Let’s start with July 9th 1955. Rock ‘n’ roll’s Ground Zero. 

“The first time I really ever felt a tingle up my spine was when I saw Bill Haley and the Comets on the telly. ” Paul McCartney.

Things are rarely as they first seem in the history of rock and roll. Dismissed as a passing fad in the 1950s, it’s still with us some 70 years on – the longest fad in music history, perhaps. Once thought of as evil, dangerous and degenerate, 1950s rock ‘n’ roll to many of us, these days, seems rather joyous: as comfortable and familiar as old furniture. It can lift the spirits, make parties go with a swing, urge us onto dance floors, whatever our ages. But how do you spell it? There’s been two spelling variations in this sentence alone. Is one more correct than the other? Regarding the semantics of rock and roll, here’s what the world’s oldest encyclopedia says:      

“Rock and roll, also called rock ‘n’ roll or rock & roll. Style of popular music that originated in the United States in the mid-1950s and that evolved by the mid-1960s into the more encompassing international style known as rock music although the latter also continued to be known as rock and roll.” Encyclopaedia Britannica

First published in 1768, it’s nice to see dusty old Britannica up online, and up with the times. Britannica’s definition identifies rock and roll quite deftly, although it does perpetuate one common rock myth. And, true to its title, we’ll knock that myth on its head, in due course. What Britannica doesn’t explain is the difference between ‘rock and roll’ and ‘rock ‘n’ roll’. While nothing’s written in stone, I use ‘rock and roll’ as a generic term for post-1960s rock; and ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ for the 1950s music to which the name was first applied. This was the rock ‘n’ roll introduced to the world by Bill Haley and His Comets in 1955.

Officially named Bill Haley His Comets, most people remember them as Bill Haley and the Comets, as did Paul McCartney in his quote heading this post. Even the Comets’ own website calls them Bill Haley and the Comets, underlining how things are rarely as they seem in rock and roll.

No matter how much Bill Haley was later overshadowed by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and company, there’s no denying it was Bill Haley and His Comets who introduced rock ‘n’ roll to the world. Haley’s seminal single ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was, critically, the first rock ‘n’ roll record to top each of the two main pop charts in the USA, and also the singles charts in Britain, Australia and Europe. Rock ‘n’ roll had hit the big time. From that moment on, rock ‘n’ roll was big business. Everything that is rock and roll, and its offshoot, rock music, followed on from then.

In the decades following its colossal success in 1955 and 1956, I remember ‘Rock Around the Clock’ being almost universally hailed as the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll record. This became a bit of a rock cliché and, seemingly, the general consensus in pop music culture for much of the twentieth century. In those days, remember, there were so few ways of checking the authenticity of such sweeping statements. Before the internet, people had little choice but to accept what the media told them. Indeed, some people still believe ‘Rock Around the Clock’ to be the world’s first rock and roll record to this very day. So, let’s get started and debunk my rock myth number one.

Rock Myth 1. ‘Rock Around the Clock’ was the first rock and roll record.

As the first rock ‘n’ roll record ever to top America’s coveted pop singles charts, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, a rocking 12-bar blues by Bill Haley and His Comets, was long considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record. When it hit number one, on Saturday, July 9th 1955, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ was a term so obscure, the track was described by its Decca record label as a ‘foxtrot’. 

The day ‘Rock Around the Clock’ topped the Billboard singles chart and exploded into the American consciousness must be forever considered rock and roll’s Ground Zero. The record stayed at number one for two months in 1955, on both Billboard and Cashbox charts, selling an estimated 25 million vinyl records alone. It’s thought to be the world’s best-selling single after Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’. Everything that is rock and roll, and its offshoot, rock music, followed on from ‘Rock Around the Clock’ striking number one in America on July 9th 1955. Rock ‘n’ roll music launched into the musical mainstream that northern summer, and into the musical stratosphere. Later in 1955, it topped the charts in Australia, Britain and West Germany, the first single to sell over a million copies in both the UK (selling 1.4 million) and Germany.

