Deke Dickerson charts the birth of Rock & Roll music—as we know it—to the early 1950s, and a little seaside resort town called Wildwood, New Jersey. Long before Elvis stepped inside Sun Studio, Dickerson says it was a criminally underrated musical act called the Treniers who created Rock & Roll. Read on to see how the mix of rhythm & blues, jazz, swing, showbiz savvy, hillbilly, and country, all came together in a rowdy Jersey Shore resort town to create a music revolution.
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild…”
-Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden: Or, Life In The Woods,’ 1854
“Everything’s wild in Wildwood, Wildwood by the Sea…”
-The Treniers, 1955
What, exactly, IS “Rock & Roll” music? And where and when did it happen first?
Books have been written on the subject, and plenty of nerdy record collectors can wax rhapsodic on the subject for hours, if not days or weeks. The dancers, they could care less. But it is worth debating. There are many opinions but no clear answers.
This article was written with the intent to shine a light on an important story in the history of American music, a tale that has been told but never given a proper acknowledgement. I think it’s worth telling. Rock & Roll music—as we know it—was invented in the early 1950s in a little seaside resort town called Wildwood, New Jersey.
Why is this so radical to suggest? Because saying that Rock & Roll sprang forth in this holiday spot on the Jersey shore mucks with the official history of Rock & Roll, as the history books have so decreed. Here’s how the educated cognoscenti have mostly agreed on the birth of America’s most beloved and misunderstood music genre:
“July 5, 1954, Memphis, Tennessee. A young truck driver named Elvis Presley walks into Sun Recording Studios. Paired with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Elvis runs through material trying to impress Sun Records boss Sam Phillips. After trying everything from straight hillbilly to Dean Martin pop songs, Elvis BREAKS FREE FROM ALL ACCEPTABLE SOCIETAL NORMS and suddenly begins singing a revved up version of an obscure Arthur Crudup blues song called ‘That’s All Right, Mama.’ Sam Phillips declares it to be something ‘new and different’ and releases the single less than two weeks later. ROCK & ROLL IS BORN.”
This story, as great as Elvis was, as groundbreaking and fabulous as his Sun recordings were, is folly. It is acceptable to many only because we know the precise date Elvis recorded “That’s All Right,” and because Elvis became the biggest selling and most popular artist in America.
Rock & Roll music—as we know it—was invented in the early 1950s in a little seaside resort town called Wildwood, New Jersey.
But if one objectively stands back and looks at the big picture, it’s a lie. Elvis didn’t invent Rock & Roll. He just messed with the music; he caused the biggest stink; and he sold records faster than they could produce them. He was a good-looking, greasy-haired kid who blew into America’s living rooms like a hurricane. Elvis was a movement, a revolution, and he changed America. But he didn’t invent Rock & Roll.
Elvis himself was quoted as saying “A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock & roll was here a long time before I came along.”
What IS rock & roll, anyway? This is where everybody’s opinion will vary. There was no big bang moment where suddenly Rock & Roll music appeared, overnight. Rock & Roll was years in the making, creeping forth in popular culture under names like Rhythm and Blues, Hot Jazz, Boogie Woogie, Western Swing and Hillbilly Boogie.
Rock & Roll was most certainly forged in African-American traditions that came out of blues and jazz—the all-important backbeat, the drums, the loudness, the wildness, the rhythm. But Rock & Roll also sprang from the influence of many other cultures—the roughness of Hillbilly, the freedom of Jazz, the danceability of the Big Bands, the lyrical witticism of the Jewish Tin Pan Alley popular songwriters, and what might be called Traditional Music—Irish songs, Italian songs, German Songs, African songs, or just “folk songs” as a general catch-all term. The Gospel Music heard in the church also influenced all of these men and women who created Rock & Roll, regardless of their skin color or ethnic background. All these things came together, eventually, like a famous recipe, but very few can agree on the exact moment that the recipe of Rock & Roll first happened.
In the years immediately following the Second World War, music started getting louder, less sophisticated, more primitive. Electrified guitars replaced trumpets, mandolins and violins. Many records from the period 1945 through 1954 are remarkably close to Rock & Roll music, but they still aren’t Rock & Roll.
Even though the term “rocking and rolling” had been used in song lyrics going back to the 1920s, such as “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll), 1922, by Trixie Smith; or “Rock And Roll” by the Boswell Sisters, 1934; none of these records were Rock & Roll music. These records used a term that was already popular in America, a euphemism for sex, sometimes to describe a good party (“The house was ROCKIN’!”), but it had nothing to do with the music. It began as a phrase in the lexicon of hip African-Americans, then evolved into something else entirely, which happens a lot in this country.
..when you talk about the birth of Rock & Roll, there has to be a moment where all the things that came before ceased to be, and turned into something new.
What was eventually known as Rock & Roll music came by gasps and wheezes, inching forward a little each year. Listen to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day” from 1944. Listen to Harry ‘The Hipster’ Gibson’s “Riot In Boogie” from 1945. Listen to “Fat Boy Rag,” 1946, by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Listen to “Hillbilly Boogie,” also 1946, by the Delmore Brothers. Listen to “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” 1947, by Roy Brown, or the faster 1948 remake of the same song by Wynonie Harris. Listen to “The Fat Man” by Fats Domino from 1949. Listen to “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” 1949, by Louis Jordan. Listen to Big Jay McNeely’s “Blow Big Jay” from 1950. Listen to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Smokey Mountain Boogie” from 1950 with Merle Travis on blistering electric lead guitar. Listen to Jimmy Lee Fautheree live on the Big D Jamboree, playing Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” with a new, frantic drive, in 1951. Listen to the record that many music scholars say is the first Rock ‘n’ Roll record—“Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston with Ike Turner’s band, recorded in 1951. Listen to all 50 songs featured in the book What Was The First Rock And Roll Record? by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes. All of these songs are excellent, if you haven’t heard them. Every single one of these artists was a major influence on what became Rock & Roll music.
