Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Did Hollywood Create Rock 'n' Roll?

Book Review:

"Rock Around the Clock:
The Record that Started the Rock Revolution"
By Jim Dawson
Backbeat Books
$16.95; softcover

Did Hollywood create rock 'n' roll?

That sounds like a strange, ridiculous and even offensive question to anyone who likes rock and all its musical derivations. After all, rock is fundamentally an indigenous, authentic American-heritage roots music.

It's proud of its realness - shaped by country, blues, jazz and folk and popularized by streetwise, outsider rebels like Elvis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis. For American pop-culture lovers, that history of rock's creation has the same importance as the story behind the framing of the Constitution.

But is it correct? In "Rock Around the Clock," Jim Dawson argues persuasively that while those roots are real, the popularity of rock can be traced to one seismic cultural event - the inclusion of a Bill Haley and His Comets record called "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" on the soundtrack of the 1955 film "Blackboard Jungle."

That not only introduced rock to mainstream America but forever cemented its image as a fashionably dangerous youth music that followed its own rules. The use of the song in the movie gave juvenile rebelliousness a beat and made it hip. It was the first rock 'n' roll record to go to No. 1 in the United States.

Everything else, including the still-little-known Elvis, followed. Strangely, one of the few early rockers who was not a rebel was Haley himself. He was a chubby and affable Western-swing/cowboy-jive music-lover from Pennsylvania with a cute spit curl falling down his forehead. He was almost 30 when he recorded "Rock," quickly faded and died largely forgotten at age 55 in 1981. His song was revived in 1974 when the nostalgic TV series "Happy Days" used it as its theme.

The story of how all this happened is fascinating, as is the history of the underappreciated Haley and his recordings in general. And Dawson's detective work is thorough and concise; his writing has no-frills reportorial clarity. He previously wrote the well-researched "What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record?"

As he did in "First Rock 'n' Roll Record," Dawson proves adept and scholarly at tracing "Rock Around the Clock's" myriad influences back to recorded music's earliest days. He has a worthy subject for this approach, since Haley's hit was credited to a journeyman middle-aged tunesmith named Ray (Max) Freedman and a younger music publisher/promoter named James Myers.

They were no Bacharach/David - Dawson isn't even sure they worked together. He does a remarkable job tracing the Byzantine way that the song got composed and then recorded - first by the obscure Sonny Dae & His Knights and then Haley.

Haley already had some pre-"Rock Around the Clock" pop success with his swinging combo sound on 1953's "Crazy Man, Crazy" and a 1954 cover of a now-standard rhythm-and-blues song, "Shake, Rattle and Roll." His sound was in place.

Dawson notes that composer Freedman started writing "Rock Around the Clock" with an eight-bar instrumental verse "whose minor key changes sound like klezmer music - not surprising, given that he was the son of Jewish immigrants." Freedman also appears to have borrowed the song's beat from a 1951 instrumental called "The Syncopated Clock," which was used as theme music for CBS's late-night programming.

Yet all this is only part of the story. Haley's rocked-up version was originally released as a B-side of a 45-rpm single in 1954 and then forgotten until "Blackboard Jungle" revived it. Based on a tough Evan Hunter book, the film was a controversial sensation. It starred Glenn Ford as a naive urban teacher battling violent delinquents for control of his school.

The credit for how director Richard Brooks came to use that song as the film's theme is shrouded in conflicting claims that Dawson airs. Rock, which didn't really exist yet, wasn't part of the film's story line, though the delinquents do hate jazz. But teens danced in movie-theater aisles when the song played over the film's opening credits. Soon after "Blackboard Jungle" was released on March 19, 1955, it birthed a hit record and a new youth battle cry in "One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock, rock!"

Dawson does an especially good job putting the film and song's impact in perspective vis-a-vis public fascination with juvenile delinquency. President Eisenhower had addressed the issue in his 1955 State of the Union address; the FBI had warned about its growth in a 1954 report.

More important, Method actors had discovered the delinquent - Marlon Brando's portrayal of a motorcycle rebel had been a sensation in 1954's "The Wild One" and a model for Vic Morrow's in "Blackboard."

And in a very interesting and thoroughly obscure fact that Dawson notes, James Dean -- whose "Rebel Without a Cause" came out after "Blackboard Jungle" -- had already appeared in a 1953 William Inge teleplay about a troubled kid out on bail for a marijuana charge, "Glory in the Flower." It starts with the show's host, the esteemed Alistair Cooke, walking onto the set, a café, and putting money in the jukebox. Haley's "Crazy Man, Crazy" plays, and Dean's character starts to jitterbug.

Dawson's book certainly shows how Hollywood - as much as if not more than Elvis - made rock popular.

By Steven Rosen
(This originally appeared in the Denver Post.)

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