Collecting Essex and Decca Period Bill Haley

Rock Around the Clock

A good Bill Haley starter compilation is the 2004 reissue of the Rock Around the Clock LP, originally released by Decca Records in 1955. The remaster includes the full LP plus three bonus tracks.

There are many Bill Haley compilations on the market. Which ones are the good ones to get?  Well, it depends on what your needs and interests are.  Here’s a list of Essex and Decca (1952-1959) Period Bill Haley compilations for all levels of Bill Haley interest, from beginner to obsessive, complete with capsule descriptions that will give you an idea of what to expect. 

Beginner Level

Rock Around the Clock (Amazon US, Amazon UK) is a remastered CD reissue of the original Rock Around the Clock LP from 1955, plus three bonus tracks (“R-O-C-K”, “The Saints Rock and Roll”, and “See You Later Alligator”).  It’s cheap, it’s a great introduction for the novice, and it’s a good item for people who only need a little bit of Bill Haley in their life. It’s also got some fun nostalgia value with its reproduction of the original LP artwork.  In addition to the title track, you get “Thirteen Women”, “Shake Rattle and Roll”, “Dim, Dim the Lights”, “Burn That Candle”, and some other goodies like that.  For discography nuts, it essentially turns out to be a collection of the first eight Decca singles, minus “The Paper Boy From Main Street USA”, the B-side of the eighth single.

Bill Rocks (Amazon US, Amazon UK) Bear Family Records’ Bill Rocks is GREAT if you want a really good overall Essex/Decca collection that collects all the important rockin’ tracks and fits them onto one CD.  You get “Rocket 88”, “Rock the Joint”, “Crazy Man Crazy”, “Rock Around the Clock”, most of the 1955 Rock Around the Clock LP (except for “Thirteen Women”), “Skinny Minnie”, “Lean Jean”, and “Forty Cups of Coffee”.  It’s a little pricey but a nice and succinct collection. It’s the only one-disc collection that represents both Essex and Decca fairly.  And if it’s from Bear Family, you know that it’s going to be good quality.

Intermediate Level

Now if you want to have a larger sampling of Haley material for swing DJ’ing or just overall enjoyment, I recommend getting The Very Best of Bill Haley and His Comets for the Decca period, and The Best of Bill Haley and his Comets 1951-1954 for the Essex period.

The Very Best of Bill Haley and His Comets (Amazon US, Amazon UK) features 28 Decca period tracks on one CD, and is a cheap way to dig a little deeper into the Bill Haley catalogue.  As with the 1955 Rock Around the Clock CD, you get the first eight Decca singles minus the B-side of the eighth single (“The Paper Boy From Main Street USA”), plus it adds eight tracks from the 1956 follow up LP Rock and Roll Stage Show.  You also get the excellent tracks “Don’t Knock the Rock”, “Rip It Up”, and “Joey’s Song”; you get “Skinny Minnie” and its b-side “Sway With Me”; and you get “Lean Jean”’s b-side “Don’t Nobody Move” (although you don’t get “Lean Jean”, don’t know why).  Great collection and it’s pretty cheap too. 

The Best of Bill Haley and His Comets 1951-1954 (Amazon US, Amazon UK) collects 18 of the 25 Essex-era recordings, so you get “Rocket 88”, “Rock the Joint”, and “Crazy Man Crazy”, but you also get to dig a little deeper into items like “Farewell, So Long, Goodbye”, “Yes, Indeed!”, and Bill’s cover of “Chattanooga Choo Choo”.  The mastering is excellent and the liner notes are great, too.  I would pick The Very Best of Bill Haley first of the two, but I wouldn’t skip this one either, especially if you’re looking for high-quality, good-fidelity masters of Haley’s best Essex material.

Advanced Level

If you want to really dig into the Bill Haley discography, I recommend buying Proper Records’ From Western Swing to Rock 4-CD box set and adding the 2-CD The Ultimate Collection to it.  It’s most of the Bill Haley you’ll need, unless you want to go really obsessive and over the top; and if you do, we can help you there too (see below)!

The Ultimate Collection (2-CD set) (Amazon US, Amazon UK) absolutely cleans house from the Decca period, and fills in the holes from said period that the Proper Box (listed below) leaves open.  With no less than 42 tracks on two CD’s, you finally get “The Paper Boy From Main Street USA” and “Lean Jean”.  You also get “Teenager’s Mother”, “Forty Cups of Coffee”, and “Joey’s Song”.  You also get some obscurities in “You Hit the Wrong Note, Billy Goat”, “Rockin’ Rollin’ Rover”, and a cover of Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over”.  You also get a rare 1964 Decca side called “The Green Door” and a great 1957 rerecording of “Rock The Joint”.  And you also get pretty much everything on The Very Best of Bill Haley.

