The music form that we call rock 'n' roll did not burst forth fully-formed one day in the 1950's. It evolved over many years, from many different musical tributaries and from the explorations and endeavors of myriad musicians from at least the 1920's onwards.
For this very good reason, musicologists are in agreement that it is neither possible nor remotely fair to attribute the evolution or birth of rock 'n' roll to any one moment, any one song or recording, or any one musician.
However - it is certainly possible to acknowledge some of the key architects of the music form that revolutionized popular culture and the chronology of their achievements.
Among the many musical pioneers whose work paved the way to rock 'n' roll - the vast majority were solo artists. But there was one group of musicians that can truly be said to have been the FIRST BAND of rock 'n' roll. The first group whose ensemble work in arrangement and performance helped develop the nascent musical form. And whose flair for visual stage antics wrote the vocabulary for rock 'n' roll stagecraft.
That band was the original incarnation of The Comets - the musicians who provided the musical foundation for singer Bill Haley from 1949 (when they were known as The Saddlemen) through the key years of their musical journey together as rock 'n' roll pioneers. The band was the foremost group in the musical revolution that gathered steam in the early 50's and culminated in the Big Bang of rock 'n' roll.
Though the band is understandably best-known for its many hits between 1954 and 1958 - including the first-ever rock 'n' roll number one "Rock Around The Clock" in 1955 - some of the band's most important contributions to music took place in the preceding years - when as arrangers and performers they were in the forefront of the development of rock 'n' roll.
The band evolved from its country & western roots in 1949 when they were known as the Saddlemen - through their renaming as The Comets in 1952 amidst a time of great musical exploration - through to their heyday in 1953-1956 when their rock 'n' roll hits pre-dated successes by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. The band continued to have hits through 1959 - after which their prominence as hit-makers in America subsided - along with much of early rock 'n' roll itself.
After the hits dried up, Bill Haley continued performing as a very successful international touring act for over 20 years up till his death in 1981. During the touring years he was accompanied by successive incarnations of his original band - new musicians performing under the Comets name - who faithfully re-created on stage the music and stage antics that had been first created by the original lineup of The Comets in the 1952-1956 era.
Most musicologists believe that two of the key musical elements (among many) that formed rock 'n' roll were the quite disparate styles of rhythm & blues on the one hand - and country & western/swing music on the other hand. One was a black, urban music style with its roots in blues, gospel, jazz and ragtime. The other a white, rural song-form with its roots in folk, bluegrass, hillbilly and southern traditions. The cultural roots and lifestyles were fundamental opposites.
Sam Phillips - owner/producer of the legendary Sun Records label - certainly fused these two music styles when he first recorded Elvis Presley in Memphis on July 6th 1954. Phillips was seeking to create a hybrid of Presley's appeal to white country-music-leaning fans crossed with an appeal to kids who reveled in listening to black rhythm & blues. Presley's cover recording of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right Mama" clearly fused those musical styles.
But the first recorded fusions of white hillbilly music and black R&B pre-date that Presley recording session BY SOME THREE YEARS. And to the extent that the fusion of country and R&B was a key component in the evolution of rock 'n' roll - there is a huge case to be made for the pioneering work of The Comets.
In very simple terms - it comes down to instrumentation and arrangements.
In the late 1940's and early 1950's - country & western bands predominantly featured guitars, pedal-steel guitar and an upright bass. There was often a piano and an accordion or fiddle. They most certainly did not feature drums. (The Grand Ol' Opry specifically disallowed full drum kits on stage until the 1970's.) The absence of drums eventually led to some of the more adventurous country musicians adopting a percussive technique of bass-playing known as "slap-bass" - a style that had originated in the New Orleans jazz scene of the 1920's. Furthermore, country & western bands definitely did not feature saxophones. Drums and saxophones would have baffled country & western audiences in that era and been considered an unwelcome intrusion.
Conversely - rhythm & blues bands of that era featured guitars, drums, keyboards and saxophones. They did not feature pedal-steel guitar. And they did not usually feature accordions.
So when Haley and the Saddlemen/Comets broke with tradition and added R&B rhythms and instrumentation - including slap-bass, drums and saxophone - to country & western music for practically the first time - it marked a breakthrough in contemporary music.
The path to this landmark development started in 1951. The Saddlemen (featuring Haley and three musicians who would soon become the founding members of The Comets) started incorporating many of the rhythmic elements of R&B into their live performances and studio recordings.
The band was clearly no longer a pure country & western band - but the term "rock 'n' roll" had not yet been applied to their new music. For lack of better descriptions it was sometimes referred to as "cowboy-jive" "country-blues" or "rockabilly" - and the music was described as being a hybrid of Western swing, Dixieland and blues.
