight of the Paris Olympia concert recording (made during the same tour) - but here we get to see the skill displayed by Rudy on sax and, in particular, Franny Beecher.
Next up is Joe Olivier, who in Haley circles is better known as Cappy Bianco. Here, the Dutch-born singer, who did some guitar session work with the Comets at Decca records and can be seen with the band during their appearance in the film Hier Bin Ich, Hier Bleib Ich, performs a heavily accented "Rock the Joint" - the only time someone other than Haley has been recorded doing the number with the Comets. Finally, Haley delivers the one-two punch of "See You Later Alligator" and a complete performance of "Rock Around the Clock" (the Paris Olympia version is truncated), followed by an encore of "Mambo Rock."
It's fun seeing the stuffed shirts in the audience gradually warm to the group, though the applause never rises above "polite" decibels, and the Comets do a great job in what must have been an hellishly awkward scenario (a constantly malfunctioning microphone couldn't have helped). And in the end we win because we get to enjoy this tremendous bit of rock and roll history.
As of March 2014, the clip is available for viewing here. Cobra has also posted a second bit of rare footage - an excerpt from a September 1972 news report on Haley and the Comets performing in Antwerp, with excerpts from "See You Later Alligator" and "Rudy's Rock" - here.
POSTED: February 25, 2014; REVISED: March 21, 2014
Franny Beecher, 1921-2014
Franny Beecher performs with Bill Haley's Comets during a July 2005 performance at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
during the Rock is Fifty celebrations in Los Angeles. Photo by Alex Frazer-Harrison.
Franny Beecher, an iconic member of the Comets both in the golden and the modern eras, as passed away at the age of 92, his family has announced.
Beecher, who died on Feb. 24, had been in declining health for some time, though he had been making public appearances as recently as a few years ago, after having retired from active touring with the Comets in the late 2000s. His death was announced by his granddaughter via his official Facebook page, on which she wrote, "He's on his way to rock 'n roll heaven. He will be missed but is at peace now."
By the time Francis Beecher started working with Bill Haley & His Comets as a session guitarist in 1954, he was already an experienced jazz and big band musician, having performed with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and also doing session work with the likes of Buddy Greco. He also had some experience in the country music field, having been a member of the Buckaroo Ramblers with early Haley associate "Brother Wayne" Wright. He was initially hired by Haley strictly as a session musician - in those days, the Comets did not tour with a lead guitarist, with Haley and steel guitarist Billy Williamson handling those duties. On record, Haley had previously used the services of Art Ryerson and Danny Cedrone, with Cedrone of course best known for his work on "Rock Around the Clock." After Cedrone's death in July 1954, Beecher was hired to play session guitar on the next Comets Decca recording session for the single "Dim, Dim the Lights" and "Happy Baby."
As recounted by John Swenson in his biography of Haley, that first recording session was bumpy as Haley chided Beecher for playing too jazzy for the Comets' style, but the guitarist soon got the hang of it, and by 1955 Haley even began using him on live shows, most notably the band's performance of "Rock Around the Clock" on Toast of the Town (a.k.a. The Ed Sullivan Show), where Beecher executed his own version of Cedrone's guitar solo (though he later said to me that he goofed while playing it, other than his facial expression, viewers only heard a well-played solo).
In the fall of 1955, three members of the Comets quit to form the Jodimars, and it was around this time that Beecher was promoted to full-time Comet, appearing not just on record and the occasional TV appearance, but also on tour and in the movies. Beecher appeared with Haley and the Comets in both Columbia films, Rock Around the Clock (where he was forced to mime to the long-deceased Cedrone's work on "Clock" - something he'd be called upon again to do as late as a 1960 TV appearance for Dick Clark) and Don't Knock the Rock (where he got to spotlight his barnstorming guitar instrumental "Goofin' Around"). He, along with the rest of the Comets, also made his color debut in the 1958 German film Here I Am, Here I Stay and he also appeared with the Comets in at least two films the band shot in Mexico in the early 1960s.
Beecher's tongue-in-cheek trademark - the ability to sing in a high-pitched voice - was put to good use by Haley as he provided the spoken introductions to the hit singles "See You Later, Alligator" and "Rip it Up." He also performed songs like "You Made Me Love You" on stage in this voice, and near the end of the Decca years he even sang a duet with Billy Williamson on 1959's "ABC Rock." Beecher also got to sing in his normal voice, too, as he was a member of the "Comets Trio" (which also featured Al Rex and Billy Williamson) that performed tracks such as "Tonight's the Night" and "Hey Then, There Now." Beecher was also actively involved with various sideline recording sessions in the late 1950s/early 1960s where the Comets backed a number of other performers on records. He was also the lead session guitar player in 1957 when the Comets recorded several singles as The Kingsmen, most notably "Week End," though others performed in his stead on tour and on TV.
In 1960, soon after the band moved from Decca to Warner Bros. Records, in a repeat of the Jodimars scenario, Beecher left the Comets along with sax player Rudy Pompilli and drummer Ralph Jones to form a new group called the Merri-Men. After recording one single, however, the venture folded and Beecher and Pompilli soon returned to the Comets, though by this time Beecher had been replaced in the band by a new lead player, Johnny Kay. In an unusual decision, however, Haley chose to keep both guitarists, giving the Comets a dual lead. Beecher and Kay shared lead playing duties on tour and in the recording studio as Haley found new success in Mexico and Latin America beginning in 1961. In Mexico, Beecher recorded a number of instrumentals with the Comets, and co-wrote "Tampico Twist," which was covered by a number of Mexican performers.Beecher's return to the Comets lasted only a couple of years, and he again left the band in 1962, though he was persuaded to return later that year to take part in a series of shows at the famous Roundtable club in New York, which resulted in the Twistin' Knights at the Roundtable live album, during which Beecher can be heard trading off guitar solos with Kay.
Beecher kept a rather low profile over the next number of years, though he was profiled in the early 1970s by Guitar Player magazine. In 1975, he reunited with Rudy Pompilli for a live gig that ended up being the last performance Pompilli gave before his death from cancer in early 1976 (a privately made recording of this show exists, but has never been commercially released).
He also found himself returning to the Comets on several occasions. The first was on 1977, during a period when Haley had claimed to have retired, but a version of the Comets continued to tour without him. After Haley's death in 1981, Beecher was recruited to join a contingent of Bill Haley's Comets led by mid-1960s piano player Joey Welz, during which time he recorded several instrumentals, most notably "The Hawk Talks" which consisted primarily of some of the famous guitar breaks from the Comets' classic recordings strung together to form a new masterpiece.
But his lasting reunion with the Comets came in 1987 when he, along with fellow 1950s-era Comets Marshall Lytle, Joey Ambrose, Dick Richards and Johnny Grande, reunited for a performance during the Philadelphia Music Awards which saw the band perform "Rock Around the Clock" together for the first time in decades. This led to the Comets continuing to reunite on tour, initially as the "special feature" of a Jodimars reunion, but by the early 1990s as Bill Haley's Comets (or A Tribute to Bill Haley featuring the Original Comets in jurisdictions where others held the rights to the Bill Haley's Comets name). Beecher was an enthusiastic performer during the 1990s and 2000s, appearing at countless shows in North America and Europe with the reunited Comets, and also taking part in recording sessions in Germany, England and Las Vegas where not only were many classic Haley hits recreated, but new material was also introduced, such as 1997 instrumental written by Beecher titled "Car Jam."
The Original Comets continued to tour with its classic line-up until 2005-2006, climaxing with a series of Rock is Fifty performances in New York City and Los Angeles marking the 50th anniversary of "Rock Around the Clock" hitting No. 1 on the US charts. During this time, Beecher, along with his bandmates, were immortalized in the Hollywood RockWalk and performed at the trendy Viper Club in West Hollywood where they even performed a song with Haley's youngest daughter, Gina Haley.
After the Comets relocated permanently to Branson, Beecher chose to retire from touring in the summer of 2006 and returned home to Pennsylvania, though he continued to perform regularly at local venues and in 2010 performed a concert with his onetime bandmate, Johnny Kay. He also attended a 2011 performance by Bill Haley Jr. In 2012, he, along with his fellow Comets, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though Beecher was not well enough to attend the ceremony in Cleveland.
I was lucky enough to meet Franny Beecher on several occasions, the first being in 1998 in Edmonton, Canada, when Marshall Lytle introduced me to him, then later twice in Calgary (here I interviewed him for the local newspaper). I found him a very soft-spoken fellow who often kept to himself, but I was able to chat with him about that most iconic of all guitar solos, which he inherited from Danny Cedrone but ultimately made his own. He told me the part everyone knows - the fast run at the end - is the easy part, "just a scale," but the "real soul" of the piece can be found in the playing that comes before. I've never listened to the "Clock" solo the same way since. I also had the opportunity to watch Franny limber up with his guitar when I spent two great days with the band during the July 2005 Rock is Fifty events in Los Angeles, and I knew this was a master at work.
Martin Lewis, who organized Rock is Fifty, remembers working with Franny: "When I organized for The Comets to visit both New York and Los Angeles to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 'Rock Around The Clock' in 2005, it was of course a pleasure to see all of them perform on stage in those cities. But the Comet who inspired the greatest awe and respect from the many musicians I invited to attend those celebration shows was Franny. Not only was he a consummate guitarist - still musically fluent and agile - but he was also clearly a gentleman in the fullest meaning of the word. And among musicians there is no higher accolade. It was a true honor to spend quality time with him and introduce him at those memorable shows. Rock In Peace, Franny!"
With the loss of Franny Beecher, less than a year after Marshall Lytle's passing, the music world is a bit poorer, but fortunately he has left behind countless great performances -- not to mention acknowledged influence on many guitarists of the 1960s and 1970s -- that future generations will be enriched to discover.
POSTED: February 25, 2014
1970s Comets bass player Jim Lebak dies
Jim Lebak, who played bass for Bill Haley & His Comets during the mid-1970s, has died at the age of 81 in Bath, NY.
Lebak, who died on Jan. 28, joined the Comets in 1974, replacing Ray Cawley on bass guitar and stand-up bass. He remained with the Comets during the tours of late 1974, 1975 and 1976, and later rejoined the Comets in the spring of 1979 when Bill Haley came out of his temporary retirement and resumed touring.
Lebak participated in several Comets recording sessions in the 1970s during the band's time at Sonet Records, including the 1976 release Rudy's Rock: The Sax That Changed the World, featuring Rudy Pompilli's final recorded performances (Haley himself was not involved), and the Haley-led 1976 release R-O-C-K. He also took part in the London recording sessions that made up part of Haley's final album, 1979's Everyone Can Rock and Roll and can be seen playing during the March 1979 Birmingham, England concert that was recorded for TV and has since been released in several formats on DVD (often erroneously labelled as Haley's farewell performance). He also performed and recorded as a solo artist.
By the time Haley undertook a second (ultimately final) tour of Europe in the fall of 1979, Lebak had left the group. In later years, he worked as a bus driver.
POSTED: November 22, 2013
New and Original Comets to unite with Gina Haley for tour
To mark the 60th anniversary of the recording of "Rock Around the Clock," several generations of Comets will unite for a European tour next spring.
The Original Comets -- featuring surviving veterans Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards -- will be uniting with the German-based Bill Haley's New Comets and Bill Haley's youngest daughter, Gina Haley, to form a "supergroup" that will celebrate the anniversary with the Sixty Years of Rock Around the Clock Tour.
Formed a number of years ago as the Bill Haley and His Comets Revival and later also known as the Bill Haley Orchestra, the New Comets, led by Joe "Bill" Clifton, previously toured Europe with Gina, and has often shared the stage with Comets alumni, including Bill Turner, Haley's mid-1970s lead guitar player. Gina Haley has been performing original music for a number of years, but in the last few years has also taken on promoting her father's work by touring and recording with the New Comets as well as touring and recording with UK-based tribute group Phil Haley and the Comments (see article below). She last performed on stage with the Original Comets during their July 2005 performance at the Viper Club in West Hollywood during the Rock is Fifty Celebrations.
Dates and venues have yet to be confirmed. Bookmark the tour's Facebook page for updates and information.
POSTED: November 22, 2013
Haley offspring keep Dad's music alive
This year, two talented offspring of Bill Haley have released albums paying tribute to their famous father.
In 2011, Gina Haley, youngest daughter of Bill, toured Europe with both the British group Phil Haley and His Comments, and the German-based Bill Haley's New Comets. These tours later begat two CD albums released over the past year: Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle, with Phil Haley, and she is also featured on Rock the Joint Again with the New Comets.
Both albums see Gina, who has been a professional singer for a number of years, but who expressed a desire to record an album of her dad's songs as far back as 2005 when I met her during the Rock is Fifty celebrations in Los Angeles, take on a number of her father's famous (and not-so-famous) songs. With Phil Haley, Gina does vocals on songs like "Hawk," "Chick Safari" and "Happy Baby," and performs an outstanding version of "Jealous Heart." Click here for a review of this excellent album.I am currently working to obtain a copy of the New Comets album (both CDs are available online through Hydra Records as of this writing), and will post a review of it in the near future.
Meanwhile, this month (November 2013), her older brother Bill Haley Jr. released his own tribute album, Bill Haley, Jr. and the Comets. The former lead singer of the Satellites recruited a number of top-notch musicians -- including Bill Turner, who played lead guitar for Bill Haley in the mid-1970s -- for a collection of his dad's famous songs, from "Rock Around the Clock" to "Hot Dog Buddy Buddy." Another excellent album, you'll find my review of it here, and it's available to order via CD Baby here.
With the 60th anniversary of Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" soon upon us, and as we sadly reflect on the fact so many of those who brought Bill Haley's sound to life are no longer with us, it's great to see the next generation of Haleys (and I should note Bill Jr. and Gina are not the only Haley offspring with musical talent) stepping up to the plate to keep the music alive. Hopefully it won't be long before we see Gina and Bill Jr. united on stage. (In the meantime, we can look forward to Gina ripping it up with the New Comets and Original Comets next spring; see above.)
POSTED: November 22, 2013
Clip from upcoming Lytle film released
On June 10, in memory of Marshall Lytle, the producer of a movie based on his autobiography released a preliminary clip from the film.
June 10 was the same day a memorial service was held for the longtime Comets bass player, who died on May 25. Bertie Higgins, producer of Still Rockin', the independent film from Cayo Largo Productions based upon Lytle's book, Still Rockin' Around the Clock, uploaded the clip to YouTube. The clip does not feature any dramatic scenes from the picture, but consists of interview footage of Lytle himself. Higgins notes that this is a "rough, barely edited clip," but it features Marshall reminiscing about his life.
The clip can be viewed on YouTube here. As of this writing no release date for Still Rockin' has been announced, but I'll post the information once I hear anything.
POSTED: May 25, 2013; REVISED: November 22, 1963
Marshall Lytle, 1933-2013
Marshall Lytle, second from right, poses with fellow members of the Original Comets
during the Rock is Fifty celebrations in Los Angeles, July 2005. Photo by Alex Frazer-Harrison.
Marshall Lytle, the last surviving founding member of The Comets, died on May 25 after fighting cancer. He was 79. His death was confirmed on his Facebook page by his wife, Cathy.
Lytle had been performing up until a few months ago, but had cancelled an upcoming performance in the UK and had also fallen silent on the Bill Haley e-mail discussion group he belonged to, though on May 19 he was interviewed on Big Dawg Radio's Sunday Morning Fun House in which he revealed that his cancer had been diagnosed as "treatable, but not curable."
Originally from North Carolina, Lytle joined Bill Haley and the Saddlemen in 1951 to replace bass player Al Rex. Lytle was in fact a guitar player, but later recalled that Haley himself taught him the basics of playing the slap bass, which became his instrument of choice for the rest of his career. Lytle played on most of Haley's recordings for Holiday and Essex Records in the 1951-52 period, including "Rock the Joint," and he was with the group in September 1952 when the decision was made to update the Saddlemen's image and rebrand as Bill Haley & His Comets. In 1953, Lytle co-wrote "Crazy Man, Crazy" with Bill Haley but the singer convinced him to leave his name off the credits, and the song went on to become the Comets' first national hit, and the first known rock and roll song to be played on US network TV when it was heard during a live drama production starring future movie icon James Dean.
In April 1954, the Comets jumped ship from Essex to Decca Records, and Marshall's slap bass was front and centre as the band recorded the song that changed everything, "Rock Around the Clock," followed by other classics like "Shake, Rattle and Roll," "Dim, Dim the Lights" and "Razzle-Dazzle."
