Dance Music Then...
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Ted Steele Around The Dials From puny 25 watt AM stations
in towns nobody ever heard of, the 1940's found Ted Steele in
New York on major AM big band stations (Steele had a band of his
own). Blossomed crude broadcast television, Steele bopped between
the three smallest New York independents at the time: WATV
channel 13, WPIX-TV channel 11 (where he was replaced by Clay Cole
also from 13) to an all afternoon stint at the then fledgling
RKO General station WOR-TV channel 9. It was there Steele
(probably reluctantly) hosted rock and roll after Alan Freed
had coined it that over WOR's radio station. Nevertheless,
it was Ted Steele, not Freed, Clark or Sullivan, who
introduced the east coast to the hillbilly rock swingback
of Bill Haley & The Comets. Then, for Steele, oblivion.
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The question often pops up: how true is Bill Haley's claim that he and The Comets "invented" Rock & Roll?" The term was popularized by disc jockey's Alan Freed's description of Rythm & Blues and what Haley may have did was cross Hillbilly swing with R&B, but the sound goes back before his band's success to black soul artists such as Big Joe Turner, Hank Ballard, Etta James, La Vern Baker and groups including The Del Vikings, The Magnolias, The Chords and can we ever forget Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
BILL HALEY The central event in Haley's career was the single "Rock Around the Clock" topping the charts for eight weeks in the spring and summer of 1955, an event that most music historians identify as the dawn of the rock & roll era. Getting the song there, however, took more than a year, a period in which the band had already done unique and essential service in the cause of bringing rock & roll into the world, with the million-selling single "Shake, Rattle and Roll" to their credit; equally important, in the three years before that, Haley and his band had already broken new ground with the singles of "Rocket 88," "Rock the Joint," and "Crazy, Man, Crazy."
Born in Highland Park, MI, in 1925, Haley was blind in one eye from birth, and, as a consequence, suffered from terrible shyness as a boy. The family moved to Boothwyn, PA, during the mid-'30s, where Haley developed a strong love for country music and began playing guitar and singing; by 14, he had left school in the hope of pursuing a career in music. He bounced through a few country bands based in the Middle Atlantic states and also tried to establish himself as a singing and yodeling cowboy. His first big break came in 1944, when he replaced Kenny Roberts -- who was being drafted -- in the Downhomers, with whom Haley made his first appearance on records. Haley left the group in 1946 and went through several other bands before returning to his home in Chester, PA, where he initially hoped to get some work as a DJ. Instead, he formed a new band, the Four Aces of Western Swing, with keyboardman Johnny Grande, bassist Al Rex, and steel guitar player Billy Williamson, and signed a contract with Cowboy Records, a new label formed by James Myers, a composer, musician, and publisher, and his partner, Jack Howard. Their first record was released in 1948, a version of "Candy Kisses"; by 1949, the group had changed its name to the Saddlemen and began moving between labels, including liaisons with the fledgling Atlantic Records, Ivin Ballen's Gotham Records, and Ed Wilson's Keystone Records, before finally settling at Holiday Records, a small label owned by David Miller, in 1951. Their first release, done at Miller's insistence, was a cover of "Rocket 88," a song that originated out of Sam Phillips' fledgling recording operation in Memphis, courtesy of Jackie Brenston. It was a pumping piece of sexually suggestive, rollicking R&B, and Haley and the Saddlemen simply put a broader, slightly loping country boogie sound onto it and boosted the rhythm section, while a lead guitar (probably played by Danny Cedrone) noodled some blues licks on the break. Haley hadn't liked the idea of doing the song, but Miller wanted it, and the result -- though no one knew it at the time -- was the first white-band cover of what is now regarded by many scholars as the first real rock & roll song.
Just to put this in perspective, rock & roll is usually written about as a phenomenon (and a reaction to) the complacency of the Eisenhower era. But Haley had released what amounted to a rock & roll single in 1951, when "Ike" wasn't even yet running to be president, the country was still mired in Korea, and John Kennedy not yet even a senator. Howlin' Wolf was still based in Memphis and cutting sides for Sam Phillips, while a 15-year-old Elvis Presley was in tenth grade. The members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were still in grammar school; Lonnie Donegan was still known as Anthony Donegan and thinking of becoming an entertainer; and Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies had not yet even met. And Big Bill Broonzy was about to introduce American blues to England.
At the time, "Rocket 88" didn't seem to matter too much in terms of sales, as it was neither fish nor fowl; not good enough R&B to eclipse Brenston's original among black record buyers, nor sufficiently a country record the way white audiences or the radio stations that catered to them wanted. No one even had a name for what it was; a "race record" as the trades called discs done in a style that seemed aimed at black listeners, but one done by a white band in a kind of country style. Indeed, the band itself remained strangely anonymous; Miller had seen to it that there were no publicity photos of Bill Haley & the Saddlemen, a calculated effort to obscure their race, though the band's name and the country ballad B-sides to those early singles pretty much told who they really were. That debut single sold just a few thousand copies regionally, as did its follow-up, "Green Tree Boogie." Meanwhile, when Haley and his band played, they and their business manager, Jim Ferguson, began to notice that it was the younger audience members who responded best to the R&B-style songs that Miller had them doing. They also saw all around them that enthusiasm for country music was flat, and that if they were looking for a hit, it likely wasn't going to come from this new direction.