These records all share remarkable characteristics with Rock & Roll music, and yet, they aren’t. The one that comes the closest is probably Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” but if you dissect the recording, it’s really a pretty typical Rhythm and Blues record from 1951, made historically significant because the electric guitarist’s amplifier got dropped on the way to the recording, making a distorted, “fuzz” sound. This makes it sound like something from a later era, even though it wasn’t. Listening with modern ears, it sounds like Rock & Roll, but in reality, it was a Rhythm and Blues record with a busted guitar amp on the recording.
All over the country in the years 1949-54, artists who would eventually become huge rock ‘n’ roll stars made records that were pretty close but were not quite there yet—Little Richard and Fats Domino in New Orleans; Ray Charles, Big Jay McNeely and Johnny Otis in Los Angeles; Joe Turner in New York City; and a white hillbilly artist from Chester, Pennsylvania, named Bill Haley.
Rock & Roll music has to be dangerous to be rock & roll… Adults had to hate it, kids had to love it, it had to be spoken in a secret code that no squares could understand
So what defines Rock & Roll? When did it begin, and where?
In this author’s opinion, there were many different factors all starting to come together by the early 1950s. Society was changing at a rapid pace during those postwar years, and there was a whole new group of kids, both black and white, that desired something stronger than the Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller orchestras of the previous decade. Cars and planes and motorcycles and boats all changed from boxy, rounded designs to new streamlined, chrome-plated designs influenced by jet planes and rockets. The agrarian society of the Depression-era 1930’s where families grew their own vegetables and slaughtered their own hogs rapidly changed into a fast food nation, a country defined by hamburgers and all-night diners and frozen TV dinners. All these things played a part in the cultural birth of Rock & Roll, just as Kennedy’s assassination in late 1963 paved the way for the Beatles and rest of the turbulent 1960s.
Musically, rhythm and blues artists (translation: African-American artists) were making tremendous, groundbreaking music, but sales were a tiny fraction compared to lilywhite “Pop” music, which still made the bulk of the profits for all record companies. Rhythm and Blues was sold as “race” records through the distributors, a blatant classification based on skin color. Much the same could be said of country music (translation: whites who played “rough sounding” folk music, sold through the record stores as “hillbilly” records)—it sold well enough for labels to produce these records, but compared to mainstream pop records, hillbilly records were a small blip in sales. There was no disguising the fact that “hillbilly” was a record company’s classification of poorer, less educated rural Americans.
Just look at the biggest-selling artists of the late 1940s and early 1950s: Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Frankie Laine, Guy Lombardo, Rosemary Clooney. These were the big sellers, the industry leaders, the big stars. It’s hard to visualize today, because now the industry is exactly the opposite, but during this era, ‘really white music for really white people’ sold lots and lots of records. Even when truly hip African-American artists like Nat “King” Cole scored a mainstream hit, it was always the whitest-sounding thing they had ever made, a pander to the suburbanites who bought pleasant-sounding recordings.
To come up with an answer for when Rock & Roll began, I believe it depends on several factors. I think to determine the beginning of Rock & Roll, you’ve got to have all three of the factors listed below.
First, I believe there must be a co-mingling of black and white cultures, especially when music moved from the back alley blues clubs and the country music barns into the mainstream.
For example, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” was pretty close to being a Rock & Roll record, but it was still a regional hit, and it was very much an African-American hit. It was a record that could be heard on black jukeboxes in black restaurants and black drinking establishments, but it was never going to be played on mainstream radio stations, and white kids couldn’t go into their local record store and buy it. “Rocket 88” was still confined to the earlier “race record” category, groundbreaking as it might be. It was acknowledged only by record collectors and historians decades after its release, not by throngs of young kids buying millions of copies of the record when it was released.
I believe that you can make the case that black and white cultures had to coexist to make Rock & Roll music, without demeaning either culture. The reality is that everybody was taking wild stabs in the dark during those days. Nobody had a clear-cut vision of what the future was going to bring. If one really looks at what was happening in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, black and white culture flowed back and forth, influencing each other, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. During the birth of Rock & Roll music, black and white cultures interacted with great and terrible and groundbreaking and uncomfortable and uplifting and heartbreaking scenarios all happening at the same time. Like a lot of things in the United States, the music that resulted was something great but the process was messy.
Secondly, I believe that when you talk about the birth of Rock & Roll, there has to be a moment where all the things that came before ceased to be, and turned into something new. One could say that was defined by the backbeat of the drums. One could say it was the loudness and the drive of the electric guitars. One could say it was the intensity of the playing of the saxophone player. You could also make the case it had to do with the singer’s vocal delivery. There’s a lot of wiggle room and room for opinion, but to paraphrase the former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous obscenity trial comment, “I Know It When I Hear It.”
For instance, Little Richard made his first record in late 1951, called “Taxi Blues.” It is a Rhythm and Blues record, and Richard sings it like a blues shouter. It’s a great R&B record, but it is not Rock & Roll. Little Richard made a handful of records in this style in the years 1951-1954.