From Western Swing to Rock (The Proper Box) (4-CD box set) (Amazon US, Amazon UK) is about as comprehensive an overview of Bill Haley’s early years and his most famous years that you’ll be able to find anywhere.  Proper Records is a British company that puts out budget-priced but still great-quality box sets of the vintage performers of yesteryear.  Many times, instead of raiding the actual vaults, they will use cassette masters and high-quality transfers of 45’s, but they’re still obsessive about representing classic performers well and being as inclusive and/or representative as possible in the tracks they select.  Disc 1 features Haley’s Western swing recordings from 1948-1951, Disc 2 is the complete Essex Recordings (1952-1954), and Disc 3 and 4 feature a potpourri of hits and overlooked tracks from the early Decca period, clips from a Alan Freed radio show, and tracks from some Bill Haley-related projects from the period. 

Of particular interest on this set is the inclusion of all twelve of the Capitol recordings by The Jodimars (Joey D’Ambrosino, Dick Richards, and Marshall Lytle).  These three gentlemen are essentially half of the “Rock Around the Clock” period Comets, and left the Comets to form the Jodimars after Haley’s manager refused to give them a raise.  The core members of the Jodimars would reform in 1987 with other “Rock Around the Clock”-period Comets Johnny Grande and Franny Beecher under the name Bill Haley’s Original Comets in what is now one of the longest consistently running band reunions/nostalgia acts in rock history.  Franny has since retired from the group, and Johnny Grande passed away in 2006, but the core members of the Jodimars still continue on as the Original Comets.

A word of caution about the quality of the material on the From Western Swing to Rock box set. The mastering of the Essex tracks presented here is not as crisp and clean as the mastering on The Best of Bill Haley and His Comets 1951-1954. That is not to say the mastering is poor—it’s just that they are a very small step behind the Best of transfers in terms of sound quality.  The first half of the Decca transfers sound fine, but starting with “Hide and Seek” on Disc 3 and continuing throughout all of Disc 4, the Bill Haley Decca songs are all playing at the wrong speed (i.e. too fast).  In fact, some of the transfers are so fast that it raises the key of the song a half step.  This makes Haley’s voice sound twee and silly, and completely takes the punch out of the songs.  For that reason I strongly recommend buying Ultimate Collection and the Proper Box together, as the Ultimate Collection contains all of the Decca songs that are on the Proper box except for “Hey Then There Now”, and offers better mastering and corrected speed for the songs as well. 

Collectors Only

The Decca Years and More (5-CD box set) (Amazon US, Amazon UK) covers everything that Bill Haley did for Decca, bar none.  You get to hear Haley’s four theme LP’s (Rockin’ the Oldies, Rockin’ Around the World, Bill Haley’s Chicks, and Strictly Instrumental) in their entirety.  You get alternate versions of “Joey’s Song”, “Corrine, Corrina”, “Don’t Knock the Rock”, and “Rip It Up”.  And you get demos for two songs Bill Haley never recorded officially; these songs are entitled “Football Rock and Roll” and “That Six-Year-Old Can Rock and Roll”.  The fifth disc contains two reels of takes from a January 7 and a January 29, 1959 session, so you get to hear the false starts and everything.  This gets beyond swing DJ’ing and casual listening and into “collectors only” status for people who want it all.

Bill Haley and Friends Vol. 3: The Story of Rock Around the Clock (2-CD set) (Amazon US, Amazon UK) How does 64 versions of “Rock Around the Clock” sound to you?  Obsessive?  Oh yeah; that’s why it’s included here.  This is a 2-CD set that chronicles every recorded version Bill Haley ever did of “Rock Around the Clock” (and there are 31 of them!).  It also features covers by different lineups of The Comets without Bill Haley, and covers by a boatload of other performers, including: Pat Boone, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Chubby Checker, The Sex Pistols, The Platters, Jumpin’ Gene Simmons (the Sun recording artist from the 1960’s, not the co-frontman of Kiss), The Isley Brothers, and Mae West.  I was hoping they would have the 1979 version by Telex, who are a great early synthpop group from France, and sure enough they do!  They also have the version by Sonny Dae and His Knights that actually predates Bill Haley’s version, and which Bill Haley listened to while constructing his version—now that’s an oddity!  You really had better love “Rock Around the Clock” and/or the history around it to buy this.