Monday, May 19, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record VI: ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’

So, for the second time, I have stuck out my neck and named a “first” rock & roll record: Bill Haley and the Comets“Crazy Man, Crazy” (as the printing-error punctuation read on the original label), recorded and released in April 1953.  I’m sure that my decision will encounter the scowls and jeers of many a music maven.  But I have done my best in my previous blogposts to lay out the criteria for my layman’s decision, and I hope that it meets with at least some grudging respect.

Besides, no matter how far off the mark it may be, my decision isn’t an unreasonable one.  In his book Rock Around the Clock: The Record That Started the Rock Revolution, Jim Dawson writes:

Though recorded more than a year before what is now recognized as the rock ’n’ roll era, the backbeat-heavy “Crazy Man, Crazy” was fully rock ’n’ roll.  It also set a standard for rock ’n’ roll songs by recognizing that white kids were picking up black jazz slang left over from the twenties and thirties.  Haley sang about finding a band with a “solid” beat, so that he could start “rockin’” with his “chick,” ’cause “man, that music’s gone, gone.”  (p. 51)

(“Crazy Man, Crazy” is not included among the candidates in the book What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record?  But in an e-mail to me, co-author Jim Dawson said that, in retrospect, he would like to have had a chapter on the song.) 

And Wikipedia says that “Crazy Man, Crazy” is “notable as the first recognized rock-and-roll recording to appear on the national American musical charts, peaking at #12 on the Billboard Juke Box chart for the week ending June 20, 1953, and #11 for two weeks on the Cash Box chart beginning for the week of June 13.”  So, objectively speaking, even if “Crazy Man, Crazy” is not the first rock & roll record of all time (as I think it is), it’s at least the first rock & roll record of something. 

Bill Haley (top) and His Comets in 1954
For my money, “Crazy Man, Crazy” stands as the first rock & roll record because it is (to the best of my limited knowledge) the first youth-oriented song, a non-R&B cover, by an ensemble of musicians approximating rock instrumentation (especially electric guitars and drums) and where no single foundational style of music — rhythm & blues, country & western, mainstream pop — stands out from any of the others.  From session drummer Billy Gussak’s seemingly out-of-control introductory skin-slamming to Marshall Lytle’s propulsive slapping of the double bass to the roisterous cries of the whole band on “go, go, go, everybody,” the record declares its independence from the politeness of postwar pop.  

And even though Comet member Billy Williamson plays his hillbilly-honed steel guitar on the track, the solo he picks out is missing a country saunter.  Williamson’s solo sounds more Hawaiian than hillbilly, and closer to the whimper of an electronic dog.  In fact, the steel guitar takes on the quality (at least in retrospect) of a visiting sound from outside the rock & roll universe — comparable to George Harrison’s sitar on the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” (1965).  So, even though the lyrics of “Crazy Man, Crazy” are not about any kind of revolt, the uncontainable explosion of music — by white performers spouting black slang, no less — sounded the first detonation of a cultural insurrection in a racially segregated society that prized soporific songs.

The raw rebellious impulse of “Crazy Man, Crazy” wasn’t lost on contemporary listeners because the song was featured on a television drama about disaffected young people.  As Wikipedia puts it: “In the summer of 1953, ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’ became the first rock-and-roll song to be heard on national television in the United States when it was used on the soundtrack of Glory in the Flower, an installment of the CBS anthology series, Omnibus.”  Glory in the Flower was written by veteran playwright William Inge and starred up-and-comer James Dean.  In his book Rock Around the Clock, Dawson describes the program:

To set an insouciant and unpredictable mood, the producers of Glory in the Flower used “Crazy Man, Crazy” as a frame for the story.  Omnibus host Alistair Cooke walked onto the café set to introduce the play, then dropped a coin into the jukebox to stir its actors into motion.  The first person to hit the dance floor, swinging his shoulders and hips in a jitterbug, was James Dean; at the end of the program, “Crazy Man, Crazy” spun again as the scene faded to black.  (p. 54)

Of course, “Crazy Man, Crazy’s” use on the soundtrack of an audiovisual drama of disgruntled youth was a smaller-scale dry run for the song that would forever inscribe the names of Bill Haley and His Comets in rock & roll history, the song whose catchier tune and wilder arrangement would (understandably) overshadow its stylistically groundbreaking predecessor. 

Many music historians and critics say that the enormous commercial success of Haley and the band’s “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” (to use the original full title) divides the pre-rock era from what came after.  As the subtitle to Dawson’s book Rock Around the Clock says, it was indeed “the record that started the rock revolution.”  I strongly recommend Dawson’s book, though now sadly out of print, to anyone interested in the history of the record, since the story behind it is filled with so many unexpected skips and scratches. 

