Perched behind his drum kit at the HofBrau Hotel in Wildwood, Dick Boccelli firmly struck his snare and started a musical revolution. It was Memorial Day weekend 1954 and Boccelli, the drummer for Bill Haley & the Comets, kicked off the band’s debut public performance of “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock”—widely regarded as the first rock ’n’ roll song.
The HofBrau, which Boccelli estimates could hold up to 400 people, was a fitting spot for the historic occasion. “South Jersey was the launching pad for the band,” says Boccelli, now 91 and living in Ocean City. Haley lived near Philadelphia and, for a period, in the South Jersey town of Salem. He performed with his band in bars and clubs throughout the area.
Haley and his band nearly missed the New York City recording date for “Rock Around the Clock.” Setting out on the Chester-Bridgeport Ferry on April 12, 1954, the group got stranded on a Delaware River sandbar at low tide and needed assistance from a ferry to be freed.
In those days, Wildwood was a hotbed of live music, helped by the opening of the Garden State Parkway in 1955. That made it easier to bring in crowds, says Al Alven, who runs the Wildwood365 website. Clubs such as the Riptide, the Rainbow Room, Ben Martin’s Bolero, Hunt’s Starlight Ballroom, the Mardi Gras and the Beach Club presented performers across the musical spectrum, from Tony Bennett, the Andrews Sisters and Nat King Cole to early rockers like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard. “There was a great variety of acts,” says Boccelli. “We would check them out when we weren’t playing.”
Thanks to its vibrant music scene, Wildwood was dubbed Little Las Vegas and was fittingly celebrated in song. “Every day is a holiday and every night is Saturday night,” pop idol Bobby Rydell sang in “Wildwood Days,” his 1962 hit that captured the moment.