In October 1955, however, Little Richard entered the studio and cut a record called “Tutti Frutti.” It was something else entirely. Richard sang, but not like a blues singer. He screamed, he howled, he rasped. The band acquired ten times more heaviness via a pronounced backbeat on the drums, courtesy of New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer. “Tutti Frutti” was most certainly, undeniably, Rock & Roll music. But Little Richard’s early records that preceded it were not.
It’s hard to visualize today, because now the industry is exactly the opposite, but during this era, really white music for really white people sold lots and lots of records.
Lastly, I believe that a key element that defines Rock ‘n’ Roll is danger. Rock & Roll music has to be dangerous to be rock & roll. It has to cross that line. Adults had to hate it, kids had to love it, it had to be spoken in a secret code that no squares could understand. Bo Diddley and Little Richard scared the living hell out of white parents in the suburbs in a way that African-American artists like Billy Eckstine and Nat “King” Cole had not. Rock & Roll was dangerous in a way that no other music had been before. And if it wasn’t dangerous, it wasn’t Rock & Roll.
The kids knew, well in advance of the music business catching on. Just look at the famous Bob Willoughby photo of Big Jay McNeely lying on his back, honking his saxophone on the stage of Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium in 1951—the front of the stage is lined with white kids, pounding their fists on the stage, expressions of mad frenzy on their faces. To mainstream white America, this represented a threat. But the kids knew. They understood it. They felt it coming.
One could make the case that Los Angeles in the late 1940s and early 1950s might have been the birthplace of Rock & Roll. But it wasn’t. Big Jay McNeely was playing Rhythm and Blues as it had never been played before, but it was still Rhythm and Blues. He was billed often as a “jazz” artist yet scoffed at by serious jazz musicians as a primitive, less refined musician. The music of Big Jay McNeely in those years (1949-51) was like a musical version of a Poppin’ Fresh dinner roll that was in the oven, but still needed five more minutes to be a Poppin’ Fresh dinner roll. It wasn’t quite ready. It had all the ingredients and it was on its way, but it wasn’t Rock ‘n’ Roll quite yet. Big Jay McNeely would eventually make some fabulous Rock & Roll records, but not for a few more years.
I’m taking my time to get around to my point, but here goes:
The United States used to have certain towns that were known as “wide open towns.” In those towns, the bars closed late or not at all, there were booze, drugs and women easily available, the police turned a blind eye on anything except the most egregious acts, and not surprisingly, live music flourished. Kansas City was one of those towns. New Orleans was one of those towns. Las Vegas started out as a little stop in the Nevada desert and grew into a colossus of one of those towns. Wildwood, New Jersey, a little town on the southern edge of the Jersey shore, was another one of those towns.
Wildwood was a popular summer vacation destination for city people to go to, and became more so once the postwar boom enabled more and more working families to buy cars. The town had a permanent population of 5,000 people, but in the summers the population swelled to a quarter-million vacationers. A grandfathered liquor-license law passed in 1948 enabled the town to have 61 liquor licenses, far more than the normal New Jersey town’s allotment of one license per 3,000 residents. With all those people coming in, they built motel rooms, restaurants, drinking establishments and recreational outlets.
People would come to Wildwood not for a day, but for the whole summer, especially kids out of school. High school kids would get together and rent a house for the summer, get fake IDs, and basically go wild for 12 weeks.
Jerry Blavat, the “Geator with the Heator,” Philadelphia’s most beloved Rock & Roll radio and television personality, remembers: “When I was a kid, I would be in Wildwood during the summertime, and I would sneak into these wonderful clubs. I mean, it was where artists came to perfect their act before they moved on to Vegas.”
Joey D’Ambrosio, sax player with Bill Haley and the Comets in 1954-55: “That was the place during the summertime. Everybody went to Wildwood. If you were anybody, you played Wildwood in the summertime.”
Live music in the supper clubs and corner bars became a popular source of entertainment for all those people coming in. It wasn’t long before big name entertainment became a drawing card for Wildwood. Like Kansas City, Las Vegas and New Orleans, Wildwood became a place that people went to get drunk, get rowdy and see great live entertainment. Wildwood became known as “Little Las Vegas,” and lived up to its reputation.
Jerry Blavat, the ‘Geator:’ “Wildwood was the Las Vegas of the East Coast, as far as entertainment was concerned. Back in the day, Wildwood was open ‘til five, six in the morning.”
Dick Richards, drummer with Bill Haley and the Comets in 1953-55: “It (Wildwood) was loose, man!”
In that environment, rowdy music flourished. To be heard above the din, bands had to play louder, faster, and they had to entertain the crowds. You wouldn’t find pleasant Café Society music in Wildwood or any of the other seaside Jersey resort towns. A typical nightclub in Wildwood or Southern New Jersey circa the late 1940s and early 1950s would feature a dance band, a comedian, a juggler or plate spinner, and a burlesque dancer. Clubs lined the boardwalk and Atlantic and Oak Streets—The Riptide, the Hof Brau, the Bolero, the Surf Club, the Hurricane, the Beachcomber, Moore’s Inlet, Diamond Beach, to name a few. The Starlight Ballroom brought in big name dance bands for dancing throngs. Wildwood exploded after World War II, and by 1950 it was in full bloom.