With good reason, then, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is widely hailed by rock music experts as the most important record in rock and pop music history. ‘Rock Around the Clock’ made rock ‘n’ roll world-famous, but it wasn’t the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll record, not by a long way. Find out what was next.

Fact. ‘Rock Around the Clock’ was rock ‘n’ roll’s first number one hit, not the first rock ‘n’ roll record.

As the first rock ‘n’ roll record to achieve international fame and attention, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ smashed through the walls of musical conservatism that confined Western society in those sullen years following World War Two. It was an era of easy-listening pop music recorded by regular guys and wholesome girls, specifically produced for the world’s white markets. It was a decade dominated by smooth American males – singers of mainly Italian descent: Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Al Martino and Buddy Greco to name a few. And none dominated the pop charts more than Frank Sinatra, one of the best-selling vocalists of all time. Of Sicilian heritage, Sinatra was “mindlessly worshiped”, wrote the New York Times, by bobby soxers – teenage girls in wide, flared skirts, white ankle bobby socks and flat lace-ups. Frank’s slurred vocals just behind the beat, extended vowels, and other improvisations drove 1940s females crazy. 

According to showbiz rumors, Sinatra’s agent arranged for girls in the front rows of his concerts to start screaming, launching a craze for young girls screaming at pop stars, climaxing when Beatlemania blitzed the world in the mid-1960s. These slick American-Italian vocalists seemed to have a monopoly on the Western world’s pop charts during the 1940s and early 1950s with their ballads, novelty songs and crooning, the laid-back, seemingly effortless style of singing they all excelled at. Frank Sinatra’s crooning style was ‘hard’, for example, Perry Como’s ‘soft’. As Charlie Gillett wrote in 1973’s seminal rock music study, ‘Sounds of the City’, all these singers were influenced, “by the creator of the modern ballad style, Bing Crosby, whose light tenor, in its flexibility, gentle humor and easy charm, was ideally suited to the needs of Tin Pan Alley”. 

Harry ‘Bing’ Crosby, of English and Irish descent, was the main exception to the Italian-American crooning dominance. 12 years older than Frank Sinatra, Crosby had been king of crooners since the 1920s with a style had even included blues, and rhythm and blues. With over a billion record sales, Bing Crosby was the world’s first multimedia star, making over 70 films and heading movie box-office sales globally from 1944 to 1948.  

By 1955, the crooners’ monopoly of U.S. and international pop charts was over, blown asunder by ‘Rock Around the Clock’.This one record alone was the trigger that set off the West’s adolescent revolt against the musical stupor of the mid-1950s. Youths revolted literally, as well as figuratively, with young men rioting, fighting and causing mayhem in America, Australia, Britain and Germany, especially in the early days, when ‘Rock Around the Clock’ was heard in cinemas or Bill Haley and His Comets took to the stage.

Rock Myth 2. ‘Rock Around the Clock’ was rock ‘n’ roll’s first hit record.

This honor actually belongs to another Bill Haley song, demonstrating just how hot Haley’s music was in the early 1950s. Two years before ‘Rock Around the Clock’, Bill Haley’s self-penned ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’, co-written with his bass player Marshall Lytle, became the first rock ‘n’ roll record to break into both the U.S. and UK pop charts. Recorded in New York City in April, 1953, with Haley’s Comets, an earlier incarnation of his band’s name, it’s arguable that ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’ is of equal importance to the impact of rock ‘n’ roll as ‘Rock Around the Clock’. In June 1953, ‘Crazy Man Crazy’ reached number 11 on the Cash Box singles chart, and 12 on Billboard’s Juke Box chart, predecessor to its famous Hot 100. The record was one of the first singles released in the USA in the new seven inch 45 rpm format, although it sold in Britain and Canada as an old fashioned shellac 78. 

According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’ was “an original amalgam of country and R&B that arguably became the first rock and roll record to register on Billboard’s pop chart.” There’s no ‘arguably’ about it, in my view. 

