One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock
Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock
Nine , ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight
Put your glad rags on . . .
--from “Rock Around the Clock”
The only things James E. Myers and Sam Katzman had in common, besides triggering Hollywood’s rock ‘n’ roll connection, were a fondness for cigars and an eye for a quick buck.
Myers fronted some big bands in the Philadelphia area and dabbled in publishing in the ‘40s and ‘50s--small-time stuff, until he noticed a new dance craze--rock. Moving quickly, he and Max Freedman wrote a song for a bandleader whom Myers had seen singing country music in a farmers’ market near Chester, Pa. The bandleader was Bill Haley, and the song was “Rock Around the Clock.”
Haley’s version sold 250,000 copies that year. Then Myers sent copies of the record to Hollywood studios where writer-director Richard Brooks--who would later make “Elmer Gantry” and “In Cold Blood"--used it over the opening titles of the movie “Blackboard Jungle.”
The result was electrifying. The stark, aggressive mood of the movie’s deliquent teen-agers made the lighthearted energy of the record seem suddenly rebellious and dangerous. Also, people were hearing rock music for the first time over massive speakers, not the tiny radio or record player speakers in those pre-stereo days.
Young audiences became so caught up in the music that there were riots in some theaters. The record soared to No. 1 on the pop charts, eventually becoming the biggest-selling pop record in history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Estimated sales: 25 million.
No one was more surprised than Myers, who had just hoped to make a few bucks by writing a novelty dance song. Katzman didn’t forsee the future of rock music, either, but he too knew a good trend when he saw one.
A veteran “shoot ‘em and ship ‘em” movie producer, Katzman was so good at turning out low-budget quickies that in 1952, Columbia Pictures signed him to a contract calling for 105 pictures over seven years.
Not surprisingly, Katzman’s first rock movie was titled “Rock Around the Clock” and starred Bill Haley. Released before “Love Me Tender” in 1956, the film defined the rock exploitation genre: round up as many stars as you could afford and come up with a story line that didn’t interfere with the music. “Rock Around the Clock” cost an estimated $200,000 and grossed $1 million in the U.S. alone.
Katzman kept ‘em coming--"Don’t Knock the Rock” the same year, again starring Haley, “Calypso Heat Wave” in 1957, “Twist Around the Clock” and its inevitable sequel, “Don’t Knock the Twist.” He produced the ‘60s Elvis movies “Harum Scarum” and “Kissin’ Cousins.”
But Katzman couldn’t turn them out fast enough. Rival producers raced into the void with carbon copies: “Rock, Rock, Rock,” “Mister Rock and Roll,” “Shake, Rattle and Rock” and “Jamboree.”