Many of the bands that played during the early 1950s in Wildwood were remarkably similar in sound and stage presentation. They were all loud, brash, jumping and swinging. They had visual parts of their act to keep the crowds entertained. The music had an incessant beat, a never-ending beat, a beat that pounded the dancing and drinking crowds into a near-frenzy.
Enter The Treniers, one of the greatest and most criminally underrated musical acts in American history. For my money, The Treniers were the creators of a style of music that ultimately became Rock & Roll. They refined a blueprint taken from the Rhythm and Blues that came before them, did all the field-testing, added new energy and wildness, tore the house down wherever they appeared, and made lots of great records. They appeared on television and in films, but never received the hit records or the mass adulation that should have come their way.
The Treniers were an African-American dance and show band made up of several members of the Trenier family, originally from Mobile, Alabama. The leaders of the group were identical twins Claude and Cliff Trenier, augmented by brothers Buddy and Milt Trenier and later by nephew Skip Trenier. Another brother, Denny, wrote some of their material.
The Trenier Twins, as they were initially called, began performing in the early 1940s while enrolled at Alabama State College, where, Claude told writer Nick Tosches, he and his brother were “studyin’ nothin’.” After leaving college, the brothers were featured singers (sometimes both together, sometimes not) in Jimmie Lunceford’s Jump Orchestra.
It should be noted that as early as 1938, Jimmie Lunceford sped up an Ella Fitzgerald ballad called “Rock It For Me” and featured the jumping, up-tempo number in the live shows that The Trenier Twins performed with Lunceford’s band in the mid-1940s.
Could it be any more obvious? The Treniers were giving us Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll in a neat early 1950s double-entendre package with a bow on top.
After the twins left Lunceford’s Orchestra, Claude based himself in Los Angeles and began performing with people as varied as Joe Liggins’ Honeydrippers, Charles Mingus and Barney Bigard. Claude was billed as “The Sepia Sinatra” and made several records under his name during this time.
Claude summoned Cliff to Los Angeles, as well as former bandmates Don Hill on saxophone and pianist Gene Gilbeaux, who also wrote band arrangements. They worked with Johnny Otis’ Orchestra and several others while developing their own act, which would take flight in 1947.
By then, drawing on their experience with Jimmie Lunceford, Claude and Cliff had worked up a highly visual act that incorporated choreographed dancing, comedy (always a huge part of the Treniers act), and a unique singing style that had the twins singing in unison for most of each song, “doubling” the vocal, ending lines of each chorus with harmony singing.
The band’s sound, both sophisticated and rowdy as hell, was described by Nick Tosches in his 1984 book The Unsung Heroes Of Rock And Roll:
“They had developed a unique sound, derived somewhat from Jimmie Lunceford’s 2/4 and Louis Jordan’s shuffle; more so from the sort of ineffable knowledge that can be had only by long years of studyin’ nothin’; and, just as important, a style of performance—involving everything from acapella shrieking to acrobatics to football formations—the likes of which had not been known.”
The Trenier Twins started recording in 1947 for Mercury Records, signed to the label by Louis Jordan’s manager. The Treniers appeared in Las Vegas for the first time that same year, when Las Vegas was first sprouting tiny casinos in the desert.
As early as 1949, the promoters and managers who booked The Treniers knew that their act offered something new, something yet unknown to audiences. The Treniers brand of chaotic ruckus needed a name, a catch phrase, a tag to sell their music.
Claude Trenier remembered the moment in that year where the term “Rock and Roll” first reared its head, interviewed by Peter Grendysa: “We started singing a song called ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ in 1947, and came to Chicago to play the Blue Note. But no one knew how to describe what we were doing. So, the owner of the Blue Note, Raymond Scott, who had been playing Duke Ellington, Basie, says ‘How can I introduce you?’ We told him to say anything he wants. So, he says, ‘We’ll just call you ‘Those Rockin’ Rollin’ Treniers.’” The term “Rock and Roll,” used as a slang phrase since the 1920s as a euphemism for sex, began to take on a connotation associated with a style of music.
What is amazing is how the Treniers accurately predicted that Rock & Roll was coming, like smaller waves hitting the shore before a tsunami. The Treniers release on London Records in February 1950, “Everybody Get Together,” features the twins singing “Come on, let’s rock this house tonight” and “We’re gonna rock!” After signing to Okeh Records, the group began to cut one pre-Rock & Roll disc after another. August 1951: “It Rocks! It Rolls! It Swings! It Jumps!”; January, 1952: “Rocking On Sunday Night,”; October, 1952: “Rocking Is Our Bizness,” (their spelling); September, 1953: “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie” (written by Bill Haley and given to the Treniers, but we’ll get to that in a minute).
Enter The Treniers, one of the greatest and most criminally underrated musical acts in American history. For my money, The Treniers were the creators of a style of music that ultimately became Rock & Roll.
They peppered their lyrics with the sort of lowbrow subject material that might upset white folks in their safe suburban neighborhoods but was prime entertainment fodder for patrons pounding whiskey sours in late-night cocktail lounges in ‘wide-open towns.’ The group extolled the virtues of the alcoholic quack medicine Hadacol with their “Hadacol, That’s All.” They manufactured their own fake promotional cans of Treniers brand “Poontang” (named for their 1952 recording of the same name), advertised on the empty can’s label as “Extra Fancy Lower Alabama Poontang, from the recipe of Miss Pussy Galore.” The group sang about baldheaded women, Cadillacs and wine.
