Any casual listener looking over this 132-track five-CD set would probably conclude that it was far more Bill Haley than they need bite off in one gulp -- and they'd be right, as casual listeners. For the serious rock & roll enthusiast, as well as the hardcore Bill Haley fan, however, there's a wealth of worthwhile material to be found here, some of which will amaze even those fans: a dozen great songs and 55 or so more that are good, and another 20 that are fascinating mistakes, and that's a good average for an artist who is generally thought of as having generated just a handful of important records. What Haley had most of all was a distinctive sound -- between the backbeat, the country boogie roots, and the R&B sources -- that pretty much defined white rock & roll for almost its first two years (until Elvis Presley
and Carl Perkins
emerged in the spring of 1956); the first two CDs here offer that sound in abundance. They offer Haley's complete recordings from April 12, 1954 (the session that yielded "Rock Around the Clock"), until July 15, 1957, capturing an urgent, creative, and exciting era in the music and the band's output, when they seemingly couldn't help but make good records. The first 40 songs in the box are a reminder of a time when Haley and company were still very much in the game, with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and more in the front ranks of rock & roll (although, to be fair, the later sides on the second disc show them losing that game). Discs three and four's chronology cover the group's decline in 1958-1959, as they careened from one especially disastrous idea (the Rockin' Around the World
album) through some good, thumping rock & roll that just happened to be out of date in 1958 (in the guise of "Skinny Minnie"), then into a movie-related musical liaison with Caterina Valente
, and to their final sessions for Decca. That was a point where Haley and his band got back some of their vitality and creativity and cut some better-than-decent rock & roll, tagging on his good 1964 single "Green Door" and a pair of 1958 vintage demos. Disc five is a fascinating bonus, a 62-minute assembly of excerpts from two complete recording sessions in January 1959 working their way back to a body of musically (if not commercially) viable, solid rock & roll on numbers like "A Fool Such As I" and "I Got a Woman." In addition to the usual excellent Bear Family mastering job, the box offers a very nicely designed booklet by rockabilly scholar Colin Escott
, and one of the better accounts of Haley's overall career up through 1964. The price may be steep, but most of what's here -- and most of it isn't easily found anywhere else, or organized as neatly where it does show up -- will appeal to anyone who ever took a closer listen on their own to "Rock Around the Clock," just to pick up on what's going on inside of it between the boogie-woogie beat and the string-bending by Danny Cedrone. The total immersion that it allows in the work of Haley, Cedrone's successor, Frannie Beecher
, and saxman Rudy Pompilli
will delight those listeners who have the budget to afford it.