BILL HALEY: THE EARLY YEARS (1947-1954; 2008)
CD I: 1) Too Many Parties, Too Many Pals; 2) Four Leave Clover Blues; 3) Candy Kisses; 4) Tennessee Border; 5) The Covered Wagon Rolled Right Along; 6) Yodel Your Blues Away; 7) Behind The Eight Ball; 8) Foolish Questions; 9) Deal Me A Hand; 10) Ten Gallon Stetson; 11) Susan Van Dusen; 12) I'm Not To Blame; 13) Loveless Blues; 14) Stand Up And Be Counted; 15) I'm Gonna Dry Every Tear With A Kiss; 16) Why Do I Cry Over You; 17) My Sweet Little Girl From Nevada; 18) My Palomino And I; 19) Rocket '88; 20) Tearstains On My Heart; 21) Down Deep In My Heart; 22) Green Tree Boogie; 23) I'm Crying; 24) Pretty Baby; 25) Ten Gallon Stetson; 26) Why Do I Cry Over You.
CD II: 1) A Year Ago This Christmas; 2) I Don't Want To Be Alone This Christmas; 3) Juke Box Cannonball; 4) Sundown Boogie; 5) Rock The Joint; 6) Icy Heart; 7) Dance With A Dolly; 8) Rocking Chair On The Moon; 9) I'm Lonesome; 10) A Sweet Bunch Of Roses; 11) Please Make Up Your Fickle Mind; 12) My Heart Tells Me (I'm In Love With You); 13) Stop Beatin' Around The Mulberry Bush; 14) Real Rock Drive; 15) Crazy Man, Crazy; 16) Whatcha Gonna Do; 17) Pat-A-Cake; 18) Fractured; 19) Live It Up; 20) Farewell, So Long, Goodbye; 21) I'll Be True; 22) Ten Little Indians; 23) Yes Indeed; 24) Chatanooga Choo Choo; 25) Straight Jacket; 26) Jukebox Cannonball; 27) Within This Broken Heart Of Mine.
As iconic as the image of Bill Haley opening the floodgates for rock music with 'Rock Around The Clock' became more than fifty years ago, it has always been noticeable that, unlike the absolute majority of rockabilly's teenage idols of the mid-Fifties, Haley was the only one to stem from the previous generation. This, and nothing else, is what makes him unique, sort of the white equivalent to Big Joe Turner — no small coincidence that both performers initiated their runs of rock / rhythm & blues fame with the same song ('Shake, Rattle, & Roll').
Unlike Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck, Buddy, etc., Haley was active on the pop music scene since at least 1947, working in the most down-to-earth genre for white performers — country-western. And his transition to rockabilly was not sudden and unpredictable, but gradual, with a slow and careful drift towards «rowdier» forms of music; which does not for a moment diminish the importance of this evolution — because just how many other country-western acts, cramming the 1940s / 1950s market, could boast such a successful and innovative crossover? The answer, I believe, is straightforward: not one.
A short while ago, though, it was relatively hard to lay one's hands on any of Bill's pre-'Rock Around The Clock', or, at least, pre-'Crazy Man Crazy' recordings. The classic hit singles got reissue after reissue, of course, but if you wanted to see the roots, you had to hunt down old 45s (even the LP treatment would only be provided to Bill once he had solidified his position as that of a national hitmaker). In recent years, with CD markets hungry for rarities, this has fortunately changed. First and foremost, for the real man there is the German Bear Family 5-CD boxset (The Real Birth Of Rock'n'Roll 1946-1954) which pretty much contains everything the man has put on record during those years with all of his bands, including side projects backing Curly Herdman, Lou Graham etc., right down to acetates, special radio versions and even ad jingles.
But for wimps like me and you, the more easily available, not-so-exhaustive (and not-so-exhausting!) 2-CD JSP Records release The Early Years might just do the trick. It omits most of the alternative versions, acetate rarities, side projects etc., but still manages to faithfully put together all of the «proper» recordings that Haley did for several major labels, culminating in a long-term partnership with Essex in the early 1950s, but before the move to Decca — stopping right at the arrival of the 'Rock Around The Clock' period. Everything else is either for the academician or the crazy man crazy (the two categories also frequently overlap).
