Born William John Clinton Haley, Jr., 6 July 1925, Highland Park, Michigan Died 9 February 1981, Harlingen, Texas
Though his career did not reach the stratospheric heights of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley will always be known as the “father of rock and roll”. He brought rock and roll to the consciousness of America and the world. His “Rock Around the Clock” was the first worldwide rock & roll hit and possibly the most influential record of all time. But its success did not come overnight.
Haley was born in Michigan but his family moved to Pennsylvania when he was seven. A botched operation at age four left him blind in his left eye for the rest of his life. His father taught him to play guitar when he was 13. Two years later Bill dropped out of high school and was hired as a singer in a local cowboy band and later as a yodeler in The Downhomers. With this group he made his first recordings in 1946. He left the group to become a disc jockey, first at WSNJ in Bridgeport, New Jersey, then at WPWA in Chester, Pennsylvania. In 1948-49 Haley fronted a group called The Four Aces of Western Swing, who recorded several singles for the Cowboy label. He disbanded them in 1949 and started the Saddlemen, who did a few one-off sessions for various labels before being signed (in 1951) to Dave Miller’s Holiday label in Philadelphia. The name of the label would soon be changed to Essex Records.
Haley’s dream was to become a country star and up to that time he had performed straight hillbilly tunes. But Dave Miller kept pushing him in the direction of R&B music, first by having the Saddlemen cover Jackie Brenston’s big hit “Rocket 88”. In March 1952 Haley and his group recorded “Rock the Joint” (originally done by Jimmy Preston in 1949), which blended country with rhythm and blues and became their biggest seller up to that point. It was felt that the name The Saddlemen no longer fitted the group’s musical style, so in the autumn of 1952 it was changed to Bill Haley and the Comets.
Haley began to write his own songs and one of his first compositions became the first rock and roll record to enter the Billboard pop charts. It was “Crazy Man Crazy”, which peaked at # 12 in mid-1953. While this song was still riding high, Haley was offered a song written by Max Freedman and Jimmy Myers (aka Jimmy DeKnight) called “Rock Around the Clock”. But Dave Miller hated Myers and refused to let Haley record the song. After the Essex contract expired in January 1954, Myers got Haley and his Comets signed to Decca, where famous producer Milt Gabler became their A&R man. At the first Decca session, on April 12, only two songs were recorded, as the band arrived an hour late at the Pythian Temple in New York City. Most of the time was spent on “Thirteen Women”, while “Rock Around the Clock” was recorded at the tail end of the session, in two takes. The song was well rehearsed as it had been part of the Comets’ stage show for some time. Session guitarist Danny Cedrone (who had also played on most of the Essex tracks) was not familiar with the song, though, and copied his Les Paul-inspired solo from “Rock the Joint” note for note. It is probably the best known guitar solo in music history.
“Rock Around the Clock” was issued in May as the reverse of “Thirteen Women”, but disc jockeys soon began to play the B-side. Though it spent two weeks on the Cash Box charts (at # 36 and # 38), “Rock Around the Clock” was considered a commercial disappointment. Haley moved on to his next record, a sanitized cover of Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” which reached # 7 on the pop charts and established him as a national star. Later in 1954 Bill scored with “Dim Dim the Lights” (# 11) and in March/April 1955 with both sides of “Birth of the Boogie”/ “Mambo Rock”.
In spite of this success, no one was prepared for what happened next. Myers hadn’t given up on “Rock Around the Clock” and managed to get the song included on the soundtrack of “Blackboard Jungle”, a film about a New York teacher coping with juvenile delinquents at an inner-city high school. The record was reissued in May 1955, exactly one year after its first release and all hell broke loose. By July 9 it had reached the top position on the Billboard pop charts and stayed there for eight weeks. The rock ’n’roll revolution had begun. “Rock Around the Clock" also topped the charts in the UK and many other countries all over the world. Suddenly Haley was the hottest name in popular music and he scored twelve more chart entries until the end of 1956, including the Top 10 hits "Burn That Candle" (# 9) and “See You Later Alligator” (# 6).
Haley and his Comets appeared in two films in 1956, “Rock Around the Clock” and “Don’t Knock the Rock”. In February 1957 they travelled to England, the first rock and roll act to tour abroad. He was mobbed when his train arrived in London and there were rabid scenes of fan mania when he performed at the Dominion Theatre, London. From March 1956 until February 1957 there wasn’t a single week when Haley didn’t have at least one record on the UK Top 30. He has always remained very popular in the UK and was always welcome to tour there.
But his star didn’t burn brightly for very long. At 32, Haley was too old to embody the youth rebellion that was such an important part of rock ’n’ roll. Elvis Presley was younger, leaner, sexier and had the charisma that Haley lacked. Haley kept on making good records but had only four more chart entries in 1958-60, of which only “Skinny Minnie” (# 22, 1958) went Top 30. Haley also had trouble with his band members because he failed to share his financial success with them. As a result, there was a lot of turnover, though the sound remained the same. Long-serving Comets include Rudy Pompilli (sax), Franny Beecher (lead guitar), Johnny Grande (piano, accordion), Ralph Jones (drums) and Billy Williamson (steel guitar).
In the 1960s Haley recorded for labels like Warner Bros, Gone, Newtown, Apt and the Mexican Orfeon label but there were no further hits, though he was still respected as a sort of elder statesman of rock. When “Rock Around the Clock” became the opening theme of the TV series “Happy Days” in 1974, the song re-entered the charts, both in the USA (# 39) and the UK (# 12). Total world sales of the record are estimated at 21 million copies, the fifth biggest selling single of all time.
The death of his long-term sax player Rudy Pompilli in 1976 was a hard blow for Haley. He retired in 1977, though he was persuaded to return to performing for a UK tour in 1979. His health was failing him, there were rumours of a brain tumor and Bill Haley died on February 9, 1981 of a heart attack, aged 55. In 1987 Haley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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Acknowledgements : Alex Frazer-Harrison, Fred Bronson, Jim Dawson & Steve Propes.
Dik, January 2016
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