Chris Gardner's Bill Haley Gallery
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Bill Haley Central

 

"What was the first rock n roll record" is one of those unanswerable questions. And whilst it is impossible to answer, it doesn't stop it being asked. While one possible response is "Who cares? - let's just enjoy the music", whenever an attempt is made to answer the question, one name arises more than any other - that of Bill Haley. And if we had to identify one Bill Haley record above all others, which was the elusive "first rock and roll record" we would probably choose Rock the Joint, which was recorded 50 years ago this month, March 2002.

On this page of the Bill Haley gallery we concentrate on the year 1952, the year "it all came together" for Bill.

Winter

As 1952 opens we find Bill still recording for Holiday Records and still working as DJ at Radio Station WPWA. For live appearances he and his band, The Saddlemen, command a fee of about $100 a night. After an unsuccessful Christmas release (judging by how rare the record now is) he records his last single for Holiday Records, Jukebox Cannonball b/w Sundown Boogie. In February 1952 Country Song Round Up provides a report which shows how firmly Haley was still rooted in the Hillbilly music scene, despite the fact that he had recorded Rocket '88' the year before:-

"shovin out to Chester, let's tune in to Radio Station WPWA where Billy Haley and his clan are heard. Bill always wanted to be a folk artist and took every possible opportunity to appear in public. Finally Cousin Lee gave him a chance to sing on the radio and he proved his ability to hundreds of listeners that day. Today that voice is a familiar part of each broadcasting day and is welcome in every home within listening distance of WPWA. Prior to this spot, he worked with the Down Homers in Hartford, Conn., but decided to come home to try out a new station in Chester. He organised an outfit called "The Saddlemen and in November of 1947, he led his crew right into the star's spot on WPWA. And if public demands are anything to go by, he's going to remain a permanent fixture there."

Haley keeps his "day job"

In 1952, Bill was still working as a DJ on Radio Station WPWA (pictured left). It was while working at the Station that he first came across the R&B song Rock the Joint, which was used as the theme music for a show ("Judge Rhythm's Court" hosted by a DJ called Jim Reeves) which preceded his own show on WPWA.

The first recording on Rock the Joint was by Jimmy Preston and the Prestonians, and had been released on the Gotham label in 1949. The first white cover version, in 1951, was by Jimmy Cavallo, leader of one of the first, if not the first white R&B band.

Haley himself was to record it in March 1952.

Pointing the way...

Pictured left is the historic first release of Rock the Joint on Essex records. In at least two ways this song pointed the way to the future for Bill and the Saddlemen. Firstly, it featured local guitarist Danny Cedrone, a good and much-admired friend of Bill's. Danny used one of his "trademark "solos on this recording, and two years later, when the Comets were in New York for the recording of Rock Around the Clock, it was Marshall Lytle who suggested that Cedrone should use the same solo, which in the process became one of the classic guitar solos of all time. Secondly, songwriter Max Freedman, who wrote Rock Around the Clock in 1953, clearly had Rock the Joint in mind when he wrote his all-time classic song.

Press reaction

Rock the Joint was probably recorded in March 1952 and released April. Initially the 'b' side, Rock the Joint was soon moved to the 'a' side when it became obvious that all the action was for Joint rather than Icy Heart. Cashbox rated it as "Bullseye of the Week", but Billboard was not so enthusiastic, calling it an "odd mixture" of Country and Western and Rhythm and Blues, although admitting that it does generate a "sense of excitement".

Jack Howard and Bill Haley took off on a personal "nationwide" tour of hillbilly DJs, travelling by auto and visiting DJs in each of the towns they passed through.

On April 8th, Haley signed a two-year recording deal with Dave Miller's Palda Records, and the ensuing recordings were issued on Miller's Essex Records label.

Cavallo or Haley?

Who made the first rock 'n' roll record - was it Jimmy Cavallo or Bill Haley? Does it really matter? One thing to bear in mind is that whereas Cavello's record sounds black, and is essentially a copy of the black original, Haley's is unmistakeably "white". It's a fusion of styles rather than a copy. And if Rock 'n' Roll is anything at all, it is a fusion of the black and white influences. Later, when Haley was much bigger, he had a massive "crossover" hit with Dim, Dim the Lights as if to prove that he was indeed the man who brought together R&B and Country and Western and fused it into rock 'n' roll.

Let's not forget Jimmy Cavallo, though. Although he did make the odd appearance in rock n roll feature films, he never made it big. But he was there, with Haley, back when it counted, and there was no-one else doing the same thing.Listen to Jimmy Cavallo's wild version of Rock the Joint

Summer residencies

On 3rd July 1952 Bill and the Saddlemen started a 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off residency at the Shelter Haven Hotel, Stone Harbour, New Jersey, playing 6 nights a week and earning $500 a week. This photo of Bill and Marshall Lytle, fresh from a fishing trip, was probably taken then.

Bill's birthday on 6th July was marked by their Fan Club President, Ruth Kayser baking a large birthday cake with 25 candles (though it was in fact his 27th birthday)

Another monthly spot they had at this time was at the Circle A Ranch, Deer Park, New Jersey, where they played Sundays' earning $100 a throw.

Summers by the sea

Here is a picture which dates either from 1952 or very early 1953, before the Comets had added a drummer for their stage performances. It was taken at the Hofbrau, in Wildwood, New Jersey, a regular venue for the Comets' in the Summer in 1952, 1953 and 1954.

These annual Summer residencies were heaven for Bill, who kept a boat at Wildwood and enjoyed sea fishing. He would regularly take members of the band or other visiting musicians out for a spot of fishing; Johnny Mathis for example was a guest in 1956, and in 1954 Marshall and Bill made the local news headlines when their boat broke down and they had to be rescued by the coastguard.

Wildwood was also the place where Bill made the acquaintance of the Trenier Brothers, for whom he wrote Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie.

Affairs of the heart

Another major event which occurred in the Summer was Bill meeting the future Mrs Haley. Bill had spotted Joan Barbara ("Cuppy") Cupchak in the audience that Summer and had asked his accordion player, Johnny Grande, to make the introduction. At that time Bill was married to Dorothy (nee Crowe) and had two small children, Sharyn Anne and Jack, back home. Their "on/off" relationship finally came to an end on 14th November, when they divorced after Bill had announced that he and Cuppy were expecting a baby. Bill and Cuppy married on 18th November in Camden New Jersey. Picture at right is a painting of Bill and Cuppy on their arrival in Southampton for the famous tour of the UK in February 1957. Cuppy is holding one of the koala bears Bill brought back from his Australian trip in the New Year of 1957.

The Saddlemen go into orbit

In November 1952, Bill and his men realise that their future is not as a cowboy band but as something a bit more sophisticated. Out go the stetsons and in come the bow ties. Dressed in matching suits, but non-matching bow ties (as they couldn't afford a matching set) the first photo of Bill Haley and His Comets (or Bill Haley with Haley's Comets, as they were styled on the Essex releases of the day) appears on the sheet music for Stop Beatin' 'Round the Mulberry Bush, which was released on Essex Records with Real Rock Drive in November 1952.

This record was notable also because it was the first recording on which the band used a drummer, believed to have been Billy Gussak. Until then, the band had depended on Marshall Lytle, who told Bass Player magazine in 2000, "Before we had drums, I was practically the whole rhythm section. Since we didn't have any amplification, I slapped it so hard the neck had big grooves in it. Bill liked it loud, so he'd scream, 'Play loud!'"

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."

Back to the Contents Page of the gallery

 

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