No tags :(

Share it

ESSEX 303; MARCH 1952



How many people can honestly say they know the exact moment their life changed forever?

Is it even something you can know at the time it happens or only in retrospect when the changes that ensued become fully apparent?

After all, the first time you see the love of your life might hit you like a thunderbolt, but if you never get together that moment soon passes and your life continues unabated.

By 1952 floundering country crooner Bill Haley already had a couple of moments that hinted at changes on the horizon, but they were indecisive paths on the journey to self-discovery at best.

Now he was about to take that first definitive step into another world and after this his life would never be the same.


Knock Down The Door
There aren’t a lot of artists you can genuinely say altered the course of history – not just music history but world history.

Bill Haley was one who did.

A lot of this wasn’t necessarily because of his own skill, vision or artistic ambition, but rather due to something he had absolutely nothing to do with… his race.

That Bill Haley was Caucasian meant he connected to white listeners who may have already started discovering and becoming interested in black rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950’s (a full seven years after it existed and thrived in its own culture) but in appearing when he did it gave that generation of white kids the belief that rock was their music too.

Of course since they were all born with a sense of entitlement it also meant that within a few years they felt it was exclusively their music and would vehemently decry anybody who dared suggest black artists remained a part of rock ‘n’ roll after 1960 or so… but that’s a story for another day.

That Bill Haley’s breakthrough spearheaded this repugnant segregationist campaign is ironic of course, because without black artists showing him the way Haley would be nothing but a failed third rate country singer nobody remembered. Instead, he became the flashpoint for a cultural upheaval and in his own way spent the next quarter century trying to reconcile this uneasy balance.

Although he’d made tentative forays into a bastardized version of rock ‘n’ roll already, Rock The Joint was where he consciously altered the course of his own destiny as well as introduced new musical elements that would spread the boundaries of rock even wider.

He may have still doubted anything meaningful would come of it at the time, but he was now entirely willing to take that risk on his own and let the chips fall where they may.

Not surprisingly when it actually succeeded he became a true believer in rock ‘n’ roll and for the rest of his life this song, not a national hit, not even one widely known to those who made him an international superstar three years down the road, was the record he talked about most, proving beyond a doubt that HE knew the exact moment his life changed for the better.


Flyin’ Low And Flyin’ Wide
The story Bill Haley always told about his musical awakening sought to give credit to the black originators and at the same time bestow ample credit on himself for what was to follow… never the easiest balancing act.

Haley may have been regularly recording country music – with the occasional nascent rock attempt thrown in – but it was still not enough to support a family on and so his primary job was as a disc jockey in Pennsylvania.

His show followed Jim Reeves’ “Judge’s Rhythm Court”, a white dee-jay playing black music whose theme song was a two year old rock hit by local star Jimmy Preston… Rock The Joint.

As Haley recounted, hearing that song playing each night as Reeves’s show wrapped up put it in his head and with his recent move towards incorporating countryfied rocking boogies in the repertoire of his band, The Saddlemen, this song seemed to him to be the perfect way to take that concept further.

But it’s still abundantly clear that he was hedging his bets with Rock the Joint both in his re-writing some of the lyrics to refer to country music dances – “the Sugarfoot Rag” and later his command to “do an Old Paul Jones and the Virginia Reel” – but also the way in which The Saddlemen were required to adapt it musically to their country-based instrumental lineup which differed greatly from Preston’s horn oriented rock band.

So what we get is the first hybrid country-rocker, with a slap bass to set the rhythm, a steel guitar adding melodic responses – and later a solo that surprisingly manages to hold its own – and most crucially Danny Cedrone’s hyper-fast electric guitar solo that succeeded in the difficult task of replicating the excitement of the sax solo on the original while in the process giving generations of white kids playing rock of their own template to follow.

All of these disparate elements being shoehorned into a song is the kind of thing that on paper doesn’t seem as if it would work, or at least should feel a lot more awkward and uncomfortable trying to piece together. A Frankenstein monster lurching about unsteadily on mismatched body parts. Yet it all seems remarkably organic thanks to some confident playing and above all else Haley’s own genuine enthusiasm.

Let’s not forget that was what had held back their cover of Rocket 88 – the disdain Haley had for the material, smarting over the fact he was forced to do it at the request of his record label. The band handled themselves well enough on it, but his vocals treated it like a joke and it suffered greatly for it.

But on Rock The Joint, presumably because it was his own idea, he’s fully on board while the band is feeding off HIS excitement and in turn so is the listener. Yeah, it’s true you can’t fully take the hayseed of him, but even for those of us far removed from that cultural identity it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, bother us to see another demographic bringing something new to the table, seeking to use the established foundation as the launching pad for their own take on the music.

Maybe nobody at the time, Haley included, thought it’d wind up going as far as it did, but isn’t that the whole point of rock ‘n’ roll in the first place? To head into new frontiers and drag everybody in their wake along with them?

This is one record that did just that and deservedly so.


I Ain’t Gonna Hit For Six More Licks
As good as they all had to feel with how the recording itself turned out, Haley and the band were still not entirely convinced of its potential, if for no other reason there was no precedent for this sort of thing.

A few weeks after the release they were told by Essex Records that they had a hit – not an official one per say, but a big seller nonetheless – and Haley assumed it was the pure country corn of the top side, Icy Heart, which the label had initially thought as well when they started getting the stacks of orders for the single, only for them to find out it was the rock side drawing interest.

Who exactly was buying it though? That was still the question they’d have to find out through trial and error over the next year, but suddenly their course was clear and beyond simply what it did for Haley’s career, Rock The Joint marked a fascinating addition to rock’s ever growing musical and cultural DNA.

Though no one at the time was able to predict the future resulting from this transformation, what this still shows was that like jazz before it, rock ‘n’ roll was something that was so inherently powerful, so liberating and emotionally captivating to anyone who fell under its spell, that even white people had to acknowledge it and try and adapt it for themselves.

It’d take awhile longer before they consistently did so, but from this record forward that change went from being just a remote possibility to one that was all but inevitable.


(Visit the Artist page of Bill Haley & The Saddlemen for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Jimmy Preston (August, 1949)
Chris Powell & The Five Blue Flames (November, 1949)