“Blackboard Jungle”: how Glenn Ford’s son Peter launched Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’

“One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock. Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock…” Remember this intro from Bill Haley’s rock ‘n’ roll classic ‘Rock Around the Clock’? The song entered the Billboard pop charts way back on May 14, 1955, and by July 9, it had gone up all the way to #1. It stayed there for a smashing eight consecutive weeks, becoming the first rock ‘n’ roll recording to hit the top of Billboard’s pop charts. It was also the #2 song of 1955, after Perez Prado’s instrumental classic ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White‘ (which three years later was still played all over at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair). But ultimately, it was Bill Haley’s legendary ‘Rock Around the Clock’ which set the rock boom in motion and it is generally credited to introduce the rock music genre to a worldwide audience. However, there’s a fascinating story behind the success and fame of Bill Haley’s rock song.

In the following essay, Glenn Ford’s son, Peter (b. 1945), for many years a very dear and loyal friend of mine, who at the time the 78 rpm record was released was a ‘precocious fifth grader who loved music,’ explains in detail his contribution as a 10-year-old to rock ‘n’ roll history and to “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), one of his father’s greatest films in his long and rewarding career.

I’m sure that after reading this firsthand, captivating piece of film history, you undoubtedly want to know more – and the good news is, you can. Peter Ford wrote an in-depth biography of his legendary father, ‘Glenn Ford: A Life,’ and you can visit his own website here.

So here it is – Peter Ford taking you down memory lane, all the way back to 1955.

The empty blackboard of “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) with the film credits rolling by, accompanied with Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’

I’ve often wondered if I’d never purchased a copy of Bill Haley And His Comets’ ‘Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town)’ in 1954, how the history of rock ‘n’ roll might have changed. Of course, if my dad hadn’t been Glenn Ford, who was the star of the film “Blackboard Jungle” in which the flip side of that song was featured, it wouldn’t have mattered. But I did, and he was, so I guess now the rest is just rock ‘n’ roll history. This is my story.

Some time ago actress Anne Francis came to the house to visit my father and me. As we sat around the pool that afternoon and reminisced about the days of yore, we talked about “Blackboard Jungle,” in which she played the part of Dad’s wife. Francis asked me if any book had ever been written about my father. I told her, “No, not even a ‘films of’ book.”

Anne Francis and Glenn Ford playing husband and wife Anne and Richard Dadier in “Blackboard Jungle”

She then proceeded to lovingly lecture me on my dereliction of duty to  preserve Glenn Ford’s legacy as an important actor from Hollywood’s golden age. Today my family and I live with my dad, and I have unfettered access to all his memorabilia and, most important, to the man himself. Francis said l’d better go to work. Within the week she called me and suggested that I call a writer friend, Christopher Nickens. lt wasn’t long before he and I met and began writing ‘Glenn Ford: A Life’ [published by The University Press of Wisconsin in 2011].

In addition to my role as the official researcher on the project, I thought I could contribute something else. I could write some articles about a few of my favorite films that my father made over his seven-decade career. I decided to start with three films I was intimately acquainted: “The Big Heat” (Fritz Lang, 1953), “Blackboard Jungle” (Richard Brooks, 1955) and “3:10 to Yuma” (Delmer Daves, 1957).

I began my writing exercise with MGM Studios’ “Blackboard Jungle,” in which my father starred as teacher Richard Dadier. I had a personal connection with the film, and I thought it would be nice to detail that.

In my writing, I discussed the culture in post-war America before the production of “Blackboard Jungle” and the reaction the film received at home and abroad when it was released in March 1955. I was also looking forward to telling a bit about my participation in how the theme song of the film, ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock,’ was discovered. However, in my research in the library and on the Internet, much to my amazement, I discovered that there were already a few attributions, but I believed they were in error. Because of this, I decided to excerpt and expand on this episode from my longer story about “Blackboard Jungle.”

Let me say at the onset, if people think they know how the song was chosen to be used in the film, they don’t. This is how it really happened.

My parents were married in 1943, and each brought to the union their huge collections of record albums. My mother was dancer Eleanor Powell, who starred in some of MGM’s most endearing musicals, including the “Broadway Melody” series. Her taste in music reflected her show business background – swing and a little blues. Many of the era’s greatest musical talents whom she knew and worked with were guests in our home, from Arturo Toscanini to Tommy Dorsey.

