In Part 1, Deke Dickerson lays out his belief that the template of Rock & Roll was forged by the jumping Rhythm and Blues combo The Treniers in the early 1950s. That magic spark happened in the seaside resort town Wildwood, New Jersey, in the summers of 1952-54. In Part 2, Dickerson recounts how Rock & Roll was then taken to the top of the National charts by Bill Haley and the Comets in 1954 and 1955.
Bill Haley’s new style couldn’t find the right audience to perform in front of after “Crazy, Man, Crazy” became a hit. For the first time, Haley’s Comets traveled beyond their local haunts like the Twin Bar in Gloucester, N.J. (a place that has also claimed the title “The Birthplace of Rock and Roll” from Haley’s off-season tenure there) and their summertime haunt the Hof Brau in Wildwood. Shows booked by Louis Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, placed them in front of audiences that didn’t understand the band’s novel approach.
Haley recalled: “At first, there was great disappointment among blacks that I wasn’t black and great disappointment for the whites. The first big booking we got was in Chicago at a jazz club. Dizzy Gillespie had just finished and I went in.
“It (Chicago’s Preview Lounge) was a Dixieland jazz room. The people didn’t know what we were playing. It wasn’t rhythm and blues and it wasn’t country and western. And even though we were selling records, it was a very difficult time for us.
“I had the number one record in the city. People would come in for one song, and just get up and leave. After three nights, I cancelled out.”
Another Comets road story from around the same time demonstrates how desperate the situation was on the road away from home. Haley’s manager, “Lord” Jim Ferguson, booked the band a two-week engagement in Miami. After Haley and the band spent all the money they had getting to Miami, they found the booking had been cancelled.
Stranded in Florida with no money, “Lord” Jim went into a local club on the Tamiami Trail and convinced a skeptical club owner to let the band play on a no guarantee/door deal basis, and that included the band having to build their own stage and clean the club every night! For three weeks, Haley and the Comets played (and cleaned) the club to earn enough money to get home.
“Rock Around The Clock” was the first Rock & Roll record. Unlike all the other records that came close to Rock & Roll in the years preceding it, “Rock Around The Clock” had no ambiguity about what it was. This was Rock & Roll. It had arrived.
Marshall Lytle: “Things were so bad I had to split a hamburger and a bowl of chili with the other guys, and that was all we had to eat that whole day!”
The summer of 1953 found Haley and the Comets back in Wildwood at the Hof Brau for another two-month residency. During that summer, Haley and the Comets alternated sets with a Jersey lounge act called Richards and Lee, featuring Richard Boccelli, known professionally as ‘Dick Richards,’ singing and sometimes playing a snare drum and sock cymbal. Haley asked Richards to join the group, and he became a member at the end of the summer, on Labor Day, 1953. Today, Richards is 95 years old and still living on the Jersey shore.
Dick Richards: “When Bill approached me to join his band, he told me: ‘We’re on to something. We know we’ve got something new here.’ I didn’t believe it at first but after I joined I realized we had something that was completely different.”
Bill Haley understood that his band, with its accordion player, steel guitar player and no lead guitar player, were missing one other essential ingredient he had studied in The Treniers stage show—a saxophone player. The Treniers’ sax player Don Hill’s playing and stage antics in Wildwood were incendiary. Hill squealed, shrieked and honked his saxophone (he could play his ass off, too—Hill performed with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday before joining The Treniers). Hill jumped around the stage and used his blaring saxophone as a stage prop. By the fall of 1953, spurred on by seeing Hill with the Treniers, and certainly by other saxophone players who worked the clubs in Wildwood, Haley hired an African-American baritone saxophone player named Tony Lance to play on a recording session, a followup to “Crazy, Man, Crazy” called “Farewell, So Long, Goodbye.”
Ultimately deciding the baritone sax was too heavy-sounding, Haley went looking for a tenor saxophone player and found one in nineteen-year-old Joey D’Ambrosio, who auditioned for the group in early 1954.
Joey D’Ambrosio: “When I joined Bill Haley, I just took an audition. He was a local band, country. He was a country band, mostly a lot of hillbilly stuff that he did. He used to wear the cowboy hat and everything, you know? I heard about this audition he was having so I went up there. They liked me and he gave me the job. I went to work that night with him.”
Joey D’Ambrosio: “We were popular, too, because we had our own thing, kind of like a different type of thing. It was different than what they (The Treniers) were. They were more into Rhythm and Blues and stuff like that, but we were a country group who was starting to play rhythm and blues. We just played together and that’s what came out. We didn’t say ‘Let’s make it sound like this.’ We just started to play and that’s what came out.”
D’Ambrosio’s difficult-to-pronounce Italian surname was Anglicized to simply “Joey Ambrose,” and he quickly became an integral part of the Comets stage show. D’Ambrosio had studied Charlie Parker’s progressive jazz but learned the act of showmanship and rhythm and blues performing in small clubs around Philadelphia, “walking the bar” while honking his sax.
Joey D’Ambrosio: “At that time, every bar had a little band somewhere. It was a lot of live music, not like today. In those days, every bar had a band, it seemed to me. When I used to get those jobs, $10 a night, whatever it was, I would walk the bar and get crazy and jump up on the bar. Started playing to the audience from the bar. That got the people…they liked that.”