On June 14th 1951, The Saddlemen (including future Comet - keyboard player Johnny Grande) recorded their own country-tinged arrangement of an R&B song titled "Rocket 88" that had been first recorded just 3 months earlier. (The original was officially credited as being written by Jackie Brenston and as performed by "Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats." But music scholars attribute the primary composition, arrangement, performance and production to Ike Turner and his Kings Of Rhythm - for whom Brenston was the sax player and vocalist.)
The Saddlemen cover version with its pedal-steel guitar was distinctively different from the R&B original. It was only a regional hit - but it served notice of the musical changes coming. In summer 1951, the Saddlemen were joined by a 17-year-old bass player Marshall Lytle - who rapidly became a proponent of jazz-style slap-bass playing.
It was this lineup - consisting of Johnny Grande, Marshall Lytle and pedal-steel guitarist Billy Williamson - that renamed itself The Comets in the fall of 1952.
Throughout 1951 and 1952 the highlight of the band's live performances was a song with a heavy rhythmic arrangement called "Rock The Joint." The band finally recorded the song in the spring of 1952. The originality and intensity of their arrangement was quite radical and Billboard Magazine noted it as a "jumpy opus… an odd mixture of country-western and rhythm and blues..." (Billboard - April 26th 1952.) The recording became a hit in the summer of 1952 - eventually selling over 80,000 units.
Inspired by the new sound he was creating with his colleagues, Haley then wrote a classic prototype rock 'n' roll song called "Rock-A-Beatin' Boogie" that became a staple of their live set. Though Haley and The Comets did not record their own version of the song till 1955 - Haley arranged for the song to be recorded by two bands with whom he was friendly. In summer 1952 it was covered by the Esquire Boys (a band that featured Haley session guitarist Danny Cedrone) and in 1953 by a noted black R&B group named The Treniers. These two releases added to the brewing rock 'n' roll movement.
In early 1953 Haley and the band - which had by now officially become The Comets - recorded two successive singles featuring drums for the very first time. "Real Rock Drive" coupled with "Stop Beatin' Around The Mulberry Bush" was the first release to carry the Comets name. This single was followed by "Crazy Man Crazy" coupled with "Whatcha Gonna Do." The break-out hit was "Crazy Man Crazy" which was written by Bill Haley and his bass player Marshall Lytle (at the time uncredited on the disc.) It became the first rock 'n' roll song ever to make the Billboard charts - reaching #15 and eventually selling over 750,000 units.
The studio experiments with drums were considered a success and Dick Richards joined the band in 1953 as their first, full-time stage drummer. There was now just one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle needed to transform The Comets into the first-ever rock 'n' roll band.
In the 1953 recording sessions for "Farewell So Long Goodbye" and "Live It Up" - a follow-up single to "Crazy Man Crazy" - the band experimented with a session horn player for the first time - adding a baritone saxophone to the arrangements. The sound was interesting - but it was not quite what they were looking for.
The last piece of the puzzle dropped into place when 19-year-old Joey Ambrose was recruited to the band. Ambrose played the tenor saxophone. And the difference was crucial. Ambrose was a student of rhythm & blues and jazz. When Ambrose added his R&B-style sax to Richard's drumming - and Lytle's back-slap bass-playing - an instrumental texture was created that had never been heard before. The new band recorded a tune called "Straight Jacket." It was November 1953 - still 8 months before Sam Phillips first recorded Elvis Presley.
The arrival of Ambrose and his bonding with Lytle yielded another element in the Comets that immediately became a staple of the band's stage shows - and a fixture in the emerging vocabulary of rock 'n' roll stagecraft. Lytle and Ambrose developed a series of original visual stage antics involving their instruments that enhanced the theatricality of the Comets' performance.
Lytle treated his double bass like a giant prop. Though it was much larger and heavier than an electric guitar - and thus much harder to manipulate - Lytle twirled the double bass over his head, rode it like a pony, played it while lying on top of it - all without missing a beat. These were many of the tricks with which Jimi Hendrix would spellbind audiences in the late 1960's - using a much lighter, smaller electric guitar. But they were first created on the double bass in 1954. Lytle also developed a good-natured interplay with the saxophonist Ambrose - pre-dating the guitarist-saxophonist stage antics of Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons by some 20 years.
When Lytle and Ambrose eventually left the Comets - their playful stagecraft had become such an integral part of the Comets' stage show that Haley instructed their various replacements over the years to mimic their stage antics move-for-move.
