Bill Haley is known the world over as the Father of Rock ’n’ Roll. Haley was the first white artist to combine elements of rhythm & blues, western swing, and hillbilly music to produce the upbeat, danceable, and infectious sound known today as rock ’n’ roll. With his band, the Comets, Haley released rock’s first certifiable million-seller, “Rock Around the Clock,” in 1954. According to Charles T. Brown in Music U.S.A.: America’s Country and Western Tradition, Haley “was not original, although he felt that he had invented rock and roll. He simply put together available elements at the right time and had the good sense to get them before the public. But he was the catalyst necessary for rock and roll’s success.”
Brown’s judgment might be unduly harsh. Haley was more than a mere catalyst: he was a clever performer with many years’ experience who was able to create a package of rhythm & blues acceptable to white teenagers. Prior to Haley, early examples of rock ’n’ roll had reached very few listeners, and some of the most exciting r & b work featured frankly sexual lyrics that rendered the form taboo among much of the white listening public. Haley incorporated the beat but left the erotic lyrics behind; the young post-war generation found a music it could dance to, a signature sound different from all the dance music of the past.
William John Clifton Haley was born July 6, 1925, in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park. While he was still young his parents moved the family east to Chester, Pennsylvania, a small town near Philadelphia. There Haley’s father worked as a farmer and his mother played organ in church. Haley himself was interested in music from his earliest years, especially country and western music. Like many aspiring singers, he idolized Hank Williams, an artist whose up-tempo numbers hinted at the rock era to come.
In 1945 Haley left home for a long apprenticeship in country and western swing bands. His travels led him far and wide across the eastern half of the country; gradually he became an able guitar player and an affable showman. He returned to the Chester area in 1948 and formed his own ensemble, the Four Aces of Western Swing. This group could be heard weekly over WPWA in Chester, where Haley also worked as a disc jockey.
Haley’s performances on WPWA brought him to the attention of a Philadelphia-area record producer, Jack Howard. Howard thought he might be able to make Haley a hillbilly music star, and at his suggestion Haley
For the Record…
Born William John Clifton Haley, Jr., July 6, 1925, in Highland Park, MI; died of heart failure February 9, 1981, in Harlingen, TX; son of William John Clifton Haley (a farmer) and a church organist mother; married; several children.
Singer, songwriter, guitar player, and bandleader, 1945-81. Formed band Four Aces of Western Swing, 1948, and performed on WPWA Radio, Chester, PA, 1948-50; changed group name to Bill Haley and His Saddlemen, 1950, released first single, “Rocket 88” on independent label, 1951; changed group name to Bill Haley and the Comets. Recorded with Essex label, 1951-53, had first hit, “Crazy Man, Crazy,” 1952; moved to Decca Records, 1954, had multi-million seller with “Rock Around the Clock,” 1954. Music was featured in the film “The Blackboard Jungle,” 1955, “Rock Around the Clock,” 1956, and “Don’t Knock the Rock,” 1958. Made numerous live appearances in the United States, Europe, Mexico, and Central and South America, 1955-79.
Membership of the Comets between 1951 and 1975 includedJohn Grande (guitar),Bill Williamson (guitar),Marshall Lytle (bass),Dick Richards (drums),Joey D’Ambrosia (tenor saxophone),Al Rex (bass),Ralph Jones (drums),Rudy Pompelli (tenor saxophone),Frank Beecher, John Kay, andDave Holly.
Awards: Inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, 1986.
re-named his group Bill Haley and His Saddlemen. Under Howard’s direction Haley cut three singles, none of which sold outside the Philadelphia area. That exposure was enough, however, to attract the attention of Dave Miller, owner of a slightly larger pop label in Philadelphia. It was Miller who suggested that Haley record “Rocket 88,” an r & b hit. That tune sold some 10,000 copies—not a phenomenal success, but encouraging.
In 1951 Haley took a regular gig at a dance bar in New Jersey. While there he began performing an upbeat number called “Rock the Joint” that proved very popular with the young crowd. Like “Rocket 88,” “Rock the Joint” was originally a black hit. Haley recorded it early in 1952 and it eventually sold 150,000 copies. By then Haley was signed to the larger Essex label and his band had been re-named the Comets. Haley and his group left behind their country garb, donned tuxedos, and added a tenor saxophonist and drummer to their ranks. From there, Bill Haley and the Comets took off.