The final major step in transforming Bill Haley’s hillbilly Saddlemen into a full-blown Rock & Roll band was now in place, though nobody really knew where it was going, and whether or not the money coming in would pay for the new six-member lineup.
Haley adapted much of the wild stage choreography he had seen the Treniers and other acts put to good use in Wildwood—each member of the group was constantly moving, dancing in place, or jumping up and down. Hilarious stage antics were used as visual cues in The Treniers act, and soon Haley was working visuals and comedy into his show as well. Comets bassist Marshall Lytle would lie on the floor and play the bass. Lytle would ride the bass like a horse while slapping furiously. He would stand on the bass while playing it. He would pluck it like a guitar. He would sit little Joey Ambrose, honking his sax, on top of the bass while he pushed it across the stage like a horse cart. It was lowbrow high concept, and it was shared much in common with the Treniers’ act. Visual gags like these kept the crowds happy.
Don Hill, The Treniers saxophonist: “I just thought you were supposed to move. Everybody was moving, we all moved. Even the piano player, Gene Gilbeaux, he used to stand up and kick his feet up in the air!”
Asked about Bill Haley, Don Hill remembered: “They copied us. ‘Cause they used to just stand, you know. Do nothing.”
Joey D’Ambrosio, however, doesn’t buy in to the theory that Haley and the Comets merely copied the Treniers. When he joined the Comets in 1954, he was an energetic 19-year-old joining a group of musicians nearly ten years his senior. Getting crazy on stage came naturally to the young saxophonist.
Asked about Bill Haley, Don Hill remembered: “They copied us. ‘Cause they used to just stand, you know. Do nothing.”
D’Ambrosio recalled one of his first gigs with the Comets: “The audiences were all teenagers. I got into my thing of ‘walking the bar.’ Well, there was no bar there, so I just took the horn and went out in the audience and started playing with the kids. The kids got, oh man, they got really excited about that. Then Marshall seen what I was doing and says ‘Oh, I’m going to do that’ with me. That’s how come he brought the bass out and he started tossing the bass around and spinning it around and doing these (things)….I used to sit on the bass and we would go through the audience. The kids, they had never seen anything like that before, especially for teenagers. They didn’t see that kind of thing.”
What happened next is the sort of show-biz story that sounds like a made up legend, but it really did happen.
Haley was presented with another number with “Rock” in the lyrics, written by an older Tin Pan Alley songwriter, Max C. Freedman and also credited to James ‘Jimmy’ Myers (under the pseudonym ‘Jimmy DeKnight’). In reality, the song was written entirely by Freedman, but as was the business in those days, Myers got fifty percent because he was going to hustle it. Myers pitched the song to the band, and Haley wanted to record it, but label owner Dave Miller and Myers hated each other and Miller wouldn’t consider it.
In 1953 and early 1954, Haley recounted bringing music charts for “Rock Around The Clock” to at least two Essex recording studio sessions, with Miller tearing up the sheet music charts on one occasion, refusing to let the band record one of Myers’ songs.
In the spring of 1954, Jimmy Myers realized that his nemesis Dave Miller had traveled to Europe and forgotten to give Haley the proper 30-day window to renew or cancel his contract with Essex Records. Seizing on the loophole, with Miller in Germany surveying a new pressing plant he had financed, Myers pitched Bill Haley and the Comets and “Rock Around The Clock” to Milt Gabler at Decca Records in New York City. Within five days of the contract with Miller’s Essex Records becoming invalid, Haley and the Comets were in New York City, preparing to make a new record for Decca.
Milt Gabler was another important figure who played a huge part in Bill Haley and the Comets’ ascent. Gabler was the producer on all the Decca recordings of Louis Jordan, who had been a major influence on not only the Treniers but Haley as well. Gabler was older; his experience was mostly with artists like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Gabler had also worked on the hillbilly side of the musical fence, having produced country hits by Red Foley, so he was no stranger to recording white groups with electric guitars.
“We were a country group who was starting to play rhythm and blues. We just played together and that’s what came out.”
Gabler knew that Haley had made a strong sales showing with “Crazy, Man, Crazy,” and he liked the band’s beat and drive. Gabler signed Haley on April 1, 1954, and made arrangements for the band to come record at Decca’s main studio in New York, the converted Pythian Temple studio on West 70th Street.
An obscure fact known only to record collectors—
Jimmy Myers had already managed to get his “Rock Around The Clock” song cut; he had arranged for another local group to record the song before Bill Haley went in to cut it. Fortunately for Haley, Sonny Dae and the Knights version of “We’re Gonna Rock Around The Clock Tonight” on the Arcade label was merely Jersey lounge fodder. Dae’s version was up-tempo and it tried hard to rock, and was the first official release of the song, but it couldn’t be confused for Rock & Roll music. Dae’s original version failed to make any impact at all when it was released, and today is largely forgotten.
According to Bill Turner, who played guitar for Haley in the 1970s, the original sheet music for “Rock Around The Clock” had the melody written in a minor key, somewhat similar to the old ‘Late Show’ Theme, “Syncopated Clock.” Turner recalls Haley recounting that his contribution to “Rock Around The Clock” was adding a melody highly influenced by the Hank Williams country hit “Move It On Over.”
