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Mark Steyn

Steyn's Song of the Week

Rock Around The Clock

Six decades ago - April 12th 1954 - a chubby-faced kiss-curled man pushing 30 with a backing group named after a theory published in Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae in 1705 went into the recording studio at the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street in New York and sang a song written by a man born in the 19th century:

One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock!
Five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock rock!
Nine, ten, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock rock!
We're gonna Rock!
Around!
The Clock tonight...

And the rest is history. And if you think I use that phrase lightly you should read Herbert London in Closing The Circle: A Cultural History Of The Rock Revolution:

The Ancien RĂ©gime fell in 1789 and once again a century and a half later.

Or Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone:

It was mid-Fifties rock'n'roll that blew away, in one mighty, concentrated blast, the accumulated racial and social proprieties of the centuries.

Gosh. The grizzled old rockologists are sniffy about it now, but "Rock Around The Clock" was the concentrated blast - the revolution's call to arms, the one kids tore up movie seats over on at least three continents when they stuck it in a picture a year or two later. It remains the official Year Zero of the rock'n'roll revolution; it didn't just rock the clock, it reset it: all the Billboard Hot 100 chart reference books use July 9th 1955 - the day "Rock Around The Clock" hit Number One - as Day One of "the rock era". You can see what they're getting at: "Clock"'s five predecessors at Number One were "Let Me Go, Lover" by Joan Weber, "Hearts Of Stone" by the Fontane Sisters, "Sincerely" by the McGuire Sisters, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" by Bill Hayes and "Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White" by PĂ©rez Prado. Most Americans hadn't heard of "rock" until "Rock Around The Clock", and afterwards they heard of little else. It was tough on the sister acts.

On that April day in 1954, Bill Haley and his Comets were scheduled for their first session with Decca Records. Haley had spent most of the previous decade down the country-western end of things - he'd been a cowboy yodeler and fronted a western-swing combo - but he was, as they say, musically evolving, and "Crazy, Man, Crazy" (a minor hit from the previous year) is generally regarded as his first success with a new sound. Still, given the country background, he could easily have wound up with Decca's Nashville branch. Instead, the company assigned him to the New York office, which meant his first session would be produced by Milt Gabler, Billy Crystal's uncle and the lyricist of our Songs of the Week #186 and #187, "Choo-Choo Ch'Boogie" and "L-O-V-E". Aside from those contributions to the songbook, Gabler as a producer gave the world a ton of big records - Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit", Louis Armstrong's "Blueberry Hill", Bing Crosby's "MacNamara's Band", the Weavers' "Goodnight, Irene", Peggy Lee's "Lover", the Mills Brothers' "Glow Worm", Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry" - all the way up to the Seventies and the album of Jesus Christ Superstar. He was a jazz lover with an ear for pop hits, but what he was in the market for that day six decades ago was a replacement for Louis Jordan, who'd quit Decca for Aladdin a couple of months earlier. Throughout the Forties, Jordan and his Tympany Five had had a string of rhythm'n'blues hits for Gabler - "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens", "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?", "Saturday Night Fish Fry"...

Once you know that, everything that happened on April 12th 1954 makes sense. "All the tricks I used with Louis Jordan I used with Bill Haley," said Gabler. "The only difference was the way we did the rhythm. On Jordan, we used a perfectly balanced rhythm section from the swing era ...but Bill had the heavy backbeat." But getting the sound Gabler wanted wasn't easy. The musicians' union stipulates that on a standard session you do four songs. The boys went into the studio at 2.15pm. Three-and-a-half hours later they had just two songs - and Sammy Davis Jr was waiting in the corridor, kicking his heels. Sam and the Will Mastin Trio were headlining at the Copacabana and Gabler had called him in to talk him into signing with Decca. (If Haley and Davis spoke that day, the soon-to-be Voice of Rebellious Youth was actually six months older than Mister Vegas.)

The first three hours of the session were devoted to just one number, "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town)", a novelty song by Dickie Thompson that had been picked for the group by Gabler and was entirely unknown to them. It was about the post-nuclear dating scene:

Last night I was dreaming
Dreamed about the H-bomb
Well, the bomb went off and I was caught
I was the only man on the ground

There was a-Thirteen Women And Only One Man In Town
Thirteen Women And Only One Man In Town
And as funny as it may be
The one and only man in town was me
Well, Thirteen Women and me, the only man around...

Once you've got the premise, the song pretty much writes itself:

I had three girls dancing the mambo
Three girls balling the jack
And all of the rest really did their best
Boy, they sure were a lively pack...

You can see what Milt Gabler was getting at. There wasn't a leaden novelty song that Louis Jordan couldn't make jump: "Open The Door, Richard", "Stone Cold Dead In The Market", "Penthouse In The Basement", "You Run Your Mouth, I'll Run My Business", "Your Socks Don't Match", "That Chick's Too Young To Fry", "Somebody Done Hoodooed The Hoodoo Man", and on and on and on. But Bill Haley was a more earnest fellow, and the perfectly poised blend of cool and goofiness that Jordan pulled off so effortlessly was a lot harder for him. My favorite version of "Thirteen Women" had to wait till the following decade, when Ann-Margret role-reversed the set-up: "Thirteen Men (And Me, The Only Gal In Town)", which is less a post-nuclear scenario than China after two generations of its one-child policy.

But eventually Gabler got an A-side he could live with. That left half-an-hour for the B-side - something called "Rock Around The Clock":

Put your glad rags on an' join me, hon'
We'll have some fun when the clock strikes one
We're gonna Rock Around The Clock tonight
We're gonna rock-rock-rock till broad daylight
We're gonna rock, gonna Rock Around The Clock tonight...

If they'd really been the revolutionaries posterity cast them as, they would have indeed rocked-rocked-rocked till broad daylight:

When the clock strikes twelve we'll cool off then
Start rockin' round the clock again...

Alas not. Haley had brought along his two partners, steel guitarist Johnny Grande and pianist-accordionist Billy Williamson, co-founders of his previous group, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, before they ditched the country-&-western and decided to dismount. There were also three Comets they had on salary: Danny Cedrone on guitar, Marshal Lytle on bass, and Joey d'Ambrosio on tenor sax. But Gabler had taken the precaution of booking a New York session drummer he knew, Billy Gussak. And, if they ran into overtime, Gussak would either require extra money or have to leave.

So, with half-an-hour of rock left on the clock and Sammy Davis snapping his fingers outside the door, they did two takes. Haley and various Comets would re-record the song and play it on a gazillion dates over the next quarter-century, but it never sounded better than it did sixty Aprils ago in 1954. What a terrific job Billy Gussak did on drums, starting with those thwacks right at the front of the track, the double rim-shots at the end of each line in the intro, and those ever more intensified snare bombs cranking up the energy verse by verse through the song. Gabler wanted to make the most of the Pythian Temple's acoustics and he needed a big backbeat drummer for that. The result was a dynamic power Haley had never had before:

When the chimes ring five, six and seven
We'll be right in seventh heaven...

And they were. It's not the most interesting tune melodically or harmonically, but what makes it a great record is the way it builds all the way to the end. No one had ever heard anything like Danny Cedrone's finger-bleeding guitar solo - well, not unless they'd heard the Comets' record of "Rock The Joint" from two years earlier, on which Cedrone plays exactly the same solo. But so what? It sounds great on "Rock The Joint" and it sounds even better on "Rock Around The Clock".

Which of those two takes did they wind up using? On the first one, the band played so loud you could barely hear a word Haley was singing. So they did a second take, with Haley singing loud and the band way off in the corner. And then it was time to go, and Gabler said he and the Decca boys would piece the two takes together so they had something "usable". Bill Haley left feeling the session had been a failure.

Four weeks later, they released "Thirteen Women" as a single, with "Rock Around The Clock" on the flip side. "We just put it out," said Gabler. "It wasn't country-&-western or r'n'b. It was a regular pop record. It sold about 75,000 copies."

And that was that - until months later a curious nine-year-old boy in California decided to flip over "Thirteen Women" and see what was on the other side. And when he heard the B-side he never played the A-side again, and instead the merry peal of "Rock Around The Clock" rang out around the clock, or at least until bedtime. The nine-year-old boy's name was Peter Ford, whose dad was Glenn Ford. Ford père was about to star in a movie about juvenile delinquents called The Blackboard Jungle, directed by Richard Brooks. One day Brooks was over at the house and thought the perky tune Glenn Ford's kid couldn't get enough of might work over the opening titles. So he took the record away with him, and little Peter Ford went back to listening to his mom Eleanor Powell's jazz 78s, or whatever.

The rest is history. Oh, wait, I've already used that line. Well, Kathy Shaidle has a marvelous piece about what happened after "Rock Around The Clock" made it into the movies and its broader cultural impact. But this here department at SteynOnline isn't about films and records, movie actors and pop stars, but about songs and songwriters. And you notice that in all the excitement over "Rock Around The Clock" very little is ever said about the song and the fellows who wrote it.

For a start, how did it wind up being one of the two songs Haley and his Comets recorded that day? Not because Milt Gabler picked it or wanted it. But because a fellow called James E Myers, a canny music biz operator, had a deal with Bill Haley - and, even as the two men fell out, before Myers would let him sign a contract with Decca, he forced both the singer and the record company to agree that one out of every two sides recorded by the Comets would be a song published by Myers Music. The least worst song in the catalogue was by Max C Freedman and Jimmy DeKnight.

Who was Jimmy DeKnight? Well, he was a fancified nom de plume for the self-same James Myers. Except in this case it's all nom and no plume. Having cornered 100 per cent of the publishing rights to "Rock Around The Clock", Myers reckoned he'd take 50 per cent of the songwriting action, too. But nobody seems too believe, notwithstanding half-a-decade of inconsistent and-then-I-wrote braggadocio to the contrary, that he actually wrote very much or even any of it. The original arrangement is weirdly similar to "The Syncopated Clock", a light orchestral crowd-pleaser by Leroy Anderson, composer of our Song of the Week #108, "Sleigh Ride". So it certainly didn't start out as rock'n'roll.

Who was Max C Freedman? As Myers liked to tell it, Freedman had originally wanted to call the song "Dance Around The Clock". I find that hard to believe, if only because the internal rhyme of "Rock Around The Clock" is what gives it a lot of its drive, especially in the opening:

One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock!

Just to underline the Louis Jordan-Bill Haley connection, that clock/rock rhyme must have rung a bell with Milt Gabler. He's the fellow who wrote:

Take me write back to the track, Jack!

(Haley and the Comets eventually recorded "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie", though it's a dull ride after Jordan's.)

So "Rock Around The Clock" doesn't sound as if it was originally conceived as "Dance Around The Clock". "Dance Around Your Pants", maybe.

On the other hand, Max C Freedman doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd be doing a lot of rock'n'rolling. Not a lot is known about him, and the Wikipedia entry gets a lot of things wrong, starting with his year of birth: 1913. He died in 1962, so he's not around to do any correcting. But take a gander at the photograph at right - including the suit lapels - and ask yourself if it looks like a fellow who was 49 in 1962.

In fact, Ray Max Freedman (as he then was) was born on January 8th 1893. So he was a sexagenarian when he wrote the anthem of rebellious youth. So Peter Ford, who so loved that song as a nine-year-old in 1954, is today, six decades later, just a few years older than Freedman was at the time he wrote it. When Freedman was a nine-year-old boy, the big hits were "Sweet Adeline" and "Tell Me, Pretty Maiden, Are There Any More At Home Like You?" When he was a rebellious teenager, they'd have had to tear up the movie seats to Kipling's "Road To Mandalay" and "The Merry Widow Waltz".

Indeed, even when he was young, Freedman wrote old: He got together with another Philadelphia lad called Harry Squires and they wrote songs like "Down In Every Broken Heart There's Always A Story Of Sorrow" and "Baby, Close Your Blue Eyes, Go To Slumberland", which would have been perfectly charming around the turn of the century but had the musty whiff of parlor ballads and antimacassars by the time they shopped them to publishers toward the end of the First World War. Nevertheless, in 1919 Joseph Morris managed to place a song called "In The Heart Of A Fool" with a singer called Donna Montran, who'd had a small part in D W Griffith's Birth Of A Nation. You can buy it at Amazon, if you like. But take a look at that sheet music cover: that's by the guy who wrote "Rock Around The Clock".

"In The Heart Of A Fool" wasn't a hit, and nor was "Blossom Time In Old Hawaii" or "Honeymoon in Honolulu" or "Dreamy Old New England Moon" or anything else. And by this time Ray Freedman was married. As it happens, he'd married a woman called Ray. And since Mr and Mrs Ray and Ray Freedman was kind of confusing, the non-distaff Ray Freedman started using his middle name and then added an initial: Max C Freedman. A married man has responsibilities, so he knuckled down and got a job at the Post Office. And that's what he did every day of his working life - even when "Rock Around The Clock", so to speak, went postal. But Ray (the missus) encouraged Ray (the hubby) to keep writing songs. So he did, and in the mid-Forties he teamed up with a singing cowboy called Dick Thomas, and Ray Freedman finally had his first hit: "Sioux City Sue". This may be my favorite Freedman couplet:

Your hair is red, your eyes are blue
I'd swap my horse and dog for you...