In 1953 they recorded a number Haley wrote himself, “Crazy Man, Crazy.” The song—Haley’s first Top Ten hit—proved especially popular in dance halls. At the time, Haley was sitting on another number, “Rock Around the Clock,” but Miller discouraged him from recording it. Finally Haley left the Essex label, signed with Decca, and brought “Rock Around the Clock” to the recording studio. The song was released on May 10, 1954. Initially, “Rock Around the Clock” did not sell well, but a Haley follow-up, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” made the Top Ten. In the wake of that success, Decca decided to re-release “Rock Around the Clock.” The tune was featured prominently in the film “The Blackboard Jungle,” one of the first movies geared toward the rebellious teens of the 1950s.
“Rock Around the Clock” spent seven weeks at Number One on the pop charts in 1955 and has subsequently sold more than 20 million copies. The song brought Haley into the limelight he had sought for more than ten years and made him a veritable superstar. He and the Comets turned out three more hits in 1955, “Dim Dim the Lights,” “Birth of the Boogie,” and “Razzle Dazzle,” and then embarked on a dizzying round of concert appearances in the United States and England.
Backed by the spirited saxophone playing of Rudy Pompelli and fine side work of a variety of other musicians, Bill Haley and the Comets caused a sensation wherever they performed. Unfortunately for Haley, however, other singers were quick to incorporate the new sound and almost immediately edged him out of the record market. The aging, homely Haley could hardly compete with the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the outrageous Little Richard; after 1955 he had only one hit, “Skinny Minnie.”
American fans might have shrugged Haley off, but British and Mexican fans were more respectful. Haley and his Comets staged fabulously successful tours of England in the mid-1960s and again in the mid-1970s, on both occasions upstaging more modern acts. Throughout the 1960s Haley recorded music in Mexico and sold the majority of his singles there. He also toured the United States, but his performances there were confined to smaller stages.
Bitter over the indifference he faced in his native country, Haley became a recluse as the 1970s progressed. In one of his last interviews he said: “I wrote ’Rock-a-Beatin’ Boogie,’ which was the song that gave rock ‘n’ roll its name. Remember how it started out? ’Rock, rock, rock everybody! Roll, roll, roll everybody!’Well, that started it. The story has got pretty crowded as to who was the father of rock. These days, you’d think everybody did it. But we were the first. I haven’t done much in life except that. And I’d like to get credit for it.” Indeed, Haley’s was no small accomplishment. His music was a breakthrough combination of styles that had previously been split along racial lines, conjured at a time when a young audience with increasing record-buying power was craving novelty.
Bill Haley died in his sleep on February 9, 1981, in the small town of Harlingen, Texas. Stuart Colman offered a tribute to Haley in the book They Kept On Rockin’: “Leaders in the music world are always predestined, and Bill had every right to be a star…. Whatever… [the] criticisms of the Haley style of music, the fact remains that the slick three chord pop songs at which he so excelled, have always been the hardest to write successfully.” Colman concluded, “Rest assured, any future songwriter would give his eye teeth to unlock the secret of some of the all-time greats created by Bill Haley and the Comets!” Fittingly, Bill Haley was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as one of its first members.
Singles; with the Saddlemen
“Rocket 88,” Holiday, 1951.
“Green Tree Boogie,” Holiday, 1951.
“Jukebox Cannonball,” Holiday, 1951.
Singles; with the Comets
“Rock the Joint,” Essex, 1952.
“Crazy Man Crazy,” Essex, 1953.
“Sundown Boogie,” Essex, 1954.
“Rock Around the Clock,” Decca, 1954.
“Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” Decca, 1954.
“Dim Dim the Lights,” Decca, 1954.
“Mambo Rock,” Decca, 1955.
“Razzle Dazzle,” Decca, 1955.
“Rock a Beatin’ Boogie,” Decca, 1955.
“See You Later, Alligator,” Decca, 1955.
“Rockin’ Through the Rye,” Decca, 1956.
“Rockin’ Rollin’ Rover,” Decca, 1957.
“Skinny Minnie,” Decca, 1958.
“Tamiami,” Warner Bros., 1960.
“Chick Safari,” Warner Bros., 1960.
“Tenor Man,” Newtown, 1963.
“Dance Around the Clock,” Newtown, 1963.
“Burn That Candle,” Apt, 1965.
“Haley a-Go Go,” Apt, 1965.
“A Little Piece at a Time,” Janus, 1972.
“Kohoutek,” MGM, 1974.
“Within This Broken Heart of Mine,” Arzee, 1977.
Albums; with the Comets
Bill Haley and the Comets, Essex.
Rock Around the Clock, Decca.
Rock ’n’ Roll Stage Show, Decca.
Rockin’ the Oldies, Decca.
Rockin’ Around the World, Decca.
Rockin’ the Joint, Decca.
Shake, Rattle and Roll, Decca.
