Sunday, February 17, 2008

There At the Conception of Rock & Roll


When Dick Boccelli told his friends he was getting his band back together, they were naturally incredulous.

After a decades long hiatus and them being scattered all over the country, they hadn't practiced since the '60s and the fact their average age was about 70, well, it wasn't like the Blues Brothers getting the band together to save the orphanage.

Boccelli is the drummer for Bill Haley's Original Comets, the former Saddlemen from Chester, Pa., who were playing the Hofbrau nightclub in Wildwood, N.J. when their song, "Rock Around the Clock" (RATC), became the first Rock & Roll song to place Number 1 on the pop charts.

While some other cities - Memphis, Cleveland and now Glouchster, make claim as "The Birthplace of Rock & Roll," the time and the date RATC made #1 is written in stone - July, 1955, riding on the heels of the summer release of the teen rebel movie "The Blackboard Jungle," which used "Rock Around the Clock" as its opening theme song.

From the Hofbrau nightclub in Wildwood, where there is now an historical plaque on the sidewalk on the street where the club once stood - razed during the Urban Renewels of the 60s, Haley & the Comets went from the club scene to Wildwood and Ocean City Convention Halls, Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark shows and Cleveland, where a radio DJ Alan Freed coined the term "Rock & Roll" while describing the music Haley & the Comets played, a mix of country and rhythm and blues.

Haley's success however, didn't play well with the Comets, who were given a $50 a week raise while Haley and the band's managers bought themselves new Cadilacs. So three of the Comets left the band and formed the Jodimars, who became popular in Europe and earned fans in Liverpoole, where the Beatles covered one of their songs "Clarabella."

After a few years of playing casinos in Las Vegas, they broke up, one staying in Vegas, another moving to Florida and Boccelli returning to home to Ocean City, N.J. They remaine in contact with one another, and discussed a reunion, especially after Haley passed away in the 1980s.

Then they did get together and played a TV gig in honor of Dick Clark, and had such a good time they decided to stay together and play a few paying gigs and discovered that they still had a strong fan base, especially in Europe where the rock & roll fans know the original band from its sound.

"They're so used to cover bands playing our songs," says Boccelli, "and groups calling themselves Bill Haley's Comets but nobody in the band even knew Bill Haley. They know Franny's guitar style, and how we sound, and appreciate the fact we're the originals."

Altough they play major arenas to thousands of people in Europe, they couldn't find a gig in their own backyard - Wildwood and Atlanic City, so I arranged for them to play the 75th anniversary part at the Flanders Hotel on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Picking up bass player and frontman Marshall Lytle at the Philadelphia Airport, as we drove off the the Walt Whitman bridge into New Jersey, Marshall looked down at the city of Gloucester and recalled playing the Twin Bar there in the early 1950s, wondering if it was still there.

It is, and now the Original Comets will return this Saturday, June 14, 2007, for a homecoming and the mounting of a new historic plaque in frot of the Twin Bar that commemorates the site where Bill Haley & the Comets performed for years before "Rock Around the Clock" became the first Rock & Roll song to top the pop charts.

While there's no argument as to the July 1955 Wildwood birth of Rock & Roll as a popular phenom, there is quite a discussion as to where the music was conceived, the Memphis acts didn't make the pop charts until Haley & the Comets kicked open the door, the Twin Bar at least is still standing.

And it's still serving cool drinks in the old, blue colar, working class neighorhood that is now trying to parlay their histoirc connection to beginnings of Rock & Roll into a revival of their bar, neighborhood and often neglected city.

The day long gig and block party, with the Twin Bar as ground zero, will also include Charlie Grace, another early rock & roller ("Butterfly") who is also more popular in Europe, especially England, than he is in his own hometown (South Philly).

A very special session is planned as Bill Haley, Jr. is expected to stop by and sit in with the Comets as he has done in the past at the Bubba Mac Shack in Somers Point, where the Comets played for five consecutive years every August until the Shack closed last year.