Could it be any more obvious? The Treniers were giving us Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll in a neat early 1950s double-entendre package with a bow on top. At that time, there wasn’t an audience for it yet outside of the rowdy clubs they played. The mass marketing, and sales potential of their creation would be left to others.
Milt Trenier: “We were doing mostly rhythm and blues, most of our stuff, really. The way we would do it, the way the rock part would come into it, was our own way of doing the blues. We did it in a way and with a beat that the people said ‘they’re rockin’ that joint.’ ‘The house is rockin’ tonight.’ We didn’t know what we were doing (laughs)!”
The summer of 1950 found The Treniers playing their first summer residency at the Riptide Club in Wildwood, a club they would return to each summer over the next few years. Claude Trenier has been quoted as saying that they played at the Surf Club in Wildwood as early as 1949, but that remains unsubstantiated.
Other acts that worked the area during the summers of the late 1940s and early 1950s included Louis Prima (whose own contribution to the origins of Rock & Roll cannot be ignored); Steve Gibson and the Red Caps with Damita Jo; Buddy Greco; Louis Armstrong; The Aristocats; George Young; Herbie Fields; The Playboys; Jimmy Cavello; Buddy Rich; Freddie Bell and the Bellboys; and a young hillbilly singer named Bill Haley. All of these acts worked the Wildwood clubs with similar high-energy stage shows, but the Treniers were by far the wildest. Their show set the standard by which all the other acts could be measured.
Charlie Gracie, a Philadelphia-based recording star (his biggest hit was “Butterfly” in 1957; Paul McCartney is a huge fan) worked in Wildwood many summers during his career, beginning in the mid-1950s. In his teenage years, before his hit records, he recorded a song presciently called “Wildwood Boogie” for Cadillac Records in 1955.
Charlie Gracie: “They (The Treniers) were one of the shining groups to go watch. I played opposite them a couple times over the years. They were great guys, Claude and Cliff, the two brothers. They were twins and they had other members of their family playing in the band. They were the black Louis Primas, they had that same sound. ‘Rockin’ is our business, that’s what I like to do.’ I bought that (Treniers) record on the Okeh label in 1953 and I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Jerry Blavat, the ‘Geator:’ “The Treniers were the biggest act. I would sneak in. It was like a revue when you saw The Treniers. They not only sang, but they did comedy, and they played instruments. They also did the steps. When you saw The Treniers, it was a revue, seeing the brothers work. When The Treniers did their thing, other acts would come in there and emulate that. It was show business. That’s why they called it the ‘Las Vegas of the East Coast.’”
“If you wanted to be a hip kid, and you wanted to be, (when you’d) go back after the summer into the neighborhood, you had to talk about being in Wildwood and experiencing the acts that you saw. Because they didn’t appear in Philadelphia, there were no clubs in Philadelphia like the clubs that we saw those acts in Wildwood. I became ‘hip’ when I was in Wildwood.”
Joey D’Ambrosio of Bill Haley’s Comets: “Oh, I tell you, they (The Treniers) were my favorite group at that time, they really were. Don Hill, the saxophone player, and Milt and all the guys in the group, I knew them all. When I could, I would go over there. They were playing around the corner from where we were playing and I would just enjoy going over there and listening to them guys, you know? I mean, they were, still are one of my favorite groups of all time, The Treniers.”
Don Hill, sax player with the Treniers from 1947-2003: “It was the wildest time in the world, man. That’s all I can say. Everything happened all the time. Wildwood was the start of it. And the Treniers made Wildwood wild.”
Charlie Gracie remembers those Wildwood summer residencies: “We’d get some New Yorkers, but mostly it was Philadelphia, Delaware, Jersey, tri-state area people. The people were vacationers. Wildwood was the largest beach in the world, to be honest with you. To get to the water, it’s like half a mile. That’s how big the beach is.
“It (Wildwood) was originally part of what they called the ‘Irish Riviera.’ You know why they called it that? Years ago, the Irish weren’t welcome anywhere, at the turn of the century, so to Atlantic City and Wildwood and places like that, they started their own resorts. Later on, it was a mixture of nationalities. Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish. It was a coming together of, you know, different faces and religions and people.”
Jerry Blavat: “They came from mostly Philadelphia, Jersey, Delaware, because of the ferry across from Cape May. And you had New Yorkers there who also came down to Wildwood. But you got to understand, see, this was another thing. Wildwood as opposed to Atlantic City…back then, if you drove from Philly to Atlantic City, (it would take) an hour and a half. When you went to Wildwood, it would take you three and a half hours. You did not go there for the day. You had to spend the entire weekend, or you had a summer home or a summer rental there. Wildwood had all the clubs. People stayed for the summer.”
Wildwood was one of the few places in the country at that time where African-American rhythm and blues acts, Big Bands, Italian-American jazz acts, strippers and hillbilly bands could all perform at clubs on the same street. The musical integration flowed freely (“There wasn’t anywhere we weren’t allowed to go,” remembers Milt Trenier). Bands would go check out other shows, and the influences were happening all over the town in those years. It was what might be termed a “breeding ground” for something new to spring forth.
Jerry Blavat: “You’ve got to understand, that guys who owned those clubs back then were pretty hip. They’d been to Vegas, they saw what was happening. These acts we’re talking about, they played Vegas. But during the summertime, Vegas was too hot. A lot of the acts worked Wildwood in the summers.”