Marshall's bass-throwing antics were a highlight of the Comets' live act, and some of this is preserved in a music short subject the group made entitled Round Up of Rhythm. Lytle was also a talented singer and was often featured in solos; though he never got a chance to record solo work in-studio with the Comets (during the 1950s only steel guitar player Billy Williamson was afforded the luxury), he was recorded singing an early version of the Jodimars' "Let's All Rock Together" during a 1955 performance in Cleveland that was later released by Hydra Records on the CD Rock and Roll Show.
Lytle, dissastisfied with being only a salaried member of the Comets, left the group in the fall of 1955, joining fellow ex-Comets Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards to form the Jodimars. Although the breakaway group never scored any major hits, they nonetheless recorded a string of top-notch rock and roll classics including "Well Now Dig This" and "Eat Your Heart Out, Annie," with tenor Lytle and baritone Richards trading off (or sometimes sharing) vocal duties. When the original line-up of the Jodimars broke up in 1958, Lytle attempted to keep the brand going by recording a set of tracks (unreleased until the 1990s) backed by Ricky Nelson's band. He also recorded a solo single with Wes Buchanan.
After the Jodimars, Marshall pursued other musical and business ventures, and also began using the name Tommy Page professionally, and later recalled that he met Haley for the last time backstage after a Comets show in the early 1970s. In the late 1980s, he was invited to join with Ambrose, Richards, Johnny Grande and Franny Beecher for a one-off reunion performance in Philadelphia. Lytle himself got to sing "Rock Around the Clock," although in the excitement he sang the verses out of order. But that didn't matter, and before long demand began to build for the Original Comets to tour again. Initially an added attraction during a Jodimars reunion tour of the UK, by the early 1990s the Original Comets were back on the road and in the recording studio, initially with singer Jacko Buddin providing the Haley vocals, though by the early 2000s, Marshall was taking on lead vocal duties more frequently (particularly for North American concerts, with Buddin featured in the UK and Europe), and by the mid-2000s, Buddin had departed and Marshall became the band's full-time lead singer. The reunited Comets recorded a number of albums, including two for the legendary Rollin' Rock label. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Lytle and the Comets began a long residency performing in Branson, Mo., which the group continues today, though Marshall left the Comets several years ago to pursue solo musical work.
I first met Marshall though the Internet, having found his e-mail address on a webpage in late 1997. I'm happy to say I kept in touch with him up until he fell silent a few weeks ago. I met him for the first time in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1998 when the Original Comets (at that time performing as A Tribute to Bill Haley due to ongoing issues regarding the rights to the Comets name) performed at the Klondike Days fair. Meeting him and all the other originals was a dream come true for a fellow who'd been a Comets fan since he was four years old! Not long after that, Marshall was one of a growing number of friends and fans who would regularly exchange e-mails; this became more formalized around 2000 when a Yahoo Group was established. One of our group's conversations was about misheard song lyrics. I recalled mishearing a line in Haley's "Rockin' Thru the Rye" that went "Maxwelltown's braes are bonny" as "Max Welchin's razor bunny." Marshall got a kick out of that and before long we found our fan group dubbed the Razor Bunnies by Marshall (he even mentioned this during a concert!).
Later, in 2003, I met Marshall and the guys again in Calgary, where they were booked to play Frank Sissons' Silver Dollar Casino. As always, it was a great show, but the highlight for me came after the concert when, due to them having a free day, I rented an SUV and drove Marshall and the others out to Banff and Lake Louise, where they had a blast taking in the scenery and the shops (my only regret is Franny Beecher begged off, preferring to relax at the hotel in Calgary).
But all this paled in comparison to July 2005 when I travelled down to Los Angeles to join Marshall and the Comets as they took part in a number of events marking the 50th anniversary of "Rock Around the Clock" hitting No. 1 on the US charts. Rock is Fifty saw the Comets take part in a whirlwind of activities, some of which deserved more attention than they got, but between having their handprints immortalized on the Rockwalk (and meeting up with Bill Haley's daughter, Gina), to performing at the trendy Viper Club in West Hollywood, to giving a special private show for the staff at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, this was an event to remember. Sadly, it was also the end of an era in some ways -- Johnny Grande would pass away a year later, and Franny would retire from active touring with the Comets. And it was the last time I met Marshall in person, as well.
What I admired most about Marshall was his perseverence. A few years ago, he lost part of one leg (I believe due to a blood clot), which ended his bass-throwing days. But he continued to perform with the Comets, and even decided a couple of years ago to relaunch his solo career (Ambrose and Richards continue to perform today as the Comets). He also wrote an autobiography, Still Rockin' Around the Clock, and in recent months had been excitedly giving progress reports on the filming of a movie based upon the book. On top of all this, he even followed Dick Richards' lead and launched a movie acting career, appearing in the 2011 film Through the Eye. For a fellow in his late 70s, he was busier than most people I know in their 40s.
Marshall's last public appearance with the Comets was a year ago when he reunited with Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards (as well as Al Rex) to accept induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on behalf of the Comets. Lytle was one of the unsung pioneers of rock and roll, and I hope his contributions are remembered.
POSTED: May 25, 2013
Songwriter Frank Pingatore dies
Frank Pingatore, who wrote a number of classic songs for Bill Haley & His Comets and the Jodimars, died in December 2012.
Pingatore was best known for writing or co-writing Haley hits such as "Happy Baby" and "Two Hound Dogs," and when several members of the Comets left the band in the fall of 1955, Pingatore began writing songs for them, including "Well Now Dig This" and "Clarabella", and he also collaborated with Marshall Lytle on "Eat Your Heart Out Annie" and other songs.
According to John Swenson's biography of Haley, the musician cut ties with Pingatore after he songwriter began working with the Jodimars even, so Swenson claims, jeopardizing a TV series deal by forbidding any Pingatore songs from being performed. However, Pingatore did write "Everybody Out'a the Pool", a song recorded by members of the Comets in the late 1950s as the Lifeguards.
In recent years, "Clarabella" has taken on a life of its own after a previously unreleased cover version by the Beatles recorded for BBC Radio was released in the mid-1990s; the song was also performed by the White Stripes, and back in the 1960s future "fifth Beatle" Billy Preston also performed it on TV.
POSTED: September 7, 2012
60 years of The Comets
This past Labor Day weekend marked a major anniversary -- the 60th anniversary of Bill Haley & His Comets.
The group, of course, had its roots as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, a country swing-themed group formed in the late 1940s. But as early as 1950-51, when the Saddlemen began recording R&B covers with a country feel, beginning with a cover of Ruth Brown's "Teardrops From My Eyes" for Atlantic Records in 1950, followed by their version of Jackie Brentson's "Rocket 88" in 1951, and "Rock the Joint" in early 1952, the tide was already turning for the band.
By the fall of 1952, it was clear that "Saddlemen" no longer accurately decribed the type of music the band was performing in urban centres like Wildwood, N.J. and the Philadelphia region.
There are differing views as to who was responsible for suggesting the name "Comets." Bass player Marshall Lytle credits Bob Johnson, the program director at WPWA, a radio station where the band often performed. Haley biographer John Swenson suggested a deejay on WPWA, Bix Reichner, was the responsible party.
At first, the group was billed as Bill Haley with Haley's Comets, and the cowboy hats were swapped out for suits and bow-ties. The original members were Bill Haley, Lytle on bass, Johnny Grande on piano and accordion and Billy Williamson on steel guitar (who initially got a special "featuring..." credit on the singles). There is some debate as to who the group's first drummer was, with Lytle indicating Earl Famous was the original drummer for the band, with Charlie Higler joining soon after (Dick Richards would join in 1953, although he's stated that he was invited to join as early as 1952, but declined). Ultimately, though, the first drummer to play on Comets record was actually a session drummer, Billy Gussak, who played on the first "Haley's Comets" recording session in the fall of 1952 that produced the single "Stop Beatin' Around the Mulberry Bush"/"Real Rock Drive". In the spring of 1953 the group scored their first national hit with "Crazy, Man, Crazy" for Essex Records. A year later, with the band now augmented with the addition of sax player Joey Ambrose, the Comets jumped ship for Decca Records and recorded a little song called "Rock Around the Clock."The Comets, in all their permutations, backed Haley for 28 1/2 years in total, featuring a wide range of musicians (see the Bill Haley Who's Who feature for a listing). Some only played for a few performance dates; others, like sax player Rudy Pompilli, stayed by Haley's side for years. Many others were never considered "official" Comets, but through their session work nonetheless contributed to the classic Comets sound (guitar virtuoso Danny Cedrone's guitar solo on "Rock Around the Clock" remains the gold standard for rock, jazz and swing guitar players).
Sixty years on, so much has changed. Lytle and Higler are the only surviving members of the original version of the Comets, with Lytle continuing to perform as a solo performer after having left the Original Comets several years ago. The Comets name continues to be invoked by several groups, including the Original Comets (now featuring sax man Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards), who continue to tour when they're not in residence in Branson, and two versions of Bill Haley's Comets, one fronted by Al Rappa, who played bass with Haley in the 1960s, the other fronted by Lenny Longo, who continues to tour in honor of his late band leader, drummer John "Bam-Bam" Lane. In Europe, The Bill Haley Orchestra grew out of a tribute group called Bill Haley's New Comets. Another tribute group, Phil Haley and His Comments continues to tour the world, and the music of Bill Haley & His Comets also continues to be kept alive by Haley's talented offspring Gina Haley (who recently released an album of her father's recordings - I hope to obtain a copy soon for review) and Bill Haley Jr.
And, most recently, the Comets were finally given their due by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Not a bad legacy after 60 years.
POSTED: September 7, 2012
Comets movie planned
As the Comets reach their 60th anniversary, original member Marshall Lytle has announced that a film adaptation of his memoirs is in the planning stages.
Lytle has announced that filming on Still Rockin' Around the Clock is targeted for early 2013. Based upon Lytle's 2009 autobiography, the film is expected to chronicle the early days of rock and roll and Bill Haley & His Comets. The film is to be co-produced by Cayo Largo Productions and Lytle's Still Rockin' Entertainment.
"We are very excited about the possibilities of this PG-rated film about the early creation of Rock & Roll and we expect it to appeal to audiences all around the world," Lytle wrote in an e-mail earlier this summer announcing the production.
Casting for the film has yet to be confirmed.
This is Lytle's second recent foray into films, having appeared in a role in another Cayo Largo production, Through the Eye, which was released in 2011.
Attempts at telling the Bill Haley & His Comets story on film have been made before, with both Jeff Bridges and John Ritter at one point being reported as connected to various never-made productions. As a character, Haley has appeared briefly in several films, all made-for-TV movies: in the 1985 Australian movie Shout! The Story of Johnny O'Keefe, played by John Paramor; and in two 1999 US productions - Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story (Michael Daingerfield) and Shake, Rattle and Roll: An American Love Story (Dicky Barrett). To date, none of the Comets have been portrayed on film, with the two 1999 productions featuring Haley backed by unidentified musicians (and a big band in the Barrett prouduction).
POSTED: April 18, 2012
R.I.P. Dick Clark
Dick Clark, one of the last of the "old guard" TV hosts who helped make Rock and Roll a household name, died on April 18 at the age of 82.
Although Clark didn't become a household name until 1957 when American Bandstand went national, there is no denying that his impact on the development of rock and roll ranks alongside that of Alan Freed, Murray the K and other famous announcers and deejays.
Clark hosted Bill Haley & His Comets on Bandstand several times; although clips only appear to have survived of them performing "Rock Around the Clock" on a pair of spin-off programs Clark hosted, we know they also appeared on the show performing other songs such as the 1957 hit "Billy Goat". The Comets' spin-off group The Kingsmen also performed their hit instrumental "Week End" on the show.
Clark continued to be a supporter of Haley throughout his career, and when asked to describe the origins of Rock and Roll, invariably would begin where it should, with Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. Clark's appreciation of Haley reached a climax when, after Haley died in 1981, Clark dedicated part of a TV special marking Bandstand's 30th anniversary to assembling a supergroup of musicians to play along with footage of Haley and the Comets doing "Rock Around the Clock". It was the only major tribute Haley received on American television after his death.
Clark hosted Bandstand until 1989, by which time he was also one of TV's biggest producers of game shows and live events (he established the American Music Awards). He hosted countless game shows and TV specials over the years, and even inherited the mantle of "Mr. Blooper" when he picked up the ball from pioneering TV producer Kermit Schaefer and hosted TV shows and made record albums preserving outtakes from TV, radio and cinema. He spent 40 years hosting Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin Eve, continuing with the help of Ryan Seacrest after suffering a stroke in 2004. The 2011 broadcast was his final national appearance before cameras.
Clark was one of the last of a generation that included the likes of Alan Freed who saw promise in what folks like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley were trying to accomplish, and I personally feel many of the names you see listed in both the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame owe Dick Clark a debt.
POSTED: April 18, 2012
Comets reunite at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
It's finally happened: on April 14, the Comets were inducted into Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at an event that featured a rare reunion of the original surviving members of the group.
During a ceremony that reportedly lasted some five hours, the 2012 inductees were introduced, ranging from Guns n' Roses to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the highlight for many was the long-overdue induction of a number of backing groups whose leaders had long since become Hall of Fame inductees. The Comets were front and centre (Bill Haley gaving been inducted in 1987), alongside Buddy Holly's Crickets, James Brown's Famous Flames, Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, Hank Ballard's Midnighters and Smokey Robinson's Miracles. Robinson, as the only surviving bandleader from this group, introduced the inductees.
Accepting the award on behalf of the Comets was Marshall Lytle, Joey Ambrose, Dick Richards and -- making his first public appearance with the Comets since 1958 - 90-year-old Al Rex. The induction specifically recognized the members of the Comets from 1954 to 1956, which also included Franny Beecher (who was unable to attend the ceremony), Rudy Pompilli, Ralph Jones, Johnny Grande and Billy Williamson. Guitarist Danny Cedrone, who was never an official Comet but whose contribution to the Haley sounds is incalculable thanks to his session work on "Rock Around the Clock" and other recordings, was also included.
The event was attended by many luminaries and family members. Bill Haley Jr. represented the Haley family, while members of Danny Cedrone's family also attended, along with many supporters of the Comets (apologies if I missed anyone).
Lytle spoke on behalf of the Comets during the presentation which saw members of all the groups take to the stage. This was the first time Lytle, Ambrose and Richards had been together on stage since Lytle left the Comets to pursue solo work in 2009. Ambrose and Richards continue to perform as Bill Haley's Comets in Branson and recently completed a tour in Europe. Rex, though he no longer performs, recently attended a concert by Bill Haley Jr. in Bridgeport, Penn., that was also attended by Franny Beecher and Rex's brother Joe Piccirilli, who once did some recording session work for Bill Haley and the Saddlemen.
The US cable network HBO is scheduled to broadcast an edited-down version of the induction ceremony on May 5. It remains to be seen if the induction of the Comets makes the final cut.
POSTED: February 9, 2012
Comets to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
After years of effort, The Comets have been named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Although Bill Haley -- who died 31 years ago today -- was inducted as part of the Hall's second contingent in 1987, based on the rules of the time, backing bands were not eligible. This oversight began to be corrected when the HOF introduced a sidemen category. And in an announcement made today, The Comets will join The Crickets, James Brown's Famous Flames, Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, Hank Ballard's Midnighters and Smokey Robinson's Miracles as the HOF's newest members at an induction ceremony scheduled for April 14 in Cleveland.
Efforts to get the Comets, or individual members, inducted have been ongoing for a number of years. A Facebook group was even started calling on the HOF to add the Comets.
The naming also comes on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Saddlemen changing their name to the Comets in the fall of 1952.
The induction of the Comets also includes guitarist Danny Cedrone. Cedrone was never officially a member of the Comets, being hired as a session musician prior to his death in 1954, but he nonetheless was pivitol to the success of "Rock Around the Clock" and other early Comets and Saddlemen recordings. Cedrone's family has been lobbying for him to be inducted in the Sidemen category for years.
POSTED: October 21, 2011; UPDATED: October 25, 2011
It's been a busy summer so I haven't been able to keep the site updated as much as I'd have liked. But here are a few updates from the world of the Comets.
First, a belated happy 90th birthday to the legendary Franny Beecher, which he celebrated on Sept. 29.