It was Number One on the hillbilly chart, and Number Three for Bing Crosby on the pop chart, and Gene Autry used it as the title song for a movie, and eventually Willie Nelson recorded it. A big hit. So Freedman and Dick Thomas followed it up with "The Beaut From Butte", which was a very very small hit, and then "The Sister of Sioux City Sue", which was an all but undetectable hit, and then "I Got A Gal In Laramie", after which even the second cousin once removed of the beaut from Butte wouldn't have given them the time of day. By the early Fifties, Freedman was still at the Post Office, and moonlighting for a publishing outfit of Jim Myers on instant obscurities like "We'll Have A Red, White And Blue Christmas".

Myers, the tireless self-promoter and cutter-in, was the temperamental opposite of Freedman, the shy postal clerk, even when both men were alive. After Freedman's death in 1962, Myers had the next four decades to himself to burnish the anecdotage, always inconsistently This was one version:

When we finished it, he said, "What are you gonna call it?" I said, "Rock Around The Clock". And he said, "Why 'rock'? What's that mean? Why not 'Dance Around The Clock'?" And I said, "I just have a gut feeling, and since I'm half-writer and whole publisher, I'm the boss."

Hmm. Smells fake to me. And it's certainly not how real songwriters talk. And then there's the little matter of the earliest known manuscript of the song - "We're Gonna Rock Around The Clock Tonight" - which in early 1953 Freedman took to a Philadelphia copyist to make a three-part arrangement of. At the top of the sheet written in hand is:

words & music by Max C. Freedman

When Decca released Bill Haley's single, they provided a helpful parenthesis for record buyers:

"(We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock" (Fox Trot)

Did anyone ever fox trot to it? Not for long.

Rock'n'roll moved on to more plausible rebels, to Elvis, and then the Beatles and beyond. Jim Myers moved on, too. He turned to acting, and wound up in The China Syndrome and a couple of other movies. Bill Haley never made it to the age Max Freedman was when he wrote "Rock Around The Clock": he died at 55, worn out by the strain of trying to stop the clock, of trying to hold his one explosive pop-culture moment for a lifetime. Danny Cedrone never made it that far. Nine weeks after recording one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, he fell down the stairs and broke his neck. He never lived to see The Blackboard Jungle make "Rock Around The Clock" a sensation, and then a Number One record, and then the title song of a movie all its own. In the film Rock Around The Clock, Franny Beecher mimes to Cedrone's solo. On Milton Berle's show, Haley himself mimed to it. But it's hard to imagine "Rock Around The Clock" without it.

The snows are melting here in New Hampshire, and my town band will soon be getting ready for their summer concerts on the common. All the old favorites are there from Freedman's distant boyhood over a century ago - "In The Good Old Summertime", "Aba Daba Honeymoon" - but at some point the bandleader will announce, "Here's something for all the kids! This'll really drive 'em wild!" And then they'll go into a rather restrained version of "Rock Around The Clock". And the kindergartners look bewildered for a moment, and then start grooving around to a tune that was new when their great-grandparents were young, and was written by a guy who was young when their great-great-great-great-grandparents were around.

Max Freedman is an unlikely figure to, as Herbert London and Robert Palmer put it, blast away the social proprieties of the ancien régime. If too unsuccessful to qualify as ancien régime, he was nevertheless pretty ancien. To Freedman, "rock" was a rhyme, not an ethos. Which is why scholars keep squabbling about which was the first genuine rock'n'roll song: Regular readers will know my money's on "Rock and Roll", written for Shirley Temple in 1934. But the rock/clock rhymes give the game away: Join me, hon'/when the clock strikes one; when the clock strikes four, we'll yell for more; when it's seven, we'll be in seventh heaven... They're strikingly pure rhymes for early rock or rhythm'n'blues. Max Freedman wasn't Oscar Hammerstein or Larry Hart or Ira Gershwin - for one thing, he was an older man - but he wrote to the same rules.

Another younger man, Mitchell Parish, lyricist of "Stardust", "Volare", "Stars Fell On Alabama", "Sleigh Ride" and many more, put it to me this way. We'd got talking about changing fashions in pop music in the Fifties and Sixties, and, with a touch of the Herb Londons and Robert Palmers, I suggested that for writers like him things had got a lot more difficult after "Rock Around The Clock".

"'Rock Around The Clock'?" he said. "That's a good conventional Tin Pan Alley song."

Well, that's how it was written.

~Many of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected in his book A Song For The Season. Personally autographed copies are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.

April 13, 2014

 

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