My father, meanwhile, had in his collection every imaginable record from every other musical discipline from symphonic to Hawaiian to country. Their marriage was a merger of musical tastes, and fortunately I was exposed to all of it. By age 7, I could identify many classical compositions, knew many of the Big Band leaders and their work, and had developed an ardent interest in music. This eclectic education was definitely a defining element in my upbringing.

We had a room in our home in Beverly Hills, Calif., called the China Room. It was our music room, and it was there we would often retire after dinner to enjoy whatever offering was on the evening’s agenda. My mother would knit, my dad would study his scripts, and we would all listen to the record player.

Peter Ford’s mother Eleanor Powell, a.k.a. ‘The Queen of Tap Dancing,’ with Fred Astaire in their memorable sequence ‘Begin the Beguine’ from “The Broadway Melody of 1940”

My parents purchased this house from composer Max Steiner, and the China Room had been his music room. Within its walls he composed the scores for “Gone With the Wind,” “Casablanca,” and practically every film at Warner Bros. during Hollywood’s Golden Age. It was the perfect place to hear music. There was an aura about that room, with its burnished gold leaf walls, deep red trim and door panels with Chinese figures painted in an oriental tableau. Today, I have many of those panels, salvaged from a demolition crew working at the house after Mom sold it. They are sacred to me because of the film history they had witnessed.

In fall 1954, I was a precocious fifth grader who loved music. Between the Beverly Hills Music Shop and Wallich’s Music City at Sunset and Vine, I was a busy lad indulging myself in the thing I loved most – my music. I loved R&B, or ‘race music’ as it was formally known in the late 1940s. My mother was ‘raised’ on the stage working with black performers as early as the 1920s, and she understood and encouraged my interests.

Mom had Fats Waller, Ink Spots, and Art Tatum records that I loved. In fact, she played her Waller discs so much that she wore away the vinyl. Meanwhile, I introduced her and Dad to Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton’s ‘Hound Dog,’ The Midnighters Featuring Hank Ballard, and the wonderful ballads of Johnny Ace. I was the only ‘black’ white kid I knew in Beverly Hills at the time, and I was proud of it.

One of the records I bought during fall 1954 was ‘Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town),’ recorded by a rockabilly group called Bill Haley and The Comets. Earlier I had purchased my first Haley record called ‘Crazy Man,  Crazy’ and knew that this Haley fellow was on to something. I looked forward to their next release.

When I brought ‘Thirteen Women’ home and played it, I didn’t like it. As many kids did in these days, I turned the record over to discover the real A-side: ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock.’ How Decca Records could have  thought that ‘Thirteen Women’ could have been the A-side was a mystery to me. Still, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ sold well, rising to #23 on the charts before the year’s end.

On Oct. 4, 1954, my father was signed by MGM to star in what everyone felt was going to be a controversial film about a hot topic that was recently making news: juvenile delinquency. The film was called “Blackboard Jungle.” Pandro S. Berman was the producer, and Richard Brooks was chosen to direct and write the screenplay from Evan Hunter’s novel. Berman wanted to start production on the film immediately after he signed Dad, as Hunter’s book was scheduled to be serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal the same month.

When the novel was published in August, it caused quite a bit of controversy, so it was a ‘hot’ property. But my father was already working on another project at the studio, “Interrupted Melody,” co-starring Eleanor Parker, so Berman had no choice but to wait for him. “Interrupted Melody” finished principal photography on November 13, 1954. Shooting started two days later on “Blackboard Jungle.”

Vic Morrow (left) with Sidney Poitier and Glenn Ford in “Blackboard Jungle”

When I began my research to write an extensive article about “Blackboard Jungle” and started investigating information about ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ I was quite delighted when the Internet provided me a wonderful and insightful tribute about the song and its history written by Alex Frazer-Harrison (click here). This article had everything one would ever want to know about Bill Haley, his Comets, and the song ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ lt had everything except one thing: like every other source I found, it misidentified how the song was ‘discovered’ and eventually used in the picture. I contacted Frazer-Harrison, told him what I believed to be the true story, and he encouraged me to do further research to set the record straight.