They were trying all kinds of permutations of country and R&B and getting some response, but they didn't know what it exactly was that they were doing musically. Then came "Rock the Joint," their first release on Miller's new Essex Records label; it had a beat, it had a memorable catch phrase, and it had a great performance at its core (including the very same solo that Danny Cedrone would later use on "Rock Around the Clock"), and it sold well enough that the band had to go on tour promoting it. One of the places where it sold well was Cleveland, where DJ Alan Freed picked up on the song; it was immediately after this that Freed began referring to the music embodied by "Rock the Joint," music that he played every night on his show, as "rock & roll," thus giving Haley a good deal of justification for his later claim to have been in on the birth of the music before anyone ever knew it. [Note: Marshall Lyttle remembers "Rock the Joint" as the song Freed was playing during an appearance by the band on his radio show, when he began using the phrase "rock & roll" -- scholars who agree with the Haley connection also often attribute Freed's inspiration to the later single "Crazy, Man, Crazy," while other historians say that Freed appropriated the phrase from Wild Bill Moore's "We're Gonna Rock, We're Gonna Roll".]
By this time, the band members, all well into their 30s and long past being teenagers, were taking what amounted to a crash course in what that audience wanted; at Ferguson's suggestion, they played hundreds of high-school dances, not normally a venue that a professional country band would bother with. In the process, they also changed their image and name. By 1952, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen were history; instead, playing off of their leader's name and the celestial phenomenon called Halley's Comet, they became Bill Haley & His Comets. The cowboy hats and other country paraphernalia were junked as well. And they took a close look at the successful R&B stage acts of the time, especially the Treniers, and began working out wild quasi-acrobatic moves by their bass player and saxman, what the kids devoured at dances.
In the years since his death, the surviving members of the Comets, including pianist Johnny Grande guitarist Franny Beecher, saxman Joey D'Ambrosio, bassist Marshall Lytle, and drummer Dick Richards, all in their 70s and 80s, have continued to work together and were still able to perform to sell-out crowds in Europe during the 1990s and early 2000s, doing Haley's classic repertory. Haley's own reputation has increased somewhat, particularly in the wake of Bear Family Records' release of two boxes covering his career from 1954 through 1969, and Roller Coaster Records' issuing of Haley's Essex Records sides. True, there are perhaps 45 songs on those 12 CDs of material that Haley should not have bothered recording, but there are hundreds more in those same collections, some of it dazzling and all of it constituting a serious body of solid, often inspired rock & roll, interspersed here and there with some good country sides. Perhaps little of the post-1957 stuff could set the whole world on fire, but Haley had already been there and done that, and still had a lot of good music to play.
by Bruce Eder, All Music Guide
Take Your Pick, 50's New York: Cole, Freed, Sheldon or Steele In the Greater New York broadcast television market, Dick Clark may have had the 4-5PM EST slot all to himself on ABC, (ch 7 in NY) but the next hour, 5-6PM, three competed for teen allegiance: Herb Sheldon's Teen Dance Party on ch. 5, Ted Steele's Bandstand on ch. 9 and The Clay Cole Show first on 13, then "Pix" 11. It wasn't until Alan Freed took over the helm from Sheldon that channel 5 clearly emerged as the winner, until Freed fell from grace in the Payola scandal. Cole was somewhat an icon for his telecasts from New Jersey's Palisades Park, also title to Freddie Canon's hit. Eventually, the bandstand format grew weary with teens. However, in the early 60's, once horror movie host turned disc jockey John Zacherle would emerge on the area's first UHF TV station, 47 (WNJU) with his Discoteen show, created by Barry Landers. Problem: few households had proper antenna set-ups which could receive UHF, and NY channels in that band would have a hard time garnering ratings until the 70's, when vaudeville comedian Floyd Vivino would do shtick at 5 on channel 68, which became a teen cult show, save the dancing (WBTB's West Orange NJ studios weren't big enough). ABC held on to American Bandstand, running it on Saturday afternoons in the 70's while urban oriented Soul Train ran in popular syndication, on Pix-11 (WPIX) in the New York market. By the 80's, AB had it, but the Soul Train choo chooed on and remains the only teen dance show currently running in the East Coast. Failed attempt: America Goes Bananas from Cleveland was relegated to cable channels while USA Network's Dance Party USA got in hot water for too much beach bikini dancing and 80's Soap Factory from the Jersey Shore never failed to catch on. 1960's prime time network Hullabaloo & Au Go Go shows had ample dancing (of sorts), but were categorized as variety shows. Don Cornelius may have his domestic legal problems, but his Soul Train, like the Energizer Bunny, is the dance show that keeps on going and going and going. Lou @ oldiestelevision.com
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