In the days when BBC Radio had a station called the Light Programme, I recall hearing a short selection of recordings by Bill Haley and his Comets. The Light Programme had an eclectic range of broadcasts, including news bulletins, quiz shows, drama serials, variety shows, and all kids of music – from brass bands to dance music. I can still remember lying in bed and listening on the wireless. I seem to remember that this broadcast only lasted for 15 minutes and felt like a gap-filler, but the music’s strong rhythm and simple style appealed to me.
This must have been before Bill Haley became a huge success in the UK, having around 20 top-30 British hits between 1954 and 1957. His fame was spread rapidly through the controversial 1955 film Blackboard Jungle
, which featured the title-track of this 30-track compilation. That track has the basic ingredients of rock ‘n’ roll, such as a strong off-beat, a catchy tune and simple but virtuosic solos from guitar and/or saxophone.
Bill Haley might be regarded as the first rock ‘n’ roll idol, even though he was already older than the teenagers who were his main audience. And Haley was a bald-headed white man: not exactly the performer one might expect to be a pioneer of rock’n’ roll, a genre which was partly derived from African-American rhythm-and-blues. Yet it also owed something to jazz but primarily rockabilly and country-and-western. This is exemplified by track 4, which is an adaptation of the folk song Buffalo Gals,
and Haley’s use of the steel guitar, an instrument widespread in country music. In fact tracks 2 to 5 of this collection are by a group called Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, which sounds more Cowboy than Oh, Boy!
Haley was not the world’s greatest vocalist but he sang in tune and delivered lyrics clearly. Another strong point of the Comets was the line-up of such excellent musicians as reedman Rudy Pompilli and guitarist Franny Beecher. The former is featured on Rudy’s Rock
and Calling All Comets
, and the latter shines in Goofin’ Around
and Blue Comet Blues
. The sheer stamina of the musicians is illustrated by the way that the band’s saxists and bassists learnt how to play their instruments lying supine on the stage.
Bill Haley’s influence is sometimes downgraded by crutics who stressed how derivative much of his music was. Many of his tunes were formulaic blues songs, often compositions which had already been recorded by other artists. Yet he stripped down rhythm-and-blues to make it a more user-friendly style. And this compilation gives a fair cross-section of his early work.
1. Rock Around the Clock
2. Rocket 88
3. Rock the Joint
4. Dance with a Dolly with a Hole in her Stocking
5. Real Rock Drive
6. Goofin’ Around
7. Crazy, Man, Crazy
8. What’cha Gonna Do?
9. Shake, Rattle and Roll
10. ABC Boogie
11. Rudy’s Rock
12. Dim, Dim the Lights
13. Birth of the Boogie
14. Mambo Rock
16, Blue Comet Blues
18. Rock-a-Beatin’ Boogie
19. The Saints Rock ‘n’ Roll
20. Burn That Candle
21. Calling All Comets
22. See You Later, Alligator
23. Hook, Line and Sinker
24. Choo-choo Ch’Boogie
25. Hot Dog, Buddy Buddy
26. A Rocking Little Tune
27. Rockin’ Through the Rye
28. Rip It Up
29. Don’t Knock the Rock
30. Farewell, So Long, Goodbye
Bill Haley – Vocals, rhythm guitar
Joey d'Ambrosio - Tenor sax
Rudy Pompilli - Tenor sax, bass sax, clarinet, flute
Tony Lance – Baritone sax
Danny Cedrone, Franny Beecher, Art Ryerson - Lead guitar
Billy Williamson - Steel guitar
Johnny Grande – Piano, accordion
Marshall Lytle, Al Rex - Double bass
Billy Gussak, Ralph Jones, Panama Francis, Cliff Leeman – Drums
Dick Richards – Triangle, tom-toms