Throughout the summer of 1953 the highlight of the band's live performances had been a new song written specially for the band. It was creating an even greater audience reaction than its predecessor as a crowd-pleaser - "Rock The Joint." The new song was called "Rock Around The Clock." Music industry politics prevented the band recording the new song till they were free of their existing record contract.
One of the many myths surrounding the origins of rock 'n' roll is that Haley & The Comets had been inspired by a fabled "original" version of "Rock Around The Clock." performed by a black R&B act with the intriguing name Sonny Dae & the Knights - that they then copied. The irrefutable facts reveal a quite different story. In the interim months before Haley was free to record the song - one of the composers and Bill Haley's own manager arranged for a genteel version to be recorded for a regional record label by a local Philadelphia novelty act - Sonny Dae & the Knights - who billed themselves as "instrumental, vocal and fun makers." The singer was actually one Pascal Vennitti and he and his troupe were Italian-American and very WHITE!
The composer considered this simply to be a fun, stopgap version until Haley and The Comets were free to record the song that had been written for the band. However the fact that a minor recording had been made a month prior to the Comets' version subsequently led some historians to mistakenly refer to the Haley/Comet's recording as a "cover" version. It was even erroneously assumed that "Sonny Dae & The Knights" must have been a seminal black R&B act that had inspired the Haley & The Comets version! Actually listening to the Sonny Dae version - which has absolutely none of the distinctive rock 'n' roll texture of the classic - makes it explicitly clear that all the creativity and invention came from the arrangement work undertaken on the song during the preceding year by Haley and The Comets. (The guitar solo on the Sonny Dae version actually includes a dash of the nursery rhyme "Rockabye Baby On The Tree Top"!)
On April 12th 1954 Bill Haley and The Comets finally recorded the song that had been composed specifically for them. The song was recorded in just 20 minutes - the last 20 minutes remaining of a 3-hour session in New York City.
History records that the song was initially relegated to the 'B' side of the group's next single "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town.") The record was only a minor success in the USA on its first release in May 1954. It was only when "Rock Around The Clock" was heard on the soundtrack of the MGM film "Blackboard Jungle" (which premiered in March 1955) that the song really took off with teenagers. The record was reissued in April 1955 - with "Rock Around The Clock" as the 'A' side - and by July 1955 it had become the first rock 'n' roll record to reach Number One in the Billboard charts - a position it sustained for 8 consecutive weeks. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it eventually sold over 25 million units worldwide and is still the highest-selling commercial pop single of all time. (The CD release of Sir Elton John's Princess Diana charity tribute single "Candle In The Wind" in 1997 has a slightly higher cumulative sales total.)
It is a fascinating sidebar to note that "Rock Around The Clock" was a Top 20 hit in the UK six long months before it even charted in the US - reaching #17 in January 1955. John Lennon cited it as his first recollection of rock 'n' roll and his first record purchase. It is thus highly probable that many British teenagers heard the song long before their American counterparts!
On June 7th 1954 (still one month before the first Sam Phillips-Elvis Presley session) Bill Haley and The Comets made another seminal recording - a distinctly punchy rock 'n' roll version of Big Joe Turner's R&B song "Shake, Rattle And Roll." The differences in the arrangement and production were considerable and the record hit the Top Ten and became Haley and The Comets' first million-seller. In just eight weeks it sold over two and a half million copies.
It is important to note that all these ground-breaking recording sessions took place in 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1954 - a significant time before the first recordings by Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and many of the other worthy pioneers who were to follow in the footsteps of Bill Haley & The Comets.
On September 21st 1954, Bill Haley and The Comets recorded "Dim Dim The Lights" their follow-up to "Shake, Rattle And Roll" - and it was another turning point for the band. They were joined for the first time by the musician who would become the band's first official guitarist - one of the architects of rock 'n' roll guitar - Franny Beecher. Beecher drew on a background that encompassed country & western music and several years playing with Benny Goodman and Buddy Greco. Fusing his musical influences with the textures created by the Comets led to Beecher evolving a distinctive new style of guitar playing that became an inspiration for countless rock 'n' roll guitarists who followed him. Beecher would play lead guitar for The Comets for 8 years.
For the crucial 12 months that followed - this was the lineup of The Comets that cemented the burgeoning rock 'n' roll movement. With stage shows, recordings, radio programs and live appearances on national TV shows such as The Milton Berle Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. On May 6th 1955 they became the first-ever rock 'n' roll act to give a concert at Carnegie Hall.
After this period - Bill Haley and the Comets were joined in the charts by myriad new performers who followed in their footsteps and made their own contributions to rock 'n' roll. But in 1954 and 1955 the primary architects laying out the blueprints were The Comets.