Don Hill, The Treniers saxophonist: “Everything was wild in Wildwood. Even the women (laughs). So, there you go.”
Besides the Vegas acts, the rhythm and blues acts from the ‘Sepia Circuit’ and the strippers, Wildwood clubs also brought in hillbilly acts. One of the most well-known hillbilly artists in the Philadelphia area was a singer based out of Chester, Pennsylvania, named Bill Haley.
Charlie Gracie remembers seeing a young Bill Haley in the early 1950s: “The first time I saw Bill Haley, my mother and father took me to a place in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. They had cowboy shoes on. They were called ‘The Saddlemen.’ I never heard country music played with drums and that really excited me. They were like playing rock & roll with country. They were dressed like cowboys, with the cowboy hats on, you know?”
Bill Haley, along with his “cowboy band” the Saddlemen, began performing in Wildwood in the summer of 1952. The Saddlemen performed at several clubs that summer, including the Shelter Haven Hotel in nearby Stone Harbor, and in Wildwood in a lounge restaurant called “The Hof Brau,” located on the ground floor of a small hotel called the Hof Brau Hotel.
Bill Haley had been recording since 1946, first as a featured singer with The Down Homers, then with a group called the Four Aces of Western Swing. By 1951, Haley and his new group the Saddlemen signed with the Philadelphia label Holiday Records (later Haley would switch to another of Dave Miller’s labels, Essex Records) and began making a slew of fine regional records.
Although he wore a cowboy hat (and “cowboy shoes,” as Charlie Gracie declared, in the way a South Philly kid would remember such things), Bill Haley had a vision of something different. It would take a long time for the vision to bear fruit, and many missteps along the way.
Label owner David Miller had a profound influence on Haley’s direction and career. It was Miller who discovered Haley working at a country music club called the Twin Bar in Gloucester, N.J., Haley’s regular home when he wasn’t working the beaches of Wildwood during the summer. Miller recognized that Haley and his band had something that was hotter than the standard local hillbilly act. It was Miller who brought the Jackie Brenston record to Haley in 1951 and told him to cover it. It was Miller who insisted on a driving beat on the records, so they would be the loudest records on the jukeboxes installed in bars and public places.
By 1952, Haley was latching on to the slang language the Treniers were slinging on the Jersey shore. “Rock The Joint,” released in 1952, was another one of those records (as were all of Haley’s Holiday and Essex label releases) that came incredibly close to Rock & Roll, yet didn’t quite cross the threshold. “Rock The Joint,” however, was a remarkable record. Haley’s record was a cover of a rhythm and blues record from 1949, but Haley’s version had a drive and a throbbing rhythm that was totally unique for a white act at the time. Much like Big Jay McNeely on the West Coast, Haley had all the ingredients and it was cooking in the oven. It just wasn’t quite ready yet. They were still a cowboy band, flirting with rhythm and blues.
Haley, like the Treniers, predicted the Rock & Roll trend that would sweep the nation in just a few years: Besides “Rock The Joint,” Haley released “Rockin’ Chair On The Moon,” “Real Rock Drive,” and a regional hit in 1953 that spoke in African-American jive speak: “Crazy, Man, Crazy!”
Where the Treniers were African-American rhythm and blues musicians with roots in jazz and swing, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen were white Hillbilly musicians with roots in Western Swing and jazz. The Saddlemen had a remarkable one-man rhythm section in slap bassist Marshall Lytle, but the Saddlemen pre-1954 had no permanent lead guitarist or drummer, and their featured soloists Johnny Grande and Billy Williamson played accordion and steel guitar, respectively—not exactly the sort of heavy duty firepower that rock & roll would soon demand.
In a sense, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen were early Rockabillies, with their mixture of rhythm and blues material and hopped up hillbilly arrangements. But other than Marshall Lytle’s slapping bass, the Saddlemen were comprised of East Coast musicians of a slightly older era, Italian jazzmen playing hillbilly music because it was a decent paying gig.
Bill Haley’s Holiday and Essex Records made between 1951 and 1953 were regionally successful. Some were kitschy hillbilly numbers (“Juke Box Cannon Ball”), some were old standards that were given the hopped-up treatment (“Dance With The Dolly [With The Hole In Her Stockings]”), and some were unique and great interpretations of rhythm and blues, as done by a hillbilly group from the Northeast (“Rock The Joint,” “Crazy Man Crazy”). Some were decent hillbilly music of that era, some were corny novelties, some were forgettable, and a couple of them were instant classics. What is obvious in hindsight is that Bill Haley and label owner David Miller were throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, trying to see what would stick.
We don’t know the exact date it happened, but we do know it happened, and where. During those summers in Wildwood of 1952, 1953 and 1954, and in the off season refining what they had seen in Wildwood at the Twin Bar in Gloucester, Bill Haley changed from a hillbilly wearing “cowboy shoes” into the country’s first rock & roll star with the country’s first Rock ‘n’ Roll million-selling record.
There can be debate about who influenced who and who came first and the fine details of this history, but one thing is true: Bill Haley came into Wildwood as a cowboy leading a hillbilly band, and he left Wildwood a couple years later with a spit curl and a bow tie, leading a band that covered Rhythm and Blues songs with a hillbilly band’s instrumentation. A transformation happened there in Wildwood.