Bill Haley and Haley’s Comets had two more minor rock ‘n’ roll hits in 1953 with ‘Fractured’ which made 24 on the national pop charts, and ‘Live It Up’ reaching number 25. That myths have built up around Bill Haley isn’t surprising, considering the incredible impact he and his bands had on America and the world during the early to mid-1950s. 

Fact. Bill Haley and Haley’s Comets’ ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’ was rock ‘n’ roll’s first national U.S. pop hit record in 1953.

Rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s meant a rebellious, sometimes even violent lifestyle, bad attitude and danger, even before ‘Rock Around the Clock’. In America, bad-boy followers of rock ‘n’ roll were working class youths, mainly white or Hispanic, called greasers, weaned on African-American vocal harmony that had its roots in the 1940s. In Britain they were teddy boys, teds for short, originally into American jump blues, R&B, and even jazz. Bill Haley and Haley’s Comets’ ‘Crazy Man Crazy’ in 1953 would indoctrinate both greasers and teds into rock ‘n’ roll. What they also shared was an in-your-face hairstyle that said trouble: greased back hair with a sculptured quiff above the forehead, like an early Elvis or James Dean, hair dovetailing into a duck’s ass or arse (DA) at the back of the head. American greasers, into motorcycles or hotrods, wore jeans and black leather jackets. Some carried switchblades but they fought mainly with fists and feet. Guns were used more sparingly in those days. Greasers were, without doubt, inspired by the infamous 1953 film, ‘The Wild One’, its plot based on the real-life 1947 biker rampage through the Californian town of Hollister. Photographs of the carnage in the influential U.S. magazine ‘Life’ shocked America, but inspired The Hell’s Angels to form the following year. Marlon Brando’s portrayal in the film as the black leather-jacketed leader of The Black Rebels Motorcycle Club provoked worldwide interest in motorcycle gangs. Scandalous for its day, ‘The Wild One’ remained banned in the UK until 1968. Rock ‘n’ roll was still simmering under the radar when the movie was shot, therefore ‘The Wild One’ had a jazz soundtrack. Jazz was still associated with criminality and wild behavior in 1953, before gaining respectability when rock ‘n’ roll came along. Even so, before ‘The Wild One’ was released in December 1953, American television viewers had their first national taste of rock ‘n’ roll. In October 1953, Bill Hayley’s ‘Crazy Man Crazy’ was the soundtrack of the TV play ‘Glory in the Flower’, starring an unknown James Dean, greaser quiff and all. 

Rock Myth 3. 1953’s ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’ was the first white rock ‘n’ roll record.

Before his first national chart success with ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’, Bill Haley enjoyed regional rock ‘n’ roll hits in Chicago and the northeastern USA, with His Saddlemen, his white country band who later became Haley’s Comets. Both hits were covers of black rhythm and blues artists. The earliest and most historically significant was Bill Haley and His Saddlemen’s cover of Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ now celebrated ‘Rocket 88’. This was famously recorded by Ike Turner’s band by Sam Phillips at his Memphis Recording Service studio in March 1951, for the Chess record label. 

Bill Haley and His Saddlemen covered ‘Rocket 88’ in June 1951, becoming the first white group to successfully record rock ‘n’ roll, even if it was only regional success. Haley wasn’t keen on recording the track but did so at the insistence of his producer and owner of Holiday Records in Philadelphia. Dave Miller. On a business trip to the South, Miller told BBC Radio in 1980, he brought home a copy of ‘Rocket 88’ after realizing he could get around America’s racial segregation laws by selling white cover versions of black records in racially-segregated record stores. This was the same modus operandi Sam Phillips had in mind when searching for a white man who sang like a black man. Sam’s white man, of course, was Elvis Presley.

