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 the Boogie”.
“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.