One of the big pieces of news is how Bill Haley's children have stepped up to the plate to celebrate their father's music this year. In the spring, Gina Haley, Bill's youngest daughter, toured the UK and Europe performing her dad's music. It was a double-barrelled tour for Gina, who started out performing as a special guest with the popular UK tribute band Phil Haley and His Comments, after which she went over to the mainland to join the German tribute group Bill Haley's New Comets for a number of shows. With both Phil Haley and the New Comets, Gina performed songs that aren't often performed by the Comets or tribute groups, such as Haley's unknown 1967 country classic "Jealous Heart", the Essex-era "I'll Be True to You", and the world's biggest-selling flipside, "Thirteen Women" (of course tweaked to become "Thirteen Men" for the occasion). Bill Turner of the 1970s-era Comets joined Gina on a number of European dates.
Bill Haley Jr., meanwhile, has also followed his dad's path. After releasing an album of original music backed by The Satellites (see review below), Haley has been fine-tuning his own tribute to his father. No word as to whether a collaboration between Bill Jr. and Gina is in the cards, but here's hoping.
The Original Comets continue to perform in Branson, Mo., having opened at the Music City Centre on Sept. 1. Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards bid farewell to guitarist Jackson Haney earlier this year, but promise big things in 2012.
Marshall Lytle parted company with the Original Comets two years ago, but hasn't slowed down. He continues to perform as a solo - sharing the stage not long ago with Bill Haley Jr. But even more exciting, you'll be able to see Marshall on the big screen! Marshall plays Capt. Morgan in the motion picture Through the Eye, which was filmed in several locations in Florida in October 2010. Starring Tom Sizemore and directed by Julian Higgins, the film had its Florida premiere in Palm Harbor, Fl. on October 5 and 6. Meanwhile, keep an eye out for a film called Zombie Presidents which was shot earlier this year and features none other than Bill Turner as one of the presidential undead!
Meanwhile, Johnny Kay, who returned to recording several years ago, has a new album of original music out with his group, JK Rockets, called Ready 2 Rock! You can find a review of the album below, along with my much-delayed review of Otto Fuchs' massive Bill Haley biography.
POSTED: April 11, 2011
Ray Parsons R.I.P.
Ray Parsons sings "Rockin' Robin" with the Comets in the 1980 film Blue Suede Shoes.
Ray Parsons, who was a well-known member of Bill Haley & His Comets during the 1970s, died on April 10, his family announced.
His cause of death was not immediately indicated, but Parsons had been residing in a hospice in Cheyanne, Wyoming.
Parsons joined Bill Haley & His Comets in 1970 to play rhythm guitar and he was also a featured vocalist with the group, best known for performing "Rockin' Robin" at shows such as the legendary March 1974 concert at the Hammersmith Palais in London (unfortunately, this part of the show has never been released on record or CD).
Parsons also performed harmony vocals with Haley and was involved in the October 1970 recording sessions that produced the album Rock Around the Country for Sonet Records. Parsons can be glimpsed during the Haley segment of the 1973 concert film Let the Good Times Roll, and took part in performances by the Comets during the late 1970s when Haley was (temporarily) retired. He was front-and-centre when Haley came out of retirement in March 1979 for a tour of the UK. Parsons and bass player Jim Lebak were the only "veteran" Comets involved in the tour, and Parsons was once again called upon to sing "Rockin' Robin" as a solo.
There is quite a bit of video and film footage of Parsons performing with the Comets during the spring 1979 tour; he is shown acting the "carnival barker" for Haley and singing "Rockin' Robin" for the concert segment that concludes the documentary Blue Suede Shoes and he performed harmony vocals with Haley on "Me and Bobby McGee", one of the songs performed in Birmingham for an episode of the documentary series Format V and later released in numerous DVD editions (often labeled, incorrectly, as footage from Haley's farewell tour). Watch carefully on some versions of this video to see Parsons acting out one of his other roles in the Haley organization - bodyguard - when he tackles a fan who rushes on stage in the middle of a song!
Parsons did not participate in Haley's final European tour in the fall of 1979, nor Haley's final live shows in South Africa in May 1980, but after Haley's death he joined a reunited group of Bill Haley's Comets and sang many of the Haley vocals. This group of Comets (which also included Al Rappa, Franny Beecher and Joey Welz) also recorded a single entitled "Bring Back the Music"/"The Hawk Talks". In 1982, the National Enquirer ran a photo page showing a version Comets performing on the bed of a flatbed truck as a stunt driver soared overhead - I believe Parsons can be shown singing during this stunt, though I've never been able to confirm that.
Little is known of Parsons' activities after this version of the Comets disbanded. At one point in his career he recorded under the name Dorsey Ray Parsons. In the early 2000s, as I was updating my Bill Haley Who's Who, Parsons was reported to have been retired from music and living in Colorado.
Ray Parsons played an important role in the Comets during the often-turbulent 1970s, and he will be missed.
POSTED: April 4, 2011
Massive Bill Haley biography published
To mark the 30th anniversary of Bill Haley's death, Austrian fan Otto Fuchs has published a massive book paying tribute to the founder of rock and roll.
Bill Haley: Father of Rock 'n' Roll clocks in at just shy of 900 pages, and was originally published in a German-language edition several years ago. The new English-language edition has been massively revised and updated, incorporating many interviews Fuchs has conducted with the likes of bass player Marshall Lytle and guitarists Bill Turner and Johnny Kay.
A review of this long-awaited biography -- one of only four major biographies of Haley published since the early 1980s -- will be posted at a later date (needless to say, it takes a while to read 900 pages!).
The book is published in paperback by the German company Wagner Verlag. As of April 4, 2011, it is available via several online retailers, including The Book Depository and also via Amazon.co.uk's "Amazon Marketplace" (Amazon itself presently only carries the German-language edition).
POSTED: February 7, 2011
Bill Haley: 30 Years Later
February 9, 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Bill Haley, and I still remember the frustration I felt the day I tried to make people give a damn.
I was all of 11 years old. I'd been a fan of Haley's ever since I first saw him perform on a Canadian variety show around 1973, and had already worn the grooves out of the two albums I owned by him. So while fans in the UK and Europe apparently had indications that Haley was not in very good shape in 1980-81 (a German newspaper even reported in the fall of 1980 that he was dying, which was claimed as the reason why a tour of Germany had been cancelled), in Canada we'd heard none of that. A week before I'd seen an interview on TV with Bo Diddley and thought it was cool that he mentioned Haley. A year-in-review issue of either People or Us Weekly had run a picture of Haley because 1980 had been the 25th anniversary of "Rock Around the Clock". As a young fan in an HFZ (Haley Free Zone) like Western Canada, I took what tidbits I could get. I didn't even know sax player Rudy Pompilli had died five years earlier, almost to the day. So to hear Bill Haley died was a shock.
Remembering how everyone had gone nuts when Elvis died a few years earlier (incredibly, less than five years earlier), I went to school and tried to get people to care. One of my teachers kept asking who "Bill Haney" was. As for the other kids in my class, the guy wasn't Gene Simmons or "insert popular singer of 1981 here" and they didn't care. In fact, they teased me about it.
It's not as if the media were covering it either. Granted, I'd heard the news on a morning news show that had a music expert discussing Haley's influence. A local radio station replayed an interview Haley gave during a visit in 1972 and my grandfather, being on the ball, managed to record it for me while I was at school (see Page 3 for a transcript). But the local newspaper lumped his death in with that of film composer Hugo Montenegro, and try as I might I couldn't find a whole heck of a lot on TV about it.
The death of Bill Haley remains a sad memory 30 years later. Had he not died, would he have gone on to record more albums, do more tours? Might I have been able to see him in person? Would the groundbreaking European tour by the Original Comets in the late 1980s have been a reunion of Bill Haley & His Comets? Would he have had a chance to perform with his children, including Bill Haley Jr. and Gina Haley, as they launched musical careers of their own?
All academic questions, of course. But one thing I wish Haley had been here for was so he could defend himself against the historical revisionists who seem hellbent on reducing his place in music history. There were signs of this even before Haley died, of course. But I really started to notice it in 2001 with the 50th anniversary of "Rocket 88", a song originally recorded as a blues song by Jackie Brentson and Ike Turner, and later transformed into the textbook definition of rock and roll - country mixed with RnB - by Haley. And it's happening again with the 60th anniversary - people claiming that Brentson's song started rock and roll and Haley just copied it. Listen to Haley's recording and you'll see it's not a copy.
Fast-forward to 2004-2005 and you saw some magazines going to unforgivable lengths to push the agenda that Elvis Presley started rock and roll, and the fact Bill Haley had had a worldwide hit with his rock-and-roll version of Joe Turner's blues song "Shake, Rattle and Roll", and a national American hit in 1953 with "Crazy, Man Crazy" (an original song, bear in mind, written by Haley and an uncredited Marshall Lytle), and had been recording rock and roll since, actually, his cover of "Teardrops From My Eyes" in 1950 (before "Rocket 88") - well, that was an inconvenient truth, to be ignored. When a major American magazine basically proclaimed that Elvis' "That's All Right" was the de facto start of Rock and Roll (with no other candidates to be considered) and a UK magazine did an end run around sanity by suggesting not the first demo Elvis recording, but the second (which was still a country recording) was the first, I threw up my hands and realized Haley is unlikely to get his due from mainstream media. As it is, it's February 6 as I write this I haven't found any North American magazine mentioning the anniversary (fortunately the UK is a bit more on the ball, with Now Dig This featuring an anniversary feature this month co-written by Chris Gardner and myself).
Fortunately, there are many who continue to push the truth - that, while Haley may not have invented rock and roll, and let's be truthful - no one did - he was the one who first recognized that what he had was not some swingy country-style recordings, or just a faster-paced RnB. And he was the one who had the first success, before Elvis, before Chuck Berry, before Little Richard (OK, yes, after Fats Domino, but Domino's "The Fat Man" was not a rock and roll recording). The numbers don't lie.
Today, there are no less than three groups of Comets touring America and Europe, several other former Comets, including Johnny Kay, Bill Turner, and Marshall Lytle, continue to perform the songs Bill Haley and the Comets made famous, and several of Bill Haley's children have followed in their dad's footsteps. Bill Haley Jr. just released his first CD (see review here), while Gina Haley has teamed up with Bill Turner and the tribute band Bill Haley's New Comets and will be touring Europe with them in March and April 2011 (with Haley's New Comets also planning Australian and Asian performances in the near future, too). Meanwhile, writer Otto Fuchs is preparing an English-language release of his massive German biography of Haley, and there's always the hope of more rare recordings from the man himself being released.
I have no doubt that the memory of Bill Haley will live on, as will his music and his influence. Someone trying to rewrite the history books isn't going to change that.
POSTED: November 8, 2010
2010: Year in Review
It's been a fairly busy year in the world of The Comets.
That said, I haven't had much opportunity to update this column over the past 12 months. Fortunately I have had a chance to give my three Extra pages, and the "Rock Around the Clock" tribute page, some revision. You'll find some articles have been moved around, a few others retired, and I've added some new images along the way. There's also a review of a new CD by former Comet Johnny Kay - no less than his third new release in the last 18 months.
There have been a few changes in the world of the Original Comets over the past year. Marshall Lytle announced his departure from the group near the end of 2009, not long after undergoing surgery that resulted in the partial amputation of one of his legs. This hasn't stopped Marshall from continuing to give energetic performances, whether during his final stints with the Original Comets in Florida near the end of 2009, or in his solo performances since then. He's also filmed a role in an upcoming movie, and in October 2010 he took to the stage with 1970s Comets guitarist Bill Turner and Bill Haley Jr. for a great show.
Meanwhile, the Original Comets with Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards continue to pack concert halls in the US and Europe, with a new bass player and a revised set list. They're still going strong, with Dick in particular showing how drumming is a real-life fountain of youth.
The two other Comets contingents also continue to perform. Al Rappa, Haley's bass player from 1959 to 1969, continues to tour fronting Bill Haley's Comets, recently joining forces with mid-60s Comets piano player Joey Welz. And despite the passing of their bandleader, John "Bam-Bam" Lane, several years ago, Lane's version of Bill Haley's Comets has also continued to tour under the leadership of lead singer Lenny Longo.
A number of former Comets also continue to do what they love the most - perform. Johnny Kay (guitarist 1960-1967) recently released his third album of new recordings since 2008, fronting his revived pre-Comets group, the Rockets. Bill Turner continues to tour extensively with his Blue Smoke Band. And Franny Beecher, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in 2011, continues to perform regularly near his home in Pennsylvania, recently joining forces with Johnny Kay for a show.
Looking ahead to 2011, besides Franny's 90th birthday we can also look forward to a number of other milestones, including the 60th anniversary of the recording of "Rocket 88" by Bill Haley and Saddlemen, which helped usher rock and roll into the world. On a more sombre note, the year will also mark the 30th anniversary of Bill Haley's death.
The roadmap may have changed a little, but when it comes to the veterans of Bill Haley and the Comets, all roads continue to point to rock and roll!
FIRST POSTED: August 21, 2009; REVISED AND UPDATED: August 31, 2009; Nov. 8, 2010
Marshall Lytle publishes autobiography
Marshall Lytle, a founding member of Bill Haley & His Comets in 1952 and a driving force behind the reunion of the 1954-55 Comets since the late 1980s, was there at the birth of rock and roll. And now, he's telling his story about those early days.
Still Rockin' Around the Clock: My Life in Rock 'n' Roll's First Supergroup, co-written by Michael Jordan Rush, tells Lytle's story of how he was there when Bill Haley and the Comets made musical history, and his musical career since those storied early days.
Although several books have been published telling the Haley's story, this is the first time a book has been published from the point of view of one of the Comets.
Lytle joined Bill Haley and His Saddlemen in 1951. Originally a guitar player, he was taught to play slap bass by Bill Haley himself and was brought in to replace Al Rex, who had left the band. Lytle's earliest known recording with Haley is believed to have been "Green Tree Boogie" recorded for Holiday Records in 1951. Lytle stayed with the group as it changed names to the Comets in the fall of 1952, co-writing (but not receiving credit on) the group's first national hit, "Crazy Man, Crazy" in 1953, and playing bass on the iconic "Rock Around the Clock" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in 1954.
In September 1955 he, along with sax player Joey Ambrose and drummer Dick Richards, quit the Comets in a salary dispute and formed their own group, the Jodimars, which scored several minor hits for the Capitol Records label, most notably "Well Now Dig This". By 1958, the Jodimars had split up, with Lytle attempting to revive the brand on a couple of occasions in the late 1950s before moving into other business endeavours.
In 1987, the original members of the Comets from 1954-55, including Lytle, Ambrose, and Richards, along with pianist Johnny Grande and guitarist Franny Beecher, were reunited for a special show in Philadelphia, and began touring regularly in the early 1990s. The reunited Comets also recorded several CDs in both Europe and the US, and put out several DVDs (the line-up of the reunited group remained unchanged until the death of Grande in 2006, followed soon after by Beecher retiring from touring). Since around 2002 Lytle has been the lead singer for the band, initially for North American shows and later in Europe, too, taking on most of the vocals on the Haley classics, and he also contributed several original songs to the group, including "Viagra Rock" which gained some radio play in the early 2000s.
UPDATE: As of November 2010, the book was available via Amazon.com here.
See below for a review.
POSTED: May 5, 2009
Ten years of Extra
It's hard to believe, but more than a decade has now passed since I began writing this column for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
This column began at the kind invitation of webmaster Bob Timmers, after I had written a review of a performance by the Original Comets in Edmonton, Canada during the summer of 1997. At first, I wasn't sure if a column would work. For one thing, although I had been lucky enough to meet Marshall Lytle, Joey Ambrose, Dick Richards, Franny Beecher and Johnny Grande in Edmonton, and was corresponding regularly with Marshall via e-mail (as I still do today), I did wonder if I'd be able to dig up enough stuff to keep a column going. After all, Bill Haley himself had been dead many years.
I needn't have worried!
Before long, I have lots to write about, from exciting new releases of brand-new recordings by the Comets, to archival releases to die for from the likes of Hydra and Bear Family, to the 50th anniversary of "Rock Around the Clock", which led me to write a spin-off page on the history of the song which has been used as source material by at least one book, several documentaries, and also led me to meet Peter Ford, the son of Glenn Ford of Blackboard Jungle, and with whom I helped set the record straight regarding the discovery of the record that helped kick off the rock and roll era.
