Rockin’ Americans in 50s Britain
By Pat Murphy
For 1950s American rockers, the combination of language and market size made Britain the preferred offshore destination. But not all experiences were completely successful.
Freddy Bell and the Kalin Twins found themselves overshadowed by the ascending local talents with whom they appeared in 1957 and 1958 respectively – Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard being the guys who rained on their parades. Charlie Gracie was enthusiastically received in 1957, but left little or no trace behind. And from the perspective of pure farce, the most spectacular of all was the Jerry Lee Lewis flame-out in 1958, after Fleet Street got wind of his marital details.
The build-up to Bill’s arrival was phenomenal. By the time his ship disembarked at Southampton in February 1957, he and his Comets had racked up seven Top 10 hits, including 36 weeks in the Top 30 with Rock Around the Clock, one of only three records to sell more than a million copies in Britain alone during the 50s.
The previous year, the movie of the same title had been something of a media sensation. In the best Fleet Street style, regular reports told of youths trashing cinemas, allegedly under the intoxicating influence of the big beat.
So, as conventional Britain braced for the storm, the popular press waited with eager anticipation of lurid headlines to come.
To stir the pot, the mass circulation Daily Mirror arranged a Rock ‘n’ Roll Special to bring fans by rail to Southampton to greet Bill and ferry him back to London. And 4,000 waited at Waterloo Station for the train’s return. The resulting mayhem duly delivered the requisite headlines about the Second Battle of Waterloo.
So far, so good.
The concert schedule then kicked-off at London’s Dominion Theatre on February 6. To modern eyes, it was a strange bill, incorporating the likes of the Vic Lewis Orchestra, the Kenneth Earle/Malcolm Vaughan comedy duo, and tin whistler Desmond Lane.
For impatient rock ‘n’ roll fans, this made the evening a trying wait. Finally, Bill and the Comets took the stage for a 30 minute act culminating in Shake Rattle ‘n’ Roll, See You Later Alligator, and the inevitable Rock Around the Clock.
From London, the tour moved out in all directions, going as far north as Scotland and even crossing the Irish Sea. In Dublin for two nights on February 27 and 28, it played the cavernous Theatre Royal to enthusiastic audiences and a sneering Evening Press review headlined “Run a Mile Crocodile.”
In Norwich, on March 6, fans gathered at the train station at 6:30 in the morning, causing such concern that the chief constable and the city solicitor deemed it necessary to attend the evening’s performances to keep an eye on things. So it went – the length and breadth of the land.
Then it was over.
And so was Bill Haley’s status as a major star in Britain. It was like flipping a switch. After fixating on his every movement, the British public seemed to make a spontaneous en masse judgement he was now surplus to requirements.
Perhaps his popularity had just run its natural course. Or perhaps it was the fact that, in the flesh, he turned out to be slightly chubby, prematurely middle-aged, and definitely not the material teenage fantasies are made of. Either way, he was history.
For Buddy, the pump was also well- primed before his arrival. That’ll Be The Day was No.1 for three weeks in November, 1957, with Oh Boy! and Peggy Sue quickly following into the Top 10. So when he opened at the Trocadero in London’s Elephant and Castle on March 1, 1958, expectations were high.
The promoter, Arthur Howes, didn’t have to worry. Accompanied by Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin of The Crickets, Buddy proved to be a bigger live attraction in Britain than in America. Playing as the headliner, he did 25 major theatres in 25 days, ranging the length of England from Southampton to Newcastle, and including a foray into Wales for two shows at Cardiff’s Capitol.
To top it off, Buddy got to appear on the famous Sunday Night at the London Palladium television show, a prestigious showcase that could be dangerous territory for pop stars with innovative studio-dependent sounds and limited presentation skills. As Bobby Vee was to discover several years later, the combination of the show’s huge television audience and insistence on live performance left nowhere to hide.
Unlike Bill, Buddy’s British sales didn’t tank after the tour – at least not immediately. Two major hits – Maybe Baby and Rave On – followed over the spring and summer, nicely complemented by two other Top 20 entries. And The Chirping Crickets made a brief appearance in the Top 10 albums listing, something denied to most rock ‘n’ roll acts at the time.
But, by the beginning of 1959, his American sales chill had crossed the Atlantic, and Heartbeat struggled to register a single week at the very bottom of the Top 30. Then came the day the music died, at which point Buddy ascended into rock ‘n’ roll immortality.
Speculating on what would have happened had he lived is an intriguing, but ultimately futile, exercise. Certainly, his British sales soared immediately after his death. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore hit No.1, and The Buddy Holly Story began a 156-week run in the Top 20 albums listing. And there was more, courtesy of overdubbed versions of old demo tapes proving sufficiently potent to land single and album hits through the early 1960s.
Legends are made of such stuff!
A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.