We begin with the so-called «Four Aces Of Western Swing» and Haley's first singles for the appropriately titled Cowboy Records. This is just regular country-western pap ('Tennessee Border' etc.), although 'Yodel Your Blues Away' is noticeable for a huge slap-bass sound, and you also get to acknowledge Bill's professional yodelling technique (as in, «you try doing that...»). In 1949, «Four Aces» are replaced with «Bill Haley & The Saddlemen», but otherwise, relatively little changes — for two more years, the boys go on doing generic country-western. A teeny-weeny bit of proto-boogie can be seen on such tunes as 'Ten Gallon Stetson', but, frankly, the only occasional point of interest here is steel guitar playing from Billy Williamson, one of Haley's oldest and bestest colleagues, whose melodic and, occasionally, experimental soundmaking sometimes saves these numbers from mind-numbing mediocrity.
The first true step up arrives during the band's brief stint with Holiday Records — Haley's take on Jackie Brenston's 'Rocket '88', which, according to some, comes much closer to claiming the title of the «earliest rock'n'roll song» than the original. Really hard to say, though. Haley's take got the slap-bass rockabilly thing going on, and stinging guitar solos instead of R'n'B-ish saxes, but Ike Turner did provide the distorted rhythm guitar on the original. So... who cares? The real important news is that, having heard 'Rocket '88' breaking the waves, Haley clearly smelled a change in the weather, and, unlike 99% of his peers, made the brave — and risky — decision to go along with it. Risky, because in 1951, this whole «crossover» business was more or less unheard of. If you'd already saddled up the palomino, they'd be expected to pry you out of the saddle on your ultimately last go-round.
For a while, Haley's band continued recording in the western style, but after the initial modest success of 'Rocket '88', they would regularly include boogie numbers into the set. On this collection, watch out particularly for 'Green Tree Boogie' (think Sun years-style Elvis with a steel guitar accompaniment!), 'Jukebox Cannon Ball' (still much more country than rockabilly, but with a hard-and-fast-driving rhythm that might not have-a-been-to-a-likin' of the regular cowboy crowd), 'Sundown Boogie', and, particularly, 'Rock This Joint', a rearrangement of an old jump blues standard that is, for all purposes, simply a slightly earlier and wimpier, but equally fun-spirited version of 'Rock Around The Clock' (from 1952).
It was around that time that the «Saddlemen» took the right decision of changing their name to «The Comets» — none too soon, considering how much the sound was toughened and sped up in those early years. For 'Rock This Joint', the band moved over to the Essex label, and hired their first drummer, although his presence is not really felt well enough until the first of the Comets 45s on which both sides rocked out — 'Stop Beating Around The Mulberry Bush' and the fantastic 'Real Rock Drive' (with the piano guy trying on a delightfully minimalistic, Duke Ellington-ish air and two lead guitars weaving around each other with great tact and delicacy).
Then there is 'Crazy Man, Crazy', which is not the first rockabilly number put out by Haley, but which was the first one to make any serious impact on the charts — and its "go, everybody, go, go, go!" still holds up as inflammable fun after all these years, no matter how burdened it has become with its historical symbolism. And with the song's success, the band's country-western inclinations fizzle out altogether. The ten final tracks on this compilation, covering late 1953 and early 1954, are all uptempo, upbeat, starkly rocking numbers that rank right there together with Haley's classic Decca recordings. Yes, it is worth it to wade through all the yawn-inducing generic cowboy crap (becoming the next Hank Williams was never an option, anyway) to reach these little gems — 'Fractured', 'What'cha Gonna Do', 'I'll Be True', even the gospel-done-as-boogie 'Yes Indeed!' (a clear precursor to the much more popular Decca-era reinvention of 'The Saints'), and the sax-driven instrumental 'Straight Jacket' all represent 1950s pop music at its best.
In fact, I am being totally serious about listening to both CDs in their chronological sequence, instead of immediately skipping ahead to the tasty stuff — because what they show us here is one of the, if not the single most interesting and exciting evolution stories on the pre-Beatles pop scene (post Beatles, of course, artistic evolution became the norm of day, and it was not even always a good thing). It was a real long way from 'Candy Kisses' to 'Crazy Man, Crazy', and, by the standards of the time, six years was not that large a period to cover it. And hence, an unquestionable thumbs up for the achievement, even if I will probably never want to listen to anything pre-'Rocket '88' again.
Check "The Early Years 1947-1954" (CD) on Amazon