Milt Trenier, the last living member of The Trenier brothers, who joined the family group in 1953 and witnessed the turn of events with his own eyes, remembers: “We was playing the Riptide, and we were packing the joint, man! We had crowds lined up down the street, waiting to get in. Bill Haley was playing down the street, and it was half empty! The club owner came over and said ‘Do whatever they’re doing across the street. Look at all those people over there.’”
Don Hill, The Treniers saxophonist: “Bill Haley was working a place across the street. The Treniers came to town, and he said ‘I gotta go over there and see what those guys are doing.’ He loved the Treniers, and he formed his act like The Treniers.”
Claude Trenier told a similar story to author Nick Tosches in 1984: “I remember we were playing the Riptide in Wildwood in the summer of 1950. Bill Haley had a cowboy band, the Saddlemen, that played right down the street from us. He used to come in and watch us. He asked us what we called the music we were playing. And he told him. Hell, we told him.”
By all accounts, the two groups were friendly and Haley, in particular, spent a great deal of time studying the Treniers—their repertoire, their stage show, their instrumentation.
Milt Trenier: “He (Haley) just kept coming over and sitting there. Just listening, watching, to see if he could pick up the idea of how to do what we were doing. We were very good friends there. We got together. Some of the guys in his band would stop by, we had a little house all summer and they would come by and just socialize. We just knew each other as people.”
Dick Richards of Bill Haley’s Comets: “The Treniers were one of the big acts. They were friends of ours, they were great players. They were a great group.”
Nineteen fifty-two was the year where Haley (along with record label owner Miller) really began distilling the concept known as “Rock.” Besides “Rock the Joint,” which became a large regional hit in 1952, Haley wrote a song called “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie” that year for a local Philadelphia group called The Esquire Boys. The Esquire Boys featured a virtuoso guitarist named Danny Cedrone, who would often guest as a studio guitarist on Bill Haley’s records, most famously a mind-numbing 12-bar solo, featured note for note, in both “Rock The Joint” and “Rock Around The Clock.” In 1953, after the Esquire Boys recording failed to ignite sales, Haley gave “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie” to the Treniers, who recorded it on Okeh without much fanfare.
Claude Trenier, to Peter Grendysa: “He (Haley) gave us one of his songs. It was called ‘Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie.’ We recorded it, and we didn’t sell nothing. So he decided to record it, using the same arrangement, and he sold thousands of copies.”
Regardless of Claude’s assessment, one thing was for sure—the fact that a hillbilly artist was giving an African-American band rhythm and blues songs to record was highly unusual, if not completely unique, anywhere in the United States at that time.
The Treniers version of “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie” may have not sold well in stores, but it did find its way into the hands of another highly influential music industry player that is often credited with starting the Rock ‘n’ Roll movement among teenagers: Alan Freed. Freed hosted The Moondog Show in Cleveland and used the Treniers “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie” as theme music for a period in 1953. The Treniers, in turn, recorded a tribute record to Freed, “The Moondog.”
Wildwood in the early 1950s was hopping. The number of clubs featuring live music kept expanding.
Milt Trenier: “There was at least a dozen (clubs) within Oak Street, right down one street. There were some that were right next door to each other. Then it got to the point they had so many, they cut across one block and came back up the other block. So right around two blocks, two different streets, all kind of groups were working there. Just starting up. The Aristocats. Steve Gibson and the Red Caps. The Four Freshmen were there. The Four Lovers, who became the Four Seasons, they were there. Freddie Bell was just starting up himself, he used to shine shoes in front of our club. Bobby Darin was there, on the bottom of the bill, when he first started. He would sing in between acts, during the intermission.”
The Treniers would record a song in 1955—“Everything’s Wild In Wildwood”—that remained unreleased until the 1990s. The song is everything you might imagine it to be: a swinging ode to summer debauchery. It describes the musical scene happening at that time in Wildwood, with the promise that everything there is ‘WILD!’ Why Okeh Records kept the song in the vaults is unknown, but it remained a popular stage number for the Treniers, and they even recorded a less rocking version of the song in the 1960’s on one of their later albums.
Jerry Blavat: “The original host of the show Bandstand, before it became American Bandstand, was Bob Horn, and from 1952 to 1956, he was the host. He was like a second father to me. He had a home in Stone Harbor, which was just seven miles away from Wildwood. He put on dances there at a place called the Starlight Ballroom, which was right on the boardwalk.
“The Starlight was the spot. The Hurricane was the spot. The Riptide was the spot. The Rainbow came later, the Hof Brau came later, but those were the big clubs. And then for the real high-end entertainment, it was the Bolero, where they featured Tony Bennett, Johnny Ray, the DeCastro Sisters, and then up the other end in North Wildwood, there was a place called the Manor Hotel and Show Bar, they had Patti Page there, they had Liberace there. These places held between 700 to 1200 people, packed—and they were always packed.”
After Haley spent the summer of 1952 in Wildwood with his cowboy band The Saddlemen, his direction and focus became forever altered. Between Haley, his label owner Miller and new manager “Lord” Jim Ferguson, they all agreed—it was time to retire the cowboy schtick. By November 1952, the band began wearing spiffy new suits and bow ties. They were no longer known as The Saddlemen. They were christened (either by WPWA program director Bob Johnson or WPWA disc jockey Bix Reichner) ‘Bill Haley and the Comets.’
