Other than die-hard fans and music journalists, few people would have recognized the name of Franny Beecher before stories surfaced Monday about his death at age 92. Beecher was the longtime lead guitarist of seminal rocker Bill Haley’s band, the Comets.
That’s one reason that in 2012, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally got around to formally acknowledging several of the bands without whom Haley and many other rock, pop and R&B stars previously inducted individually would have been solo acts stranded singing a cappella.
To complete the story on the early inductions of James Brown, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Hank Ballard and Smokey Robinson, the hall welcomed the musicians who were crucial to the music they brought to the world: the Famous Flames, the Comets, the Crickets, the Blue Caps, the Midnighters and the Miracles. Coming up in April, the next group to be honored with the Rock hall’s “award for musical excellence” will be Bruce Springsteen’s longtime cohorts, the E Street Band.
Some obituaries noted that Beecher actually wasn’t the musician who came up with the incendiary guitar solo in “Rock Around the Clock” that helped create the template for several generations of rock guitar heroes who followed. That was session guitarist Danny Cedrone, who died in 1954, just a few weeks after recording what would be come one of the flashpoint songs in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Then Beecher joined the Comets, having honed his considerable chops playing with King of Swing Benny Goodman and with singer Buddy Greco.
“Rock Around the Clock” generated few ripples upon its original release in 1954, the “B” side of Haley’s single “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town).” But it exploded a year later when it was used during the opening of the 1955 film “Blackboard Jungle.”
The exuberant song, and its thinly veiled reference to all-night sex, not only tied in perfectly with the film’s theme of juvenile delinquency, but also gained considerable sonic impact when pumped through movie theater sound systems rather than the tiny speakers common to record players and radios of the time.
Beecher was the guitarist most young fans first saw when Haley went on tour after “Rock Around the Clock” hit the top of the Billboard singles chart, and he was the one who was with the group as its hit streak continued with “Burn That Candle” and “See You Later Alligator.”
Although American rock fans quickly shifted their allegiance to younger performers such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly — Haley, who was nine years older than Presley, often came off as a father figure rather than as a contemporary for rock-loving teens — Haley and the Comets continued to be revered in England and elsewhere outside the U.S.
“Rock Around the Clock” was the first rock recording to reach No. 1 in Great Britain, and Haley was the first American rock star to tour in England. Both events made a huge impact on a generation of budding teen musicians including the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend and countless others.
In his new book “Tune In: The Beatles, All These Years, Vol. 1.,” Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn writes, “All his life, Paul [McCartney] had heard people say that certain things ‘give you a tingle up your spine’; he first felt it when he heard Haley’s record--a magical, emotional, unforgettable moment.”
Many future British guitar gods also took inspiration from hearing and seeing Beecher play alongside Haley, spinning out lyrical solos that demonstrated to many for the first time the possibilities of the electric guitar as a lead instrument.
He left the Comets in 1962, but Haley continued touring with a shifting cast of Comets members until he died in 1981. Six years later, the surviving members of the Comets lineup from the '50s reunited and continued to perform periodically.
English music historian, producer and humorist Martin Lewis recalled persuading NASA to sponsor the Comets in a performance at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2005 -- the 50th annivesary of when “Rock Around the Clock” went to No. 1--in conjunction with their Deep Impact mission to explode a projectile into a comet to help JPL scientists study the celestial objects.
The Comets performed at JPL and the following night appeared at the Viper Room in Hollywood, becoming the oldest band ever to play the club.
“It wasn’t one of those sad, old PBS pledge specials—the audience was all kids in their 20s, young rockabilly fans, watching these guys,” Lewis said. “Franny was nearly 85, but it was the opposite of the oldies scene. The audience was cheering them on.”
Here’s a video clip highlighting Beecher’s guitar work on the song “Goofin’ Around”:
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