Joey D’Ambrosio recalled working up “Rock Around The Clock” for their Decca debut: “First we listened to Sonny Dae’s recording. Then we decided the record would have more ‘bounce’ if we added staccato riffs throughout the song. The voicing on the riffs was three parts—sax, lead guitar, and steel. Danny, Billy and I worked it out on the spot and it sounded great.
“Marshall suggested Danny (Cedrone) use as his guitar solo the same terrific solo from ‘Rock The Joint.’ The second break was supposed to be a sax solo, but the song was building to a point where I thought we’d get more excitement out of it by doing something the whole band could join in on. That’s what rhythm and blues combos would often do. So we came up with that second riff. All of this was worked out before we went to New York to do the session. I’d only been with the band like two weeks or so. Not very long.”
Haley’s first recording session for Decca was scheduled for April 12, 1954. For the session, Haley brought his core Comets—Marshall Lytle on bass, Joey Ambrose on sax, Billy Williamson on steel guitar, and Johnny Grande on piano—but augmented them with the same two session musicians that he had used on many of the Essex sessions, Danny Cedrone on lead guitar and Billy Gussak on drums.
The band arrived late at the studio, angering producer Gabler. While taking the Chester-Bridgeport ferry across the Delaware River, the ferryboat the band had taken got stuck on a muddy sand bar during low tide. Arriving nearly two hours late, Haley apologized for the delay and said they had already worked up “Rock Around The Clock” and could learn the song Gabler wanted them to record in an hour.
Gabler was convinced that “Thirteen Women,” a post-nuclear holocaust ode to polygamy, was the best choice for an A-side to the record. It was very much a novelty song in the vein of Louis Jordan, and Gabler speculated that Haley and the Comets might be a good successor to take over the Louis Jordan sound, since Jordan had left Decca at the beginning of 1954, shortly before Haley signed with the label.
The band and Haley labored over “Thirteen Women” for most of the allotted time for the session, finally getting an acceptable take but leaving only forty minutes to record their second song.
When Haley and the Comets launched into “Rock Around The Clock,” they recorded a powerful, well-rehearsed version of the song, but on playback it was found that the band had played so loud, Haley’s vocal could not be heard. The engineer arranged to have the band record another take of the song, but only turned on Haley’s vocal mic. When the band left the studio that day, they had not heard a complete playback of the tune. Gabler seemed to have little faith in it.
Joey D’Ambrosio: “He said ‘do it again,’ so we did it the second time. They said, ‘this is it, we got it.’ It was good enough to put it out.”
The two versions of the song were mixed together the next day to form a complete take. As odd as that sounds, and as primitive the overdubbing and synchronizing technology was in 1954, something worked. The odd way of putting it together may have even supercharged an already strong recording.
“Rock Around The Clock,” was a perfect record in every way. It could not be called a rhythm and blues record. It was not a hillbilly record. It was not jazz. Something happened that day in the rushed session at the Pythian Temple that blended all those things together, and something entirely new was the result. It was lightning in a bottle.
“Rock Around The Clock” was a Rock & Roll record. “Rock Around The Clock” was the first Rock & Roll record. Unlike all the other records that came close to Rock & Roll in the years preceding it, “Rock Around The Clock” had no ambiguity about what it was. This was Rock & Roll. It had arrived.
Milt Gabler remembered: “The (Haley) records had a tremendous kick to them. The Pythian Temple where we recorded was like a ballroom. It had a big high ceiling, a balcony and a stage. We put drapes on the balcony to kill the sound and we had it all balanced out for recording. It had a great natural sound. We’d put a mike out in the room to pick up some natural reverb so the sound would crack. Just hardly open that mike and you’d get that edgy ambience.
“The Comets were always set up so that they could feel each other as if they were playing a gig. They would be on the raised dancehall stage and I’d put Bill on the floor, six to eight feet in front of the band with the dead side of his mike to them and he would face the band looking up.”
Everything about “Rock Around The Clock” had the “crack” and “edgy ambience” that Gabler spoke of. The band played flawlessly. For the first time on a Haley record, the steel guitar and piano were buried in the mix, and the electric guitar and saxophone were prominent in the mix. From the shouted introduction to the wild drum flourishes at the end, Haley and the Comets seemed to take all the elements they had seen and heard over the previous five years and distill it into a completely new formula.
“Thirteen Women” backed with “Rock Around The Clock” on the B-side came out in May 1954 and sold moderately well when it was initially released. Decca Records released it as part of their “Pop” Music series. The record label for “Rock Around The Clock” indicated that it was a fox trot.
Within a couple weeks of Haley’s first Decca recording session, The Treniers were on national network television appearing on the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis television show. They performed “Rockin’ Is Our Bizness.” Martin and Lewis joined in the performance, dancing and clapping. Lewis took over on the drums for a solo. At the end of the song both Martin and Lewis collapsed on the stage in mock frenzy. You can find this clip on YouTube, and it’s pretty amazing to see.
Elvis Presley’s first session with Sun Records in Memphis wouldn’t take place until July 1954, several months after “Rock Around The Clock” saw the light of day and months after The Treniers appeared on the Martin and Lewis show.