Bill Haley, Jr. looks remarkably like his old man, with the same moon face, smile and lock of hair that protrudes across his forehead.

That is pretty remarkable, that over a half -century after Bill Haley and the Comets played together at the Twin Bar and the Hofbrau in Wildwood, his son is now singing with the same band.

While we know where and when Rock & Roll was born, with "Rock Around the Clock" in July, 1955, at the Hofbrau in Wildwood, it was earlier convieved in the bars and nightclubs of Wildwood, the Jersey Shore, Gloucester, Memphis and where ever rhythm and blues and country music got together.

Bill Kelly
July 11, 2007

THERE AT THE CONCEPTION – Jack’s Twin Bar – Gloucester City, N.J. 1952

Rock & Roll was an orphan before it had a hit or even a name, but now, more than half-century later, potential heirs to the music revolution it spawned are laying claim to historic recognition of competing birthplaces.

There may be some confusion in the minds of some, especially those who trumpet Cleveland, Memphis and other places that boast being “the Birthplace of Rock & Roll,” but according to some of those who were there at the time, there is no question Bill Haley and the Comets were there at the conception.

At least that’s the consensus among those patrons at Jack’s Twin Bar in Gloucester City, New Jersey, where there is now a permanent historical marker on the side of the building that proclaims this neighborhood tavern is the “birthplace of rock & roll.”

Like Liverpool, Asbury Park, Memphis, Cleveland and Wildwood, N.J., Gloucester City is just the latest municipality to try and cash in on the new, and growing rock & roll tourism trade, showcasing the sites where rock & roll history were made. Historical markers and have sprung up at wayward outposts destinations for music loving pilgrims searching for the elusive soul of rock & roll.

While Liverpool leveled the original Cavern, before its historic and tourist value were realized, a new Cavern has emerged to cater to the thousands of tourists who only know Liverpool as the home of the Beatles.

Asbury Park’s Stone Pony is also threatened by development, even as busloads of oriental and European tourists visit the home turf of the Boss and the E-Street Band.

Memphis has the old Sun Records recording studio, and its blues and R & B legacy, and promotes itself as the “Birthplace of Rock & Roll,” since numerous black bands, and Elvis, were playing and recording there before the music even had a name. And Cleveland has the “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum,” where Alan Freed undisputedly coined the term “Rock & Roll,” while discussing the music of Bill Haley & the Comets in 1955.

But if you go by the money list, as professional golfers and tennis stars are rated, then there is no debate or question, as Rock & Roll came of age in July 1955 when “Rock Around the Clock” became the first rock & roll song to make Number One on the Billboard Pop chart.

At the time, the song was riding on the popular reaction to it’s inclusion in the teen rebel movie The Blackboard Jungle, the movie of the summer of ’55. At the time Bill Haley & the Comets were playing at the Hoffbrau nightclub in Wildwood, at the New Jersey Shore.

Today there is an historic marker on the sidewalk in front of where the Hoffbrau was located before it was leveled in the misdirected Urban Renewal of the late 1960s. Today Wildwood celebrates its rock & roll roots with annual rock & roll revival concerts at its new Convention Hall, and is unwilling to relinquish its claim to be the real cradle of rock & roll.

You can’t get around the fact that “Rock Around the Clock” was the first rock & roll song to make Number One on the pop charts, remained there for eight weeks, and Bill Haley and the Comets were playing Wildwood at the time, establishing a judicial provenance that other claimants don’t have, but Gloucester and Jack’s Twin bar does have some DNA linkage.

Before Bill Haley called his band the Comets, he had the Saddlemen, and ran a country & western music radio show out of Chester, Pennsylvania. Playing out of a number of local bars and roadhouses in the outskirts of Philadelphia, Haley’s band played Jack Twin Bar in Gloucester, N.J. every week for about two years, 1952-53.