Things reached a climax in 2005 when I was invited to attend the Rock is Fifty celebrations in Los Angeles. Organized by Martin Lewis, co-founder of the influential Secret Policeman's Balls charity concerts for Amnesty International (the films from which, incidentally, were relaesed to DVD here in North America earlier this year - check them out!), the event brought the Original Comets and Bill Haley international attention, and gave me the chance to meet Haley's second wife, Cuppy, and his daughter, Gina Haley, a rising musical star in her own right.
Other rewarding moments have included my creation of the Bill Haley Who's Who, which has helped identify the many musicians who worked with Haley and the Comets over the years (while setting a few records straight in the process). This, in turn, has put me in direct contact with a number of Comets ranging from Bill Nolte to Johnny Kay to musicians whose contact with Haley was brief, but no less appreciated, such as Bill Faye and Louis Torres.
There have been some sad moments along the way, too, such as the deaths of long-time Comets Johnny Grande and John "Bam-Bam" Lane, but their music lives on! And so, hopefully, will Extra for some time to come.
Ironically, considering this is the anniversary year for Extra, I haven't had the chance to update this column over the past year, for a number of reasons. But it's been a busy one for some of the musicians who once shared the stage with Bill Haley, and those who appreciate the music.
The Original Comets continued strong through 2008 and into 2009, alternating performances in Branson, Mo. with tours of Europe and elsewhere. Dick Richards, now the elder statesman of the band, can still knock out a drum solo like no one else, and Marshall Lytle and Joey Ambrose haven't missed a beat. Newcomers David Byrd and Jackson Haney, who succeeded the late Johnny Grande and the very-much-still-alive-and-still-rockin-in-Pennsylvania Franny Beecher, have become popular members of the group, with Haney stepping into the shoes of Comets musicians past like Nick Nastos and Johnny Kay as a featured singer.
Speaking of Johnny Kay, the former Comet has joined the ranks of the Original Comets, Bill Turner, and others by not letting the clock stop him from rocking. In the past year he's recorded and released no less than two albums of new recordings, the second of which, Songs from the Cradle of Rock 'n' Roll, was just released, and I've written a review below.
And if you're in Germany, be sure to keep an eye out for the Bill Haley Orchestra, a big-band-style tribute to Haley's music led by one of the best Haley tribute artists around, Joe "Bill" Clifton. You can download the "BHO's" latest album, Let the Good Times Roll through Amazon here.
I'd like to take a moment to thank Bob Timmers, the curator of this online museum all these years, for the endless hours of hard work he's put into this site, and in particular for putting up with my infrequent updates!
-- REVIEWS --
POSTED: March 21, 2014
Rock the Joint Again - Bill Haley's New Comets(Cultsound CD-03)
Recorded during a barnstorming tour of Europe in 2011, Rock the Joint Again sees the German-based tribute group Bill Haley's New Comets teaming up with Bill Haley's youngest daughter and Comets veteran Bill Turner to deliver a fast-moving ride through the history of early rock and roll.
Bill Haley's New Comets -- formerly the Bill Haley Orchestra and the Bill Haley & His Comets Revival -- come armed with a longtime endorsement by members of the Original Comets and are led by lead singer Joe "Bill" Clifton. Their longtime goal has been to educate as much as entertain, raising awareness of the contribution Bill Haley & His Comets made to rock and roll music, and this full-length live album shows the band at full steam.
Besides his own cadre of musicians -- including Stargazers veteran Peter Davenport, who plays steel just as he played steel for the Original Comets back in 1991 for their live album We're Gonna Party -- Clifton is joined by Bill Turner, who was Haley's lead guitar player from 1974 to 1976. Turner, who also worked with Bill Haley Jr. on his tribute album (see review below), is spotlighted on his version of Franny Beecher's "Goofin' Around," and also gets a vocal solo on "Johnny B. Goode" (a tune he also performed with the Comets back in 1976). Gina Haley, meanwhile, takes centre stage on several numbers, including "Thirteen Women" (performed as "Thirteen Men"), "Real Rock Drive" and "Farewell, So-Long, Goodbye". She also duets with Clifton on "Rock Around the Clock." Gina performed with both Bill Haley's New Comets and Phil Haley and His Comments during this 2011 tour, and also recorded an album with the Comments titled Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle (see review below). It's interesting to compare the different approaches the two groups take to the classics.
If I had to pick additional highlights, I would have to say Clifton's version of the rarely performed "ABC Boogie" (the flip-side of "Shake, Rattle and Roll"), along with a terrific version of "Caravan" stand out. And the band doesn't just perform note-by-note copies of the Haley originals; they do try to add their own twist, such as a somewhat surreal sax break that interrupts "Don't Knock the Rock" which is reminsicent of the Original Comets' early-2000s recording of the instrumental "Hand Clappin'" for Rollin' Rock Records. The only tracks on the album not associated with Haley in some way are the band-introducing instrumental "Calling New Comets" (inspired by the Haley classic "Calling All Comets," of course), and a great performance of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" by the group's piano player, John Duckstein. Also featured in the group is Barry Molinski on tenor sax, Mike Al Frick on slap bass, and Hugh "Bam Bam" Cellarhope on drums.
The only issue I can really voice about this release is that the sound quality leaves something to be desired at times, but this is minor (and something the Original Comets' faced with their live album We're Gonna Party, so the New Comets are in good company!) This is an enthusiastic, spirited collection of Haley classics and worth tracking down if you weren't able to see this show in person (or can't come out to the current New Comets tour with Gina, Bill Turner and Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards of the Original Comets).
Simply put, if you want a sense that Bill Haley and the Comets' musical legacy is in safe hands (particularly after the recent losses of Franny Beecher and Marshall Lytle), this album, plus the Bill Haley Jr. and Phil Haley albums reviewed below, should be more than enough to prove the music will live on.
It's available from a number of online retailers, including Hydra Records here.
Tracks: 1. Calling New Comets (inst.); 2. Shake, Rattle and Roll; 3. Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie; 4. ABC Boogie; 5. Rip it Up; 6. Goofin' Around; 7. Rock the Joint; 8. Thirteen Men (Gina Haley vocal); 9. Real Rock Drive (Haley vocal); 10. Farewell-So Long-Goodbye (Haley vocal); 11. Rock Around the Clock (Clifton and Haley vocal); 12. Don't Knock the Rock; 13. Great Balls of Fire (John Duckstein vocal); 14. Johnny B. Goode (Bill Turner vocal); 15. Caravan; 16. The Saints Rock and Roll; 17. See You Later, Alligator.
POSTED: November 22, 2013
Bill Haley, Jr. and the Comets(private release)
On the back of Bill Haley, Jr. and the Comets, there's a touching photo of Bill Jr. perched on his famous dad's knee. It graces the cover of a fun, energetic tribute to the Father of Rock 'n' Roll.
This isn't the first time Bill Jr. has been in the recording studio -- see below for my review of his bluesy CD Already Here, recorded with a group called the Satellites. But a few years ago, he decided to form his own tribute to Bill Haley Sr. and he's recruited some top-notch musicians under the Comets banner for a baker's-dozen excellent renditions of his dad's classics. A familiar face in the line-up is Bill Turner, who was the Comets' lead guitar player in the mid-1970s and has done a lot to keep the Haley sound alive with his own Blue Smoke Band. On this CD, he capably stands in for Billy Williamson on steel guitar.
It's hard to pick a favorite among the jewels here. From the opening riff of "Real Rock Drive", through a rousing "Rudy's Rock", to -- of course -- "Rock Around the Clock" (during which Michael DeNaro, a veteran of the Satellites, nails that notoriously tricky guitar solo), there's not a dull moment to be found. Ballads? Who needs 'em? This is rock and roll!
But while the songs do stay faithful to the originals -- no radical rearrangements in this lot -- that doesn't mean they're carbon copies. Bill Jr. has his own vocal style and it works well on tracks like "Mambo Rock" and "Razzle-Dazzle," and there is the occasional twist, such as the extended instrumental jam at the end of "Crazy Man Crazy" that provides additional interest. Midway through the CD, Haley follows the lead of his dad and passes the spotlight to the band for "Rudy's Rock" featuring sax man Bobby Michaels with a drum solo by Rich Flamini. You can probably imagine bass player Christopher Davis-Shannon throwing it around the studio (though I imagine he probably left it on the ground; expensive equipment, and all).You can order a copy of this great CD via CD Baby here.
Tracks: 1. Real Rock Drive; 2. Crazy Man Crazy; 3. Shake, Rattle and Roll; 4.Birth of the Boogie; 5. Mambo Rock; 6. Rip it Up; 7. Rudy's Rock; 8. Razzle-Dazzle; 9. Hot Dog, Buddy Buddy; 10. Skinny Minnie; 11. See You Later Alligator; 12. Rock Around the Clock; 13. The Saints Rock 'n' Roll.
POSTED: November 22, 2013
Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle - Phil and Gina Haley and the Comments(Press-Tone PCD28)
In 2011, Gina Haley, youngest daughter of Bill Haley, embarked on a double-barreled tour of Europe during which she performed with the German group Bill Haley's New Comets and the British Haley-influenced band Phil Haley and His Comments. Gina recorded albums with both groups, and Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle is the fruit of her recorded efforts with Phil Haley.
Gina has developed a great Connie Francis/Wanda Jackson '50s vocal style that really works well when paired with her father's tunes. Rather than pick some of usual suspects, Gina and Phil Haley latched onto some of Bill Haley's lesser-known classics, such as "Chick Safari" and "Hawk" from the Comets' underappreciated Warner Bros. era, and "Happy Baby" and "Thirteen Women" from the Decca years. Gina takes "Thirteen Women" and follows in the shoes of Ann-Margret and Dinah Shore by swapping out the gender for "Thirteen Men."
Phil and the Comments also resurrect the Jodimars classic "Later" and also have fun with the Comets' Decca obscurity "Come Rock with Me" from 1958 (which predated Elvis' "It's Now or Never" as the first rock 'n' roll version of "O Sole Mio").
Undoubtedly, the highlights of this CD are Gina's versions of two songs from her dad's sizable country-western canon. "Loveless Blues," recorded by the elder Haley and his Saddlemen on a hyper-rare Atlantic Records single back in 1950, is given a Patsy Cline touch with a modern feel that at the same time brings to mind Les Paul and Mary Ford at their best (with Phil Haley effortlessly stepping into the Paul role with his excellent guitar work).
But the highlight of this album has to be "Jealous Heart." Back in 1967, Bill Haley recorded a demo of this country standard without the Comets, and the track sat on the shelf until the late 1990s when Haley fans discovered a stone-cold classic had been waiting for release for 32 years. Gina Haley performs this song lovingly and it is outstanding and easily worth the price of admission. (A full-out country & western album by Gina would go over well, I think.)
A sense of fun infuses the CD, with Gina and Phil duetting on "Chick Safari" and "Happy Baby," and Gina also tries out her dad's Essex classic "Farewell-So Long-Goodbye". Phil Haley and the Comments take the spotlight on many tracks, including the title song, a rockin' take on "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", and the excellent "Mockingbird Hill." Over the course of several previous albums and on stage (a number of clips of their work have been posted to YouTube over the years), Phil and his group have excelled in producing their own Haley-influenced tracks, and a number of the songs they do on their own on this record are originals. Definitely worth tracking down.
Gina has also recorded an album with Bill Haley's New Comets, Rock the Joint Again, which I hope to review in the near future. Both albums are available via Hydra Records (click here).
Tracks (PH = Phil Haley vocal, GH = Gina Haley vocal): 1. Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle (PH); 2. One Step Away (PH); 3. Thirteen Men (GH); 4. Chick Safari (PH & GH); 5. Mockingbird Hill (PH); 6. Dance Me (PH); 7. Farewell-So Long-Goodbye (GH); 8. Jealous Heart (GH); 9. Later (PH); 10. Hawk (GH); 11. Tell Me (PH); 12. Rock My Baby (PH); 13. Loveless Blues (GH); 14. Come Rock with Me (PH); 15. Happy Baby (GH); 16. Are You Lonesome Tonight? (PH).
POSTED: October 21, 2011; REVISED: October 25, 2011
Book review: Bill Haley: Father of Rock 'n' Roll - Otto Fuchs(Wagner Verlag, ISBN 978-3-86683-901-4)
"Clocking" in at nearly 900 pages, Otto Fuchs' massive biography of Bill Haley is the most extensive volume to date dedicated to the man.
This book was originally published several years ago in a German language edition, but the English release isn't a simple translation. In the intervening years, Fuchs has extensively revised the text, removing some errors from the original version and inserting quite a bit of new material, while also distilling and reinterpreting information from past Bill Haley biographies and articles.
At times I felt this book was a bit too detailed, so much so it occasionally became a rather slow read as it got bogged down a bit in minutae. But where the book took off was in the interviews, when Fuchs moves away from decantering his research and starts adding new information by way of several in-depth interviews with several Comets and, most notably, Haley's youngest daughter, Gina Haley.
Fuchs also manages to shine a light on a part of Haley's career that tends to get little coverage - the final years when Haley alternated between retirement in Mexico and returning to the stage for a pair of European tours in 1979. Fuchs interviews Mal Gray, who served as the Comets' band leader during those final shows. Gray's interview is firey as he lashes out at writers who pepetuate myths about Haley's last years (present company excluded, I hope!), and he also gives insight into Haley's late-day career plans.
Gina - who at the time this book was published last spring was touring Europe with a show promoting her father's music (first with the UK group Phil Haley & His Comments, and later the German-based Bill Haley's New Comets (alongside former Comets guitar player Bill Turner)) - talks candidly about her father and his music. We also hear from Turner, as well as Johnny Kay, Haley's guitarist in the 1960s and who is enjoying his own career resurgence, and Fuchs also chats with members of the Original Comets - Marshall Lytle, Dick Richards and Joey Ambrose. Al Rappa, who continues to perform with his own version of Bill Haley's Comets, chats about his memories of Haley, as does piano player Joey Welz. And one of the coolest "catches" by Fuchs for this book has to be drummer Bill Nolte, who joined the Comets in 1969 after working with Haley's legendary late-60s/early-70s guitar player Nick Nastos in the Country Showmen. It's great to see these folks - many of whom were never involved in the previous Haley biographies - provide their stories and recollections. On the basis of these interviews alone I recommend the book.
Unfortunately, there are some technical issues with the book. The book could have used a stronger final edit in terms of fixing the errors that typos that are inevitable when a work of this size is translated. There were also some puzzling format choices, like long sections presented in italics, for example. Similarly, the book is loaded with rare photos - many of which I've never seen before (which is saying something), but many of them suffer from muddy reproduction. It's my hope that if a new edition of this book sees print down the line (or is converted to e-book) that some of these issues are rectified.
Bill Haley: Father of Rock 'n' Roll is a paperback German release, however it is available (as of October 2011) through online retailers such as Amazon UK and Book Depository.
POSTED: February 7, 2011
Ready 2 Rock! - JK Rockets(SCJ Corp SCJ2003)
Former Comets guitar player Johnny Kay is making up for lost time after returning to the studio world a couple of years ago with his third album of all-new recordings.
Ready 2 Rock! is essentially a two-man project this time around, with Johnny Kay playing lead, bass, synth and performing vocals on many of the tracks, and his brother Stan Kay (who also has some Comets credentials) on vocals and drums/percussion. Joe Mauro makes a guest appearance on one track and J. Willy plays harp (no, not that kind of harp - the other kind) on the album-closer. So this is quite an intimate affair.
This time 'round, the JK Rockets deliver a more blues-tinged album than previous releases. "Paid My Dues" has some fun tongue-in-cheek lyrics that are quite timely these days. "Play Me Sumptin' Dirty" is a strong blues. while "Not Easy" has a very 1960s sound to it. "Nashville, I Will", as you can guess from the title, is a shade of country.
Kay, like many of his contemporaries, enjoys paying tribute to the early days and you-know-who, and he delivers with "Rock-a-Beatin' Bill" which is one of the better efforts of this mini-genre (reminiscent of some of the late Hank Kerns' tributes). The title track also is a nostalgic look back."Have You See My Gina", with guest vocalist Joe Mauro, is another 60s-style ballad, nicely handled. "Wintertime Blues" has an unusual beat, and the album closes out on a bluesy beat with "J Willy is Here".
Another spirited release by the former Comet!
Ready 2 Rock! is a private-label release, but is available via the JK Rockets website and on iTunes.
