Bill Haley & His Comets recorded “Rock Around the Clock” three months before Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right” in July 1954, though the song did not attain widespread success until the following year, after Presley’s first record had exploded into popular consciousness, at least in southeastern regional markets. Haley certainly did a great deal to popularize the genre, though to my ears, as well as to those of many critics, Haley’s music is not truly rock and roll, but a sort of bridge or compromise formation between jazzy, rhythm & blues-inflected country music and the rock and roll that would find its first complete expression in “That’s All Right.” As Haley himself put it: “We take a lot of care with lyrics because we don’t want to offend anybody. The music is the main thing, and it’s just as easy to write acceptable words.” However, aside from the transgressive suggestiveness of the songs Presley would sing, Presley’s first record possesses a manic energy and a dangerous intensity that Haley’s music lacks, qualities that ultimately defined the emerging genre. All of the structural elements were present to make Haley’s music technically identifiable as rock and roll—the more pronounced backbeat, the instrumental and vocal inflections derived simultaneously from country, blues, and jazz, and the simple inclusion of the verb “rock” in the lyrics—but the spark that would set the fire blazing was struck by Presley. Indeed, this is an exemplary instance of the radically different conclusions that can result from the modes of interpretation associated with rationality and affectivity: although Haley’s song might be considered the first rock and roll record by a rational accounting, it is Presley’s song that remains the epochal initiatory act as it expresses not only the confluence of genres that Haley’s song synthesizes, but also the affective tone and attitude of the new genre that Haley did not possess, and which Presley epitomized.
Bluntly stated, Bill Haley was not very cool, a quality which forms the heart of the genre, for American cool is definable as affective authenticity in contradistinction to the more affected performativity exhibited by Haley, which was characteristic of the pre-rock and roll era in which he had one foot firmly planted. Indeed, the juxtaposition of “affectivity” and “affectedness” is striking, for while “affect” implies the authentic bodily feelings that produce one’s activity, the quality of being “affected” indicates a more passive and inauthentic submission to culturally preconditioned roles and modes of engagement. Thus, the transition marked by the subtle difference between Haley’s and Presley’s performativities can be seen as an emblematic enactment of the profound shift from the mandates of rationalized culture determining one’s identity, to allowing one’s persona to result from one’s intrinsic felt experience. This difference is primarily constituted in attention to the conceptual mores of society being the dominant motivating factor for the rational mode, as opposed to attention focused on the dictates of one’s bodily economy being the primary motive force in the affective mode. If Haley was standing in the doorway to the reemerging bodily mode, Presley leapt through with abandon into the new realm that he did so much to liberate. This subtle but crucial difference delineated the liminal cusp between “real” and “fake,” between authenticity and its lack.
Similarly, the Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland in 1952, produced by disc jockey Alan Freed who popularized the term “rock and roll,” was claimed by him to have been the “first rock and roll concert.” Although the term “rock and roll” had been in use since the forties, and Freed had been using it on his radio show since 1951, the performers who actually played at the Moondog event, like Paul “Huckleback” Williams and Tiny Grimes, both African Americans, were jazzy rhythm and blues musicians, both men having previous connections with Charlie Parker, for instance. Listening to their music, it sounds close to the rock and roll that would emerge a few years later, but not quite, an occasion of Alfred North Whitehead’s “slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.” As Robert Palmer expresses it, by the mid-fifties, “Rock and roll had become, in practice, a somewhat different musical proposition from rhythm and blues. The beat tended to become heavier and more emphatic; blues- and gospel-derived melodic usages expanded to embrace more elements of pop songcraft; jazz content was minimized.” As with Haley, though to a lesser extent, many of the elements were present at the Moondog Coronation Ball that would define the emergent form. However, also as with Haley’s music, the music of Williams and Grimes presents as relatively affected, perhaps due in part to the structural elements delineated by Palmer, but also perhaps due to a relative lack of the willfully concentrated authenticity that Presley reintroduced into mainstream popular music, appropriating this crucial element for the creation of the new genre from James Dean and Marlon Brando as much as from the musicians by whom he was influenced. Listening to their music and witnessing their visual performativity, it is clear that Williams and Grimes were still essentially in the jazz age, while Presley, a few years later, emerged fully formed as the prime exemplar of what would become the rock era. While Presley’s contribution is often summarized as synthesizing black and white musical modes, it seems that Presley’s synthesis of the performativity characteristic of his musical precursors with that of the two actors mentioned above is nearly as significant a factor in Presley’s production of rock and roll. Thus, rather than claiming the Moondog Coronation Ball as the “first rock and roll concert,” it might be more accurate to say that the collective desire for the phenomenon of rock and roll was evinced in the Moondog Coronation Ball, but that it was a container waiting for something to fill it, as the new music did not truly emerge until Presley’s moment of inspiration more than two years later in 1954.
[This is a (slightly modified) excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]
Haley quote: Charlie Gillett, The Sound of the City, 25-26.
Whitehead quote: Science and the Modern World, 2.
Palmer quote: Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, 83.