Today marks 15 years since my grandfather, Charles F. Higgins Jr., passed away. It got me thinking about the small role he played in shaping the history of early rock and roll.
Below is an article I wrote for The Daily Times a couple weeks before he died, and I thought now would be a good time to revisit it. I’ve got some closing thoughts at the end and a fascinating image too.
This week I want to take a look at Bill Haley, who, along with his Comets topped the charts with their most well-known hit, “Rock Around The Clock” 50 years ago this year. I thought it was appropriate, as Haley would’ve turned 80 this year as well; and also because my family actually has some history steeped in this particular rock and roll lore.
Though born in Michigan, Haley was raised right here in Boothwyn, touring in the region for a short spell with The Saddlemen as his backing band, and recording a cover of Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.” The Saddlemen changed their members around, and became the Comets. For almost a year, they played in and around Philadelphia, perfecting their rockabilly, R&B and country sound – a blend that had never been attempted.
One of the places Bill Haley & His Comets played frequently was the old Grey Rock Tavern in Lansdowne, where my grandfather, Charles “Chick” Higgins was a young bartender. After the band was finished playing, they would hang out at the Gray Rock or the McCleary Republican Club on 69th Street which my great-grandfather owned.
As the popularity of the group had grown too big for Philadelphia, pressure was coming from the record label and promoters who wanted them to go national with the act. The members of the Comets, as well as Haley, were either in their thirties or close to it, and hesitant to make the jump in a business which marketed to teens. One evening in 1953, they were having the final debate on what to do. The band was split down the middle on who wanted to stay local and who wanted to start touring the rest of the country. Upright bass player and purveyor of the “shuffle-slap” technique Marshall Lytle turned to my grandfather.
“Chick – what do you think we should do?”
Fully aware of the band’s potential and how the kids were responding, he didn’t hesitate.
“I say you guys go for it!”
They did, and weeks later, Lytle sent a postcard to my grandfather from the landmark Lenny Litman’s Copa in Pittsburgh. Bill Haley & His Comets were playing a week’s residency there before moving on to Cleveland. The single “Crazy, Man, Crazy” had been rocketing up the charts, and Lytle was excitedly letting Chick Higgins know it was at No. 1. I was looking at that postcard last weekend, and have to admit, it gave me chills to be holding in my hands.
Somewhat shamefully, Bill Haley has since been neglected in the lexicon of rock and roll. His time was before the famed rebellion of the Eisenhower years that is typically noted as the start of the movement. The 1951 cover of Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” in some circles, is regarded as the first true rock and roll song; and “Rock Around the Clock” opened the film Blackboard Jungle in 1955, effectively launching the era, one year before Elvis made his hip swiveling smash debut. While the King may have been better looking, more polished, and promoted better, it remains Delco’s hometown band who ignited the spark that became rock and roll.
The above article appeared in the September 23, 2005 edition of The Daily Times.
I always thought that was a pretty cool story and, being so into music, absolutely adored when he would tell it and often made him repeat the anecdote for friends. My Pop-Pop broke the tie in the band and they made the decision to go national instead of playing the same old local spots. Who knows what would’ve happened if Bill Haley and the guys decided to play it safe and not go national?
Here’s the postcard Lytle sent to my grandfather, evenmore interesting as it was postmarked exactly one from the day “Rock Around the Clock” would be released in 1954.: