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ESSEX 305; AUGUST 1952



If there’d been any thought that we could keep them out altogether… either due to their own disinterest in (or disdain of) the music itself, or because whatever attempts they made to jump on board the rapidly accelerating bandwagon would be met with indifference by the black rock audience… the surprising success of Bill Haley’s most sincere rock effort to date his last time out ensured that the door for white rock ‘n’ rollers would remain open… for better and for worse.

Give him credit though, for while he was not yet a true believer he was at least an ambitious skeptic, one who understood that while he couldn’t yet compete with the originators of this style he might still find a way to bring something unique to the table that could possibly reach a constituency still on the outside looking in who’d be far more likely to support his alternate brand of rock ‘n’ roll.

We know all too well that would eventually happen, but at this stage he was still testing out ideas to see what works. Not all of them would pay off, but more often than not it takes both failure and success to put you on the right path in life.


Look Up In The Sky And See A High Flying Guy
What do you do when everything you’ve dreamed of achieving as an artist over the past few years has amounted to absolutely nothing, while something you were forced into, or fell into if you want to be more generous, has gotten you noticed by the music press and embraced by a wider audience who nobody, including the audience themselves, knew existed?

The country music career that Bill Haley embarked on in the late 1940’s may have gotten him a few recording contracts, but yodeling cowboys were hardly shaping up as the future of that genre as the Nineteen-Fifties dawned.

We’ll kindly attest that he did it as well as could be done – which isn’t saying much – but that genre of music was leaving this approach behind in favor of a more authentic style where honest emotions expressed by lovelorn figures were capturing the attention of the rural audience.

Those were things Bill Haley never could effectively convey… not in country music, nor in rock ‘n’ roll. He was a singer utterly devoid of nuance, yet he was also somebody who steadfastly didn’t give up. When he was “coaxed” into trying rock ‘n’ roll he may not have taken it seriously at first but his opinions began to change when the returns proved to be more than anyone expected after years of collective apathy he faced from labels, press and public that had marked all of his country efforts before that.

Building off that tiny ripple of curiosity elicited from his first few half-hearted attempts, he himself came up with the idea of cutting a version of Rock The Joint, the hit from fellow Pennsylvania act Jimmy Preston he’d heard every night before his dee-jaying spot on radio and with it his career as a true rock artist was launched.

This then is his response to that first flush of success. Yet Rocking Chair On The Moon shows that even for all of his newfound enthusiasm regarding its possibilities, he’s still unsure of where it will lead… or how to get there.

The difference though is now he’s at least willing to travel down that road without looking for the first exit to get back to more familiar ground.


Rockin’ In The Moonlight, Rockin’ Away
When it comes to Bill Haley’s rock releases thus far, the ones that have drawn some sort of notice have been written by others in that they were covers (or a remake in the latter case) of already popular authentic rock hits.

His own attempts at writing original material in this genre really starts here and it’s not surprising he chooses a title to make his intent perfectly clear.

In the early Nineteen-Fifties there were a few things that, depending on which part of the American cultural scene you were discussing, were bound to grab someone’s attention. The young Black community were fully aware of rock ‘n’ roll, a music made for them and by them… at least until Haley came along and attempted to change that.

The white community however were unaware of it, maybe because they were too busy feasting on science fiction movies about space aliens coming to earth while humans set their sights on invading other planets. Technically the moon wasn’t a planet, but you can certainly see Haley’s mind at work here by combining these two divergent interests in Rocking Chair On The Moon.

The chair part of that line might seem to negate the rock – as in music – aspect, but it’s the word itself and the images it conjures up that overrides the fact he’s using a more familiar, and thus less threatening, manner of injecting it into the song. The music behind it though, or at least a good deal of it, plus his own increasingly rhythmic singing, leave no doubt as to what he’s actually referring to.

In that regard this is pretty good. Listen to how he emphasizes that word by repeating it – “I gotta rock… rock……” – to drive it into your brain. He’s no dummy, he knows that selling this part of the image is the entire key to connecting with the audience and so he doubles down on it when he comes back talking about how he has to “rock away my troubles, rock away my blues”, in order to remove any lingering uncertainty over his newfound musical allegiance in the listeners minds.

But while that part is certainly admirable, not to mention very cagey of him, it’s his delivery that might be a stretch to call convincing. Unlike his first few attempts where he purposefully held back and hedged his bets because he doubted the experiment would work, on Rocking Chair On The Moon he’s laying into the rhythm of each line, almost giving them a staccato feel with their jagged edges and the way they’re used to convey the underlying beat even if his dialect is still tainted by the hayseed tone he hasn’t yet shaken.

To that end he’s undercut even more when he gives one of the solos to his longtime bandmate Billy Williamson, whose steel guitar gives away their country background – as if you couldn’t already tell by the Saddlemen name, plus the silly string ties and cowboy hats they wore.

But Danny Cedrone, sitting in as always on lead electric guitar (sans ten gallon hat), does his best to negate that unfortunate image with some flashy licks and a relatively subdued – for him – solo, that nevertheless manages to stir up interest with slashing chords and stinging single string runs.

The real stars though are found in the rhythm section, as the bass, piano and drums never let up. Though none are more than modestly proficient on their instruments, they more than make up for it with persistence, keeping that swinging rhythm from ever slacking off for a second, thereby ensuring that you keep moving and grooving to this no matter how much you question their legitimacy.


Shining From Above
Let’s face it, until a white artist truly breaks through with a first rate original styled performance that both honors and respects the dominant black components of rock ‘n’ roll, while at the same time bringing something uniquely personal to it from their own experiences, we’re all going to have our reservations about this kind of thing ever truly working.

Why wouldn’t we? Too often in the past white acts have merely been content to imitate without bringing anything new to the table, relying on their publicity advantage and larger demographic base to make up for their lack of conviction in whatever musical trend they were half-heartedly joining.

But Bill Haley can’t be accused of that with Rocking Chair On The Moon, for while it may not be a particularly strong record for the broader rock market, it’s a much more interesting one than the majority of middling attempts by those born into the field.

Granted the overtly country touches in the music coupled with the simplistic theme and somewhat stilted vocal performance means that it won’t win over many of the hardened rock fans who quite naturally want to keep this genre from being taken over and watered down by a condescending majority. But at the same time even the most stalwart defender of rock as the ideal Black Art Form would have to admit that this is, if nothing else, an honest effort to bring a new outlook to the music rather than one which attempts to dismiss the old one altogether.

A year ago that’d be far more than any of us would’ve ever predicted and so, like it or not, it looks like Bill Haley may have come to realize what road he’d have to travel if he wanted to meet with success somewhere along the way.


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