Think of the beginnings of rock and roll and you think
of Bill Haley. He was a a singer-songwriter, guitarist and slap bassist with a
signature kiss-curl born William John Clifton Haley in Highland Park,
Michigan and raised in Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, from the time he was seven.
His father played the banjo and his mother was a
classically trained pianist and it has been written that his parents bought
him a real guitar after he’d made one out of cardboard when he was
young and this would be the start of an amazing career in music.
He started his career as a professional musician when
he was about thirteen years old in 1938 and performed at various variety
shows. Before long formed his
own band which performed at various local venues. He then left home at
fifteen to follow his musical dream but although he got work with several
bands and with a medicine show, he lived in poverty.
Although WWII had begun, he wasn’t taken into
the military due to the fact that he had been suffering from blindness in
his left eye since he was an infant. He joined up with a band
called the Down Homers around 1944 but by 1947 had decided to go freelance
again. In the next few years he
appeared as Bill Haley and the Four Aces of Western Swing and on the Cowboy
record label recorded “Too Many Parties and Too Many
Pals”/”Four Leaf Clover Blues” in 1948 and
“Tennessee Border”/Candy Kisses” in 1949.
Around 1950 he recorded “Stand Up and Be
Counter”/”Loveless Blues” as Johnny Clifton & His
String Band and the following year he formed his own band called Bill
Haley’s Saddlemen who recorded for the
first time in 1951. The song
was “Rocket 88” which had previously been recorded by Jackie
Benson & His Deltacats and would be a
groundbreaker where a country singer had recorded an R&B song. He also hosted a show at WPWA radio
in Chester, Pennsylvania.
They recorded the minor hit “Rock the
Joint” in 1952 and the
band, inspired by Halley’s Comet, changed their name from The Saddlemen to Bill Haley with Haley’s Comets
sometime over the Labor Day holiday. The following year they recorded
Bill’s co-written “Crazy Man, Crazy” which went to No. 15
on the Billboard chart and was a pioneer in that it was the first rock and
roll number to appear on charts in the US.
The following year Bill wrote the song “Rock
Around the Clock” and the band simplified its name to Bill Haley
& The Comets. The song was
recorded in 1954 and saw minor success when it managed to appear on the
charts for just a week. A far
more major success was just round the corner when they released
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” which became an international hit,
achieving gold status, and the first rock and roll song to hit the UK
charts. Following songs
included “Dim, Dim the Lights”,
“Razzle Dazzle” and “Birth of
“Rock Around the Clock” wasn’t
forgotten for long though because in 1955 it was used as an addition to the
soundtrack of the movie Blackboard
Jungle. This was enough to
get it back into the charts but, unlike the first time, it rocketed to the
top of the Billboard chart with Bill being dubbed “The Father of Rock
and Roll”. It became the
first song to top one million sales in Germany
and the UK.
The success of this new found rock and roll sound
carried on in 1956 when Bill Haley & The Comets had further hits with
songs such as “See You Later, Alligator” and in 1957 they
launched a European tour. The
band also released the 1956 concept album Rock and Roll Stage Show and appeared in the movies Don’t Knock the Rock and Rock Around the Clock which were the
first of their kind based on rock and roll music. In 1957 another album
under the title of Rockin’ Around the World was
released featuring tracks that represented different countries, in 1958 the
songs “Skinny Minnie” and “Lean Jean” appeared on Bill Haley’s Chicks and in
1959 out came Strictly Instrumental.
Although their success continued after this they were
soon eclipsed by the new kid on the block, Elvis Presley, who began having
his own major success. However,
Bill and the band were still wildly popular in Europe
and the Latin American countries during the 1960s. In 1961 he settled in Mexico
and recorded his first songs in Spanish. During the ‘60s and ‘70s
Bill also battled alcoholism but it didn’t stop him touring and
re-finding some of his previous popularity when the rock and roll revival
came around in the latter half of the ‘60s. During this period he landed a
recording contract with Sonet Records.
In 1979 he performed in London
at the Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth II and the following
year found him touring South Africa
with later dates in Germany
planned. Sadly the German leg
of the tour was cancelled when the announcement was made that he was
suffering from a brain tumour and he returned home to America. It was then printed in Berliner Zeitung
that back in his home-town of Harlingen, Texas,
he had been hospitalised after he had collapsed following a show.
He carried on the next few months planning an album
and making notes on his life but he was becoming more and more affected by
the tumour and it led to his retirement. In the February of 1981, when he as
55 years old, he passed away in the small hours of the morning. He left behind at least eight
children from three wives, several of whom are musicians.
He also left the legacy of being a pioneering
singer-songwriter of the rock and roll era, leaving us with countless
recordings and some of the most instantly recognisable rock and roll songs
in history. He was honoured
with a star on the Hollywood walk of Fame and in
1987 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On the 25th anniversary
of this death he was further recognised when Asteroid 79896 Billhaley was named in his honour in 2006.
The Comets carried on performing and are still touring
on an international level today.
In 2007 the guitarist, Bill Turner, who had been a member of the
group, opened the Bill Haley
Museum which had been
established in Munich, Germany.