Although it was probably not the first rock and roll record, nor was it the first successful record of the genre (Haley had American chart success with "Crazy Man, Crazy" in 1953 and "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in 1954, a year before "Rock Around the Clock" became a success), it is considered by many to be the song that put rock and roll on the map in America and around the world. With lyrics such as
Although first recorded by Italian-American band Sonny Dae and His Knights, the more famous version by Bill Haley & His Comets is not, strictly speaking, a cover version. Myers claimed the song had been written specifically for Haley, but for various reasons Haley was unable to record it himself until 1954.
The original full title of the song was "We're Gonna Rock Around the Clock Tonight!". This was later shortened to "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock", though this form is generally only used on releases of the 1954 Bill Haley Decca Records recording; most other recordings of this song by Haley and others (including Sonny Dae) shorten this title further to "Rock Around the Clock".
The song was credited to Myers (as "Jimmy DeKnight") and Max C. Freedman although its exact authorship is disputed, with many feeling that Freedman wrote the song on his own. There were several earlier songs of the title "Rock Around the Clock" (by Hal Singer and Wally Mercer) but they are unrelated to the Freedman/Myers song. In addition, it is sometimes erroneously stated that "Rock Around the Clock" is copied from a late-1940s Big Joe Turner recording, "Around the Clock Blues". Aside from title similarity, however, the two songs bear little resemblance. There are many blues songs with the theme of partying or making love "round the clock" with various actions specified at various hours.
However, the verse melody of "Rock Around The Clock" does bear a very close similarity to that of Hank Williams' first hit, "Move It On Over", from 1947. Williams' song was very similar to Charley Patton's "Going To Move To Alabama", recorded in 1930 - which itself was at least partly derived from Jim Jackson's "Kansas City Blues" from 1927.
According to the Haley biographies Bill Haley by John Swenson and Rock Around the Clock by Dawson, the song was offered to Haley in the wake of his first national success "Crazy Man, Crazy" in 1953. Haley and his Comets began performing the song on stage (Comets bass player Marshall Lytle and drummer Dick Richards say the first performances were in Wildwood, New Jersey), but Dave Miller, his producer, refused to allow Haley to record it for his Essex Records label (Swenson suggests a feud existed between Myers and Miller).
Haley himself claimed to have taken the sheet music into the recording studio at least twice, with Miller ripping up the music each time. Nonetheless, rumors of a 1953 demo recording by Haley persist to this day, although surviving members of the Comets deny this, as did Haley himself (quoted in the Swenson biography); a late-1960s bootleg single of the Decca Records version of "Rock Around the Clock", with "Crazy Man, Crazy" on the B-side and carrying the Essex label, occasionally turns up for sale with the claim that it is the demo version.
Myers next offered the song to Sonny Dae & His Knights, a novelty all-white musical group led by Italian-American Paschal Vennitti. The group's subsequent recording, on the Arcade Records label (owned by Haley's manager, Jack Howard), was a regional success, although it once again sounded very different from what Haley would later record.
Near the end of the session, the band finally recorded a take of "Rock Around the Clock," but Haley's vocals were drowned out by the band. A second take was quickly made with minimal accompaniment while Sammy Davis, Jr. waited outside the studio for his turn behind the microphone. Decca engineers later combined the two versions together into one version. (Comets piano player Johnny Grande tells a slightly different version, claiming that the only reason a second take was recorded was that the drummer made an error.)
Many musicians have claimed that they performed on the recording session for "Rock Around the Clock." The song's co-writer, James E. Myers, once claimed he had played drums on the piece, although he also claimed to have been advising the sound mixer in the recording booth. According to the official record sheet from the session, however, the musicians on the famous recording are:
Despite not being members of Bill Haley and His Comets, Gussak and Cedrone were trusted session players that Haley had used before. Cedrone's guitar solo was one that he used before on Bill Haley And The Saddlemen's version of "Rock the Joint" in 1952, is considered one of the classic rock and roll guitar solos of all time. (Cedrone died in a fall down a stairway on June 17, 1954 and never lived to see his contribution become famous and legendary.) The second instrumental break recreates a popular rhythm and blues "out chorus" with tenor sax and guitar emulating the rhythm section.
In a 2005 retrospective on his uncle Milt Gabler's work (The Milt Gabler Story), Billy Crystal identifies Haley's 1954 recording of "Rock Around the Clock" as the single most important song Gabler ever produced. Gabler had previously been responsible for the highly successful string of R&B and jump blues recordings by Louis Jordan in the late 1940s, which were characterised by their strong beat, clearly enunciated lyrics and high production values, all features which Gabler sought to repeat in Haley's recordings. Also significantly, "Rock Around The Clock" was recorded in the very same month that Atlantic Records issued Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll". In relation to "Rock Around The Clock", Gabler said: "I was aware that rock was starting. I knew what was happening in the Philadelphia area, and "Crazy Man, Crazy" had been a hit about a year before that. It already was starting and I wanted to take it from there.