Further seminal rock 'n' roll recording sessions took place in the first half of 1955. On January 5th 1955, Bill Haley and The Comets recorded "Birth Of The Boogie" (co-written by Johnny Grande) and "Mambo Rock. On May 10th 1955 they recorded "Razzle Dazzle" and "Two Hound Dogs."
At the end of September 1955 came the first major lineup change in the long evolution of The Comets. The core group had evolved from 1949's Saddlemen through to the hit-making team of 1955. The key players by this time were bass player Marshall Lytle, drummer Dick Richards, saxophonist Joey Ambrose, keyboardist Johnny Grande, guitarist Franny Beecher and pedal-steel guitarist Billy Williamson.
Three of the core members who had been instrumental in developing the Comets sound - Ambrose, Richards and Lytle - left the Comets and created a new band The Jodimars. (Their band name was formed from the first few letters of their first names - JO-ey, DI-ck, MARS-hall.) The group would develop a cult following in the rockabilly world. One of their compositions "Clarabella" (named for Marshall Lytle's sister) became a favorite of Paul McCartney who introduced it into the Beatles stage repertoire - where it became a live staple from 1960-1963. The Beatles eventually recorded it for BBC Radio - and then selected it for inclusion on their 1994 album "The Beatles Live At The BBC." Another Jodimars recording "Well Now Dig This" inspired the name of the seminal British rock 'n' roll magazine "Now Dig This."
After Marshall Lytle, Dick Richards and Joey Ambrose left The Comets - the other three key members - Johnny Grande, Franny Beecher and Billy Williamson decided to stay on with the Comets. The departing members were replaced by saxophonist Rudy Pompilli (who would perform with Haley for the next 20 years), bass player Al Rex, and drummer Ralph Jones. This lineup contributed to the last few hits recorded by the band - and appeared in their two successful jukebox movies "Rock Around The Clock" (1956) and "Don't Knock The Rock" (1957.) They were also participants in the early international tours including the ground-breaking tours of Britain, Germany and Australia in 1957 and 1958 - the first-ever rock 'n' roll tours in those countries.
By 1959 the band was focusing primarily on live performance - and they became a very successful touring act. Johnny Grande, Franny Beecher and Billy Williamson stayed with the band for a while and then by early 1963 they had all departed. After 1963 there no founding members left in the Comets and it simply became Bill Haley's touring group with a revolving cast of new members.
Billy Williamson alas passed on in 1996. But five of the six core members of the original Comets who played with the band between 1949 and 1962 are still with us. The five surviving original members reunited in 1987 - and have been performing together ever since. They are known quite simply as The Comets.
The cumulative age of these five musicians is now 381 years - with an average age of 76! The members range in age from 71 to 83!
When Bill Haley and the future Comets recorded "Rock The Joint" in spring 1952…
Fats Domino - was a successful 24-year-old R&B singer. But he wouldn't make a rock 'n' roll record till 1955 - "Ain't That A Shame"
Bo Diddley - was a 23-year-old. His first recording wouldn't be till 1955 - "Bo Diddley"
Chuck Berry - was a 21-year-old hairdresser in St. Louis. His first recording wouldn't be till May 1955 - "Maybelline"
Little Richard - was a 20-year-old in Macon, Georgia. His first recording wouldn't be till 1955 - "Tutti-Frutti"
Carl Perkins - was a 20-year-old in Jackson, Tennessee. His first recording wouldn't be till 1955 - "Movie Magg." "Blue Suede Shoes" became his first hit in 1956.
Elvis Presley - was a 17-year-old truck driver in Memphis, Tennessee. His first recording wouldn't be till July 1954 - "That's All Right Mama." His first hit was not till March 1956 - "Heartbreak Hotel."
Gene Vincent - was a 17-year-old in the US Navy. His first recording wouldn't be till April 1956 - "Be-Bop-A-Lula"
Jerry Lee Lewis - was a 16-year-old bible student in Waxahachie, Texas. His first recording wouldn't be till November 1956 - "End of the Road." His first hit was not till July 1957 - "Whole Lotta Shakin'"
Buddy Holly - was a 15-year-old in Junior High in Lubbock, Texas. His first recording wouldn't be till May 1957 - "That'll Be The Day"
Eddie Cochran - was a 13-year-old in Junior High in Bell Gardens, California. His first recording wouldn't be till 1957 "Sittin' in the Balcony"
This table shows the highest position for each chart entry. And first date of chart entry.
US - 29 separate chart entries in Billboard Top Hundred including 21 in the Top Forty
* The Comets - recorded under the alias "The Kingsmen" (This record is listed in the official Billboard chart books under "Bill Haley & The Comets")