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MERCURY 8196; OCTOBER 1950

 
 

 

Before you ask, the answer is No. It isn’t that song!

And no, it has nothing whatsoever to DO with that song despite what some people might disingenuously claim.

Titles can’t be copy-written and so if one is a good fit for a certain style of music and the first time it’s used doesn’t result in a widely known hit, of course it’s ripe to be plucked again for another song. That’s only natural.

It’s an interesting quirk maybe… a coincidence… an historical oddity even, but not anything more than that.

But since many of you probably showed up here believing otherwise and came looking for something written about that other more famous entry sharing the same title, one that we won’t get to reviewing around here for another couple of years… well, rather than have you wait around in the lobby until that time comes, bugging the secretaries, reading our magazines and emptying the water cooler, or worse yet leave the site disappointed never to return, go ahead and believe whatever you want.

We won’t stop you.
 

 

Let’s Go
The focus today is not some cat named Bill Haley who at this time was still trying to yodel his way to country stardom, but rather Hal Singer, former jazz saxophonist who saw his own dreams of recognition in another style of music come to an ignominious end when his session work on legitimate rock hits, including the first rock song to top the charts – Wynonie Harris’s Good Rockin’ Tonight – found him being sought out by record companies to cut songs in that same style under his own name.

When one of his efforts, Corn Bread, became a Number One hit in the summer of 1948, one of many raunchy sax instrumentals that defined that year in rock, his future course became set.

But honking away like a madman can get tedious, both for the musician who felt it beneath his dignity but also for the crowds who could scream and shout along with him while dancing energetically for only so long before their throats wore out, their legs got tired and they collapsed in a heap on the floor.

As a result Singer tried mixing things up, playing tunes that inched back towards the jazz he preferred, but to little avail. The two styles, though they’d begin this trip traveling in closer proximity to one another, had diverged greatly in the past two years and so Singer had two choices, either give up rock ‘n’ roll altogether and return as a mere sideman in one of the dwindling number of big jazz orchestras, or double down on rock and try to embrace it wholeheartedly.

So teaming up with somebody with a tangled history of his own, they implored everybody listening to Rock Around The Clock, thereby giving the impression that Singer was still on board with the movement while letting somebody else take the brunt of responsibility in selling that pitch to the masses.

Subtle it wasn’t, but while this record also wasn’t successful enough for it to pay off for either of them the title proved to be one worth resurrecting down the line where somebody else could get the response with those sentiments that this record decidedly lacked.
 

The Neighbor’s Out Of Town
For those still convinced that these two songs must have some connection, however fleeting, let’s instead turn your attention to the fact that it does have links to a future rock classic by another white singer/guitarist of note.

Someone by the name of Carl Perkins.

Though the energy is far more subdued here the count-off is the same, “One for the money, two for the show…”. It’s doubtful it originated here but sharing the context as a lead-in for a rock record means this Singer track and Blue Suede Shoes will always have a faint tie-in for trivia nuts… at least more so than this song and the one by the guy in the plaid jacket with the spit curl.

But let’s circle back and focus on this record rather than ones in the distant future, starting with the fact that the guy singing this song today isn’t the guy actually named Singer – funny how that works sometimes – but rather the song’s co-writer Sam Theard going under the nom de plume Spo-Dee-O-Dee.

Theard was a sometime singer, part-time songwriter and full time comedian, which explains why he’s not using a very appealing voice, more like a dry croak really, something which certainly couldn’t have helped Rock Around The Clock find the audience it was looking for. It’s not melodic enough, smooth enough, or frankly sober enough to be truly enjoyable.

You can certainly make the case however that it was intended this way, designed to be seen as a late night recruitment for any wayward drunks coming out of the bars after last call to join them for the house party they were throwing. That was something Theard would naturally find humorous, presenting the character as if he was already half in the bag, and while at one point he’s describing himself as a kid whose parents are gone for the day, he sounds more like a dirty old man most of the time in how he’s presenting this.

Setting that slight confusion aside though, the lyrics themselves are fairly effective in setting the proper scene. They describe the kind of parties that rock was providing the de facto mood music for since its inception and his repeated cries to “Let’s rock!”, which finds the band members answering with the title line, are precisely what you’d want to hear… even if you’d prefer hearing it coming from somebody with a better voice and delivery.
 

Workin’ Late
If we can criticize Theard for sticking too close to his own sensibilities – and probably his own career aims, for he was still primarily earning his keep as a club performer who needed material to break up the skits – at least his motivations were understandable.

The same can’t be said for Hal Singer though, who once again shows that while he was certainly more than capable of doing what was needed he still had a reluctance to actually deliver the goods when called upon.

If Rock Around The Clock is going to work as a record under Singer’s own name, commercially speaking but also aesthetically, it needed to actually… you know… ROCK!

Loudly, emphatically and unapologetically.

This however only hints at this kind of display and just barely at that. From the overreliance on the group horns working in tandem – trombonist Chippy Outcalt and trumpeter Hal Mitchell in addition to Singer – rather than focusing entirely on Singer’s sax, to the mindset of the arrangement itself, which seems to feel a spry cheeriness is somehow more appropriate for the ribald content than a measure of suggestive stimulation, this never comes close to delivering what it calls for.

The rhythm section isn’t bad with some emphatic drumming by Bobby Donaldson highlighting the track, and Singer’s solo in the first break is reasonably good, but when he defers to Mitchell’s trumpet in the second interlude you realize that his heart just wasn’t in this and he’s falling back on old school mentalities to let the spotlight shine on others.

That’s nice in theory and I’m sure it was appreciated by the band, but you wonder how the band felt when this failed to connect and kept them from repeating their runaway success on the pure rockers that had gotten them these opportunities to cash in on this music in the first place.

When the best compliment you can pay the arrangement is how their gradual fade out to close the record is a nice touch you know that this isn’t going to live up to the promise its title suggests.
 


 

Keep Rocking ‘Til The Crack Of Dawn
Though the record itself, aside from that familiar title, is more or less completely irrelevent to the history of rock ‘n’ roll, there ARE some important facets of its creation that warrant the modicum of attention it gets from time to time.

The first is how the title itself was seen as promising in 1950 by a bandleader whose fate was tied to a music he didn’t particularly love, and a singing comedian who was always looking for something hot to jump on board and keep his stock relatively high, not to mention a major label whose recent investment in this music was paying off with hits by Professor Longhair.

If Rock Around The Clock was being used as a selling point for this music then it was further proof that it was entering mainstream awareness, even if just on the periphery.

The lyrics are the second piece of evidence that there was little mistaking what that music entailed. No longer was this a vague euphemism that could be applied to records spanning everything from the blues of Trixie Smith to the pop stylings of The Boswell Sisters and the gospel ravings of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but rather it embodied a specific post-war culturally restless uninhibited perspective that had much farther reaching impact.

Lastly, it showed that even when its credited artist was someone who had contributed immensely to some of the most important rock songs in history there were still some reluctance from established musicians embodying a different outlook to fully accept it as their destiny.

The clock hadn’t even struck one yet in its long winding history, but some were appearing ready to go to sleep before the revolution hit full stride.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Hal Singer for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)