As well as being Bill Haley’s producer and owning Haley’s record label, Dave Miller also owned Radio WPWA in Chester, the radio station that employed Haley as musical director, disc jockey and house bandleader. Haley, who also sold advertising and announced sport and weather, had little choice but to agree to cover the Delta Cats’ record. And it changed his life. Encouraged by the record’s sales, Haley started writing and recording more songs sounding like a combination of rhythm and blues, boogie and rockabilly. Where one genre ends and others begin is academic, isn’t it? And who really knows for sure, anyway? 

Bill Haley and His Saddlemen were quickly becoming the world’s first established white rock ‘n’ roll group. Haley formed His Saddlemen in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he also ran Dave Miller’s radio station. It’s not surprising, then, that the second notable black rhythm and blues band Haley covered was a local Chester act, Jimmy Preston and His Prestonians. By now, Haley and His Saddlemen had been promoted to Miller’s larger Essex record label, and in April, 1952, Miller produced Haley’s cover of Jimmy Preston’s boogie race hit, ‘Rock the Joint’, a hit with black R&B record buyers in 1949. Bill Haley and His Saddlemen’s ‘Rock the Joint’ cover sold over 80,000 copies and even had a review in Billboard on April 26 1952 which described it as, “an odd mixture of country-western (sic) and rhythm and blues”. The success of ‘Rock the Joint’ was the catalyst that persuaded Bill and the Saddlemen to jettison their cowboy hats and cowboy boots, forget about saddles, and change their name to Bill Haley and Haley’s Comets.  

Fact. Bill Haley and Haley’s Comets’ 1951 cover of Rocket 88 was the first successful rock ‘n’ roll record by a white group.

While we’re on the subject of Bill Haley’s ‘Rocket 88’ and ‘Rock the Joint’ covers, let’s explore another obscure, but interesting, rock myth regarding the first rock ‘n’ roll recording by white musicians.

Rock Myth 4. Jimmy Cavallo cut the first white rock ‘n’ roll record in 1951.

A year before Bill Haley and Haley’s Comets recorded Jimmy Preston’s 1949 race hit, ‘Rock the Joint’, the track is said to have earlier been covered in 1951 by another white rock group, Jimmy Cavallo and His House Rockers. From the city of Syracuse in New York State, Cavallo’s House Rockers are believed to be the first white band to play Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, in 1956. Jimmy Cavallo and His House Rockers also featured in two early rock ‘n’ roll films, ‘Rock, Rock, Rock’ in 1956 with Alan Freed, Connie Francis and Chuck Berry, and 1959’s ‘Go, Johnny, Go’, again starring Alan Freed and Chuck Berry, along with Eddie Cochran, Ritchie Valens and Jackie Wilson.

Jimmy Cavallo and His House Rockers covered ‘Rock the Joint’ on the tiny home-based BSD label in New York State 1951. But this record hardly sold and there’s no hard evidence it was actually recorded in 1951. Some experts think this is yet another rock myth and it was recorded as late as 1955. We know for sure Bill Haley and His Saddlemen covered ‘Rocket 88’ in June 1951 and the record sold reasonably well. We can’t be sure when Jimmy Cavallo and His House Rockers covered ‘Rock the Joint’ and, even if it was in 1951, was it in the five months before Haley record in June or in the six months after Haley recorded ‘Rocket 88’? Even the numbers are on Bill Haley’s side. Nevertheless, Jimmy Cavallo and His House Rockers certainly rate alongside Bill Haley and His Saddlemen as two of rock’s earliest known white bands. You’ll be pleased to hear Jimmy Cavallo was still playing rock ‘n’ roll on his alto sax aged 92 in 2018, although he unfortunately died in 2019, aged 93.

It must be noted that black artists, with rhythm and blues music, sounding virtually identical to rock ‘n’ roll to my ears, had featured in Billboard’s R&B chart since its inception in 1948, although not in Billboard’s national pop singles chart. Significantly, one of the places Haley’s ‘Rock The Joint’ cover did well in 1952 was in Cleveland, Ohio, where local radio DJ Alan Freed was already calling such rocking blues discs, and rhythm and blues records, rock ‘n’ roll. More about Alan Freed’s contribution to rock ‘n’ roll soon.