The first release under the new nom de plume, ‘Bill Haley with Haley’s Comets,’ was “Real Rock Drive” on Essex, released in late 1952. It was an excellent record, but a pretty weak effort at song crafting—Haley stole directly from a Tani Allen country record called “Tennessee Jive” and simply replaced “Real Rock Drive” for “Tennessee Jive” throughout the record. It was not the first record that Haley had outright plagiarized. The earlier “Jukebox Cannonball” was a simple rewrite of Roy Acuff’s “Wabash Cannonball.” Haley plagiarized Tani Allen a second time, rewriting his “Rockin’ Chair Boogie,” the flip of “Tennessee Jive,” as “Rockin’ Chair On The Moon.” Clearly, Haley had a game-changing musical concept in mind, but was thin on original song ideas.
Johnny Grande, the Saddlemen/Comets accordion and piano player: “Always we were looking for something. We’d take a standard like ‘Ida’ and we’d play it every way we could think of—fast, slow, loud, soft, hillbilly, waltz, Dixie, progressive. ‘Haley was like a scientist putting one thing after another into a test tube,’ (steel guitarist Billy) Williamson says.
“And he (Haley) would be so happy when one experiment turned out right. One of the most important experiments happened one day when we were studying some Count Basie records. Since we didn’t have brasses, we fooled around with the strings, trying to build volume. Haley with the bass discovered that when he plunked the strings in the accepted way, it came out RRom-pahhh. If he back-slapped them, it changed the accent to rrom-PAHHH. That’s how the heavy back beat became the basic form in our Rock and Roll.”
The pivotal moment for the band, and perhaps the reason why Bill Haley and the Comets became huge stars and the Treniers did not, was a band and management decision in early 1953. It was foolish, it was risky, and it was kind of weird for a bunch of guys in their late 20’s and early 30’s to even think about.
Johnny Grande recalled the conversation: “What I still think of as our ‘desperation huddle’ brought the turning point—but believe me, it was a long, slow turn. Bill, Jim, Billy and I, talking things over, realized that the kids were the ones we had to reach. They were the ones who were tired of the old music which had been warmed over since the days of Benny Goodman. They were the ones who kept the recording industry going by buying 100 million records a year. How to get them was the problem.”
“’You’re not going to find them playing in beer joints,’ said Billy (Williamson, the Comets steel guitarist). ‘The kids we want to have hear us aren’t permitted to go in those places.
“’If the kids won’t come to you,’ said Jim (“Lord” Jim Ferguson, Haley’s manager), ‘why don’t you go where they are—in the high schools?’
“We knew that score. No dough. But Haley had an idea and took a vote. ‘You guys game to do it—for free?’ Billy and I nodded.
“That’s how it happened that we played 183 high school assemblies. It was tough to do at the time, but it proved the smartest thing we ever tried. The kids taught us. We tried our experiments on them. When their shoulders started moving, their feet tapping and their hands clapping, we knew that particular tune or style was worth keeping in the act.”
Comets bass player Marshall Lytle: “We had just finished a gig at Eddystone High School and we were loading our instruments in the car. We asked the kids how they liked our music. One kid answered ‘like crazy, man, crazy!’ Bill quickly wrote down the teenage expression. We were always looking for catchy words or phrases to write songs with. We left and went directly to Bill’s apartment for lunch. While Cuppy (Haley’s wife) was making us something to eat, Bill started strumming his guitar with several tunes, playing around with the crazy, man, crazy idea. I joined in and we began throwing tunes and lyrics together. After several hours we worked out our first song to hit the national charts.”
“Crazy, Man, Crazy” was released in the spring of 1953, before the Comets returned to Wildwood for the summer. The record was produced and engineered by Tom Dowd in New York City. Dowd would later be known as one of the greatest recording engineers of all time, with credits by Ray Charles, The Coasters, Aretha Franklin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and a thousand others, but in 1953 Dowd was just beginning his long career.
The record is a mini-masterpiece of production—from the explosive drum hits beginning the song (played by session drummer Billy Gussak—the Comets still had no permanent drummer) to the loud chants in the chorus of “Go, Go, Go, Everybody” (echoing the Treniers’ “Go! Go! Go!” from 1951) to the ending that brought up a loud pre-recorded crowd party atmosphere, recorded in the studio—this was a hit record. It had that hit record thing—indefinable but bursting at the seams with infectious energy.
“Crazy, Man, Crazy” is considered by many to be the first Rock ‘n’ Roll record, and yet, I don’t think it is. It is really close. The record takes cues from rhythm and blues, adds a level of production geared directly for radio airplay or jukebox play, and has a catchy sing-along chorus. It’s got drive. It is a great record.
But at its heart, “Crazy, Man, Crazy” is a really jumping hillbilly record. Billy Williamson’s steel guitar solo proves it—this is a hillbilly band gone wild, jazzed up by teenage catch phrases and the music of the Treniers they caught in Wildwood the previous summer.
Bill Haley and the Comets were not yet a Rock & Roll band. “Crazy, Man, Crazy” was a great record, and its appearance on the lower rungs of the national charts attracted the attention of Decca Records and producer Milt Gabler in New York City.
Part Two continues with:
WHAT WAS THE FIRST ROCK & ROLL RECORD?
DEKE DICKERSON SAYS IT’S ‘ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK’
Special thanks to: Milt and Bea Trenier, Ken and Mary Mottet, Jerry “The Geator With The Heator” Blavat, Don Hill, Joey D’Ambrosio, Pete Paraskevas, Ben Vaughn, Skip Heller, Dick Richards, Charlie and Joan Gracie, Jim Dawson, and Wally Bucks, and Bill Turner.