Tracks: 1. Ready 2 Rock; 2. Paid My Dues; 3. The Beat; 4. Dirty City; 5. Gotta Be Bad; 6. Play Me Sumptin Dirty; 7. Not Easy; 8. Nashville I Will; 9. Rock-a-Beatin Bill; 10. Together; 11. Simple Said; 12. Tell Me Sumptin; 13. Have You Seen My Gina; 14. Walk By; 15. Wintertime Blues; 16. J Willy is Here..
POSTED: February 7, 2011
Already Here - Bill Haley & The Satellites(private release)
Bill Haley Jr. proudly follows in his dad's tradition with the release of his first CD, Already Here.
Backed by the Satellites, a tight combo that includes lead guitarist (and second vocalist as well as CD producer) Mike De Naro, bass player Jason Moore, and drummer Mike Angelucci (with Lee Clark contributing MIDI bass on one track), Haley delivers a solid seven-track modern rock and roll CD. This isn't a rockabilly album -- like his younger sister, Gina, Haley has carved his own musical niche.
That said, Haley carries on in the spirit of his dad (and, indeed, while the song isn't included on this CD, a YouTube clip of Haley Jr. performing an excellent cover pf "Rock Around the Clock" with the Satellites is making the rounds, and last fall he performed on stage with Comets veterans Bill Turner and Marshall Lytle). It's the enthusiasm for the music that I think he shares, and provides here a collection of original songs that stand up there with the best blues-tinged rock I've heard in a while.
"Every Time", which opens the set, has a great 1960s feel, while "Already Here" is a bluesy song that has an interesting set of lyrics - you name another blues song that has a storyline with spaceships from outer space! "A Call From Yesterday", written and sung by De Naro (it's the only song on the CD not written by Haley) is catchy, and "Broketown Blues" is a song that I bet plays very well on stage (and it does pretty well on the disc, too). Another excellent track is "Missing Link", in which Haley reminisces about the people in his life, with some thought-provoking commentary that sticks with you after the song fades out. In fact - and I don't mean this as a knock against other performers, by any means - I was struck by the intelligence of the lyrics on this album.
As a bonus, Haley, who is also a talented painter, provides original artwork that adorns the back cover and disc.
Already Here is an apt title -- with this quality of recording, Bill Haley & The Satellites won't be going away anytime soon.
This album is a private release and (as of February 2011) is available for US$10 from the Digstation website here. Haley says he hopes to have it available through iTunes and CDBaby soon, too
Tracks: 1. Every Time; 2. A Call From Yesterday (Mike De Naro vocal); 3. Broketown Blues; 4. Missing Link; 5. Already Here; 6. Writing on the Wall; 7. Happy Birthday Baby.
POSTED: November 8, 2010
The Rite Mix - Johnny Kay's Rockets(SCJ Corp. - private release)
I heard a rumor not long ago that Johnny Kay had turned 70; you certainly can't tell from listening to his latest album, The Rite Mix.
Recorded privately, this is Kay's third album of new material in less than two years, following on from Songs from the Cradle of Rock 'n' Roll, and his contributions to Hydra Records' Bill Haley and Friends Vol. 4 (both reviewed below).
Once again, the album is credited to Johnny Kay's (or JK) Rockets, the group Kay led before becoming Bill Haley's lead guitar player in 1960, though this time around it's a more intimate affair, with Kay playing guitar and synth and vocals (and writing all 13 tracks), while brother Stan Kay handled drums and additional vocals while also taking care of the recording and mastering of the record. A third musician, "Killer Joe" is credited on harp (not that type of harp) on one track.
As with Cradle, Kay has chosen not to spend the whole CD revisitng past glories, with most of the songs being brand-new, updated works covering country, blues, and jazz - several of the tracks enter the rockabilly-fusion-country-blues arena. One older song featured is "You Changed", which Kay says was one of the first songs he ever wrote back in the 1950s; in the mid-60s onetime Comets piano player Joey Welz recorded a version (included on the Hydra CD) with Kay and other Comets members backing him. Kay has recorded a new version of the song for this release but has stuck to the original late-50s/early-60s arrangement, giving it a Grease-like nostalgic feel.
Several tracks take a look at different aspect of rock and roll history from Kay's perspective, such as the title track, which is a new addition to the pantheon of RnR history songs. Kay also finds a new angle on "This Guitar is a Star" which is an ode to Bill Haley's trademark "big blonde" guitar. My favorite of the trio is "If Rock Had Never Rolled" which suggests what might have happened had Haley and his contemporaries never started the music.
"Rock and Roll Shoes" has a great tongue-in-cheek feel as Kay tells the story of a guy who wants to go rockin', but he can't find his shoes! "I Dun No" has an unusual sound - the first time I listened to it I wasn't quite sure about it, but it's grown on me. And "Delusional" is just plain catchy; the fact I find myself identifying with the lyrics is a matter of some concern, however...
Kay's guitar playing in the 1960s always had a somewhat harder edge than that of his precedessors, and nothing has changed on this new record. There are plenty of rough edges on this recording - but that's the point. Rock and Roll was never intended to be all slick and smooth and engineered to the moon. These recordings have a level of personality a lot of today's mass-produced stuff is lacking. That in itself is enough for me to recommend this album for not only Comets fans, but those looking for an antidote to all the American Idol and Glee-influenced stuff. I'd personally love to see the students of McKinley High tackle "Delusional"!
This album (as well as Cradle) can be ordered from Kay's website here, and on CDBaby.com.
Tracks: 1. The Rite Mix; 2. I Ain't Got the Blues; 3. Delusional; 4. Can We Do It Again?; 5. You Changed; 6. Rock & Roll Shoes; 7. Just Playin'; 8. This Guitar is a Star; 9. Love Me Everyday; 10. Just a Little Lie; 11. If Rock Had Never Rolled; 12. Mississippi Sue; 13. Keep it Real; 14. I Dun No; 15. She's an Angel; 16. Rock & Roll is Good for the Soul.
POSTED: April 12, 2010
Bill Haley & Friends Vol. 4: Johnny Kay - Tale of a Comet(Hydra Records BCK 27139)
For its fourth installment of the long-running Bill Haley & Friends compilations, Hydra Records has turned the spotlight on one long-standing member of Bill Haley's Comets.
Johnny Kay, a.k.a. John Kaciuban, was Haley's lead guitarist from 1960 to 1967, returned for some session work in 1968, and returned to the Comets again for some live shows in 1972. He was initially hired as a replacement for Franny Beecher, and shared lead duties with Beecher for a time when the elder musician returned to the Comets in 1961-62, but after Beecher left for good it was Kay who served as lead for much of the 1960s. Kay recently returned to recording rock and roll, and this German release is a companion to last year's Songs from the Cradle of Rock 'n' Roll, recorded by Kay with his pre-Comets 1950s group, the Rockets.
Tale of a Comet is divided into three parts. The first part consists of a selection of mostly instrumental work featuring Kay that the Comets recorded in the 1960s, and leads off with a previously unreleased live recording of "Guitar Boogie". Longtime Haley fans will know of Nick Nastos' versions of this crowd-pleaser, but here's a chance to hear how Johnny Kay handles the guitar acrobatics. The track rocks. The liner notes erroneously identify it as having been recorded at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1962. In fact, this particular version was recorded at an American military base in Germany in 1966. That doesn't take away the fact it's a great Comets performance and a nice bonus for fans who think they "have everything". (Just to split hairs for a moment, the track has been circulated privately, but this is "Guitar Boogie's" first official, label release.)
The next nine tracks come from the prolific Mexican Orfeon/Dimsa sessions of 1961-1966, during which time the Comets recorded far more instrumentals than they did vocal performances. The tracks included here have been released elsewhere, but are included because they were either written by Johnny Kay, or focus on his guitar or vocal work. Anyone not sure who Johnny Kay is will no doubt recognize his youthful vocals on "The Seventh Son" (El Septimo Hijo) and "Mohair Sam" (El Traje de Sam). The best tracks in this selection are the Kay/Beecher composition "Tampico Twist", though for some reason a remastered version with modern drum overdubs has been used rather than the original version, and "Feelin' Happy", a sampling from a groundbreaking recording session the Comets did with Big Joe Turner in 1966. I'm still amazed no one thought to do a version of "Shake Rattle and Roll", but the rockin' version of "Feelin' Happy" shows the Comets and Turner in top form.
Part one concludes with two tracks featuring Kay on lead vocals recorded during the German AFN Network radio broadcasts of 1962 (previously released by Hydra on On the Air), an instrumental called "White Parakeet" recorded during the Comets' obscure sojourn with Newtown Records in 1963, and "You Changed", a single recorded by Joey Welz in 1965 and backed by members of the Comets. Kay takes credit for writing this when he was first starting out in the music business.
The second section of the CD consists of recent recordings by Kay and his J.K. Rockets band (which includes his brother - and onetime Comet - Stan Kay). After a heartfelt tribute to Haley, "Rockabilly Bill", Kay presents nine re-recordings of Comets classics, ranging from "Crazy Man Crazy" to Haley's unexpected 1968 country classic "That's How I Got to Memphis." I don't really consider these "remakes". They come off more as "reimaginings". A few of the tracks, such as "Farewell - So Long - Goodbye" and "Live it Up" stick fairly close to the original arrangements, but "Skinny Minnie" and "Crazy Man Crazy" are virtually unrecognizable. It does take a little getting used to at first, and some of the tracks are more successful than others. But the Rockets' enthusiasm for the source material shines through, and several tracks remind me of some of Bill Haley's later country-rock recordings for Sonet Records.
The best tracks in this section are the reimaginings of "That's How I Got to Memphis" (with Johnny Kay on vocal) and "How Many" (with Stan Kay singing). These are timeless country songs, and they stand the test of time well. Also excellent is a new recording of "Crime Doesn't Pay", a tongue in cheek song that Kay had originally recorded with the Rockets back in the 1950s.
Speaking of which, the final four tracks in this diverse collection are true rarities -- unreleased acetates from Kay's 1958 band, the Rockets, including the original version of "Crime Doesn't Pay". For those interested in rare early rock and roll (so rare it's never been released until now), it's a real bonus.
The CD booklet is packed with rare photos and document reproductions (including Kay's performance contract with the Comets!), and Kay's personal thoughts about each song on the CD.
Like most Hydra releases, this CD is for a specific Bill Haley fan -- one who is not just interested in the music, but also in the people who made the music. Although there are a few tracks I wouldn't have minded seeing included (besides that "Guitar Boogie" there are also excellent live recordings of Kay performing a medley of calypso songs, as well as the comedy song "Greenback Dollar Bill", plus the Newtown sessions that begat "White Parakeet" also begat a fine vocal performance by Kay on "Cottonfields"), but the CD is worth checking out for fans of Kay who want to learn more about the musician, then and now. If Hydra does a Bill Haley & Friends Vol. 5, I wouldn't mind seeing other Comets given the spotlight as has been done here with Johnny Kay.
Tracks: (# indicate first known release; * means first known CD release). Tracks 1-12; 14 by Bill Haley and His Comets - 1. #Guitar Boogie (inst.); 2. Yucatan Twist (inst.); 3. Pure de Papas (inst. with Johnny Kay interjections); 4. Oaxaca Twist (inst.); 5. Tampico Twist (inst.); 6. El Trajo de Sam (Mohair Sam) (Kay vocal); 7. Twist Del Dia (inst.); 8. El Septimo Hijo (The Seventh Son) (Kay vocal); 9. Viajando Con El Madison (inst.); 10. *Feelin' Happy (Big Joe Turner vocal); 11. The Peppermint Twist (Kay vocal); 12. Wolverton Mountain (Kay vocal); 13. *You Changed (Joey Welz with Comets backing); 14. White Parakeet (inst.). Tracks 15-25 by J.K. Rockets (all Johnny Kay vocal except where noted) - 15. #Rockabilly Bill; 16. #Watcha Gonna Do; 17. #Skinny Minnie; 18. #That's How I Got to Memphis; 19. #Crime Doesn't Pay 2007; 20. #Live it Up; 21. #How Many (Stan Kay vocal); 22. #Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie; 23. #ABC Boogie; 24. #Crazy Man Crazy; 25. #Farewell - So Long - Goodbye. Tracks 26-29 by Johnny Kay's Rockets, 1958 - 26. #Catalina Kitten; 27. #Crime Doesn't Pay; 28. #Angel; 29. #Teenage Man.
POSTED: September 21, 2009
Book review: Still Rockin' Around the Clock - Marshall Lytle with Michael Jordan Rush(Michael Jordan Rush, ISBN 978-1-4414-7780-2)
Marshall Lytle was there at the birth of rock and roll, and in a new book, he tells his story of those hectic early days.
For those who have had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Marshall over the years, much of Still Rockin' Around the Clock will be familiar. That's not a bad thing, by any means, as this is a chance to have many of Lytle's stories and reminiscences preserved in a single volume. And even for diehards, there's a lot of new information in this privately published book.
Still Rockin' isn't one of those super-polished star bios that litter the bookstores. It's a more intimate affair, and probably the closest thing you could come to spending an evening with the veteran bass man, just shooting the breeze about his history.
Lytle spends the first part of the book relating his early history. I usually find this is where most autobiographies drag, even though it's a necessary evil - showing how one built up his or her life before stardom arrived. Lytle early years were fascinating to read about, and provided the first surprises of the book as we learn how the man who pioneered bass-throwing was born with a foot defect that could have forever altered his life. And we learn how his family first met a yodelling cowboy/radio deejay named Bill Haley, as well as how Lytle began to make a name for himself in show business several years before signing up to replace Al Rex as Bill Haley's bass player in 1951.
Although Lytle and his Original Comets colleagues have spent the last 20 years keeping Bill Haley's name and his music alive, that doesn't mean Haley is above criticism. For example, Lytle recalls composing "Crazy Man, Crazy" alongside Bill Haley, only to have Haley take sole writing credit for writing the song, which would become the band's first national hit. Later, Lytle describes his memories regarding how he and his fellow salaried band-mates grew more and more frustrated over their place in the Haley organization, culminating in their decision to bolt from the Comets in late summer 1955 and form their own group. Despite the hard feelings towards Haley still evident more than 50 years after Lytle, along with fellow Comets Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards formed the Jodimars, I felt Lytle was pretty even-handed in his treatment of the subject; he could have taken more of a muck-raking approach to a fairly touchy subject, but to his credit he mostly sticks to relaying the facts as he recalls them.
When you're writing about events of more than half a century ago, there's always going to be differing recollections, and there's a bit of this in Lytle's book. He gives his own recollection of how Alan Freed is said to have coined the phrase "rock and roll", and also gives a slightly different timeline regarding when he and his fellow Comets first started playing a new song called "Rock Around the Clock" then that offered in other books. But he shines in his behind-the-scenes recollections, such as meeting movie stars while the Comets were in Hollywood to film the Round-Up of Rhythm short film, and when the Jodimars, during one of their first gigs in New York, were given a movie legend's old dressing room.
For me, as someone familiar with different sides of the Haley story, the book becomes even more interesting once we get into the Jodimars and post-Jodimars eras, which have not been well documented. We hear Lytle's take on why the group wasn't as successful as it could have been, we find out why Lytle thinks an iconic TV star might have been responsible for scuttling a set of 1958 Jodimars recordings, and we learn about how and why Marshall Lytle reinvented himself as Tommy Page in the 1960s, forming a musical act that would not only outlast the Jodimars, but also connect him with a future wife.
Lytle also spends time reminiscing about his life in the 1970s, including his final, cordial meeting with Bill Haley, and leads up to his reunion with Richards, Ambrose, as well as Johnny Grande and Franny Beecher, in the late 1980s which has led to a 20 year-plus association with the Original Comets that Lytle has called the greatest retirement plan in the world.
Lytle follows his life all the way up to early 2009, with the Comets still knocking them dead in Branson.
The book features a number of rare photos of the Comets and the Jodimars, and also includes a foreword by Jimmy Jay. A second foreword has been provided by Peter Ford by way of his mini-memoir "Rock Around the Clock and Me", in which the son of Glenn Ford describes the role he played in "Rock Around the Clock" ending up in his dad's film, Blackboard Jungle. This story has been printed in a few magazines and published online, but it was good thinking of Lytle and Rush to also preserve it in this book.
Still Rockin' Around the Clock is a fun read, and a fascinating look at the birth of rock and roll - and it's aftermath - from the perspective of one of the guys who was there at the beginning. The book doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is, one man's memories of his life and his role in being part of the group that changed the world of music forever, and who, despite challenges along the way, refuses to stop rocking around the clock.
As of November 2010, Still Rockin' Around the Clock was available via Amazon.com.