Bill Haley’s Chicks, Decca.
Haley’s Juke Box, Warner Bros.
Bill Haley’s Scrapbook, Kama Sutra.
Bill Haley & His Comets, Warner Bros.
Golden Hits of Bill Haley & the Comets, MCA.
Greatest Hits of Bill Haley & the Comets, MCA.
Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay, Gusto.
Rock and Roll, Crescendo.
Rock Around the Country, Crescendo.
Bill Haley & the Comets From the Original Master Tapes, MCA.
Brown, Charles T., Music U.S.A.: America’s Country & Western Tradition, Prentice-Hall, 1986.
Colman, Stuart, They Kept on Rockin’, Blandford Press, 1982.
Given, Dave, The Dave Given Rock ’n’ Roll Stars Handbook, Exposition Press, 1980.
Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, Grosset, 1978.
The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated History of Popular Music, Volume 1, Marshall Cavendish, 1989.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1974, revised edition, 1989.
Swenson, John, Bill Haley, The Daddy of Rock and Roll, Stein & Day, 1983.
New York Times, February 10, 1981.
Rolling Stone, March 19, 1981.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Family entertainer Bill Harley has won acclaim across the United States for his blend of song and story that entertains adults and children alike. Described as the Mark Twain of contemporary children’s music, Harley has performed as a soloist or with his band the Troublemakers at schools, coffee houses, festivals, and on the theater stage since 1980, logging over two hundred shows per year. To quote Child Magazine, “There are a lot of performing artists out there singing, stomping, and storytelling their way into kids’ audio cassette players. But few do it with as much spirit and success as Bill Harley.”
Born William Harley, the entertainer is the middle of three sons of Max Harley, a lawyer, and Ruth Harley, a children’s literature writer. During his childhood, Bill took piano lessons and wrote stories. After moving to the East Coast during his high school years, Harley became interested in folk music and began playing the guitar and banjo. He later attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where he majored in religious studies. Following his graduation, Harley worked as a waiter, directed programs in inner city and rural schools to help children, parents, and teachers to deal effectively with conflict and violence in their lives, and played in coffee houses and small clubs.
In 1980 Harley and his wife, Deborah Block, moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where Block had a job at Brown University. Harley and a friend started the Learning Connection, a community-based learning program that grew to include hundreds of courses. About that time, Harley also founded a storytelling group called the Spellbinders. Within a short time Harley—a man of medium height, bushy mustache, thinning hair, and large eyes—found himself performing more and more at elementary schools.
He incorporated a wide variety of musical forms and traditions (reggae, doo-wop, jazz) into his programs, made up of songs and stories embellished with silly voices, tone inflections, body language, sound effects, and gestures. Harley makes up his own stories and draws on folk literature, Indian legend, books, and the works of other storytellers. He engages the youngsters in sing-alongs, fill-in-the-blanks, and question-and-answers, thus making his entertainment into a two-way event. Before adding stories to his repertoire, Harley often tries them out on his sons Noah and Dylan.
In 1984 Harley and Block took out a second mortgage on their house in Seekonk, Massachusetts, to found Round River Records and cut Harley’s first album—
For the Record…
Full name, William Harley; son of Max (a lawyer) and Ruth (a writer of children’s literature) Harley; married; wife’s name, Deborah Block; children: Noah, Dylan. Education: Degree in religious studies from Hamilton College (Clinton, NY).
Took piano lessons during childhood, played guitar and banjo in high school; following college, worked as a waiter and as a program director leading seminars on dealing with conflict and violence; co-founded the Learning Connection (a community based learning program); founder of the Spellbinders (a storytelling group); performed in coffee houses, schools, festivals, and small clubs as a soloist and as a member of group the Troublemakers, 1980—; co-founded (with Block) Round River Records, 1984; recording artist and producer, 1984—, albums include Monsters in the Bathroom, Fifty Ways to Fool Your Mother, and Grownups are Strange. Composer of numerous songs.
Addresses: Office —Round River Productions, 301 Jacob St., Seekonk, MA 02771.
Monsters in the Bathroom. The album’s success encouraged him to try evening family concerts, which proved popular because Harley’s music speaks to both children and adults. Harley told Contemporary Musicians: “I perform to remind everyone, including myself, that regardless of where we come from or how old we are or what we think, we have a great deal in common—and the things we don’t have in common, the things that make each one of us unique, are things worth celebrating. I like family audiences, and I’ve found that material that works, really works, for kids, also works for adults—for the obvious reasons: we’re all people and adults remember growing up. And if they don’t remember, I remind them.”
