Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

It’s strange how you can be in on the ground floor of a cultural revolution and not know it at the time. But that’s how it was with me and the birth of rock and roll – in Lebanon and West Chester.

Admittedly, I was an observer; a chronicler, if you will. The story begins just after the end of World War II when a new radio station, WLBR, was opening in Lebanon. WLBR was a thousand watt, daytime-only station, licensed to operate from sunup to sundown. It was initially a hillbilly music and news station. I was the entire news staff. The principal music-maker was a Michigan-born, but Pennsylvania-raised, open-faced young man with a spit curl in the middle of his forehead: William John Clifton Haley Jr.

Candidly, Bill Haley was on the bottom rung of the musical ladder at the time. He and his small band were not paid for their daily afternoon performances on WLBR. Those live broadcasts were used as a vehicle for promoting personal appearances. “Next Saturday night,” Bill would announce, “we’re going to be over at the Shoemakersville Fire Company carnival, and we look forward to meeting all our friends and neighbors there.”

Haley dreamed then of being a star on Nashville’s Grand Old Opry. He wore a cowboy outfit in those days, tilting back his big white cowboy Stetson so the spit curl would show. His group, a total of only three, was called “The Range Drifters.” I still have a scratchy acetate recording made in the WLBR studio of the Haley group recording a country ballad titled “Who’s Gonna Kiss You When I’m Gone?”

As early as 1947, Bill Haley was talking about forming a new group, something with a more bluesy sound and with a strong beat. He kept working it into his country songs and something new was slowly emerging.

I left the Lebanon radio station to take another radio job that eventually led to NBC News in New York. But I didn’t lose personal contact with Haley. He dropped the country act altogether and started a new band known as “Bill Haley and the Comets.” He got an agent, “Gentleman Jim” Ferguson, an extroverted, small-town philosopher type from West Chester, who aggressively booked the Comets in clubs in Philadelphia and up and down the Jersey shore.

The sound – the style – was so new that Haley himself had to write its early music. “Crazy, Man, Crazy,” was the first to hit the jukeboxes and was a million seller in 1952. And there were other Haley-written hits: “Skinny Minnie” and “Rock-a-Beatin’ Boogie,” for instance. The latter song gave rock ‘n’ roll its name: “Rock, rock, rock everybody! Roll, roll, roll everybody!” Not much on poetry, but effective.

Haley was influencing other songwriters and out of a flood of new material Bill chose a song titled “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” for one of his recording sessions. When that recording was selected as the theme for the 1955 mega-hit movie, Blackboard Jungle, Haley was at the peak of his fame. (He enjoyed a second round of fame when “Rock Around the Clock” appeared on the soundtrack for American Graffiti in 1974.)

It wasn’t until a year later that Elvis Presley recorded his first hit, “Heartbreak Hotel,” in Memphis. Bill once told me that Colonel Parker, Elvis’s storied agent, came to him and asked him to take Elvis on tour to give him some experi­ence. Haley agreed. “It was only a couple of nights, but. … ”

I last saw Bill Haley in a personal appearance in a small club in Miami Beach – on the unfashionable end of the beach. It was during the stormy Republi­can National Convention in 1968, the one that nominated Richard M. Nixon in yet another of his comebacks. Haley’s show, frankly, was a repeat of the fifties. The same songs. Even the same fans. Bill Haley the innovator had become Bill Haley the standpatter.

“You know I haven’t done much in life except give birth to rock ‘n’ roll,” he said to me that night, “and I’d like to get credit for it.”

Bill died at the early age of fifty-five in his modest home in Harlingen, Texas, on February 9, 1981. In the five or so years he lived there, he refused interviews and denied his identity to reporters. Local police said he had become hallucinatory.

Unhappily, Bill did not live to see his name and deeds enshrined in the National Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.


Chet Hagen, who lives in Wernersville, Berks County, is editor of the Historical Review of Berks County, published by the Historical Society of Berks County, headquartered in Reading.