June 7, 2012

Betcha Didn’t Know Bill Haley Invented Ska!

In the late ‘60s when rock and roll criticism and the oldies circuit were both getting started, Bill Haley & His Comets got a lot more respect than they do these days.

Then he was seen as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll, part of the pantheon of deities headed by “Elvis and the commandants around him; Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent.” These days not so much, at least in the US.

Why? Well, too corny, too white, too pudgy, too derivative, too dorky,. And in truth, his music doesn’t stand up as well as the others namechecked in the song lyric I just cited. (Bonus points if you can name the tune and artist.) On video, the band isn't as embarrassing to watch as, say, Sha-Na-Na at Woodstock but even second tier rockabilly acts from the same era, like Wanda Jackson or Johnny Burnette's Rock & Roll Trio, shred them.

Still, from a historical point of view Bill Haley & His Comets should get some props—“Rock Around The Clock” was one of the first r&r cuts to dominate the pop charts, 8 straight weeks in 1955. And the band sometimes sparked wild riots not only in live performances, but even in movie theaters when Blackboard Jungle (which “Rock Around The Clock” was on the soundtrack of—LOUD) played.

Haley gets a little more respect in England, Germany and especially Latin America, where The Comets were the ones to introduce the Twist and toured and recorded for years in the '60s. But as far as I know, nobody has paid much attention to this 1958 cut, “Lean Jean,” which I found in my crates a few months ago.

When I played it at DJ D’s Ragged But Right Show (all 7” vinyl 45s, all night) at Teddy’s Bar & Grill in trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn, proprietor Glen Kirby couldn’t believe it. He kept it and played it for a professional deejay with an encyclopedic knowledge of bluebeat, ska and  reggae, Phast Phreddie, and he was amazed.

So give it a listen, friends, and if you are so inclined, weigh in. Did a guy who started out during WW2 as “Silver Yodeling Bill Haley” in a band called The Four Aces Of Western Swing actually come up with ska before anybody in Jamaica?

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