Joey D’Ambrosio: “There was no ‘Rock and Roll.’ Rock and Roll wasn’t even heard of. It wasn’t until these songs, ‘Rock Around The Clock,’ ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll.’ They were still playing Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, you know? That’s (Rock and Roll was) what the kids needed—something to call their own.”
The Jazz Journal reviewed the new single shortly after its release, and managed to get every fact wrong, including Haley and the Comets’ skin color: “(A) jump blues by a relatively unknown colored group. Bill Haley blues shouts quite effectively, borrowing some of the tricks of Josh White. The band plays in a modern Harlem swing style.”
Jimmy Myers: “They said it would never sell. They (Decca Records) only recorded it (‘Rock Around The Clock’) as a favor to me, for bringing them Bill Haley, and they put it on the B-side of the record. They called it a Fox Trot, they didn’t know what to call that type of music in 1954.”
While it has been said that “Rock Around The Clock” didn’t sell when it was first released, that isn’t quite true. The record sold around 75,000 copies, a decent sales figure for a local hit. “Crazy, Man, Crazy” had sold around 400,000, so the numbers for “Thirteen Women” b/w “Rock Around The Clock” were disappointing. It was enough, however, for Milt Gabler to keep working with the group. It was not a flop.
Sadly, three months after playing one of the most blistering guitar solos in Rock & Roll history, session guitarist Danny Cedrone died June 17, 1954, after breaking his neck in a fall down a flight of stairs. He died not knowing the impact he left on Rock & Roll music or knowing how many young guitarists would sit down and try to figure out his famous solo. No one, to this day, has ever truly duplicated it. That goddamn guitar solo is a phoenix, unequalled.
A fact that often gets lost in the telling of the “Rock Around The Clock” saga is that Haley’s second Decca single, a cover of Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” released in June, 1954, was a bona fide Rock & Roll hit. It sold around 2 million copies, Haley’s biggest seller by far up to that point. “Shake, Rattle and Roll” made stars of Bill Haley and the Comets. This fact often gets lost in the timeline because of what happened a year later with “Rock Around The Clock,” but the fact that “Shake, Rattle and Roll” sold so well on release in the summer of 1954 reinforces the idea that Haley and the Comets were on to something big, regardless of which song they would be most remembered by. Most importantly, Haley was finally making real money. His fee went from $600 a night to $2,000 a night after “Shake, Rattle and Roll” hit the charts. Haley and his two business partners in the Comets, Billy Williamson and Johnny Grande (the rest of the Comets were on salary and not partners), would receive large royalty checks. As it is with most American stories, this reimbursement equaled confirmation in Haley’s mind that he was finally on the right track.
The last summer Bill Haley played a residency in Wildwood was the summer of 1954. “Shake, Rattle and Roll” took them out of the clubs and into the theater circuit. The next time Haley returned to Wildwood, it would be for a two-night stand at the Starlight Ballroom, the biggest venue in town.
“Rock Around The Clock,” was a perfect record in every way. It could not be called a rhythm and blues record. It was not a hillbilly record. It was not jazz.
Joey D’Ambrosio: “We started getting popular. Wildwood was a good summer gig, but when we started getting popular, the money—I guess for Bill Haley anyway—the money started getting bigger and Wildwood wasn’t going to do it at the time, because they didn’t need us. Wildwood, they already had the Treniers and other groups there. We got so popular that it started being a nationwide thing.”
Jimmy Myers, still absolutely convinced in the hit potential of his song property “Rock Around The Clock,” talked Decca into repressing the single with “Rock Around The Clock” as the A-side. Myers drove all over the country, promoting the song with radio DJ’s and whoever would listen to his spiel. Some radio DJ’s did get the message and began to flip over the record, playing “Rock Around The Clock” for the first time instead of “Thirteen Women.”
What happened next was an unexpected fluke and changed the history of Rock & Roll’s cultural image and public perception forever.
Hollywood actor Glenn Ford was starring in a movie for MGM about inner city juvenile delinquents called Blackboard Jungle. The studio had been searching for the right music to represent the teenage rebellion in the film. Ford was married to dancer Eleanor Powell, and the couple had a teenage son, Peter Ford. Peter Ford apparently drove his parents crazy with the loud, raucous music he preferred. The elder Ford borrowed a stack of 45 rpm records from his son’s collection, and from that stack he thought “Rock Around The Clock” fit the mood of the film perfectly.
(There are several alternate versions of the story of how “Rock Around The Clock” was placed in the movie Blackboard Jungle. Another version involves screenwriter-director Richard Brooks hearing the song on his car radio, which inspired him to find the record and base much of the movie’s pacing around the song, which he felt was perfect for the film’s cinematic theme. Sixty-five years later, it is hard to say which version of the story is correct. For a very detailed description of how the song’s placement in Blackboard Jungle happened, check out Jim Dawson’s book Rock Around The Clock.)
The MGM studio brass agreed to license the recording, and the song was placed in the film in prominent moments (the opening and ending credits, among others). The song was intentionally mixed so it would be very loud in the theater. Today, you couldn’t ask for better product placement. In those days, it was just a really lucky break.
Blackboard Jungle became a controversial, blockbuster, monster hit movie, and “Rock Around The Clock” became the anthem of teenage rebellion, and the song that defined “Rock & Roll” to millions of people who had no idea what it was or what it was supposed to be.
