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1951 Oldsmobile Rocket 88

1951 to 1954 was the period during which things really started happening for Bill and his band - first the Saddlemen and then as they became known from 1952 on, the Comets. These were the years that they literally invented Rock 'n' Roll. Once Bill Haley and the Comets had recorded "Rock Around the Clock" on 12th April 1954, the World would never again be quite the same...

Many people do not realise that "Rock Around the Clock" was much more than just a "flash in the pan" as many later historians would have us believe. Bill Haley and the Comets had already had a major national hit with "Crazy Man Crazy" in 1953, and they had also recorded what are now acknowledged as the earliest Rock 'n' Roll records, such as "Rocket '88'" (1951) and "Rock the Joint" (1952). Remember that this was years before a young man named Elvis Presley had even thought of venturing into a recording studio...

Sit back with us as we tell the story of these years with rare photos and rare sound recordings, many of which have not been commercially available for the last 50 years....
Here's a picture of the Saddlemen on stage. Possibly the earliest photo we have of the Saddlemen as it shows Big Al Thompson on the bass. On the left, almost completely out of picture, is Billy Williamson on steel guitar. Johnny Grande is on accordion, Bill Haley at the microphone. Marshall Lytle still has in his possession silent film footage of The Saddlemen on stage.

Photo courtesey Denise Gregoire/Johnny Grande

The Saddlemen on stage
The Saddlemen An early shot of The Saddlemen, showing (l. to r.) Al Rex (bass), Billy Williamson (steel guitar), Bill Haley, Johnny Grande (accordion). An interesting shot because it shows the band breaking away from the cowboy image. Sharp suits and ties, but still the stetson hats.

Official publicity photo, courtesey Denise Gregoire

Another interesting shot, again of the early Saddlemen line up, showing Bill in the sharp suit, but the rest of the band still as cowboys.l. to r. are Johnny Grande, Billy Williamson, Al Rex and Bill. It's pretty obvious that Bill is the leader, and very conscious of his appearance. In those days, it was no problem being photographed with a cigarette in your hand, and they all with the exception of Billy, appear to be smoking.

Photo courtesey Johnny Grande/Denise Gregoire

The Saddlemen
The Saddlemen in colour We must thank Johnny Grande for this fascinating colour photo (greatly enhanced by Denise Gregoire), taken at the Twin Bars, 4th and Market Streets in Gloucester, N.J. The band have gone back to the cowboy image, or maybe this was a shot taken in "civvies" before they actually went on stage. The Twin Bars was the place where Rock 'n' Roll music was born. Originally booked in as a "cowboy jive band", the Saddlemen earned a long residency there, and began to introduce covers of r 'n' b originals into their act. Marshall replaced Al Rex on bass. Al had left the Saddlemen to pursue his solo singing career. In hindsight this must have seemed to be not the best career move he ever made, but his chance came again in September 1955 when it was Marshall's turn to leave, and Al returned to the Haley fold.

Photo courtesey Johnny Grande/Denise Gregoire

A signed publicity photo of the later Saddlemen line up. Once again, unafraid of being seen smoking. At the back (l. to r.) are Marshall, Billy and Johnny, while Bill crouches at the front.

Musically speaking, at this time, Bill is coming very much under the spell of the great Hank Williams. In 1974 he described Hank as "one of the greatest men that ever lived in the business.", and told BBC Radio's Brian Matthew "I don't think there's ever been a man who in such a short space of time wrote so many great songs. The World would have been a much better place if Hank would have stayed with us."

Photo from the Ebay auction site

The Saddlemen - signed photo
Lou Graham on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville A regular guest performer with The Saddlemen in 1951 was local Hank Williams imitator, Lou Graham, described on Saddlemen posters as an "added extra attraction for outdoor dates". Here he is photographed on stage, without the Saddlemen, at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Photo courtesey Marshall Lytle

One of the Saddlemen's releases on the Holiday label. "Sundown Boogie" on Holiday 113. This was recorded in early 1952, and musically things are really beginning to cook. Again, it features Danny Cedrone on lead guitar, but it shows the band moving on from the Hank Williams kick into country boogie. It would only be one small step more to pure Rock 'n' Roll...

Label scan from Denise Gregoire

Label Scan - Holiday 113
The WPWA building A shot of Radio Station WPWA, where Bill worked between 1948 and 1952 as a DJ. It was here that he first started to hear what was then called "race" music on a programme called "Judge Rhythm's Court". The first "race" record to be covered by Bill and the Saddlemen was Jackie Brenston's "Rocket '88'". The remarkable thing about Bll's recording is that he makes no attempt to turn it into a white record. Bill later recalled that in publicising the record, Dave Miller, who owned Holiday Records, issued no publicity photos of the band at all because he wanted the audience to believe they were black. And, can anyone tell us - was this the first time that anyone slapped a bass like this?

