Haley, Bill (1925-1981)

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Haley, Bill (1925-1981)

Often referred to as the founding father of rock 'n' roll, Bill Haley was the first performer to become famous in association with the new genre. William John Clifton Haley was born near Detroit, but raised in rural Pennsylvania. He left school in 1940, having completed the eighth grade. Coming of age during World War II, Haley was spared military service by a blind left eye. He had become interested in country and western music as a child, and during the war he began to perform on a semiprofessional basis.

By late 1943 Haley was a regular member of a country band, and for the next several years he sang, yodeled, and played rhythm guitar in bands like the Down Homers. In 1946 he struck out on his own with a group he called the Range Drifters. Like the other bands with which Haley was associated before 1952, the Range Drifters wore "drug store" cowboy outfits, like Roy Rogers. After a year of unprofitable touring, the Range Drifters broke up and Haley found work of a different kind. He spent the next few years as a disc jockey in various parts of New England and Pennsylvania. On one station, he was able to indulge his growing appreciation of "race music" or R&B, when the station owner began a daring policy of mixing genres—playing country, pop, and R&B shows during the course of any given day.

Bill Haley capitalized on his growing popularity in Pennsylvania and surrounding states by forming a new band, the Four Aces of Western Swing. As the name indicates, the band attempted to bring musical genres together. It was regionally successful and even recorded a few singles in 1948 and 1949. Along with occasional personnel changes over the years, the band also changed its name. By 1950 it was Bill Haley and His Saddlemen and was recording actively on a variety of labels. Increasingly Haley's repertoire included covers of R&B hits, like the popular "Rocket 88" that the Saddlemen released in 1951. The following year Haley moved to the Essex label and changed the band's name for the last time. Bill Haley and His Comets was a much better name for a band that by then sought to minimize its Western influences and to shoot for pop stardom.

The Comets had their first real hit, "Crazy Man, Crazy," in 1953. The next year the band released several records, including "Rock Around the Clock," which were met with only tepid response. It was in the summer of 1955 that the song finally became a national hit. Its innovative use as theme music in The Blackboard Jungle, a powerful motion picture about juvenile delinquency in a New York high school, brought the song (and Bill Haley) to the attention of millions of theater-goers in a few weeks' time. Decca, Haley's label, quickly rereleased "Rock Around the Clock" and it raced to the number-one position on the Billboard singles charts in July 1955.

Some commentators find the beginning of the rock 'n' roll era in the moment when "Rock Around the Clock" became the number-one pop single in America, ostensibly the first rock 'n' roll hit on the pop charts. However, Haley himself could take credit for the first rock hit with "Crazy Man, Crazy" in 1953, as well as a major hit with "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in 1954. The first number-one pop hit that would later be acknowledged as a rock 'n' roll song was probably the Crew Cuts' summer 1954 cover of "Sh-Boom," originally by the Chords. ("Rock Around the Clock" had its dismal first release at about the same time that "Sh-Boom" was rising to number one.)

Bill Haley and His Comets enjoyed some indisputable firsts, however. They were the first rock 'n' roll band to achieve stardom due to exposure in a movie, The Blackboard Jungle. In 1956 they became the first band to star in rock 'n' roll exploitation films: Alan Freed's Rock Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Rock. Haley's success in the pop music business was inseparable from his stature as a media star, a correlation that would come to be routine for music giants like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and many more.

Unfortunately for Bill Haley, rock 'n' roll changed rapidly during the late 1950s, while he and the Comets were left behind. After "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and the rerelease of "Rock Around the Clock," Haley had only two more major hits. "Burn That Candle" came out in November 1955, and "See You Later, Alligator" was released two months later. Aside from a few minor songs to follow, the group was essentially washed up in the United States before the end of 1956. The Comets' careers as worldbeaters were over in well under two years.

Haley's problems were just starting. His business manager took the band into bankruptcy shortly thereafter, and his world tour of 1958 resulted in teenage riots and anti-rock editorials in more than one nation. Haley continued to record singles and albums at a furious pace and sold a large number of them around the world without making the Top 40 again. Finally he fled the country, spending most of the 1960s in Latin America in fear of the Internal Revenue Service. In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America he made and sold many Spanish-and English-language records. On occasion he would tour Europe and South America, places where his popularity had not diminished.

After settling his income tax problems in 1971, Haley returned to live in the United States. His touring continued, however, with longer periods of retirement in between. In 1979 he played for Queen Elizabeth II in a Royal Command Performance, a high point of his career.

For many fans of rock 'n' roll, Haley remained one of the most important and influential musicians of his generation. For others, he was an obscure curiosity, unable to change with the times. It is beyond dispute that popular music was heavily influenced by his innovation of mixing country instruments and vocal styles with R&B; the full development of this trend was left to the much younger and more charismatic Elvis Presley, who sprang to stardom only six months after Haley. On February 9, 1981, Bill Haley died in his home in Harlingen, Texas, of a heart attack. He was 55.

—David Lonergan

Further Reading:

Haley, John W., and John von Hoelle. Sound and Glory. Wilmington, Delaware, Dyne-American Publishing, 1989.

Nite, Norm N. Rock On Almanac. 2nd edition. New York, Harper Collins, 1992.

Swenson, John. Bill Haley: The Daddy of Rock and Roll. New York, Stein and Day, 1983.