It was recorded in two takes in half an hour, languishing for over a year as the B side of “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town).” But when Blackboard Jungle, a then-edgy film about high school hoodlums, played “Rock Around the Clock” over its opening credits, the song swiftly became a hit.
Bill Haley and His Comets’ infectious rock anthem became the No. 1 song in the country 55 years ago today, the first rock ’n’ roll song to make it to the top of the charts. Kids danced in the aisles of theaters when they heard it blaring over the speakers, and the song provoked rioting here and in Europe.
Since then, more than 500 artists have recorded the tune, from accordionist Myron Floren to the Sex Pistols. James Myers, who with Max Freedman wrote the song, once estimated that it sold 100 million copies.
“It would have been impossible to know that Haley’s number one single created a dividing line between all that came before and all that followed,” music historian Fred Bronson wrote in The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. “It was the beginning of the rock era.”
Marshall Lytle is the sole surviving member of the original Comets. “I’m still rockin’ around the clock,” an exuberant Lytle told the AARP Bulletin from his home in Branson, Mo. He will be 77 in September.
Lytle and his family moved from North Carolina to Chester, Pa., in 1942, where Tex King, a guitar player in a band known as Bill Haley and the Four Aces of Western Swing, rented a room from Lytle’s mother. King taught Lytle to play the guitar and introduced him to Haley, whom he idolized. In late 1951, Haley approached him about replacing his bass player, who had just quit, but Lytle protested that he was a guitar player, not a bass player.
“Go down and buy you a bass this afternoon and come on to work with me tonight,” Haley persisted, adding that he could teach him to play it in half an hour. The transition to bass was easy, Lytle said, once he visualized the bass as just a big guitar missing two strings. He jumped into playing five shows a night with the band, then known as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. The Saddlemen were Billy Williamson, Johnny Grande and Lytle. In late 1952, at the suggestion of the program manager at a radio station where Haley had a show, the band changed its name.
“So we took the cowboy clothes off, put on suits and bow ties, and we became Bill Haley’s Comets,” Lytle recalled in Still Rockin’ Around the Clock, his memoir.
The band grew to include Joey Ambrose on sax and Dick Richards on drums. In 1954, after one rehearsal, they recorded “Rock Around the Clock.” After it became a hit the following year, Ambrose, Richards and Lytle, then earning $175 a week, asked Haley for a $50 raise.