There are many sources that concern the discovery of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ as it applies to “Blackboard Jungle.” In some, including a biography of Haley written by his son, John W. Haley, and John Von Hoelle called ‘Sound and Glory,’ it is stated that the song was first noticed by Richard Brooks when he heard it playing on his daughter’s record player. In other versions of the tale, Pandro S. Berman discovered ‘Rock Around the Clock’ one day by hearing it playing on his daughter’s record player. Both Brooks and Berman were deceased. I was determined to find their children to ask them if any of them had any direct involvement in ‘Rock Around the Clock’ being used in “Blackboard Jungle.” I now know that none of them did.

Brooks married Harriet Levin on Sept. 20, 1945. They had no children. I discovered that Richard and his second wife, actress Jean Simmons, whom he married in 1960, did indeed have a daughter, but Kate Brooks wasn’t born until July 9, 1961 – six years after “Blackboard Jungle” was made. So the association of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and the director’s daughter was simply not possible. I now turned to the possibility that there could be a connection to the producer’s daughter.

Bill Haley and His Comets recorded ‘Rock Around the Clock’ April 12, 1954, and the single was released in May. James E. Myers (a.k.a Jimmy De Knight), who is credited with co-writing ‘Rock Around the Clock’ with Max C. Freedman in 1953, said that after sales slowed on that record, he sent it to many producers in Hollywood, trying to generate renewed interest in the song. This could be true, but even if he did send it around, based on the films that Pandro S. Berman had produced until 1954 (“Morning Glory,” 1933; “Follow The Fleet,” 1936; “National Velvet,” 1944; and “Ivanhoe,” 1952, to name just a few), it seems unlikely that he would have been interested in a song like ‘Rock Around the Clock.’

However, I knew I had to locate his children to make sure. Berman had three children: Michael (b. June 3, 1936), Susan (b. Dec. 1, 1941), and Cynthia (b. July 13, 1942). I discussed the making of “Blackboard Jungle” and ‘Rock Around the Clock’ with each of them. Michael remembered his dad telling him just before making the film, “You won’t believe what’s going on in the New York City school system. I’m going to do a film that will shock you.”

Later, Berman played ‘Rock Around the Clock’ for his children. Michael asked, “Was this written expressly for the film?” His father answered, “No, this has been out, and it was a hit.” The fact that his dad brought the record home (my copy I imagine) to play for his children was confirmed when Susan, Berman’s eldest daughter said, “Dad came home with ‘Rock Around The Clock’ and played it for us. I loved it.” So, it wasn’t the son or at least one of Pandro’s daughters who was playing ‘Rock Around the Clock’ when he first heard the song. Berman brought it home and played it for them.

I now had to find the other daughter, and that took some doing. When I finally found Cynthia and asked her what she knew about how ‘Rock Around The Clock’ got in the film, she answered, “The studio hired those two writers. You know Leiber and…?” I said, “You mean Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller?” She said, “Yes, they’re still around. They just sold their music rights recently. Call them. They’ll tell you about it.”

Well, I had my answer. Leiber and Stoller were seminal composers and gave us much of early rock ‘n’ roll’s best music, but they had nothing to do with ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ I had now confirmed that it wasn’t the director or the producer’s daughters. lt was my recording of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ that Berman heard at his home.

Peter Ford as a young boy, with his parents Eleanor Powell and Glenn Ford. Photograph: Peter Ford

Brooks and my father would meet away from MGM during production to discuss the film. Working on a short schedule with no rehearsals with mainly non-actors was a test for everyone. Brooks stopped by our house on occasion to visit Dad and talk about the production. It was on one of these visits that Brooks heard some records I owned. One of them was ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ I now know that he must have borrowed that record and some others on one of his visits.

Joel Freeman, who was the assistant director on “Blackboard Jungle,” recalled that toward the end of production, which would have been mid-December 1954, Brooks called him into his office to hear some records that he thought might possibly be used in the opening of the film. He played Freeman three songs, and they agreed that Haley’s up-tempo ‘jump blues’ tune was the perfect choice.

I recently asked him what the other songs were, but he didn’t remember. My guess would be that in addition to ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ they could have been Big Joe Turner’s version of ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’ and quite possibly ‘All Night Long’ by the Joe Houston Orchestra.

