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The Controversy Behind Rock Around the Clock

The Controversy Behind Rock Around the Clock

If you need an introduction to how it all began, just put on Rock Around The Clock.

This song sonically personifies how rock and roll started in the uptight decade of the 50s. Although this hit is credited as the genre’s first anthem, history has overlooked its singers.

So who wrote this genre-defining tune, and what’s with all the fuss?

Let’s find out!

Who Originally Wrote Rock Around the Clock?

Two Philadelphia composers wrote Rock Around The Clock in 1953. James Meyers grew up hearing his mother and father play musical instruments around the house. After World War II, he became a record publisher and country songwriter.

Similarly, Max Freedman established himself in the music industry before penning Rock Around The Clock. Freedman worked in radio in the 40s and was an accomplished songwriter before he began working with Meyers. 

Freedman joined as Meyers worked on the tune in the office in late 1952. Freedman suggested using the word dance instead of rock, but fortunately, Meyers stuck to his guns. 

Who First Recorded Rock Around the Clock?

Freedman and Meyers were fans of Bill Haley and finished Rock Around the Clock with him in mind. But Haley’s record label manager, Dave Miller, hated Meyers. So he refused to work with them. It was not a good business move.

Consequently, Meyers and Freedman shopped it to the novelty band Sonny Dae and His Knights. The group played regularly on a Virginia country radio show. But they were relatively unknown. So when Meyers pitched the track, they recorded and released it in one day.

Unfortunately, few took notice after the song’s debut on March 20th, 1954.

Who Made Rock Around the Clock a Hit?

While the Essex label manager was busy throwing a hissy fit about working with Meyers, Bill Haley and his Comets kept playing Rock Around The Clock live. Haley then left Essex and signed with Decca Records in the spring of 1954.

Bill Haley came from a working-class family of musicians in Detroit. By age eighteen, Haley formed his first country band, Down Homers. He lived the life of a starving artist until he made his dreams come true in the early 50s. 

Although Haley had recorded dozens of singles, it was his 1953 tune Crazy Man, Crazy which made history. It was the first rock and roll song to rank in the American charts. Budding singers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly were taking notice. If Haley were alive today, he would be an influencer will millions of followers.

Haley’s musical style and vocal deliverance made Rock Around The Clock a hit. The song was #1 on the 1955 pop charts for eight weeks. It also hit high in the UK, Australia, and Germany. The Comet’s version made music history.

So, What Was the Controversy with Rock Around the Clock?

Before Bill Haley and the Comets, rock music didn’t get much airplay. African-American musicians like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard played a similar style since the late 40s. But most of white America wasn’t ready to listen.

So when Rock Around the Clock hit #1 worldwide, it struck a nerve. Young people worldwide were on edge after World War II and needed a release. Riots broke out at gigs in Germany when Haley played the song.

1000 Princeton University students simultaneously played the single on May 17th, 1955. This infuriated school officials, who were already excited by the controversial film Blackboard Jungle. The movie featured two songs by Haley and was banned in some cities for being immoral.

Who Else Has Covered the Hit?

Over 200 artists have covered Rock Around the Clock. But we’ve found two notable versions that are worth a listen and one that’s an interesting atrocity.

Ringo Starr

World-famous drummer Ringo Starr released a modern-day cover of Rock Around the Clock in the fall of 2021. It features the former Beatle on vocals and drums, with Joe Walsh on guitar. The song uses modern synth effects to give it a smooth yet poppy feel. And you can hum along with the backup singers.

Starr still remembers the first time he heard the tune. His grandparents took him to a screening of Blackboard Jungle. And guess what? The crowd ripped up the theater when the song came on!

Chubby Checker

Chubby Checker’s rendition of Rock Around the Clock capitalizes on his chart-topping cover of The Twist. He established fame by getting people to twist and doo-wop together in 1960. So he kept the smooth pop moves flowing. His delivery is upbeat but much less aggressive than Haley’s. 

Rock Around the Clock is the last track on Chubby Checker’s 1962 album, For Twisters Only.

The Sex Pistols 

This cover of Rock Around the Clock isn’t by The Sex Pistols you know and love. It’s the bastard offspring created by their notorious manager, Malcolm McLaren.

The Sex Pistols managed to scream out one album before they broke up. The Great Rock and Roll Swindle was meant to be their second. But singer Johnny Rotten left before McLaren decided to release it. So they used a bunch of other vocalists instead.

This version features Edward Tudor Pole on the mic. Avoid it at all costs.

Is There a Book About Bill Haley?

Bill Haley Jr co-wrote Crazy Man, Crazy with writer Peter Benjaminson. The book chronicles his father’s life story of highs and lows. It’s a deep dive into his personal life, as well as his music. And although it’s not a story with a happy ending, its honesty makes it worth a read.

Backbeat Books published Crazy Man, Crazy in 2019

This Historic Track Still Makes Us Move

Rock Around The Clock introduced the world to rock and roll. The movement inspired some of the most iconic bands in history. But it wasn’t without controversy. Although it was Freedman and Meyers’ lyrics that brought rock to the mainstream, it was Bill Haley who got us to listen.

Bill Haley and the Comets concerts started riots. Maybe he was simply singing about dancing. Or perhaps he was implying a romance that rubbed against the morals of the time. Either way, it was the sound of changing landscape.

What’s your favorite version of the song? Let us know in the comments!

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