Just across the Delaware River from the U.S. Navy Yard in South Philly, regular ferry service ran from Gloucester, near New York ShipYard, so shipbuilders and sailors went back and forth routinely, until the Walt Whitman bridge was built, which made the transit even easier. The ship builders and the navy boys were the primary patrons of Jack’s Twin Bar and the other bars that catered to that clientele, but Jack’s had a special draw - Bill Haley’s Saddlemen.

At that time Bill Haley was going through a personal transformation, forgoing the country-western music that had been his mainstay, and getting into the more upbeat boggie woogie – race music the black bands like the Treniers were playing.

Adding a little rhythm & blues to the country-western backbeat, the new style of music was infectious and catchy, and catching on with everybody who heard it. At Jack’s Haley & his Saddlemen began playing a particular song that everybody liked, “Rock This Joint,” which includes the lyrics, “We’re gonna’ rock this joint tonight.”

Then came “Rock Around the Clock,” probably the most influencial rock & roll song of all time, and didn’t make Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 100 Song List. “Rock Around the Clock,” though it is probably one of the most important songs of all because being the first it kicked open the door so the others could follow.

There were other great songs that are considered early rock & roll songs, before “Rock Around the Clock” made No. 1 and before they called it “rock & roll,” like Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” which Haley also made a hit, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” (1951) and Elvis’s “That’s Alright Mama,” (1954) .but there’s no mistaking “Rock Around the Clock” as the first rock & roll song to make number one on the pop charts.

And another rock & roll song, before they called it rock & roll, was “Rock This Joint,” which Haley played a lot of when they did their steady gig at Jack’s Twin Bar.

As those who were at Jack’s Twin Bar at the time (1951-52) recall, Haley would introduce the song saying, “All you hillbillies go home now, ‘cause we’re gonna play a little cowboy-jive, so cut loose and let the cool cats in, ‘cause we’re gonna rock this joint tonight!.”

At least that’s what they put on the back of the Jack’s Twin Bar “Birthplace of Rock & Roll” t-shirts.

The historic plaque they placed on the outside wall of Jack’s reads: “Twin Bar 1951-52 – At this corner tavern Bill Haley & the Saddlemen, later to become Bill Haley & the Comets, introduced their new ‘rockabilly sound,” then an unfamiliar and strange mixture of ‘rhythm & blues’ and ‘country & western’ – with a heavy backbeat, to become a new brand of music that would be called ‘ rock & roll.”

“It was here that a song called ‘Rock This Joint’ would be played by Haley and the band over many months. Bill Haley, with Johnny Grande, Billy Williams and Marshall Lytle along with studio musician Danny Cedone recorded this song in 1952. Danny’s guitar solo on “Rock This Joint” would again be recorded two years later on the album “Rock Around The Clock” which became one of the best selling records of all time.”

Of the original comets, only Marshall Lytle, Johnny Grande and Dick Boccelli are left to carry on the traditions, and they do in fine style – plade jackets, Marshall throwing the big bass around over his head, and each taking an improvised solo, sparking some in the crowd to get up and dance and then a standing ovation.

Marshall, who most certainly was there, at least according to the plaque, and is now the front man, recounted the days when they played Jack’s, and Bill Haley met the women who would be his second wife. She was there for the occasion, along with her son, Bill Haley, Jr.

Bill, Jr., some said, may have been conceived in Jack’s parking lot, and he looks a lot like his dad, same face, same smile and same voice.

While some may dispute the idea that rock & roll was born here, there’s no doubt of the local DNA provenance (‘the origin or source from which something comes’), especially when Bill Haley, Jr. joined the Comets on stage and sang the last three songs, “Rock This Joint,” “Rock Around the Clock” and “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

The return of the Original Comets to Jack’s Bar in Gloucester City was certainly an historic occasion, especially with Bill Haley, Jr. sitting in and singing with his dad’s old band fifty years after the conception of what we now know as “rock & roll.”

[Bill Kelly can be reached at]


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