The Real King of Rock ‘n Roll

September 01, 2017

Originally posted Jun 04, 2015

 

Last week at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame awards, one of the presenters spoke reverently of Elvis Presley as the man who “started the whole thing.” That’s impressive, and think how impressive it would be if it were actually true.

Though the Wright Brothers were the first persons to fly a powered airplane in the U.S.A., and Henry Ford the first to sell automobiles at a price that almost everyone could afford, you don’t ever hear either of them being credited with being the inventor of the car or the airplane. That’s because at the time that Ford and the Wrights accomplished admittedly signal achievements in the development of powered automobiles and powered flight, there were individuals and groups all over the world working on exactly the same technologies. Figuring out who was actually the very first person to drive a car or fly an airplane would be impossible and probably doesn’t really make much difference. It’s the same with rock ‘n roll.

If we have to identify who “started the whole thing” most folks who were alive at the time would point to Bill Haley of the group Bill Haley and the Comets. I so vividly remember sitting in the long ago razed Lincoln Theater on a summer afternoon in 1955 ready to see the movie, “The Blackboard Jungle.” Suddenly, the black screen came to light with that driving opening, “One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock”. I’d never heard music like that before, and for me and millions of other kids looking for a musical alternative to Perry Como, the world of music changed forever, just like that. And Rock Around the Clock made it to number one on the pop charts a full year before Elvis got there with “Heartbreak Hotel,” the number that introduced him to kids everywhere.

But like with Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers, when Bill Haley and the Comets changed their name from Bill Haley and the Saddlemen and fused rhythm and blues (which in much of the south was still known as “race music”) with country western or western swing (if you prefer) to come up with rockabilly or rock ‘n roll, there were other folks out there who were also working on the same venue, including Elvis, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, and Jerry Lee Lewis to name but a few.

They all had their breakthrough hits, and Elvis ultimately would become a bigger star and major figure in American music than Haley or any of the rest. But Rock Around the Clock’s nationwide exposure in Blackboard Jungle gave it the instant and universal national recognition that took it right to the top of the pop charts, made it the anthem for a fifties generation, and brought rock ‘n roll into the mainstream of American culture.

Haley, who had a more-or-less chronic problem with alcohol, died relatively young, and to the end of his life argued that it was he, and not Elvis, who had “started the whole thing.” And if it came down to just the two of them, he was right.

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