In particular, Dawson locates the rough-hewn power of “Rock Around the Clock,” somewhat ironically, in the recording’s two musicians who were not members of the Comets: session guitarist Danny Cedrone and session drummer Billy Gussak.  Because the Comets didn’t get to the studio on time (long story), the group ended up having only 40 minutes to record the song.  For the Comets themselves, this was not the problem it might have been, since they had been playing and refining the song as part of their live act for the last year or so.  But veteran producer Milt Gabler (who had worked with Billie Holiday and Louis Jordan, among others) insisted on having Cedrone and Gussak in the session, and ten minutes were eaten off the clock familiarizing them with the song.  Without time to come up with a new guitar solo, Cedrone simply played the same one he did as a session musician on Haley’s version of “Rock the Joint.”  And because he had been playing rigid percussion arrangements on other songs, Gussak let himself go with a more feral — but still controlled — style of drumming.  According to Dawson, Cedrone and Gussak were only a couple of steps away from winging it, but their unfamiliarity with the song lent the finished record a raw energy that was absolutely vital. 

The startling and unlikely success of “Rock Around the Clock” has become the stuff of rock & roll legend.  For one thing, Haley’s original label, Essex Records, wouldn’t let him record the song because of a feud between the company head and one of the song’s purported writers, and the Comets had to move to Decca Records to commit the song to wax.  (Ironically, after “Rock Around the Clock” became a hit, Essex released a pirated version by Haley and the group.)  For another, it was originally intended as the B-side to its disc (as was the case with Haley’s “Rock the Joint”).  Perhaps the best known quirk in “Rock Around the Clock’s” history is that the record went nowhere when first released in 1954 but shot up to #1 on the charts a year later when used on the soundtrack of the juvenile-delinquent movie Blackboard Jungle (1955).  Once again, even though the song wasn’t about rebellion, its rebellious spirit made it a logical choice for a film about discontented youth.  To give an idea of how rebellious its spirit was, the record it displaced from #1 on the charts in 1955 was a sedate version of “Unchained Melody” by Les Baxter. 

Thanks to the success of “Rock Around the Clock,” rock & roll — at least as represented by white teenagers developing a taste for the black rhythm & blues played on the radio by people like Alan Freed — went from an underground fringe sound to a widely recognized mainstream phenomenon, even (maybe especially) among bewildered Caucasian adults who didn’t understand or care for the music. 
One sign of ‘Rock Around the Clock’s’ phenomenal success:
the record inspired an eponymous film featuring Haley and the Comets

I mention “Rock Around the Clock” because Michael Campbell devotes a paragraph to the record in his textbook Rock and Roll: An Introduction, a paragraph that draws a further distinction between rock & roll and rhythm & blues:

“Rock Around the Clock” might be characterized as a lite [sic] version of rhythmic R&B: it has the shuffle beat that we associate with so much fifties rhythm and blues, but the tempo is faster, and the beat keeping is more subtle.  The sound is also less aggressive: the vocal style is not rough, and the instruments play in a higher register; the saxophonist doesn’t honk a solo — the electric guitar is the featured instrument.  Overall, it’s a brighter sound.  (p. 102)

Campbell doesn’t name a “first” rock & roll record (in fact, he problematizes the idea), but his description of the “brighter sound’s” breakaway from rhythm & blues in “Rock Around the Clock” comes mighty close.  He also says: “For the first half of the fifties, rhythm and blues and rock and roll were the same.  They began to diverge with the emergence of white performers working in this new [brighter’] style — artists such as Bill Haley, Elvis [Presley], and Carl Perkins” (p. 98).  Of course, this emergence was made possible by the commercial triumph of “Rock Around the Clock.”  Campbell goes on to mention the “musical differences” between rhythm & blues and rock & roll (discussed in Part IV) to remind readers that the most important difference isn’t racial. 

In his book Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’n’ Roll, Larry Birnbaum also discusses Haley’s musical development and how it relates to the genesis of the new music genre.  Birnbaum’s paragraph begins by pointing out the influence of a country-music genre, the hillbilly boogie, on Haley’s early sound:

Bill Haley’s “Green Tree Boogie,” from 1951, and “Sundown Boogie,” from early 1952, are typical of the [hillbilly-boogie] genre, and both prefigure “Rock Around the Clock.”  “Sundown Boogie,” Haley’s last record before “Rock the Joint,” opens with the words, “Takes a rockin’ chair to rock, takes a rubber ball to roll,” a line that appears in Ma Rainey’s 1924 recording “Jealous Hearted Blues” and on “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues” (Jackson’s song also shares its twelve-bar verse-and-refrain structure with “Rock Around the Clock”).  The main differences between Haley’s songs before and after “Rock the Joint” are the addition of drums and the increasing use of words such as “rock” and “gone,” as in “real gone.”  Still, these incremental changes, if only for a lack of anything more substantial, can be interpreted as marking the approximate moment when white rock ’n’ roll was born.  (pp. 12-13)

Birnbaum uses the qualifier “white” because he (unlike Campbell) considers black rock & roll to be the music Freed played, especially those upbeat songs with “rock” in the titles and lyrics that followed in the wake of Wynonie Harris’ cover of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1948).   I, however, subscribe to Campbell’s view and consider the earliest “true” form of rock & roll to be the “brighter sound” he writes about above.