Many of Harley’s nine albums, which are geared to children of grade school age, have been award-winners because he strives to understand children’s points of view. Harley borrows Fred Roger’s (celebrated host of TV’s Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood ) term “emotional archaeology” when referring to what he attempts to do in getting in touch with his own childhood experiences. “A lot of my writing is trying to go back and touch the kid within me, always hoping that the kid is still there,” Harley told Danny McCue of the Long Island Parenting News.
The title song from Fifty Ways to Fool Your Mother lists in rap fashion fifty excuses to get out of going to school. In You’re in Trouble’s “Dad Threw the TV Out the Window” Harley tells kids that they can live without the television; in “No School Today” he sings the praises of a snow day; and in the title song he recounts what happens when a young boy comes home from school to find a plate of cookies with the note “Don’t touch! These are for dessert.”
Harley described his songwriting approach to Howard Scott in the Providence Sunday Journal Magazine: “Sometimes I come up with an emotion, and hunt for a way to express the feeling. Other times, I have an idea or image in mind. Often, I’ll carry the thought in my head for a while. Then I’ll sit down and begin writing. I don’t always get it the first time. The ending to ‘Dad Threw the TV Out the Window,’ where the kid joyously throws his father’s television out the window took me a year to come up with.”
Harley has expressed his creativity in a number of different ways. He recorded a collection of folk songs for adults (Coyote), and with songwriter/storyteller Peter Alsop he created a collection of songs about serious illness and hospitals (Peter and Bill in the Hospital). In 1991, in conjunction with WGBH-Radio in Boston, he produced I’m Gonna Let It Shine: A Gathering of Voices for Freedom, a collection of freedom songs featuring original voices of the Civil Rights Movement and nationally recognized singer/activists, among others. Harley has also written and narrated a series of filmstrips for Learning Tree Films and has written a theater piece.
On Round River Records
Monsters in the Bathroom, 1984.
Fifty Ways to Fool Your Mother, 1986.
Dinosaurs Never Say Please and Other Stories, 1987.
Cool in School: Tales from 6th Grade, 1987.
Peter and Bill in the Hospital (with Peter Alsop), 1988.
You’re in Trouble, 1988.
Grownups Are Strange, 1990.
Come on Out and Play, 1990.
American Bookseller, August 1990.
Booklist, January 15, 1990.
Child Magazine, April 1991.
Christian Science Monitor, February 7, 1986.
Entertainment Weekly, July 6, 1990; October 19, 1990.
Heartsong Review, Fall 1990/Winter 1991.
Long Island Parenting News, March 1991.
Los Angeles Times, January 3, 1991.
MetroKids (Philadelphia), March 1991.
The National Storytelling Journal, Summer 1986.
Providence Journal, April 20, 1989; November 13, 1990; December 27, 1990; April 14, 1991.
Providence Sunday Journal Magazine, March 11, 1990.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 4, 1989.
Sun Chronicle (North Attleboro, MA), April 20, 1989.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
HARLEY, Bill. American, b. 1954. Genres: Children's fiction, Songs/Lyrics and libretti. Career: American Friends Service Committee, Syracuse, NY, social worker, 1977-80; storyteller, author, songwriter, and musical performer with band, the Troublemakers, 1980-. Founder, Providence Learning Connection; co-founder, Stone Soup Coffeehouse, Providence, RI. Speaker at conferences and workshops; regular commentator, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 1991-. Publications: FOR CHILDREN: Carna and the Boots of Seven Strides, 1994; Ready-to-Tell Tales, 1994; Nothing Happened, 1995; Sarah's Story, 1996; Sitting Down to Eat, 1996; Bear's All Night Party, 2001. RECORDINGS: Monsters in the Bathroom, 1984; 50 Ways to Fool Your Mother, 1986; Coyote, 1987; (with P. Alsop) Peter Alsop and Bill Harley: In the Hospital, 1989; Cool in School, 1990; Grownups Are Strange, 1990; Come on Out and Play, 1990; I'm Gonna Let It Shine, 1990; Who Made This Mess?, 1992; You're in Trouble, 1992; Dinosaurs Never Say Please, 1992; Big Big World, 1993; Already Someplace Warm, 1994; From the Back of the Bus, 1995; Wacka Wacka Woo and Other Stuff, 1995; Sitting on My Hands, 1995; Lunchroom Tales, 1996; There's a Pea on My Plate, 1997; Weezie and the Moonpies, 1998; The Battle of the Mad Scientists and Other Tales of Survival, 1999; Play It Again, 1999; Down in the Backpack, 2001. Address: 301 Jacob St, Seekonk, MA 02771, U.S.A. Online address: [email protected]