POSTED: May 5, 2009
Songs from the Cradle of Rock 'n' Roll - JK Rockets(SCJ Corp)
From 1960 to 1967 (and off and on into the 1970s), Johnny Kay rocked the house as Bill Haley's lead guitarist.
When he was hired to replace the immortal Franny Beecher in 1960, I bet he must have felt the way George Lazenby felt when he took over from Sean Connery. But before long the firey guitarist established himself, holding his own during a brief period when both he and Beecher shared lead duties, and he became a major presence in the many recordings Haley made for Orfeon during the mid-60s. Kay helped the band appeal to younger audiences, and when Haley began incorporating Beatles songs into his sets, it was Kay who was often given the job of singing them. He also took lead vocal duties on a number of Comets recordings, including "Mohair Sam" and "The Seventh Son" for Orfeon, not to mention an alternate take of "Tenor Man" and another song called "Cottonfields", both of which were unearthed by Bear Family records in the 1990s for the Warner Brothers Years and More box set.
After leaving the Comets, Kay became a guitar teacher and later got into video production. This past year saw Johnny Kay fire up his own group, JK Rockets -- the name comes from Johnny Kay's Rockets, a band he fronted in the 1950s -- and record two CDs of new recordings, one for Hydra Records in Germany, and a new American release, Songs from the Cradle of Rock 'n' Roll. While the first CD consisted mainly of new versions of Haley classics, this new CD contains all-original songs composed either by Kay or award-winning songwriter Bill Rapp.
The key to this record is that the three musicians featured - Johnny Kay, Stan Kay (making this a family affair), and Rapp, are based around Chester, Pennsylvania. This was Haley's headquarters in the 1950s, and it was here that "Rock Around the Clock" was truly born, making this the true "cradle" of the music.
Cradle is an interesting album in that it combines old-school rock and roll/rockabilly with more modern sounds. I always found Kay's guitar playing to be somewhat harder-edged than Beecher's on the Orfeon recordings, and so it takes on a very modern sound here, too. And the songs themselves include surprises such as "Text Me Baby", which leads one to wonder how an artist in the 1950s might have handled the latest communication crazes ("Rockin' Robin" might have sounded a lot differently with "Twitter-Twitter-dee..." at the beginning!).
Other highlights include the title track, which pays tribute to Haley, and several defiant "never too old to rock"-style tracks, including "Never 2 Late 2 Rock" which makes a nice companionpiece to the Comets' "We Ain't Dead Yet" track of a few years back, and the nostalgic "Cradle of Ol' Rock 'n' Roll."
Top-to-bottom this is a great-sounding set, covering old-style blues ("Ol' Man Blues" is fun), to "Sudden Soul Full of Rock 'n' Roll" which is something KISS might have recorded had they worked for Decca back in the 60s, and Bill Rapp channels Johnny Cash on "Good Good Thing". Johnny Kay sounds like he's back in the 60s with Haley on the closing track, "Too Much Rock 'n' Roll in 'em Bones". There are also a couple of good 50s-style ballads, including the standout, "Brand New Me."
Worth checking out for fans of old-school Pennsylvania-style rock and roll
The CD is available on Kay's website here and through CD Baby here.
Tracks: 1. Text Me Baby; 2. Brand New Me; 3. You Don't Know You Love Me Yet; 4. I Miss Those Rock 'n' Roll Nites; 5. Ol' Man Blues; 6. Rain Rain; 7. Sudden Soul Full of Rock 'n' Roll; 8. Good Good Thing; 9. Never 2 Late 2 Rock; 10. Cradle of Ol' Rock 'n' Roll; 11. I'll Be There for You; 13. Too Much Rock 'n' Roll in 'em Bones.
POSTED: March 20, 2008
Guitar Virtuoso - Danny Cedrone(DJC Records E-00821)
Before Scotty Moore picked up a guitar to back Elvis, and even before the legendary Franny Beecher brought his expertise to Bill Haley's Comets, Danny Cedrone was already a rock-and-roll veteran. This new CD casta a long-overdue spotlight on one of rock and roll's most overlooked pioneers.
Danny Cedrone died accidentally in the summer of 1954, not long after working on the Bill Haley & His Comets recording of "Shake Rattle and Roll." As such, he never got a chance to experience any of the success of that song, or the recording from April 12, 1954 that carried his never-to-be-equalled guitar solo, "Rock Around the Clock". (Cedrone was never an official member of The Comets, but instead was a favored session player who first worked with Haley on the groundbreaking "Rocket 88" in 1951.)
You won't find either of those world-famous recordings on this CD. And that is a good thing, because they're everywhere. Much harder to find are the recordings Cedrone made on his own and as the leader of The Esquire Boys, and it is this side of his career that Cedrone's family spotlights with this CD.
The first half of the CD features primarily instrumental recordings by the Esquire Boys, including a rollicking "Guitar Boogie Shuffle," an exotic "Caravan", and great versions of "St. Louis Blues" and "Taboo.". A brief excerpt from Haley's 1967 interview with Vancouver, B.C. deejay Red Robinson introduces two versions of Haley's composition "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie", which Haley wrote for Cedrone (it would also be recorded by the Treniers and the breakaway Jodimars before Haley himself recorded it in the fall of 1955). Receiving their first release on CD (as is the case with all the other musical tracks here), the two "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie" recordings are quite different in style, with the first featuring Cedrone on lead vocals, and the second featuring a female supporting vocal by Kay Karol. Most importantly, though, both recordings include the building blocks for the later "Rock Around the Clock"; RATC's second instrumental break makes an early appearance in one recording, while Cedrone dances around his famous guitar solo in the second take. (Incidentally, one of the Esquire Boys heard on these recordings is Bob Scaltrito, who is believed to have been the lead guitar player on Bill Haley's 1951 recording of "Green Tree Boogie".)
The second half of the CD takes us into the Cedrone family archives, with six ultra-rare performances (I don't believe any have been released before), starting with two charming recordings of proud Papa Cedrone performing Louis Prima's "Oh Babe" and a medley of standards dubbed "Nickelodeon Jamboree" with his daughters Marie, Theresa and Lorraine. This is followed up by four live recordings. I'm not sure if these are solo performances or with the Esquire Boys, and I have to take the label's word for the fact they're live because you can't hear any audience sounds. But live recordings from the early 1950s are almost unheard of, and that makes these recordings particularly valuable - and they don't sound too bad, either! It's interesting to compare Cedrone's performance of "Fingers on Fire" with the much-later version by Bill Haley's late-60s guitar player, Nick Nastos.
The Cedrone family pull out all the stops with this disc, adding an Enhanced CD component to the mix. Put this in your computer and you're treated to several slideshows of rare family photographs and several more Cedrone and Esquire Boys recordings, including the amusing "Let's Play Ball". I found the slideshow to be very interesting because I finally got a chance to learn more about Cedrone, whose story was - for many - shrouded in mystery until fairly recently.
Rounding out the set is "Hip-Hop-a-Billy", a track by The Business, a group led by Cedrone's grandson (and one of the people behind the CD), Dan Vanore. This is an up-to-date tribute to both Cedrone and Bill Haley, and while the sudden appearance of more-modern music is a little jarring at first, it's a vivid illustration of how Danny Cedrone's musical legacy has been carried on by his offspring.
Considering the fact many of these recordings have sat unissued for more than 50 years, I was quite impressed by the sound quality. I wouldn't call this a rock and roll collection per se. Cedrone and the Esquire Boys were very versatile performers, so this collection goes all over the map, from country to pop to rhythm & blues to, yes, rock and roll.
There's actually very little to criticize about this CD. I would have liked it if the songs included on the enhanced portion of the CD were also available as regular music tracks, but that's about it. As a Mac user, I was very pleased to discover that the application used on the enhanced portion actually worked - and worked well - on my computer (I'm used to such features being PC-only).
This release, coming at the same time as the Rock n' Roll is Born documentary, which also provides never-before-heard insight into Danny Cedrone's life and legacy, is a must-have acquisition for serious fans of rock and roll and for fans of Bill Haley & His Comets, as it vividly illustrates the range and talent of a musician who deserves more attention.
As of March 20, 2008, this CD is available for US$20 (domestic) or US$25 (overseas), cheque or money order, from DJC Records, 511 Queen St., Philadelphia, Pa., USA, 19147.
Tracks: (Those marked with + are, to my knowledge, being released for the first time. All tracks (except for the Haley interview) are making their CD debut.) 1. Guitar Boogie Shuffle; 2. Caravan; 3. Taboo; 4. St. Louis Blues; 5. Bill Haley Interview excerpt; 6. Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie (version 1); 7. Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie (version 2, with Kay Karol); 8. +Oh Babe; 9. +Nickelodeon Jamboree; 10. +Forgetting You (live); 11. +China Boy (live); 12. +Fingers on Fire (live); 13. +Tico Tico (live). The enhanced CD includes the following songs: 1. Forgetting You; 2. We Drifted Apart; 3. Let's Play Ball; 4. Hip-Hop-a-Billy (by The Business).
POSTED: March 7, 2008; REVISED: March 31, 2008
DVD review: Rock n' Roll is Born: The Story of 'Rock Around the Clock' and the Dawn of the Rock 'n' Roll Era(Universal International Music Group)
For decades, fans of Bill Haley and the Comets have been patiently waiting for a major documentary to be made about the band and its place in Rock and Roll history, and a new DVD release by Universal International Music finally gives the band and their most famous song a chance at the spotlight.
Written and directed by Barry Barnes, the UK-produced Rock n' Roll is Born takes an in-depth look at how Bill Haley and the Comets came to record "Rock Around the Clock" way back in April 1954, and the immediate impact this song had on the music world in those stormy months before Elvis Presley arrived and kicked Rock and Roll into overdrive.
Through interviews with members of the Comets, several film luminaries, and other rock pioneers, the documentary paints a fair and, generally, positive picture of Bill Haley and his band. It was refreshing to see Haley not discussed - and ultimately dismissed - the way so many other historians appear predisposed to do, cutting and pasting phrases like "too old," "too gentile", "too fat" and "not sexy enough" as they try to get past him quickly in order to get to their real interest, Elvis.
Not so with Barnes. Instead, he sticks with Haley and provides an eye-opening view of how the former country band came to record "Rock Around the Clock", propelling them to the same levels of stardom currently enjoyed by the likes of Miley Ray Cyrus and Nickelback today.
If I had one complaint, it is that no one from Haley's family appears on camera to be interviewed, although John Haley's biography of his father, Sound and Glory, was a prime source for Barnes' research. However, he still managed to assemble an impressive array of people to talk about Haley, the Comets, and the song. First and foremost are Comets Marshall Lytle and Johnny Grande, both of whom played on the original recording and who talk about how it came to be, how the name "rock and roll" came to be (with Lytle acknowledging that there are many versions of that story), and the origin of the breakaway group, The Jodimars. Grande died not long after his interview was recorded, but he looks and sounds well here and it's nice that Barnes was able to include him in the documentary.
To discuss Blackboard Jungle and the introduction of "Rock Around the Clock" to the world, Barnes turns his cameras toward Peter Ford, son of the film's star, Glenn Ford, and who is now credited with indirectly getting the song into the film thanks to it being part of his eclectic record collection. One of the surviving actors from the film, Jamie Farr (who is best remembered as Corp. Klinger on M*A*S*H) recounts the experience of first hearing the song blaring from movie-theatre speakers.
We also get some perspective from other musicians active at the time, including Pat Boone who was, perhaps unfairly, vilified by critics and music historians for his popularity in recording "cover versions" of black recordings (even though Presley's practice of same is generally accepted). His discussion of cover records might well be an eye-opener in its own right; it certainly made me look at his early work with a new perspective.
The documentary takes an unexpected turn midway through when it provides a glimpse at the life and times of Danny Cedrone, the brilliant guitarist who immortalized the "Rock Around the Clock" solo, but died in a freak accident before he'd experience any of its success. His daughter's emotional recollection of her father -- the pain of his death nearly 54 years ago still evident -- provides the documentary with an emotional lynchpin.
Barnes has also assembled an impressive array of rare footage, much of it brand new even to longtime Haley fanatics like me. There are two beautifully restored performances from the Comets' ultra-rare short film Round Up of Rhythm, and a selection of terrific home movie footage taken by Comets drummer Ralph Jones -- including the only known color footage of the set of the Rock Around the Clock movie. Barnes does a remarkable bit of editing by combining the Decca recording of "See You Later Alligator" with Jones' footage to give us an idea of what the "Alligator" scene from the RATC movie might have looked like had it been filmed in color. There is also a snippet of tantalizing footage showing Haley and producer Milt Gabler at work in the recording studio.
Aside from the lack of any Haley family interviews, the only other shortcoming I can think of is that, like most other articles and biographical articles on Haley, the story pretty much ends at the end of the 1950s, with little reference to Haley's later resurgence of popularity in the 1960s and 70s, or the 20-year success story of the Original Comets' reunion. But otherwise, this is a fantastic document about a time in musical history that too many music historians are trying to revise into oblivion. Elvis may have kicked Rock and Roll into high gear, but it took Bill Haley and His Comets to put gas in the car and turn the ignition key. And this documentary makes the strongest case for the band's rightful place in musical history that I have seen in many years. Keep this one in pride of place next to Jim Dawson's history of "Rock Around the Clock" and John Haley and John Von Hoelle's Sound and Glory.
Rock n' Roll is Born is expected to be released in Europe in March 2008, with a North American release coming later this year. Universal Music, the company distributing the DVD, is the same company that inherited Bill Haley's catalog of Decca recordings, and its CD arm has issued several compilations of Haley recordings on both sides of the Atlantic over the last few years.
Additional: My review above was based upon a preliminary review copy of the DVD. I've since seen a final version of the DVD, and was pleased to discover that it also includes several extra features, including additional interview footage of Lytle and Grande and other participants, and the two Round Up of Rhythm performances presented on their own (sadly, "Straight Jacket" is still omitted, with its ultra-rare footage of Haley playing lead guitar). Also included (and these are getting to be increasingly rare these days) is a beautifully illustrated booklet featuring information about the participants in the documentary, along with some very rare photographs of Haley in action.
(DVD cover art courtesy Barry Barnes.)
POSTED: June 29, 2007; REVISED: Sept. 28, 2007
Bill Haley & Friends Vol. 3: The Story of Rock Around the Clock(Hydra Records BCK 27128-1.5)
At first thought, the idea of a CD with no less than 63 of the same song might seem like overkill – even when it comes down to that all-time classic Bill Haley & His Comets recording, "Rock Around the Clock."
Yet the third volume in Hydra Records' Bill Haley & Friends series manages to turn repetition into something approaching an art form. Not to mention a fascinating document chronicling the evolution and influence of the most important rock and roll song ever recorded.
Originally scheduled for release back in 2004 to mark the 50th anniversary of Bill Haley's first recording of the song, release of The Story of Rock Around the Clock was delayed for nearly two years until 2006, presumably to allow more time for Hydra to access and license the many tracks heard here. The first CD features 31 versions of the song as recorded by Bill Haley & The Comets between 1954 and 1979, plus a few more recent versions by the various post-Haley incarnations of the Comets.
The second disc features 32 wildly different interpretations of the song by artists ranging from Carl Perkins and Chubby Checker to Mae West and Tenpole Tudor with the Sex Pistols.
Perhaps it's because I'm so familiar with the Haley versions (there's only one version on Disc 1 that I'd never heard before) I actually found myself enjoying Disc 2 more because of how it demonstrates the versatility of the song. There are some fascinating renditions here, some based upon the original sheet music arrangement from 1953 (which honestly sounded like a cross-breeding of a Hungarian funeral dirge and "Syncopated Clock"), a number that adapted Haley's arrangement, and a few that have a unique voice of their own.
Some of my favorites include a version credited to Jimmy DeKnight himself, James Myers. The ultra-rare "Rock Around the Clock Cha Cha" is a terrific instrumental version that tries to meld "RATC" with "Istanbul Not Constantinople" – and it works! Other highlights include comedic versions such as Mae West's double entendre-filled take, a ersatz-Yiddish version by Mickey Katz who sounds so much like Danny Kaye I had to check to make sure it wasn't actually Kaye working under another name, a waltz version by Bubblerock is Here to Stay (don't ask), and an unintentionally funny version by the usually reliable Platters. (Not every version of the song is a gem.) For some reason I also found that a number of performers seemed to have misheard the original lyrics; as a result you have a number of singers inviting their listeners to "rock rock rock to the Broadway lights."