MGM eventually purchased the rights to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ for $ 5,000 from Decca Records with the condition that they could use the music only three times in the film. It has been written that for $ 2,500 more they could have owned the song outright. The producer of Haley’s recording, Milt Gabler, once claimed that MGM bought the song for a dollar.

Brooks, having found what he wanted, would now also use the music in the beginning of the film over the opening credits as well as at the end. Since MGM had paid for another opportunity to use the song, the music department at the studio cleverly used strains and riffs from ‘Rock Around the Clock’ intermixed with some jazz music during the fight scene between Dadier and his fellow teacher Josh Edwards against the gang of juvenile delinquents who attacked them in an alley.

What I always knew and wanted to talk about before I began writing my article on “Blackboard Jungle” was my experience at first hearing ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in the film. It was this memory that made me suspicious of all those other attributions that I discovered when I began my research. This is what happened.

On January 13, 1955, my Dad went to a screening room at MGM to see a rough cut of “Blackboard Jungle.” Berman, Brooks, and Dad’s agent, Ben Allenberg from the William Morris office, were also there. Dad hoped the film was going to be good, and he wasn’t disappointed, The final cut was a few weeks away from completion, and there were only hints of the music track, but film editor Ferris Webster had done a great job of putting together a first look at what was to be the finished film (he would later be nominated for an Academy Award in Film Editing for his efforts). The next night, Mom, Dad, and I celebrated by going out to dinner at our favorite haunt, the Brown Derby restaurant in Beverly Hills.

The Brown Derby restaurant in Beverly Hills, located at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive, was built in 1931. It closed its doors in the early 1980s and was demolished in 1983. Postcard: A Colourpicture Publication, Los Angeles (from the archive of Leo Verswijver)

About two weeks later, the final version was complete, and a sneak preview was scheduled. As an early 10th birthday surprise, my father asked me if I’d like to go to the Encino Theater in the San Fernando Valley to see “Blackboard Jungle.” It was Wednesday night February, 2, a night I’ll never forget. It was the first showing of the film to the general public. I don’t recall harboring any insecurities over my eccentric taste in music, but if I had, I would soon be validated by not only my father but MGM Studios as well.

Dad knew that I would like it and told me to expect to hear ‘that song’ somewhere during the film. All Dad knew is that they laid in a music track for the first time and that ‘my song’ was going to be in the film somewhere. We snuck into the back of the theater along with Berman and Brooks just before it was to begin. The theater grew dark, and I remember very clearly my thoughts as the first scene opened on the empty blackboard as the credits rolled by. Wow! Not only were they playing ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ the song that Brooks had borrowed from my record collection, but it was so loud – just like I played it at home. It was wonderful!

I liked the film too, of course, but it was the music that I remember most. There couldn’t have been a happier kid in the whole world at that moment.

‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock’ was the first rock ‘n’ roll song ever to be used in a motion picture. I recently asked Evan Hunter what he thought about ‘Rock Around the Clock’ being used in the movie version of his novel. He said, “Terrific! It started the film off with a bang. Kids were getting up and dancing in the aisles. Every kid in America went to see that film. They were carrying copies of the paperback book in the back pocket of their jeans.”

Dance they did – and cause some mischief too. Teenagers – misunderstood, lonely and rebellious – had discovered a touchstone with which they could identify. Teens at that time had been islands unto themselves, unaware that thousands of others were just like them. In celebrating ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ they became united and powerful, and their spirit of unbridled freedom would change the culture of America forever.

By July 5, 1955, seven months after Brooks first heard my 78 rpm copy of the record at my house, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ was the top single in the nation, and it stayed on the charts for eight weeks, eventually selling more than 25 million copies. After a good deal of research, I now feel that I can say with certainty that I played a small but pivotal role in launching a musical revolution. Thanks to a unique set of circumstances, the musical passion of a fifth grader helped ‘Rock Around the Clock’ become, as Dick Clark called it, ‘the national anthem of rock ‘n’ roll.’ – © Peter Ford

The trailer of “Blackboard Jungle”

BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (MGM, 1955) DIR Richard Brooks PROD Pandro S. Berman SCR Richard Brooks (novel by Evan Hunter) CAST Glenn Ford (Richard Dadier), Anne Francis, Louis Calhern, Margaret Hayes, John Hoyt, Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow, Paul Mazursky, Jamie Farr