Photo courtesey David Hirschberg

In April 1952, Bill and the Saddlemen made a record which was pure rock 'n' roll, and undisputedly the FIRST genuine rock 'n' roll record ever made. This was "Rock the Joint", initially put out as the 'b' side to a conventional country weepy called "Icy Heart". It soon outsold the 'a' side and became a minor hit.

Label scan courtesey Denise Gregoire

Label Scan - Essex 303
In April 1953, "Bill Haley with Haley's Comets" had their first national top twenty hit record, a song written by Bill and Marshall (though credited only to Bill, to Marshall's everlasting regret), "Crazy Man, Crazy". To create this song, Bill and Marshall had stumbled on a magic formula - all they needed to do was to take a hip phrase being used by the youngsters who formed a major part of their audience - like "crazy man", or a cheerleaders' cry such as "go, go, go", and build a song about it. It didn't matter much about the other lyrics - all you needed was a strong hook and a catchy phrase. This record represented another landmark in musical history - the first rock 'n' roll record which was an original song, and not a cover version. The song was listed by Billboard magazine as the 62nd biggest selling song of 1953. comets53.jpg - 20934 Bytes
Bill Haley's Comets with Charlie Higler A comparatively rare photo of the Comets in late 1953 with their drummer of the time, Charlie Higler. Higler was the first Comets' drummer, and although he toured with the band, he was never used on recordings. For recordings, Bill preferred to use session musicians such as Cliff Leeman, Panama Francis and Billy Gussak. Higler was later replaced by Dick Richards, who was also not used for recording sessions. Richards was replaced in 1955 by Don Raymnd, who was again left out of the recording studio in favour of Cliff Leeman. Raymond's tenure was shortlived and when Ralph Jones joined the band in late 1955, he finally pursuaded Bill that using his own drummer on a record wasn't so bad after all. Jones made his debut on "See You Later Alligator" in December 1955. Apart from Bill top left, the other band members (l. to r.) are Billy Williamson, Charlie Higler, Marshall Lytle and Johnny Grande.

Bill Haley 1951-1954 discography (Holiday and Essex Records).

All these records were issued on 78 and 45rpm discs.

July 1951 Holiday 105 Bill Haley And The Saddlemen Rocket '88' /Tearstains on My Heart
August 1951 Holiday 108 Bill Haley And The Saddlemen Green Tree Boogie/Down Deep In My Heart
December 1951 Holiday 111 Bill Haley And The Saddlemen A Year Ago This Christmas/I Don't Want To Be Alone This Christmas
February 1952 Holiday 113 Bill Haley And The Saddlemen Jukebox Cannonball/Sundown Boogie
April 1952 Essex 303 Bill Haley And The Saddlemen Icy Heart/Rock The Joint
August 1952 Essex 305 Bill Haley And The Saddlemen Dance With A Dolly (With A Hole In Her Stocking)/ Rockin' Chair On The Moon
November 1952 Essex 310 Bill Haley With Haley's Comets Stop Beatin' Around The Mulberry Bush/Real Rock Drive
April 1953 Essex 321 Bill Haley With Haley's Comets Crazy Man, Crazy/What'cha Gonna Do?
July 1953 Essex 327 Bill Haley With Haley's Comets Pat-a-Cake/Fractured
October 1953 Essex 332 Bill Haley With Haley's Comets Live It Up/Farewell, So Long, Goodbye
December 1953 Essex 340 Bill Haley and His Comets I'll Be True/Ten Little Indians
March 1954 Essex 348 Bill Haley And His Comets Chattanooga Choo Choo/Straightjacket

There were more Essex single releases, but they were simply re-issues of earlier recordings. There were also a number of EP's and an LP. For more details of these and all of the other Bill Haley recordings visit Chris Gardner's comprehensive Bill Haley session file and discography.

rollercoasterrccd3001.jpg - 68015 Bytes Drop by my friends at Rollercoaster Records, who sell a fabulous CD which contain almost all of the tracks recorded by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen and Bill Haley and the Comets between 1951 and early 1954. Lovingly digitally remastered by Bob Jones and packaged with an illustrated booklet, this CD is a must for anyone who wants to know more about these important years in the history of Rock 'n' Roll.

classic.jpg - 15546 Bytes Bill says,"Chris has worked very hard on these pages. If you've enjoyed them, please e-mail him, or sign the guest book. Above all, if you have any Bill Haley stories or reminiscences you want to share, please pass them on. If you visit Bill Haley Central you'll find Chris's e-mail address and you can leave an entry in the visitor's book."
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