“Rock Around The Clock” shot to #1 on the Pop charts, where it stayed for two months. It crossed over and went up to #3 on the Rhythm and Blues charts, too, a major feat for a white artist. It redefined what “Smash Hit” meant to the record business. It did what no other rhythm and blues or hillbilly recording had done up to that point—it made a giant, mainstream cultural impact. It changed America.
Dick Richards, drummer for the Comets: “That became the Number One song in America for eight weeks, which had never been heard of.”
“Rock Around The Clock” also hit the charts everywhere that Blackboard Jungle played in theaters. It went to #1 on the charts in England, and the band caused riots when they toured in England and Germany in 1957 and 1958. Haley became a star in far-flung places like Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Africa.
“Rock Around The Clock” would become the biggest-selling single of the 1950s, and eventually place fourth on the list of biggest selling singles of all time. The best guess at total sales “Rock Around The Clock” from its 1954 release to present day is a staggering 25 million copies.
John Rockwell, music critic for the New York Times, wrote: “Those of us who were there will never forget its impact. This writer, a teenager at the time, first heard it in a movie theater—it was the theme song of the film Blackboard Jungle—and recalls the shared feeling of thrilled, almost bewildered excitement among that crowd as one of the high points of his life.”
Singer Tom Jones, in the BBC documentary Rock ‘n’ Roll America: “It sounded so different from anything else that was being played. Clearer, more crisp. Most of the records of that nature that came before were not recorded very well.
“They concentrated on the rhythm section. B-WOW! The big echo-y snare. Each instrument had been miked, which hadn’t been done before. So, it was the sound of it that kids identified with. I certainly did, at 15.”
Haley, who had guided his vision from Wildwood to worldwide fame, knew what he had done. He wrote in his diary on tour in 1956: “This tour is like sitting on a keg of dynamite. The show is all colored but our set. With the racial situation in the south broiling plus the newspapers like Variety stirring up everybody about rock and roll, anything can happen. I hope my nerves hold up….have to keep going to prove this music can be played right and is not barbaric as Variety says.”
Bill Haley and the Comets were on top of the world, but their summit would be short-lived. In late 1955, Marshall Lytle, Dick Richards and Joey D’Ambrosio quit the band over a pay dispute. The incredible original Comets band that recorded “Rock Around The Clock” were destined to be a short-lived musical atom bomb.
Marshall Lytle: “We had no idea that Bill Haley’s Comets were going to be a worldwide famous band. We were just there to make a living. (Then) Every show was sold out, and they would line up around the block.”
Joey D’Ambrosio: “Bill was, and not to put him down, he really was a tightwad. We didn’t get much money from him. I mean, he kept the royalties for himself. We just got paid for the record session, which was 43 dollars, you know? That was union scale. After a year or two years of that, Marshall, Dick and I, we asked for a little raise. We asked for a 50-dollar-a-week raise and he turned us down.
“We were working the Chicago Theater and we were headlining. By this time, we had several hits. This was after we were after him to give us a raise, and he had turned us down. One day, during intermission time, he said ‘Hey you guys, I want to show you something.’ We went out in the parking lot in the back of the theater and there were four brand new Cadillacs, four brand new ones. He said, ‘How do you like these?’ We said ‘Wow.’ We thought maybe he’d turned around. First thing came to our minds was ‘did he buy these cars for us guys?’
“He said, ‘Look, from now on when we travel, we’re going to travel in these new Cadillacs, but they don’t belong to you. You’re just traveling in them.’ That’s when we decided there’s no future for us. We walked.”
Haley quickly put together a similar sounding band, touring on the strength of the hits. But after 1956, the hits kept getting smaller, and his original material started to get lame, fast. Teenagers liked throbbing Rock & Roll and juvenile delinquency. The trend in Rock & Roll moved to raw sexuality and danger. Haley seemed to keep searching for a version of Rock & Roll that was acceptable to parents. It became much harder to sell them Haley’s follow-up records made up of recycled old standards and nursery rhymes turned into Rock & Roll.
By 1956, Haley was over 30 years old, paunchy, with a receding hairline, hardly the mold of a teenage star. Haley also had to worry about something else: a young, greasy, better-looking kid with a sneer on his face and an approach to music that made the Comets brand of Rock & Roll seem tame. The newcomer, of course, was Elvis Presley.
Elvis brought something into Rock & Roll that Haley had lacked: raw sex appeal. Where Haley kept finding ways to make Rock & Roll acceptable to parents and less “barbaric,” Elvis went out of his way to make the music more dangerous, more sexual, more “barbaric.”
Haley met Elvis at least twice in 1955, when Haley was the biggest star in the country and Elvis was still an up-and-coming regional act recording for Sun Records. At the time, no one would have envisioned how much further Elvis Presley would go. Presley eventually took over Haley’s throne and had hit after hit after hit. Presley had an enduring popularity and fame that he was able to continue for two more decades.
Haley never had another big hit after 1956. He remained a star in America throughout the 1950s through diminishing returns. In the 1960s he went on to have fame in places like Mexico and South America, where he stayed for almost ten years avoiding unpaid monies to the IRS in the United States. His music had a large revival in England in the 1970s, and the middle-aged singer was brought back to again be treated like a conquering king.
