It seems amazing that, at some time between 1955 and 2006, no one has ever attempted to do what this five-CD set does -- assemble all of the early Bill Haley sides together in one place. Oh, to be sure, Haley wasn't necessarily the most consistent performer, even at the peak of his career, but he had amassed an astonishing amount of material in the eight years before "Rock Around the Clock" secured his place in history, and while a lot of it was more country than rock & roll, most of it is not bad and a lot of it is amazingly good, as you will discover here. Back in 1948, when he was fronting Bill Haley & the Four Aces of Western Swing
, he was making good records -- and when they weren't quite great records, they were never dull. And what you hear, even on relatively derivative numbers like "Tennessee Border," is a tendency to push the beat a little bit, even in the context of Western swing. As far back as that, Haley was showing not only an appreciation of elements of jazz -- as all Western swing did -- but also of boogie-woogie. And every so often in between a ballad he'd slip in an offbeat A-side like "Loveless Blues." This box traces the threads of Haley's development as a musician and stylist across his earliest released sides, mostly for tiny regional labels and by way of acetates unearthed across the decades -- so one can see how he put together the sound that eventually made him famous, piece by piece, as a combination of the quirks of his own taste. Haley may have had a host of personal problems and never fully comprehended everything he'd latched onto as a musician, but he was remarkably consistent as a performer, as revealed here. Going song by song and watching him form new bands with new personnel and new sounds -- the biggest development was getting Billy Williamson
on steel guitar for the early Saddlemen
-- it doesn't seem like such a jump from "Candy and Woman" to "Rocket 88." In addition to all of Haley's commercial recordings across this eight-year span and the acetates that were intended as demos, listeners also get transcription discs by the various outfits of which he was a member, starting with the Downhomers
. The result, when coupled with the extensive essays and annotation in the 100-page hardcover book that comes with this set, is the fullest picture ever presented of the man who was as truly the father of rock & roll as anyone who could ever have claimed the title.