Fact. Bill Haley and Haley’s Comets’ 1951 track Rocket 88 was the first verified rock ‘n’ roll record by a white group.

Pete Johnson’s ‘Rocket 88 Boogie Parts One and Two’, was a tribute to the Oldsmobile 88 above, the fastest road car in the USA when launched in 1949. Here’s Bill Haley’s version above.

Rock Myth 5. Rocket 88 was the first rock ‘n’ roll record.

Some usually dependable sources still maintain Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats’ ‘Rocket 88’ to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record. This myth was manipulated, I suspect, by that canny self-promoter and astute Sun record company owner, Sam Phillips. In March 1951, 28-year-old Sam Phillips produced ‘Rocket 88’ in Memphis, Tennessee, with the Kings of Rhythm, a band led by a precocious 19-year-old black multi-instrumentalist, Ike Turner[4]. Turner also hustled as a local talent scout, having already introduced unknowns to Phillips, including Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Bobby Bland, who cut their first discs at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Studio, forerunner to his Sun Studios. 

Sam Phillips marketed ‘Rocket 88’ as a record by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats, Jackie Brenston, being a 21-year-old singer and saxophonist in Ike’s Kings of Rhythm. Brenston sang lead vocals and is credited as composer.

Nearly 30 years later, Jackie Brenston was upfront about basing ‘Rocket 88’ on ‘Cadillac Boogie’a track recorded by Jimmy Liggins, singer, guitarist and leader of His Drops of Joy band in 1947. As Brenston told Living Blues magazine founder, Jim O’Neal, in an interview in 1980:

“I come up with Rocket 88 because I had been doing a thing Jimmy Liggins had did some years ago called Cadillac Boogie. So, if you listen to the two, you’ll find out they’re both basically the same. The words are just changed.” Jackie Brenston talking to Jim O’Neal for Living Blues magazine, Spring 1980.

‘Rocket 88’ was also influenced by a two-sided instrumental boogie woogie piano disc, called ‘Rocket 88 Boogie Part One’ on one side and Rocket 88 Boogie Part Two’ on the other. They were recorded in Los Angeles in 1949, by the celebrated Kansas City pianist, Pete Johnson. You can clearly hear Johnson’s boogie woogie melody in Ike Turner’s piano playing. In a wonderful example of how musical influences are handed down through the eras, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest icons, Little Richard, said he copied Ike’s ‘Rocket 88’ piano introduction, note-for-note, on his 1956 classic, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’, released in 1958.[5] Creativity in music, as in everything, is always about borrowing (or stealing) from other sources. As Pablo Picasso (and others) have said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. 

Jackie Brenston obviously had motors on the mind when he put new lyrics to ‘Cadillac Boogie’s’ tune to create ‘Rocket 88’. The title, unashamedly taken from Pete Johnson’s ‘Rocket 88 Boogie Parts One and Two’, was a tribute to the Oldsmobile 88, the fastest road car in the USA when launched in 1949. Powered by a V8 engine, the Rocket 88 is generally considered to be America’s first muscle car. Here are the first few verses. You couldn’t write a better advertising jingle for Oldsmobile if you tried.

“You woman have heard of jalopies
You heard the noise they make
Let me introduce you to my Rocket ’88
Yes, it’s great, just won’t wait
Everybody likes my Rocket ’88
Baby, we’ll will ride in style moving all along

Instrumental break

V8 motor and this modern design
Black convertible top and the girls don’t mind
Sporting with me, riding all around town for joy

(Spoken) Blow your horn, rocket, blow your horn

Saxophone break

Step in my rocket and don’t be late
We’re pulling out about a half past eight
Going on the corner and having some fun
Takin’ my rocket on a long, hot run
Ooh, going out, oozing and cruising and having fun.” Rocket 88 lyrics by Jackie Brenston

Although ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats sold half a million copies and topped Billboard’s R&B chart in 1951, Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm (including Brenston) were each paid a paltry $20 for their contribution, according to Tina Turner in her 1986 autobiography, ‘I Tina: My Life Story’. Tina also wrote that Jackie Brenston sold the song’s rights to Sam Phillips for $910. As mentioned, Sam was a canny operator. After recording rock ‘n’ roll legends like Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins in the mid-fifties, it served Sam Phillips well to be thought of as rock ‘n’ roll’s first record producer. And, as an example of just how subjective the defining of musical genres can be, here’s a quote about ‘Rocket 88’ and rock ‘n’ roll from Ike Turner.