Many versions of the story behind how "Rock Around the Clock" was chosen for Blackboard Jungle circulated over the years. Recent research, however, reveals that the song was chosen from the collection of young Peter Ford, the son of Blackboard Jungle star Glenn Ford and dancer Eleanor Powell. The producers were looking for a song to represent the type of music the youth of 1955 was listening to, and the elder Ford borrowed several records from his son's collection, one of which was Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" and this was the song chosen.
"Rock Around the Clock" became the first rock and roll recording to hit the top of the American record charts, a feat it repeated on charts around the world.The song stayed at the top of the American charts for eight weeks.
In the UK, the original version of the song initially reached only number 17 on the pop charts in January 1955. (Coincidentally, that was the same position as was reached by the Beatles' first single, "Love Me Do", in 1962). "Rock Around the Clock" re-entered the charts to reach number one in November 1955, and after a three-week break returned there for a further three weeks in January 1956. It re-entered the charts again in September 1956, reaching number 5. The song was re-issued in 1968, when it made number 20, and again in 1974, when it reached number 12.
"Rock Around the Clock" became wildly popular with teenagers around the world. The single, released by independent label Festival Records in Australia, was the biggest-selling recording in the country at the time. In 1957, Haley toured Europe, bringing rock 'n' roll to that continent for the first time.
Haley would re-record "Rock Around the Clock" many times over the years (even scoring a substantial hit with a version recorded for Sonet Records in 1968), but never recaptured the magic. In 1974, the original version of the song returned to the American charts when it was used as the theme for the movie American Graffiti and a re-recorded version by Haley was used as the opening theme for the TV series Happy Days. The original version was also featured in the 1978 film Superman; it is heard playing on a car radio just prior to Glenn Ford's final scene in the film; Ford, as noted earlier, had starred in Blackboard Jungle. (However, when ABC broadcast the film on TV for the first time, they were unable to obtain the rights to "Rock Around the Clock" and it was replaced by another piece of music; the song remains in all subsequent VHS, DVD and television versions of the film.)
During the 1970s Haley shortened his performances of "Rock Around the Clock", dropping one verse and the second instrumental break from most performances. However, his last known recorded performance of the song, at a November 1979 command performance for Queen Elizabeth II, was a complete version.
Following Haley's death in February 1981, a number of major tributes involving "Rock Around the Clock" occurred. That fall, a TV special marking the 30th anniversary of American Bandstand saw an all-star "supergroup" perform the song (accompanied by 1950s-era footage of Haley and the Comets). In 1982, Haley's original recording was given the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. An excerpt from the recording was included in "Haley's Golden Medley", a hastily-compiled single in the "Stars on 45" mould which made the UK record charts in 1982. In 1989, Haley's original Decca recording was incorporated into the "dance mix" single "Swing the Mood", credited to Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, but legal considerations forced the album version to substitute a patchwork of re-recordings from the 1950s and 1960s (in Haley's case, a 1968 version of "Rock Around the Clock" recorded for Sonet Records). Since "Swing the Mood" was still on the sales charts going into 1990, this means that Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" in one way or another appeared on UK or US sales charts in five consecutive decades.
"Rock Around the Clock" is often cited as the biggest-selling vinyl rock and roll single of all time. The exact number of copies sold has never been audited; however, a figure of at least 25 million was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records in its category "Phonograph records: Biggest Sellers" from the early 1970s until the 1990s, when the advent of compact discs led to Guinness discontinuing the category. Guinness consistently listed "Rock Around the Clock" as having the highest claim of any pop music recording, coming second in sales only to Bing Crosby's 1942 recording of "White Christmas", which was also listed as having sold 25 million copies with a further estimated 100 million copies sold in other versions. Sales figures as high as 35 to 40 million have been cited in various reference books and by media, as have lower numbers in the 15-22 million range. A frequently used piece of promotion regarding the song is that it is said to be playing somewhere in the world every minute of the day.
In tribute to the influence of the song and the movie that launched its popularity, the March 29, 2005 50th anniversary of the opening of Blackboard Jungle was marked by several large celebrations in the United States organized by promoter Martin Lewis under the blanket title "Rock Is Fifty" Rock Is Fifty also hosted additional celebrations in Los Angeles in July, 2005, as part of a "Rock Around the Clock-a-Thon" to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the date the song reached the No. 1 spot on the American charts, as well as to observe what would have been Haley's 80th birthday. These events included numerous appearances and performances by surviving members of the original Comets, including the band's induction into the Rock Walk hall of fame, a performance at the Viper Room club on the Sunset Strip, and a special performance for employees of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to celebrate the success of the Deep Impact space probe. A special video of "Rock Around the Clock" was created to mark the occasion and was featured on NASA's website during July and August of 2005. The anniversary was also marked by the publication of a book on the history of the song, Rock Around the Clock: The Record That Started the Rock Revolution, by Jim Dawson.
Another notable album release entitled Rock Around the Clock was the 1970 Hallmark Records UK release Rock Around the Clock (SHM 668) which was the first British release of a 1968 album entitled Bill Haley's Biggest Hits which had been released in Sweden by Sonet Records. The album consisted of newly recorded renderings of Haley classics from the 1950s, along with some previously unrecorded songs.