There are also some pleasant surprises. I'd always been told the Nilsson/John Lennon version was awful, but hearing it for the first time in this collection, it isn't that bad (makes me wish a recording of the Beatles doing it would surface). On the other hand, the version by Tenpole Tudor and the Sex Pistols gets more awful every time I hear it – perhaps that's why I love that version so much; it's the musical equivalent of an Ed Wood movie. But for me the best cover version is the RnB rendition by the Deep River Boys, and Hydra kindly includes it here. Hydra has done a very good job of collecting different arrangements rather than simply include a bunch of people parroting Haley, though they could have done a better job of editing the version by Adriano Celentano which begins as another song entirely before finally medley-ing into "Clock."
For rockabilly and rock and roll fans, the most significant recording on this disc is the one by Sonny Dae and His Knights – the version recorded for Arcade Records only weeks before Haley recorded his version for Decca; I'm not aware of this track being made available on CD before. There is also a rare instrumental jam session version by the great Eddie Cochran. Track 30 on the disc also shows how RATC continued to make history in a mid-70s rendition by Telex – a very early example of what we'd now call electronica.
With the possible exception of the Isley Brothers version and the version by Pat Boone, I'm pretty certain a good 90 per cent of these cover versions here have never been released to CD before now.
As for the Haley disc, it's a mixed bag. Although it's great to have all of Haley's studio versions together in one collection for the first time – including a never-before-released version from the Happy Days soundtrack – a sense of repetition does set in after awhile. While Haley did experiment with some of his hits as time went on (not always effectively, witness the horrendous remakes of "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "See You Later Alligator" from the 1966 Orfeon sessions), it's clear he saw "Clock" as untouchable and save for some minor variations heard in the 1960 Warner Bros. remake (mostly due to Franny Beecher altering the guitar solo) one version pretty much sounds like the next. Until the 1970s, that is, when Haley developed the annoying tendency to drop one of the verses and the second instrumental break, leaving audiences feeling decidedly short-changed.
Still, there are some great performances to be heard here, from the never-to-be-equaled 1954 recording for Decca to the last known recording of Haley performing the song for Queen Elizabeth in 1979 (released here commercially for the very first time, this was one of the only occasions in the late 1970s that Haley actually performed a complete rendition of "Clock"; it is also the first-ever commercial release of any recording featuring the line-up of Comets that toured with Haley in the fall of 1979).
Sound quality leaves a little to be desired on a few tracks, although this can be forgiven on a number of examples since they come from tapes that are decades old. It is ironic that the two 1955 performances recorded in Cleveland (previously released on Hydra's Rock and Roll Show a decade ago) sound better than the versions from the 1970s. The Happy Days version could sound much better, though; with the show having been released to DVD surely a better quality copy could have been located.
Rounding out the first disc is an assortment of versions by the various incarnations of the Comets that have existed since Haley died in 1981. These include a rare version by the Comets contingent led by Joey Rand in the mid-80s, and an equally rare version by John Lane and Al Rappa from around 1989. We also get a live recording and two studio versions by the 1954-55 Comets with Jacko Buddin on vocals. (Recorded in 1999 and 2000, the studio takes originate from the two long out-of-print and rare CDs the Original Comets did for Ronny Weiser's Rollin Rock Records a few years back and it's terrific to see them available again; they're the final studio recordings of the song featuring the late Johnny Grande.)
For the more diehard Haley fans, many of the recordings here will be nothing new, with the exception of real rarities such as the Command Performance and Happy Days versions and a snippet of a 1970s performance. There are some additional live performances from the 1960s that exist on tape – some are even listed in the booklet – that are omitted from the collection. It would have also been nice to include one of the more recent (as of the CD's compilation in 2004, that is) Original Comets performances featuring Marshall Lytle on vocals. But I imagine an 80-track collection would have truly been overkill!
If "Rock Around the Clock" is not your cup of tea – and there are some Haley fans who don't consider it their favorite song, believe it or not - this set is probably going to be the equivalent of Chinese water torture. But if you appreciate the historical significance of the song, and enjoy the opportunity to have every commercially available Bill Haley version of the song in one spot, as well as a collection of diverse and fascinating interpretations of the tune, then this CD is a must.
Tracks: Disc 1 (all by Bill Haley & His Comets unless noted; # indicates first known release; * indicates first known CD release) – 1. Decca 1954; 2. Cleveland 1955 (first performance, introduced by Billy Williamson); 3. Cleveland 1955 (second performance); 4. Toast of the Town 1955 (introduced by Ed Sullivan); 5. Alan Freed radio show 1956; 6. Washington Square 1956 (introduced by Ray Bolger); 7. Australian radio 1957; 8. Paris Olympia 1958; 9. Warner Bros. Records 1960; 10. Armed Forces Network radio 1962; 11. Orfeon Records Mexico 1966; 12. *Paris 1966; 13. Stockholm live version for Sonet Records, 1968; 14. Sonet Records studio version 1968; 15. New York Bitter End 1969 (first performance); 16. New York Bitter End 1969 (second performance); 17. *Detroit 1973 (Let the Good Times Roll soundtrack); 18. London Wembley Stadium 1972 (London Rock and Roll Show soundtrack); 19. #Happy Days opening credits 1973; 20. London Hammersmith Palais 1974; 21. *Paris, December 1974; 22. *London, March 1979 (Blue Suede Shoes soundtrack); 23. #Royal Command Performance, November 1979; 24. #Netherlands TV performance, October 1979 (fragment); 25. The Comets (John Lane/Al Rappa contingent), Rock and Roll Palace c.1988 (incomplete); 26. *Joey Rand version of the Comets, 1980s; 27. Bill Haley – Kenny Denton remix for Sonet Records c.1989 (Haley’s 1968 vocals spliced with a new backing); 28. Original Comets, England 1993 (from Hydra CD We're Gonna Party); 29. Original Comets Las Vegas 1999 (Still Rockin’ Around the Clock- Rollin Rock Records); 30. Original Comets Las Vegas 2000 (Aged to Perfection- Rollin Rock); 31. Swing Cats Remix (Haley’s 1966 Orfeon vocals with new backing; produced by Danny Harvey).
Disc 2: 1. Dick Clark introduction; 2. Sven Assmussen; 3. Pat Boone; 4. Bubblerock is Here to Stay; 5. Freddy Cannon; 6. Adriano Celentano (in medley with another song); 7. Chubby Checker; 8. Eddie Cochran and Gary Lambert; 9. Sonny Dae and His Knights (pre-Haley recording; possibly first CD release); 10. Deep River Boys; 11. Phil Flowers; 12. Nilsson and John Lennon; 13. Gary’s Gang; 14. Ted Herold; 15. Lee Jackson (Bill Haley is credited as producer on this 1976 version); 16. Goran Odner and Matti Viljasen Septetti; 17. Mickey Katz; 18. Jimmy DeKnight ("Rock Around the Clock Cha Cha"); 19. Buddy Knox; 20. Dinah Lee (only female vocal in this collection); 21. Tenpole Tudor and the Sex Pistols; 22. Los Hispanos; 23. Renato Carosone; 24. Sandy Nelson; 25. Die Optimisten; 26. Carl Perkins; 27. Pirron & Knapp; 28. The Platters; 29. Gene Simmons; 30. Telex; 31. Isley Brothers; 32. Mae West; 33. Paul Wurges.
POSTED: February 3, 2007; updated June 26, 2007
DVD review: Don't Knock the Rock/Rock Around the Clock(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Ever since the VHS tape was introduced back in the late 1970s, North American fans of Bill Haley & His Comets have been patiently waiting for the official home video release of the two films the band made in 1956. At last, it's here as a two-DVD set. But it's a mixed blessing.
It's difficult to be too harsh on a release like this, which Sony Pictures had no obligation to do. And as I say above, some of us have been waiting neigh on three decades for this to finally arrive. But, as a fan of Bill Haley, I must start out by criticizing the incredibly shoddy packaging being used for the release. Yes, I know the movie and the music are the important thing, but one of the purposes of releasing this film to DVD - and this was something promoter Martin Lewis had in mind when he first suggested to Sony that they release the films to DVD back in 2005 at the height of the Rock is Fifty celebrations (though the current release appears unconnected to his efforts) - is to introduce Haley and his music to new audiences.
If that's the case, why on earth would Sony use an absolutely ludicrously cut-and-pasted image of Haley for the illustration representing Rock Around the Clock? They took his head and placed it over another man's body - I'm convinced it's a photo of Elvis from one of his movie posters. It looks stupid. And for the Don't Knock the Rock film, there is not a single image of Haley to be found anywhere on the packaging, and he was the top-billed star! Instead it promotes Little Richard as the star, even though he's only on screen for about two minutes.
In some respects, it's a minor thing - what picture is used for the cover - but I found it rather disrespectful.
Now, onto the contents of the DVD. The lack of any extra features - including a Scene Selection screen - is very annoying, indicating, to me, that this was a rush job. But once the films start, things pick up considerably.
Despite my complaints above, Sony has done a wonderful job in remastering the two films. They look and sound great. The fact they're presented in widescreen may come as a surprise. I believe the two films were released in this format initially - certainly there appears to be little indication of cropping in the image - and this makes these films well-suited for the next-generation widescreen sets and HD.
As for the films themselves, well, they are what they are: two quickies made to capitalize on what was, at the time, expected to be a passing fad. The first of the two films, Rock Around the Clock, (billed for some reason as the second release in this set) provides the best showcase for Haley and the Comets, from their classic performance of "See You Later Alligator" to a barnstorming "Rudy's Rock" which is a different performance than the one released on record.
Haley is supported by dancer Lisa Gaye, who is the female romantic lead of the picture, wooing promoter Johnny Johnston. Gaye is one of the 1950s most underrated sex symbols, and she definitely livens up the moments when the Comets aren't onscreen.
Also highlighted in classic performances are the Treniers-inspired Freddy Bell and the Bellboys, and the Platters. And Alan Freed also makes his first film appearance.
The most amazing thing is the song "Rock Around the Clock" is never performed on screen in its entirety. Instead, we hear part of it over the opening credits, we see Haley and the boys sing the intro during a montage, and then at the end, when you'd logically expect the whole song to be performed, you hear it faintly in the background while Johnston and cougar Alix Talton (the "villain" of the film) resolve the plot with a lengthy bit of dialogue! No wonder the film caused riots back in 1956 - people came to hear the song, not listen to romantic banter.
The sequel, Don't Knock the Rock was made and released as Haley's star was already on the decline in America. Although top billed, he is only on screen for a scant few minutes and the band is never really given a chance to shine like they do in the first film. Performance highlights include the "Rudy's Rock" sequel, "Calling All Comets," and a unique performance of the Franny Beecher instrumental "Goofin' Around" which is different from the record release, but sadly the complete version is not heard in the film. Haley's big numbers, "Hot Dog Buddy Buddy" and "Rip it Up" show him on screen fairly briefly, the camera instead deciding to focus on dancers for most of the two numbers. And the only time the band gets to do the theme song is over the opening credits.
Musical cameos include the Treniers and Little Richard, and you can tell the filmmakers put more stock in them than in Haley - they get full performances.
The film also shows that the producers still weren't sure what to make of rock and roll. Alan Dale plays the lead role and gets several musical numbers. He's supposed to be a bigtime rock and roll star, but his songs are more of the Mel Torme variety, and his version of Haley's "Don't Knock the Rock" that closes the film is awful.
There are a few good moments in the film, such as when Alan Freed (back again) presides over a play about the history of music, which Haley fans will immediately recognize as an adaptation of Haley's song "Teenager's Mother" (but without the music).
The lack of extras is disappointing. When Martin Lewis first proposed the films be released, there was talk of recording commentary with the surviving Comets and others who knew Haley, and this might have also been a great opportunity to make available the rare short film Round Up of Rhythm in which Haley and the Comets appeared in 1954. Unfortunately this didn't happen and the loss last year of Johnny Grande leaves only Al Rex and Franny Beecher as the sole surviving Comets who appeared in Don't Knock the Rock and the Rock Around the Clock film.
In summary, I have major issues with how these two films have been packaged by Sony, and I will admit that they aren't the best musicals ever made, but for Bill Haley fans, rock and roll historians, and people interested in having a good time at the movies, the release of these two films to DVD is long overdue and, concerns aside, still very welcome.
Update: After writing the above review I learned that contrary to my earlier statements the two films were not issued in widescreen, and therefore were altered for the DVD release. For the record I oppose such altering of films. There’s no need for this to be done and while I will admit it seems to have been well-executed for these two releases, the fact their aspect ratio has been altered has left me with a sour taste in my mouth regarding this release, above and beyond the concerns stated above. Hopefully some company like Criterion or Kino will issue these films in their proper screen ratio in the future.
POSTED: November 1, 2006
Rock 'n' Roll Arrives ... The REAL Birth of Rock 'n' Roll 1946-1954(Bear Family Records BCD 16509)
Over the last two decades, the German label Bear Family has been slowly but surely chronicling the career of Bill Haley, and earlier this year they released the third and, perhaps, most unique set of Haley recordings ever released.
First, a word of warning. Despite the title, there is very little actual rock and roll in this 5-CD set. As any Haley fans worth their salt can tell you, Haley began as a country-western singer and yodeller, and it is this side of the musician's career that is spotlighted above all else in this set. Bear Family, in my opinion, made an error in billing this set as being by "Bill Haley and His Comets". In truth of fact, the Comets per se only appear on about a dozen of the recordings, while the group's precedessor, The Saddlemen, are also outnumbered by recordings either by Haley himself or with other groups.
This is also not an album for audiophiles. Many of these recordings are only available on the crudest of recording materials -- half-century old acetates, worn tapes, and other sources that hardly add up to pristine sound quality. Listeners have to balance this off with the knowledge that these are truly historic recordings. Many have never been released until now -- including the first known recordings Haley ever made 60 years ago -- and of those that have been released before, the original 78rpm singles are each fetching prices on eBay far greater than the sticker price of this set.
That said, I did find a few recordings had poorer sound quality then I was used to hearing on previous releases. This is particularly the case with "Rocket 88" and "Rock the Joint", two widely-available recordings that for some reason had greater-than-expected surface noise and hiss in this set. Ironically, some of the previously-unreleased recordings that have been sitting in personal collections for more than 50 years sound better.
Chris Gardner and Bear Family have done a terrific job of compiling tracks from a wide variety of sources, with perhaps the greatest coup being the discovery of a 1946 radio show by the Down Homers recorded when Bill Haley was a member. This 15-minute set includes the first known recorded Haley solo performance, "She Taught Me How to Yodel" and if you're a diehard Haley fan, is worth the price of admission. However I do question the decision to also include the four songs the Down Homers recorded for Vogue Records earlier that year. Although long rumored to have included Bill Haley, this rumor was debunked years ago. Perhaps Bear Family felt that Haley collectors who had heard about these recordings for decades deserved to finally hear them -- and they are terrific western swing songs, and it's clear to see where Haley got his yodelling aspirations from.
A true highlight is the deluxe hardbound book included with the set. Written by Gardner, it is an exhaustive and fascinating look at Haley's early career -- there were things even I didn't know -- and as usual he has done his usual bang-up job with the discography. This book deserves to be published on its own.
For listeners who think Bill Haley began and ended with "Rock Around the Clock", this set is sure to be a revelation. And anyone who is serious about studying the roots of rock 'n' roll -- the building blocks and stepping stones that led ultimately to "Rock Around the Clock" -- will also find the experience worthwhile.
Here's a disc-by-disc summary of this set:
Disc 1: Bill Haley was hardly the big star he would later become at the time the first tracks on this disc were recorded. In fact, the first A-side single released by Bill Haley and the Four Aces of Western Swing, the mini-morality play "Too Many Parties, Too Many Pals" didn't even feature Haley on vocals, but rather Tex King, and the B-side, the fast-moving "Four Leaf Clover Blues" (an ode to gambling) was a duet between Haley and Barney Barnard. Yet these two tracks lead off the first set of recordings, which were recorded circa 1948-49 for the Cowboy Records label. Anyone who purchased Hydra's Bill Haley and Friends Vol. 2, which focused on the Cowboy label's output, will have heard these already but they're always worth a listen. The remainder of the disc contains ultra-rare recordings from 1949 and 1950 that were leased out to labels such as Atlantic and Center Records. These original discs fetch hundreds of dollars on the collector's market. "Loveless Blues" and "Teardrop From My Eyes" are terrific examples of the proto-rock and roll Haley was recording in the years before "Rocket 88". The disc also includes the single that was bizarrely released under the name Reno Browne and Her Buckaroos (Gardner's book tells the story), plus a pair of previously unreleased alternate takes.