“I don’t think that ‘Rocket 88’ is rock ‘n’ roll. I think that ‘Rocket 88’ is R&B, but I think ‘Rocket 88’ is the cause of rock and roll existing … Sam Phillips got Dewey Phillips* to play ‘Rocket 88’ on his program – and this is like the first black record to be played on a white radio station – and, man, all the white kids broke out to the record shops to buy it. So that’s when Sam Phillips got the idea, “Well, man, if I get me a white boy to sound like a black boy, then I got me a gold mine”, which is the truth. So, that’s when he got Elvis and he got Jerry Lee Lewis and a bunch of other guys and so they named it rock and roll rather than R&B and so this is the reason I think rock and roll exists – not that ‘Rocket 88’ was the first one, but that was what caused the first one.” Ike Turner, from Canadian radio host Holger Peterson’s 2011 book, Talking Music.

*Memphis radio disc jockey, Dewey Phillips, started playing black R&B on air in 1949, around the same time as Alan Freed did in Akron, Ohio. With his friend Sam Phillips, no relation, Dewey founded the short-lived Phillips Record Label in 1950. We will put Ike Turner’s claim that ‘Rocket 88’ was the “cause” of rock ‘n’ roll to rest in the next post, when we’ll list My Top 20 Prototype Rock ‘n’ Roll Records Preceding Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Fact. Rocket 88 was based on two earlier prototype rock ‘n’ roll releases.

Collectively, through the 1950s, in the wake of Bill Haley and His Comets, America’s first wave of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers assaulted pop charts throughout the Americas, Europe and the English-speaking world with pulsating rhythm and blues, repackaged as rock ‘n’ roll. Based on the 12-bar chord progressions of African-American blues, this music had long been around under various names, before gaining traction as rock ‘n’ roll. Everybody knows about icons like Elvis the Pelvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but what about the first of the first, the band who started it all, Bill Haley and His Comets?

Surprisingly, regarding the youth of their target market, all were well into their 30s when they hit the big time. As the first band to take rock ‘n’ roll to the masses in 1955, for a time they had no rivals, having a dozen hits in just a handful of years. Yet, Bill Haley and His Comets are no longer regarded as the foremost rock ‘n’ roll crusaders. No wonder Haley became bitter in his later years about the lack of recognition. He wasn’t even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until seven years after his death aged 55. 

Today, it seems, Bill Haley and His Comets are totally under-rated, because as Bruce Eder writes on the authoritative allmusic.com website:

“The Comets were one of the best rock & roll bands of their era, with a mostly sax-driven sound ornamented with heavy rhythm guitar from Haley, a slap-bass, and drumming with lots of rim-shots; they had the “blackest” sound of any white band working in 1953-1955.” Bruce Eder allmusic.com

It says much about Bill Haley’s musicianship that he taught his guitar player, Marshall Lytle, to play slap bass. Born blind in one eye in Michigan, in 1925, Bill Haley was a shy boy who moved with his family to Boothwyn, near Chester, Pennsylvania, aged about 10. He left home and school aged 14 to try his luck in music, first recording in 1944 with Indiana-based country and western group, the Downhomers. After various other bands, Bill returned to Chester, forming the Four Aces of Western Swing with future Comets, Johnny Grande and Billy Williamson, at the same time working for a local radio station.

Were the Four Aces of Western Swing first to combine country and western music with rhythm and blues? According to Haley, they were playing such music as early as 1947.    

