Sunday, 1 March 2015

The first BIG rock 'n' roll song wasn't "Rock Around the Clock" or "Heartbreak Hotel" - it was...

True, Bill Haley and the Comets recorded and released "Shake, Rattle and Roll" after  "Rock Around the Clock" - but rock 'n' roll's first great anthem only spent a week on the US charts on its initial release, peaking at 23. On the other hand, "Shake, Rattle and Roll", released in August 1954, climbed to No. 7, spent 27 weeks in the top 40, and sold over a million copies. "Rock Around the Clock" had to wait until the release of the Glenn Ford film, Blackboard Jungle, the following year before rocketing to the top of the charts and staying there for seven weeks. 

Underlining "Shake, Rattle and Roll"'s status as the first R&R biggie is the fact that the original version by Big Joe Turner, released in June 1954, also sold a million. It only reached 22 on the main Billboard chart, but hit the top spot on the R&B chart. Turner's version has far dirtier lyrics, and is bluesier and less raucous than Haley's, but is no less magnificent:

Obviously Haley wouldn't have received quite as much airplay had he sung the following verse:
Well you wear those dresses
The sun comes shining through
I can't believe my eyes
All that mess belongs to you
And, in 1954, he probably wouldn't have got away with the bedroom references, talk of saving "your doggone soul" or of "a one-eyed cat peepin' in a seafood store" or of going "over the hill, way down underneath/You make me roll my eyes, then you make me grit my teeth". Must have been one hell of a breakfast!

However, when Elvis Presley's version was released as the A-side to the far superior "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" in 1956, he included all of Joe Turner's sexual references, apart from the "mess" verse quoted above. Perhaps Presley was already too big a star to care (unlikely - this was right at the start of his career), or maybe America was already becoming more permissive (again, this seems unlikely). Or perhaps the unacceptable raunchiness of the lyrics accounts for the fact that Elvis's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" failed to chart - but I imagine it was more to do with the fact that the blaring "excitement" of the track now sounds horribly forced (apart from Scotty Moore's slightly bonkers guitar solo). Contrariwise, Joe Turner used Haley's somewhat more decorous lyrics when being filmed (here).

There have been endless versions of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" since Elvis's flop recording - many of them by some of my favourite artists - but it's one of those songs that seems to have defeated just about everybody since Turner and Haley. The only version that came anywhere close (and, to be honest, not that close) to those great 1954 originals was Arthur Conley's soulled-up 1967 hit single:

Far better than the direct covers were near-contemporaneous recordings which "borrowed" the structure, tune and spirt of the original. Smiley Lewis's "Bumpity Bump" - a sort of catch-all Big Joe Turner rip-off - is particularly good:

Louis Prima (the voice on "I'm the king of the swingers..."), had a sizable hit with"Jump, Jive & Wail" in 1956:

And on the B-side of The Platters' 1955 hit, "Only You", we find this oddly familar-sounding ditty:

That's an awful lot of flattery!

There's a pleasing post-script to the story of rock 'n' roll's first monster hit: Bill Haley and Joe Turner became firm friends when they toured together in the '50s, and Haley helped Turner out when the great blues shouter's career hit the skids in the '60s. 

For no particular reason, I'll leave you with the Bill Haley recording which I reckon marks the point where his brand of Hillbilly Boogie started shading over in rock 'n' roll - 1952's "Rock The Joint", on which Danny Cedrone first tried out the exact same guitar lick with which he would later grace grace "Rock Around the Clock":


  1. Very illuminating - thank you!

    ISTR Shake Rattle and Roll was the first record I ever owned, bought for me by a crazed aunt. Later, her son was responsible for introducing me to the Yardbirds.

    That was the cultured side of the family.

  2. Do you mean introduced you to the Yardbords personally, or to the music?

    Anyway, sounds like a fine upbringing to me. (Was the uncultured side into Mantovani and Max Bygraves?)

    1. Sadly, just the music, but at least it was in the very early days so I got to hear the album with Sonny Boy Williamson.

      Mercifully, I don't believe anyone in my clan was a Max Bygraves fan. My mother might well have listened to Mantovani, though.

    2. My mother, who actually had pretty good musical taste, used to torture us every year by insisting on playing the Ray Coniff Christmas LP in the run-up to the event. That's what I call a rough upbringing.

      The friend of a friend of mine's older brother used to stand in for Keith Relf whenever he was suffering one of his regular bouts of illness. Consequently, I've always felt at home with showbiz royalty.

    3. Oh, but it could have been worse. Do you recall the unmitigated horror that was The Cliff Adams Singers and 'Sing Something Simple?'

    4. I've spent a lifetime trying to forget them.

      More of a Dennis Lotis and Dickie Valentine fan myself. You couldn't buy that sort of talent.

      So much of what we were fed on TV and radio back then was music for people who didn't actually like music.

    5. I've just heard The Fraser Hayes Four perform "Alexander's Ragtime Band" on an old Round the Horne on Radio 4 Extra. This was the Sixties. Just... why?

    6. It was "variety". When you listen to the Goon Show, you have to grit your teeth and sit through Ray Ellington and his harmonica. The price you pay for RTH is the Fraser Hayes Four and their American accented imaginative harmonic reworkings of easy listening tunes that we know and love.. This is after all the era that gave us Anthony Newley's version of Pop Goes the Weasel. These are all reasons why the Beatles had to happen.

      Just count yourself lucky that things moved on later so that no one at the BBC thought to break up I'm sorry I Haven't a Clue with musical interludes from ELO.

    7. Mind you, a half-hour musical interlude wouldn't half improve The News Quiz. I wonder if Prefab Sprout are available.

  3. A most unlikely teen sensation, Bill Haley. He looked completely out of place, as if Don Revie rather than Ringo had replaced Pete Best in the Beatles. The Yardbirds recently reformed for a small tour with original guitarist Top Topham. Jeff Beck occasionally reforms the Small Town Playboys to play old rockabilly tunes, wearing a Blue Caps cap and wishing he was Cliff Gallup.

    1. I remember assuring my companions at the London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Stadium in 1972 that Bill Haley would be unable to hold a candle to the other great acts on the bill (jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis. I'd just read Nick Cohn's "Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom", in which he had been haughtily dismissive. The "one-eyed fat man" proceeded to steal the show. Eerily, he looked exactly the same as he had at the height of his fame 16 years earlier, which probably helped - one of the benefits of being born looking middle-aged, I suppose.

      I bow to no man in my admiration of Cliff Gallup's guitar stylings, but Norman Tufnel's hyper-adulation is verging on the pathological.