Things ended tragically for Bill Haley. By 1980, he could often be found alone and roaming the streets of Harlingen, Texas, where he lived. He suffered from an untreatable brain tumor and a bad drinking problem. Retreating into mental illness, Haley would go into the local Sambo’s diner and try to convince strangers that he was the famous singer who had taken over the world in 1955. It was a sad and ignoble final chapter. He died of a heart attack in February 1981, a mere 55 years old. Haley is interred in a private unmarked grave known only to his widow and her children. Haley brought America Rock and Roll Music, but in the end he died a broken man.
What, then, became of The Treniers, who had created the sound, the style, the stage show and the overall package that Haley took to the bank alone?
The Treniers kept working the clubs and lounges on the ‘Sepia circuit.’ They had a booking agent, Seymour Heller, who managed Vegas acts like Liberace and Frankie Laine.
Jerry Blavat, the ‘Geator:’ “Back then, you had a booking agent. The booking agent was the guy.”
Heller first booked the Treniers into Las Vegas in 1948, and he guided The Treniers (who Heller referred to as ‘his baby’) into the casinos, the upscale supper clubs, and into the sort of places that his other clients worked. They opened for Liberace. Sammy Davis Jr. was a huge fan. Frank Sinatra loved The Treniers and caused a ruckus in the Vegas casinos when he stopped to watch the Treniers playing in whatever lounge they were working in at the time (when Cliff Trenier got cancer, Sinatra paid for his medical expenses, anonymously, the family found out later).
The Treniers might have created the blueprint for Rock & Roll, but they slid into a comfortable existence of regular shifts in the casino lounges. People loved them. They had everything they ever dreamed of, plus free drinks.
Bill Haley had a manager and a producer and a rabid song pusher who envisioned widespread fame and fortune and the sort of success that previously could not have been imagined. Haley and his management had a vision, one of mainstream grandeur and great riches. They saw an opening, and they made it happen, with a little luck. An African-American group like The Treniers was never going to be presented with that sort of mainstream opportunity in that era, especially not a band that sang about Poontang and Hadacol and women with bald heads.
The Treniers did not shun fame. For a time in the 1950s, they tried to find success like Haley’s in the mainstream. Seymour Heller was able to score no less than 19 network television appearances for The Treniers, so many that The Treniers titled their first album for Epic Records in 1955 The Treniers On T.V.
Milt Trenier: “By that time we started doing TV, we were a hit ourselves, doing 19 network television shows. I wasn’t hurting. We were working all the time.”
The Treniers’ highly visual act was a natural for television, especially the sort of variety shows that flourished in the 1950s. The Treniers’ acrobatics were perfect next to jugglers or comedians or dog acts. The television appearances increased their visibility and certainly brought them out of the ‘Sepia circuit’ and into the world of adult lounge entertainment in Las Vegas and Miami Beach.
However, the Treniers never had that huge hit record. They made dozens of records, all of which were great and funny and rocking and rolling, but their unmatched visual live act failed to translate on record. The group never found that one song that would rocket them up the charts the way Bill Haley had done with “Rock Around The Clock.”
The Treniers got the opportunity to be in several of the great Rock & Roll movies of the mid-1950s: The Girl Can’t Help It, Don’t Knock The Rock, Calypso Heat Wave and Juke Box Rhythm. They had great visual appeal, but nothing was going to change the fact that when it came to teenage audiences, The Treniers had aged out. Everybody thought they were great, but their releases geared towards the now-flourishing Rock & Roll music industry sold poorly. Despite their attempts to compete with the likes of Elvis and Bill Haley and Little Richard, it was not to be.
The Treniers were booked as Jerry Lee Lewis’ opening act in 1958 in England, the disastrous tour where Jerry Lee showed up with his new 13-year old bride, Myra. This caused the British press to attack Jerry Lee mercilessly and the fans to throw trashcans on stage while he performed. Jerry Lee got thrown off the tour, but the Treniers stayed on and honored their contract.
Milt Trenier: “After they threw him out, we had to continue with the tour. We did 37 one-nighters. First time we ever done one-nighters. Never did before, because we always did Miami Beach in the winter, Wildwood in the summer, go back to Vegas.”
By the late 1950s, The Treniers quit trying to appeal to teenage audiences. Shifting from Okeh Records (a label known for rhythm and blues) to Vik, Brunswick, and then Dot Records, the band shifted focus. They began to record swinging versions of lounge standards like “Lover Come Back To Me” and “Pennies From Heaven.”
Milt Trenier: “Wildwood had a lot of young people. We started going to Vegas and Miami Beach, now there are older people coming in you had to cater to. Songs that were more popular, rather than something that’s going to attract the young people.
“By this time, we were growing older. We got to be old folks! We had an agent who’s talking about different nightclubs and things. We always dressed seriously, with tuxedos—like adults. In those nightclubs they knew you were well dressed when you came in there. And there’s not any kids going into an adult nightclub. We were working in nightclubs where the people were sitting down and listening and watching. The pay was much better than doing the one-nighters with the young people. If you had been there at the same time that we were there, you’d see why I’m glad and have no regrets.”
Currently the city promotes their heritage as “the place where ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was first performed live,” missing the greater point that Rock & Roll Music itself had its flash point in the city.
The Treniers band kept rocking in the nightclubs and the casino lounges through the next four decades. The band continued despite Cliff Trenier’s death in 1983 and ceased to exist only after Claude’s death in 2003. Milt Trenier left the group to pursue a solo career in 1959 and still performed the classic Treniers songs in Chicago until his retirement in 2017. Saxophonist Don Hill is the only surviving band member from the original 1940s Treniers lineup. Hill, now 97, performed with swing bands in Las Vegas until recently. Nephew Skip Trenier, 84, still lives in Las Vegas and performs occasionally.
What about the place where Rock & Roll was born? What about the crossroads of the tuxedo and “cowboy shoes?” What about the place where saxophones and steel guitars co-mingled until Rock & Roll came out? What about Wildwood, New Jersey, the place that created Rock & Roll in the early 1950s?
After the Treniers and Bill Haley shared the street with Louis Prima and Steve Gibson and the Red Caps and Liberace, by the late 1950s the town embraced mainstream Rock & Roll with a vengeance. The Garden State Parkway, completed in 1955, brought even bigger crowds to Wildwood. Dick Clark put on summer revues there for years that drew huge crowds. Chubby Checker famously debuted his version of “The Twist” in Wildwood in the summer of 1960. Well-known artists like Fats Domino and Little Richard came to Wildwood for summer residencies the same way that rhythm and blues acts like the Treniers had done in previous years. Wildwood remained wild through the decade of the 1960s. But at some point, like all good parties, the crowds thinned, and Wildwood petered out.
Jerry Blavat: “What happened with Wildwood, they could not afford the acts any longer with the casinos opening up in the 1970s, and these artists were getting bigger money at the casinos. And Wildwood was only in the summer time. People didn’t go down to Wildwood in the winter. Same thing today. You go down to Wildwood October, November, December, January—you could shoot a cannon down the streets. And, unfortunately, all those clubs are gone.”
The city of Wildwood is currently trying to preserve their history, and many of the kitschy hotels and restaurants from the 1950s are still standing. Stand on the corner of Oak and Atlantic Streets, however, where the Riptide and the Hof Brau faced each other back in the early 1950s, and you won’t see anything. They’re both gone, bulldozed decades ago. The fact that these places were torn down, the fact that there wasn’t an exact date to pin down exactly when all this happened, makes Wildwood a tough sell for Rock & Roll historic status. Currently the city promotes their heritage as “the place where ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was first performed live,” missing the greater point that Rock & Roll Music itself had its flash point in the city.
When younger music writers of a different, later era (read: ‘rock critics’ of the 1970s and 1980s) began examining the roots of Rock & Roll music, their heads were full of gothic Southern tales laced with intrigue and mystery, such as the life story of the enigmatic Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson. Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the devil, was poisoned by a jealous man in a Mississippi juke joint. His death went so unnoticed that his true place of burial was unknown. Other than the recordings and two photographs Johnson left behind, the man was a ghost. His legend grew from the lack of knowledge about him. It was mysterious and sexy.
…the cannon was loaded by the Treniers, … and it was from there that the cannon shot Bill Haley and the Comets, fully formed, into the stratosphere. It all happened in Wildwood, New Jersey.
This same crop of rock critics reveled in the curious death of Hank Williams, pilled up and dead, his corpse riding in his Cadillac to the next gig. These writers engrossed themselves in the gritty life stories of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.
All these originators of America’s music that had tragic life stories and tales of drug addiction and poverty resonated with writers who were covering similarly tragic rock musicians and new punk rock acts at the same time. It fit their worldview.
For this generation of music writers, the birth of Rock & Roll had to strike a similar theme for it to be valid in their minds. The story of Elvis Presley, a young truck driver from Memphis, breaking down racial barriers and recording “That’s All Right, Mama” one night in Memphis, Tennessee, fit the bill. It was strange and mysterious and unexplained, just as the story of Robert Johnson had been to them.
The music writers of the 1970s and 1980s simply could not fathom that Rock & Roll sprang forth from the interaction of a couple of good-time lounge acts, the type of entertainment their parents may have preferred. Even stranger was the interaction that birthed the music: the meeting of a sophisticated black ensemble and an Italian hillbilly group with an accordion player, both playing in a Las Vegas-style resort town on the New Jersey shore.
It simply could not be acknowledged by this group of music writers that Rock & Roll was crafted by a bunch of wisecracking, dancing sophisticated African-American comedians who wore tuxedos and sang songs about Hadacol and Poontang.
Humor, especially lowbrow alcoholic lounge humor, was unacceptable in the post-Bob Dylan world of serious singer-songwriters and shoegazing prog-rock bands. Humor meant that you weren’t serious, and humor meant that The Treniers were not going to be taken seriously.
The Treniers were never going to get their due. They were too hip, too gone, too funny, too over-the-top to be accepted as the pioneers that they rightly were.
By the time that Cream and Led Zeppelin and Van Halen ruled the Rock & Roll scene, the music of The Treniers and Bill Haley and the Comets must have seemed like it was a hundred years old. Even though only twenty years had passed, much had changed in America, and the nation’s first Rock & Roll stars seemed hopelessly outdated.