Disc 2: This disc looks at the work Haley did in 1951-52 for Holiday Records, and also showcases the work of the Saddlemen as session musicians during this same period. "Rocket 88" leads off the set, and while the Sun Records public relations machine would have you believe Jackie Brentson's original recording was the first rock and roll song, in fact it was this version by Haley that combined rhythm and blues and country western music to create true rock and roll. Compared to the stuff on Disc 1, the change is truly jarring. As noted above the sound quality on "Rocket 88" is less than I've heard elsewhere, but otherwise the other tracks sound great. For the first time on CD we get to hear the two duets Haley recorded with Loretta Glendenning, and Bear Family has located better-quality copies of the two Christmas songs that had previously been issued by Hydra Records for their Merry Christmas Bill Haley and Friends collection. Rounding out the set are tracks by Lou Graham and Curly Herdman backed by the Saddlemen (Herdman performs a version of Haley's "Rose of My Heart"), including some alternate takes by Graham. The disc ends back in 1946 with the controversial Vogue Records recordings by the Down Homers. Do they belong here? Not really, but they're worth listening to.
Disc 3: This disc, which runs less than 45 minutes, contains the obligatory (but no less appreciated) Essex Records sessions from 1952-1954. Nothing new here for most listeners, except perhaps an alternate take of "Yes, Indeed". "Rock the Joint" for some reason is of lesser sound quality than previous releases by Rollercoaster and Alshire.
Disc 4: Many recordings made by Haley in the late 1940s were never released until the late 1970s. This disc contains most of these recordings, which had previously appeared in LP form on releases such as Hillbilly Haley by Rollercoaster and Golden Country Origins by Grassroots. Why these excellent recordings never saw the light of day for 30 years is a great mystery, and you can definitely hear elements of rock and roll in these tracks -- check out the introduction to "Candy and Women", a Haley original that was never released by him but instead became a national hit when Andy Reynolds recorded it. "Rose of My Heart" is a wonderful cowboy ballad that deserved greater exposure. A number of never-before-released recordings appear here, including some fantastic country work on "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" and "Sunday Down in Tennessee" -- recordings of a type Haley would never do again. This disc includes the Down Homers radio show from 1946 -- the earliest known confirmed recordings involving Bill Haley, and it's a fun listen. The disc ends with a couple of archived recordings reflecting Haley's second career as a radio announcer: here he promotes a Rex Allen western film alongside his manager, Jack Howard, and records an advertisement for refrigerators which segues into a promotion for an upcoming Saddlemen concert with Billy Williamson (a truncated version of this recording was released by Rollercoaster Records but now the complete version is released for the first time so all can enjoy Haley espousing the virtues of refrigerator technology).
Disc 5: Audiophiles beware: there is no such thing as high-end digital sound quality on these recordings. But considering these are the only known copies of some of the rarest recordings in the Haley archive, we can live with hisses, pops and fades because it's unlikely better quality copies of any of these rare recordings exist, and Bear Family has done their best to make them sound as good as possible. This remarkable set of recordings show Haley trying out a number of different country western recordings, including false starts and demo recordings of songs such as "Rose of My Heart" and "Yodel Your Blues Away", and an album's worth of previously unreleased recordings with the Four Aces of Western Swing, including "Little Rock, Arkansas" and an early instrumental, "Whispering" that could have easily fit into the Comets' repertoire. The set ends with a previously unreleased (but, sadly, degraded) Saddlemen recording of "Teardrops From My Eyes" that, had it been released back in 1950-51, would have probably been remembered as a Haley classic alongside "Rocket 88" and "Rock the Joint".
Track listing (* indicates tracks never before released; # are tracks making their first appearance on CD):
Disc 1: Four Aces of Western Swing - 1. Too Many Parties, Too Many Pals (Tex King vocal); 2. Four Leaf Clover Blues (with Barney Barnard); 3. Candy Kisses; 4. Tennessee Border (with Barney Barnard); 5. The Covered Wagon Rolled Right Along; 6. Yodel Your Blues Away; 7. Behind the Eight Ball (with Barney Barnard); 8. Foolish Questions. Johnny Clifton and His String Band - 9. #Loveless Blues; 10. #Stand Up and Be Counted. Saddlemen - 11. #Deal Me a Hand; 12. #Ten Gallon Stetson; 13. #Susan Van Dusen; 14. #I'm Not to Blame; 15. #I'm Gonna Dry Every Tear With a Kiss; 16. #Why Do I Cry Over You?; 17. *Teardrops From My Eyes; 18. *Loveless Blues. Reno Browne and Her Buckaroos - 19. My Sweet Little Girl from Nevada; 20. My Palomino and I.
Disc 2: Saddlemen - 1. Rocket 88; 2. Tearstains on My Heart; 3. Green Tree Boogie; 4. Down Deep in My Heart; 5. #I'm Crying (with Loretta Glendenning); 6. #Pretty Baby (with Loretta Glendenning); 7. A Year Ago This Christmas; 8. I Don't Want to Be Alone for Christmas; 9. Jukebox Cannoball; 10. Sundown Boogie. Curly Herdman - 11. #Barnyard Special; 12. #Rose of My Heart. Lou Graham - 13. Two-Timin' Blues; 14. Long Gone Daddy; 15. #I'm Lonesome; 16. #A Sweet Bunch of Roses; 17. #Please Make Up Your Fickle Mind; 18. #My Heart Tells Me; 19. I'm Lonesome (alt. take); 20. A Sweet Bunch of Roses (alt. take); 21. Please Make Up Your Fickle Mind (alt. take); 22. My Heart Tells Me (alt. take); Down Homers (without Haley) - 23. Out Where the West Winds Blow; 24. Who's Gonna Kiss You When I'm Gone? 25. Boogie Woogie Yodel; 26. Baby I Found Out All About You.
Disc 3: Saddlemen - 1. Rock the Joint; 2. Icy Heart; 3. Dance with a Dolly; 4. Rocking Chair on the Moon. Comets - 5. Stop Beatin' Around the Mulberry Bush; 6. Real Rock Drive; 7. Crazy Man Crazy; 8. What'cha Gonna Do? 9. Pat-a-Cake; 10. Fractured; 11. Live it Up; 12. Farewell, So Long, Goodbye; 13. I'll Be True; 14. Ten Little Indians; 15. Yes Indeed; 16. Yes Indeed (alt. take); 17. Chattanooga Choo Choo; 18. Straight Jacket (instrumental).
Disc 4: Four Aces of Western Swing - 1. #Rovin' Eyes; 2. #Candy and Women; 3. #My Mom Heard Me Cry Over You; 4. #Cotton Haired Gal; 5. #Wreck on the Highway; 6. #A Yodeller's Lullaby; 7. #All I Need is Some More Lovin'; 8. #Candy and Women (alt. take); 9. #Yodel Your Blues Away; 10. #Red River Valley (Tex King vocal); 11. #Behind the Eight Ball (with Barney Barnard); 12. *Foolish Questions; 13. *Easy Rocking Chair; 14. *I Wasted a Nickel; 15. *My Bucket's Got a Hole in It; 16. *Sunday Down in Tennessee; 17. *Behind the Eight Ball. Saddlemen - 18 #Rose of My Heart; 19. #Within This Broken Heart of Mine. Down Homers Radio Show - 20. *Down Home; 21. *Following the Sun; 22. *She Taught Me How to Yodel (Haley solo vocal); 23. *Cool Water; 24. *Baby I Found Out All About You; 25. *Open Up Those Pearly Gates for Me; 26. *Who's Gonna Kiss You When I'm Gone? Bill Haley airshots - 27. *Arizona Cowboy Advert (with Jack Howard); 28. *Westinghouse and Twin Bars Advert (complete, with Billy Williamson).
Disc 5: Bill Haley solo - 1. *Rose of My Heart (false start); 2. *Rose of My Heart (incomplete); 3. *Cherry Tree Lane; 4. *Cute Little Brown-Eyed Gal; 5. *A Sweet Bunch of Roses; 6. *Yodel Your Blues Away. Four Aces of Western Swing - 7. *Candy and Women; 8. *Behind the Eight Ball; 9. *Ages and Ages Ago; 10. *Honestly; 11. *I Dreamed of An Old Love Affair; 12. *Whispering (instrumental); 13. *I Love You So Much it Hurts; 14. *Little Rock, Arkansas; 15. *A Bundle of Kisses; 16. *Are You Teasing Me? 17. *I Want You; 18. *Gotta Have My Baby Back; 19. *Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me; 20. *Candy and Women. Saddlemen - 21. *Teardrops From my Eyes.
POSTED: November 1, 2006
Bill Haley and His Comets Live! and One for the Money: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll
Over the past year, some rare footage of Bill Haley and His Comets has quietly made its way onto the budget-line home video market here in North America.
Two editions of the same DVD release: left, St. Clair Entertainment Encore Series; right, Legacy Entertainment.
At least two DVD editions have been released featuring excerpts from a live show Bill Haley gave in March 1979 at the Odeon in Birmingham, England. This show was videotaped by Thames Television for broadcast that same evening as part of "The Father of Rock and Roll", an episode of the documentary series Format V. Only a few songs from that performance were actually broadcast, and the more-or-less complete tape has circulated among private collectors for years.
The two DVDs I have located have been released by the American/Canadian company St. Clair Entertainment (under the title Bill Haley and His Comets) and the British company Legacy Entertainment (as Bill Haley and His Comets Live!). Both discs appear to originate from the same slightly deteriorated 25-year-old videotape source. As such sound and video quality is variable -- there appears to have been little done in terms of restoration, though whether much could actually be done to upgrade the video and sound is certainly the question to ask. Both DVDs are being sold through the "budget-line" market; I paid only $6 Cdn. for the Legacy DVD where I found it among assorted DVDs of public domain films at a local drug store. The St. Clair edition I paid less than $10 Cdn. for through Amazon. (So if you see these being sold for $20, buyer beware.)
The performance itself is better than one would expect. A lot of music journalists have suggested that by 1979 Haley was over the hill and unable to put in a good performance. In fact, this was far from the case. Rested from a two-year sabbatical (sparked, Haley claimed, by the death of longtime sax player Rudy Pompilli in 1976), Haley is in good voice. And while the group of Comets assembled for the March 1979 British tour were mostly UK musicians with no prior Haley connection, they do a pretty good job of backing Haley in front of a fairly raucous crowd. (Incidentally, the Legacy edition contains an error on the packaging suggesting this was the group's last-ever professional performance; in fact, Haley continued to perform for another year.)
Highlights of this performance include the old standbys such as "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock", of course. You also get to see a rare videotaped performance (possibly the only one known to exist) of Haley performing his version of "Me and Bobby McGee", a song he'd recorded back in 1970. Unfortunately the performance is marred by the fact the opening verse is missing (the tape starts partway into the song) and, also, at one point an audience member jumps on stage and gets tackled by security. It's a throwback to the old riot days of the 1950s, to be sure, but not really appropriate for the song. The video also includes Haley being presented a gold record for his recent recordings for Sonet Records (for some reason some audience members can be heard booing afterwards). Also included is a performance by supporting act Mal Gray (before he became a full-time Comet later in the year) of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land". Of particular note is the guitar work of Jerry Tilley, who I consider to be one of the more underrated of the post-Golden Years Comets.
The two editions are virtually identical in terms of content, except that the St. Clair edition, for some reason, repeats the performance of "The Saint's Rock and Roll" at the end (and in fact the packaging doesn't mention several other songs included on the DVD, either). Both editions present the songs out of original performance order, with "Rock Around the Clock" appearing midway through. Also edited out is a bizarre moment following the performance of "Rock the Joint" showing another audience member jumping on stage and this time being tackled by Haley's rhythm guitar player, Ray Parsons (this was broadcast on Format V, however).
This isn't necessarily the best showcase of Bill Haley and His Comets, but it's worth checking out for those interested in sampling some of his final work.
Tracks: Shake Rattle and Roll, Razzle-Dazzle, Rudy's Rock (instrumental), The Saint's Rock and Roll, See You Later Alligator, Rock Around the Clock, Rock the Joint, Me and Bobby McGee (joined in progress), Bill Haley receives a Gold Record, Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie, Rip It Up, The Promised Land (Mal Gray vocal). The St. Clair edition ends with a repeat of "The Saint's Rock and Roll".
Another recent DVD of note is One for the Money: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll. Produced in 2005 and released to DVD in North America by Passport Video, this is an extensive documentary on the early days of rock and roll. Unlike many similar documentaries that seem to start and end at Elvis, this production actually takes a moment to give Bill Haley and His Comets their due, including interviews with music historian Jim Dawson, author of the history of Rock Around the Clock (see review, below).
For Haley fans, the rare footage of the band is the attraction here, and Passport has kindly included as a bonus feature the two complete Comets performances that were included in the documentary. Recorded in either late 1955 or early 1956 for either The Ted Steele Show or Washington Square (exactly which show this is is unknown), the performances of "Rock Around the Clock" and the instrumental "Huckleberry" have been released previously on DVD and broadcast on television, however the producers have managed to get ahold of two very clean, bright prints of these kinescopes -- I have never seen better images from these two performances and for that alone I recommend this DVD. From a Haley historian standpoint the performance by Rudy Pompilli and bass player Al Rex of "Huckleberry" (with obligatory bass-riding and sax acrobatics) is worth noting as the song was written by ex-Comet Joey Ambrose, who had quit the band to join the Jodimars in the fall of 1955. Exactly why Rudy is shown performing this and not his own "Rudy's Rock" is unknown, but suggests this must have been one of the very first filmed performances of the so-called post-Jodimars Comets.
Also worth checking out on this DVD is a terrific performance by the Treniers of "Rockin' is Our Business" with uncredited contributions by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis!
POSTED: December 9, 2005
Book review:Backbeat Books (ISBN 0-87930-829-X)
Rock Around the Clock - The Record That Started the Rock Revolution! - Jim Dawson
Don't let revisionists tell you any different - it may not have been the first rock and roll song, but "Rock Around the Clock" was undeniably the song that launched the rock and roll era, and music historian Jim Dawson has written a book that makes this case in a convincing and entertaining manner.
Rather than just being a blow-by-blow account of the recording of the song (though he does this, too - grounded ferry story and all), Dawson digs deeper, exploring beyond the writing of RATC to the very roots of rock and roll. His thesis is that the events of April 12, 1954 was the culmination of factors going back decades. "Rock Around the Clock" was literally the right song at the right time.
Although the book is about "Rock Around the Clock", Dawson also explores the history of some of Haley's other epochial hits, such as "Crazy Man Crazy" and "Shake Rattle and Roll". Along he way, he has uncovered some gems of information, like the fact "Crazy Man Crazy" was the first rock and roll song played on national TV when it was heard during a live TV play starring James Dean in 1953 (long before he became a Rebel Without a Cause). Or the fact (known to us Haley fanatics but unknown to everyone else) that Sonny Dae and His Knights - the first band to record "RATC" was not a black rhythm and blues band which is so often reported, but was actually made up of a group of white Italian-Americans led by one Paschal Vennitti. Dawson even dug up a photo of the band to prove the point.
The book isn't perfect - there are a few minor factual errors and Dawson seems a bit skeptical of Peter Ford's claim to have been indirectly responsible for "RATC" being chosen for his father Glenn's film Blackboard Jungle. And, like Sound and Glory , Haley's later years from 1958 on (including his successful forays into Latin America and the Rock and Roll Revival) are sped through in about a dozen pages (though to be fair, Dawson is focusing on the song, not Haley himself). But I have rarely seen any book devoted to a single song that takes such a detailed approach to its subject matter.
This is only the third English-language book ever written about Bill Haley and His Comets, and the only one now remaining in print. For that reason alone the book is worth getting for Haley fans. For scholars of the history of Rock and Roll music, especially the more-than-a-few who still claim it all started when Elvis Presley came along, Jim Dawson's book should be mandatory reading.
Rock Around the Clock is available through Amazon.com and can also be found in bookstores in North America. I'm uncertain of its publishing status overseas as of December 2005.
OLDER REVIEWS ON PAGE 3
Go to "PAGE TWO" for A BILL HALEY WHO'S WHO
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"ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK" TRIBUTE PAGE