It’s the 50th anniversary of the recording of Bill Haley and the Comets’ epochal “Rock Around the Clock,” the first Number One song of the rock ‘n’ roll era. It was produced by Milt Gabler, a rather unlikely figure to have ushered in the rock era.
Gabler’s career in music dates back to the ’20s and runs like a river through the most important developments in pop and jazz history. Gabler ran the legendary Commodore Music Shop in New York (the first jazz record store anywhere), then Commodore Records (the first independent jazz label), then worked for thirty years as a producer and A&R man for Decca Records. Along the way he became the first jazz impresario, promoted the first jazz jam sessions open to the public, and recorded Eddie Condon, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Brenda Lee, Peggy Lee, Louis Jordan, The Weavers, and, as mentioned. Bill Haley and the Comets. His importance to the development and dissemination of American popular music in the 20th century is, arguably, second only to that of John Hammond, his friend and rival.
Legendary producer Jerry Wexler wrote, “Gabler … is one of my role models … because over the decades he truly understood the natural art of bending and blending genres,” most particularly when he “infuse(d) [Louis] Jordan’s spirit into the work of Bill Haley and the Comets, one of the first seeds of black rhythm and blues to bloom into white rock and roll.”
Gabler used recording techniques developed working with Jordan on Haley, who until then had been a semi-successful rockabilly performer. They recorded in the same place, the Pythian Temple, an old ballroom on West 70th, and Gabler used a lot of “tape reverb and reverb from the room.”
“On Jordan we used a perfectly balanced rhythm section from the swing era .. but on rock and roll .. he had the heavy backbeat. At the Pythian, you could blow because there was this big high ceiling, we had drapes hanging from the balconies, and a live wooden floor.
“When they got it down by rote, that thing rocked! … I had three mics on the drums .. We had the guy slap the bass .. then I had .. the steel player .. hit what I called ‘lightning flashes,’ where he’d take the steel bar and hit it across the strings of the steel guitar and make it arc. It’d make POW! POW! I’d say, ‘Give me some of those lightning flashes, Billy!'”
When “Rock Around the Clock” was added to the Blackboard Jungle soundtrack in 1955, all hell broke loose and the rock ‘n’ roll revolution began. “Rock Around the Clock,” with its boundless energy, the literally “timeless” spirit of youth (the clock has no power as long as they keep rocking), exceptional rockabilly musicianship and Haley’s bright vocal, was and is pure magic.