What many have a hard time accepting, even though it is fact, chiseled in stone, is that there never would have been a Cream or a Led Zeppelin or a Van Halen or a Ramones or an Iggy and the Stooges without Bill Haley and the Comets ramming this Rock & Roll music into America’s consciousness.
The true version of events that transpired in Wildwood in the early 1950s, the spark that produced the Big Bang of Rock & Roll, just wasn’t gothic and primitive or weird enough for the music critics to accept. And so, they ignored it.
Rock & Roll, America’s great mixture of rhythm and blues, country, jazz and a hundred other influences, turned into something new in Wildwood, New Jersey, in those summers of the early 1950s. It was there that the cannon was loaded by the Treniers, amidst a couple summers of wild influence and abandon and race mixing and lines around the block, and it was from there that the cannon shot Bill Haley and the Comets, fully formed, into the stratosphere. It all happened in Wildwood, New Jersey. Regardless of how history books and halls of fame have spun the tale with alternate explanations, I feel like the evidence supports my theory.
Don Hill, The Treniers saxophonist: “That was our best town. (There will) Never be another Wildwood.”
Joey D’Ambrosio of the Comets: “I tell you. I think it started there, really. Maybe not for us, but if you were anybody, you played Wildwood in the summertime. Wildwood was the place to be.”
If you hang around Civil War historians long enough, you’ll hear them making references to the ‘shots fired on Fort Sumter.’ The fort was an obscure, small sea fort in the waters off Charleston, South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861. Although the battle of Fort Sumter was an insignificant battle in terms of size or casualties or the outcome of the war, historically it held great significance, as it was the opening salvo for one of the bloodiest and most consequential wars in American history. Once those shots were fired, there was no turning back. America was a different country from that day forward.
In that spirit, these lyrics of The Treniers might be apropos to represent the beginning of America’s cultural sea change known as Rock & Roll. They warned us it was coming, back in the swinging Wildwood days:
“Rockin’ is our bizness, Rockin’ is what we do,
Rockin’ is our bizness, Rockin’ is what we do
Come on everybody, we want you to rock with us too.
Rock, rock everybody
Rock, rock everybody
Rock, rock everybody
Rock, rock everybody
Rock, rock everybody
Rock, rock, rock, rock…
Rock, rock, rock, rock….
–The Treniers, 1952
Postscript: I’ll never forget the first time I drove into Las Vegas. I was 19 years old, on tour with my band and en route to the West Coast. As the bright lights of Vegas came up out of the dark desert skyline, it seemed magical, something we had read about but had never experienced in person. Back in those days, the late 1980s, the city still had a lot of the old Vegas grit, sleaze and charm.
Driving down the Strip, staring at all the brightly-lit casino billboards like a hick who had never seen such things, one name caught my eye. ‘Holy crap,’ I blurted out loud. ‘The Treniers are still here, and they’re playing tonight. They’re playing RIGHT NOW!’
My bandmates and I walked in the casino lounge and it could have been 1951, or 1967, or 1978. It was actually 1989, but time seemed to stand still under the hot stage lights as The Treniers worked their show for the millionth time. They played Rock & Roll songs. They played standards. They danced and told jokes and did routines. They let a goofball from the audience sing “Mack The Knife” while Claude Trenier pretended to cut off his genitals with an oversized, comical straight razor.
Nobody watching The Treniers that night had any idea.
Charlie Gracie, April 29, 2019
Jerry Blavat, May 10, 2019
Milt Trenier, May 5, 2019
Joey D’Ambrosio, May 14, 2019
Don Hill, May 16, 2019
Dick Richards, May 21, 2019
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, Wally Bucks, and Bill Turner. And thanks to Hans van der Kamp for permission to use his Bill Haley 1979 photo.
Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Nick Tosches, Scribner’s Sons Publishing, 1984.
What Was The First Rock ‘N’ Roll Record, Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, Faber and Faber Publishing, 1992.
Rock Around The Clock, Jim Dawson, Backbeat Books, 2005.
You Only Rock Once, Jerry Blavat with Steve Oskie, Running Press, 2011.
Sound And Glory—The incredible story of Bill Haley, John W. Haley and John von Hoelle, Dyne-American Publications, 1990.
House Party Tonight—The Career of Legendary Saxophonist Don Hill, Houdini Publishing, 2012.
Bill Haley and the Comets—Rock ‘N’ Roll Arrives, Chris Gardner, box set book for Bear Family box BCD 16509, 2006.
Bill Haley and the Comets, Colin Escott, box set book for Bear Family box BCD 15506, 1990.
Rock and Roll Show with Bill Haley and the Comets, Klaus Kettner, booklet for Hydra Records CD BCK 27105, 1997.
The Treniers Rock, Bill Dahl, booklet for Bear Family Records CD BCD 16164, 2010.
They Rock! They Roll! They Swing! The Best of The Treniers, booklet for Okeh Legacy Rhythm and Soul Series CD 66800, 1995.
Hey Sister Lucy’/’Cool It Baby,’ Peter A. Grendysa, booklet for Bear Family CDs BCD 15418 & 15419, 1988.
The Fabulous Treniers—The Hoss Allen Sessions, Michael Gray, booklet for Night Train Records CD NTI CD 7120, 2003.
The Treniers—Rockin’ Is Our Bizness, Bill Millar, liner notes for Edsel Records ED 117, 1983.