POPULAR MUSIC AND SOCIETY
Routledge Taylor &Francis Group
The Elvis Presley Connection: 33 Roots and Covers of Elvis Presley, 2019, Various Artists, CD, Bear Family BCD 17561 The Bill Haley Connection: 29 Roots and Covers of Bill Haley and His Comets, 2018, Various Artists, CD, Bear Family BCD 17531
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were a perfectly imperfect pair. They portrayed The Odd Couple in the 1968 motion picture version of Neil Simon's hit Broadway play. To many fans of rock and roll music, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley seem as mismatched as Lemmon and Matthau. In what ways were they opposites? Although Elvis was supported on stage and in the recording studio by guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and drummer D. J. Fontana, he was always a singular performing sensation. He was a handsome southern boy from Memphis via Tupelo. He conquered Billboard's country, pop, and R&B music charts in 1956, the year of his 21st birthday.
And he reigned as the undisputed King of Rock and Roll until his death in 1977. In contrast, the Michigan-born northerner Bill Haley labored alongside obscure country bands like the Down Homers, the Four Aces of Western Swing, and the Saddlemen during his twenties. Eventually, he signed a 1954 contract with Decca Records where he found immedi-ate pop chart success under the guidance of producer Milt Gabler. The Comets, his initial rock band, consisted of Danny Cedrone (lead guitar), Joey D'Ambrosio (saxophone), Billy Williamson (steel guitar), Johnny Grande (piano), Marshall Lytle (bass), and Billy Gussack (drums). They helped Haley launch an impressive rock-and-roll career. By September 1955, though, the Comets were re-shuffled and re-staffed to include Grande, Williamson, Rudy Pompilli (saxophone), Al Rex (bass), Ralph Jones (drums), and Franny Beecher (lead guitar).
Unlike Elvis, the band was always central to Haley's performances. Between 1954 and 1960 Elvis Presley and Bill Haley competed head-to-head on Billboard's pop charts. Bill's only #1 hit came in 1955 with the legendary version of "Rock Around the Clock" Meanwhile, Elvis reeled off 15 #1 singles, beginning with "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956 and ending with "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" in 1960. Bill appeared in a few black-and-white movies like Don't Knock the Rock, fronting his band and playing his current hits. Elvis starred in numerous technicolor extravaganzas like King Creole, flirting with buxom costars and singing his new songs.
Bill's chart-topping career ended abruptly in 1960, although re-issues of "Rock Around the Clock" resurfaced among the Billboard ranks in 1968 and again in 1974. Elvis launched a successful television comeback in 1968, became a legendary concert performer and Las Vegas attraction, and continued to chart hits until his death. As recently as December 2018 his 1957 version of "Blue Christmas" attained the #40 position on the Billboard charts. Elvis lives on today through his music. Haley, not so much. Despite significant differences in hit production, regional upbringing, vocal styles, fan reception, military involvement, and feature film success, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley shared several similarities. First, they both adored country music. They particularly appreciated the recordings of Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Red Foley, and Hank Williams. Second, Elvis and Bill freely adopted and adapted lyrics and rhythm patterns originated by postwar R&B performers. Haley followed the music of Louis Jordan, Jackie Brenston, Joe Turner, and Little Richard; Presley was attracted to the sounds of Junior Parker,