“The style we played in 1947, 1948 and 1949 was a combination of country and western, Dixieland jazz and old-style rhythm and blues. Bill Haley, interviewed on the American Forces Network in 1962.

In 1949, the Four Aces of Western Swing became Bill Haley and The Saddlemen. Around 1950, they began incorporating the flamboyant stage antics of black R&B bands like the Treniers, with whom they played summer shows in rock ‘n’ roll incubator towns like Wildwood on the New Jersey coast. Formed by identical twins Claude and Cliff Trenier out of Mobile, Alabama, ‘The Rockin’ Rollin’ Treniers’ as they were billed, were later joined by two more brothers and a nephew. The Treniers’ highly visual stage routine involved raucous hand-clapping, choreographed dancing and original stage movement that strongly influenced not only Bill Haley and His Saddlemen in the USA but, later, in 1950s England, Cliff Richard and the Shadows. As the Treniers’ sax player, Don Hill once remembered:

“Bill Haley was working a place across the street (in Westwood). The Treniers came to town, and he said, ‘I gotta go over there and see what those guys are doing’. He loved The Treniers, and he formed his act like The Treniers.” Treniers’ saxophonist Don Hill. Source: Deke Dickerson, pleasekillme.com June 12 2019.

‘He (Bill Haley) just kept coming over and sitting there. Just listening, watching, to see if he could pick up the idea of how to do what we were doing. We were very good friends. Some of the guys in (Haley’s) band would stop by. We just knew each other as people.” Treniers’ vocalist Milt Trenier. Source: Deke Dickerson, pleasekillme.com June 12 2019.

Even more under-rated and forgotten than Bill Haley’s Comets, the Treniers were instrumental in linking 1940s swing and jump blues to create early prototype rock ‘n’ roll with their squealing sax solos, strong back beats and stage acrobatics. Bill Haley’s saxophonist, Joey D’Ambrosio, once said: “They were, still are, one of my favorite groups of all time – the Treniers”. 

Across America, rocking black music was merging with rocking white music as the 1940s became the 1950s. The blues was rocking, turning electric. As early as 1943, Billboard magazine started describing such spirited ‘race’ music as ‘rhythm and blues’, renaming its Harlem Hit Parade in 1949 the Billboard R&B chart. Country music and Western swing were rocking. Bill Haley and His Saddlemen were pioneering rockabilly. It would all come to a head in 1955, when Bill Haley and His Comets topped the Billboard pop chart. That Saturday, white America sat up and noticed a brand new style of music. The kids were calling it rock ‘n’ roll. It was June 9 1955. Ground Zero. As far as most of white America and the world were concerned, the launching of rock ‘n’ roll started on this day.


[1] Bill Haley’s band was a pun on that most famous of all comets, Halley’s Comet (pronounced like Haley), visible from Earth roughly every 75 years.

[2] In the vinyl era, a single was a seven-inch 45 rpm record with a track on each side, played on a record-player or gramophone. The A-side was generally the track promoted by the record company to hopefully get media coverage, especially radio plays. The B-side was like a bonus song. Some B-sides were so good they became hits in their own right. Others were less important or less commercial songs.

[3] The quiff, the roll of swept back hair, worn high on foreheads of rebellious young men in the 1950s, resembled the female pompadour style of World War Two. The quiff is said to have been a reaction to the severe military haircuts of that era.  

[4] One of rock ‘n’ roll’s unsung pioneers, Ike Turner (1931-2007) is probably not mentioned much because of the way he abused his wife, Tina Turner. A multi-instrumentalist who played piano and lead guitar with the best of them, Ike was also producer, composer, arranger, bandleader and talent scout. In 1949, he introduced B.B. King to Modern Records, and recorded Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland there in 1951. Also in 1951, Ike took Howlin’ Wolf to record with Sam Phillips. Ike Turner led the highly-rated R&B act, the Ike and Tina Turner Review, during the 1960s and 1970s. He won five Grammy Awards.

[5] From the 1999 autobiography, Taking Back My Name: The Confessions of Ike Turner.

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