Of course, the Big Event in rock & roll history between the release of “Crazy Man, Crazy” in 1953 and the success of “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955 was the beginning of Elvis Presley’s recording career in 1954.  Although it was recorded and released two months after “Rock Around the Clock” — and was only a regional hit — Elvis’ first professional platter, his cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right (Mama),” has its strong supporters as the first rock & roll record.  (Depending on the record label, the song is alternately titled “That’s All Right” and “That’s All Right, Mama,” thus my use of parentheses.)  One of those supporters is Rolling Stone magazine, which in 2004, to mark the disc’s 50th anniversary, crowned the King’s first commercial recording as the first rock & roll record.  I haven’t seen the article where Rolling Stone makes the case for its decision, but I’m told that the magazine says Elvis’ version of “That’s All Right” (as the label read) was the moment where “everything came together.”  (A bluesy, upbeat cover of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass hit “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was the flip side.)  If what I’m told is true, I have to wonder what, exactly, was missing from “Crazy Man, Crazy” and “Rock Around the Clock” to relegate them to also-rans. 

One thing missing for me to make Elvis’ “That’s All Right” a rock & roll record is a drummer to pound out the backbeat (not that it needs one): the beat is kept solely on Bill Black’s acoustic double bass; the only other instruments on the record are Presley’s strummed acoustic rhythm guitar and Scotty Moore’s electric lead guitar.  In Before Elvis, Birnbaum says that Presley wouldn’t begin using drums until his last two recordings for Sun Records (before he signed with RCA), recordings which the writer classifies as “country.”  In fact, Birnbaum sees Elvis’ “That’s All Right” as firmly within the tradition of country covers of rhythm & blues songs (like Haley’s “Rocket 88”), not as something revolutionary.  Birnbaum basically makes the argument that Presley’s country version of “That’s All Right” is tagged by listeners as “rock & roll” only in retrospect, with full knowledge of his later post-Sun career.  

Before Elvis also goes a step farther and proposes that Presley, based on his known pre-Sun musical tastes, wasn’t that big an aficionado of rhythm & blues, suggesting that he was turned on to the African American music by producer Sam Phillips (a confirmed fan).  So, Birnbaum casts doubt on the well-known story of Elvis bursting into “That’s All Right (Mama)” during a recording break at Sun studios: the impromptu blast of energy that salvaged a previously unsuccessful session, the legendary session that would ultimately launch the career of the King of Rock & Roll.
Elvis Presley (left), Bill Black, Scotty Moore, and Sam Phillips at Sun studios

However, I would say that Elvis’ cover of “That’s All Right,” while perhaps not instrumentally revolutionary, was a game-changer in terms of its vocals.  The pioneering element of “That’s All Right” is Presley’s unique voice.  Before Elvis, no other popular singer (that I can think of) had his distinctive tonal richness and range of character; after Elvis, the marketplace was flooded by would-be sound-alikes.  Simply put, no other popular singer in 1954 sounded quite like Elvis Presley, and 60 years later, his “That’s All Right” harbors a haunting resonance that still sounds fresh after all this time.  But just as “Rock Around the Clock” wouldn’t find a following until a year after its 1954 release, it would take another year and a half (January 1956) for Presley to break out of the South and, thanks to his new home at RCA Records, become a national figure. 

Before then, Elvis Presley, whose regular engagements included appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and stints on the radio show Louisiana Hayride, would be classified as a country singer.  Only when he started recording for RCA did Presley begin making music that was unambiguously rock & roll (although Campbell makes the heretical argument that Elvis technically never sang rock & roll [pp. 106-08]).  

All of this raises the question: Would Presley’s music have taken a different direction if it hadn’t been for the success of “Rock Around the Clock”?  Without Bill Haley’s greatest hit establishing backbeat-heavy, electric-guitar-driven songs by white artists as a form of (massively) popular music, would Elvis have made records in this mold?  If not, this is one more reason not to confer the title of first rock & roll record on Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right” and give it instead to Bill Haley’s first platter to chart: “Crazy Man, Crazy.”  

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