Bill Haley, of all the rock & roll pioneers, is the one who deserves the utmost respect; for not only did his “Rock Around The Clock” start the age of rock & roll; he also laid the foundation to what we recognize today as “teenage culture”.
But more so, he was the archetype of the modern rocksinger. Not visually, in the manner of what Elvis Presley was to become a couple of years later, but artisticially, as Bill Haley was the:
01. First band leader to form a “Rock ´n´ Roll” group.
02. First Rock ´n´ Roll star to write his own music.
03. First Rock´n´ Roll star to reach the national charts with music he wrote and recorded.
04. First Rock ´n´ Roll star to own his music publishing companies.
05. First Rock ´n´ Roll star to own his record label and recording company.
06. First white artist to be elected as the “Rhythm and Blues Personality of the Year”
07. First Rock ´n´ Roll star to sell a million records.
08. First Rock ´n´ Roll star to receive a gold record.
09. First Rock ´n´ Roll star to go on a world tour.
10. First Rock ´n´ Roll star to sell a million records in United Kingdom
11. First Rock ´n´ Roll star to star in a full length motion picture.
12. First White Rock ´n´ Roll star to tour with all-Black supporting artists.
13. First Rock ´n´ Roll star to appear on a network television show.
The greatest accomplishment of Bill Haley & The Comets lies in paving the way for all the others that followed. From 1952 until 1960 Bill Haley & His Comets scored 30 hits in the US/UK charts. In 1957, at the beginning of Bill Haley´s first UK tour, he was greeted by 4,000 fans at London´s Waterloo train station. The following 1958 European tour, included appearances in Germany, (which began approximately three weeks after Elvis Presley had been shipped to Germany, to complete his military services.) and caught the attention of the world press:
The Haley concerts held at the West Berlin Sportspalace erupted in mass rioting and was a daily news item. The East German newspaper “Neues Deutschland” condemned him: “the rock & roll gangster Haley celebrated an orgy of American un-culture”. The West German paper, “Rheinische Merkur” reported: “he, of all people, the Comet of instinct-unchainment started a major offense to taste, stand and self respect. All that, in the bishopric of Essen, on the day of the papacy vote”. The Soviet paper “Moscow Prawda” declared him “a secret weapon of the west against socialism” as rock & roll. Whereas the FBI, under the infamous J.Edgar Hoover: (best known for his wiretapping of whom he viewed as “suspicious” people) started an investigation into theories and accusations of what was feared and suspected as ‘communist music’. Asa Carter, head of the “Alabama White Citizens Committee” charged the “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” (NAACP) with seducing and corrupting white teenage girls by promoting rock & roll. He is quoted with saying in 1956: “With its basic heavy beat of the Negroes, it appeals to the base in man; it brings out animalism and vulgarity”. He then promised to initiate a “... campaign to force radio stations and jukebox owners to boycott this immoral music”. Perhaps the culmination of all this hysteria, was the opinion published as the headline of the prestigious New York Times on March 28th 1956:
“Rock & Roll Called ´Communicable Disease´” in which the Hartford, Connecticut psychiatrist Francis Braceland declared rock music ´cannibalistic and tribalistic ... it is insecurity and rebellion. It impels teenagers to wear ducktail haircuts, wear zoot suits, and carry on boisterously at rock & roll affairs”.
While classical Cellist Pablo Casals described the music of Bill Haley in the 1950s as “distillation of all disgustments of our time”. The German music expert Barry Graves (recognized in the dual cultural circles of Berlin and New York) in hearing Haley´s style during the first rock & roll revival at the end of the 1960s, conversely declared: “The definitive rock & roll style (is) blended from country & western, dixieland-jazz and rhythm & blues”.
Haley himself, taking a calm, confident and somewhat more level headed approach, explained: “I thought, if I were to take a Dixieland melody and leave out the emphasis on the first and third beat, but emphasize the second and fourth, and add a beat to which the listeners can clap or even dance - that would serve their wishes. The rest was easy—I took catchy phrases like ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’ and made songs out of them with the method, I just explained.”
In 1960, Bill Haley signed a lucrative recording contract with Warner Bros., not that the label he was on until then - DECCA (now part of Universal Music) did not want to keep the star which served them well with 30 hit singles and strong albums sales; but the offer by WARNER BROTHERS was its attempt at building an artist roster by signing a number of well-established stars. So, after scoring with a pair of instrumental hit singles “Joey´s Song” (1959) and “Skokiaan” (1960) Bill Haley signed with Warner Brothers’ new label venture after fulfilling his DECCA contract with the album “Strictly Instrumental”, which pointed the Comets in a new direction, with it´s Billy Vaughan influenced approach, thus making the music of Bill Haley interesting beyond the strictly teenage radio audience. Bill Haley signed with Warner Brothers, along with the Everly Brothers, who had similarly departed Cadence Records. But when Don and Phil Everly scored a number one hit in the US with “Cathy´s Clown” in 1960, Haley’s single release of “Tamiami” b/w “Candy Kisses” only reached the lower end of Billboard´s Top 100.
The musical hit-making machinery Bill Haley & His Comets always possessed, began losing momentum, as the musical market began to favor the younger, good looking clean cut, but not neccessarily untalented teen idols of the time: fellow Philadelphians Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vee, and New Jersey’s Bobby Darin, and Ricky Nelson ... the time of the wild amimalistic rockabilly/rock & roll sound of the likes of Bill Haley, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly was for various reasons, appearing to be over. Public tastes were again changing, and after a TV appearance on Dick Clark´s “American Bandstand” performing “Tamiami” and “Rock Around The Clock,” Bill Haley & His Comets’ star began waning slowly, while softer sounds began usurping public attention in the record industry and on the airwaves.
A retroactive tax debt Bill Haley´s led to an ill-advised business decision to flee the United States and relocate “Bill Haley Y Sus Cometas” across the international border to Mexico City, where Bill Haley established his new residence and business headquarters; while his Philadelphia based booking agent Jolly Joyce continued to book and manage Haley’s career as before.
Haley soon began establishing himself as a recording artist on the Orfeon label, and as a new supper club and casino star attraction on the Mexican nightclub circuit, introducing the new American “Twist” dance craze, ironically beating Chubby Checker to this international market! Their fame in Latin America increased with cameo appearances in several Mexican movies loosely based on the “Blackboard Jungle” theme! (The movie which introduced “Rock Around The Clock” to the world, as major feature in it´s soundtrack.) Bill Haley and The Comets soon scored a major hit with “Florida Twist” in 1960 for their new Mexican Orfeon label, which to date remains the best selling single in Latin America; while “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets became the best selling rock single of all time, worldwide with estimates of between 50 and 90 million copies being sold to date. “Bill Haley y Sus Cometas” continued recording in Mexico on the Orfeon, Maya and Dimsa labels up until 1966, having a string of hits with their interpretations of the new American twist and surf music trends of the “swinging sixties”, as well as rearranged treatments of swing band instrumental favorites. Introducing them to the Latin American public for the first time:
“Jalisco Twist” (1962), “Avenida Madison” (1963) and the albums such as “Surf, Surf, Surf” (1964) and “Whisky A-Go-Go” (1966). This new-found success filled the pockets, literally speaking, of the physicially heavier Bill Haley during the sixties ... but not as much as he had hoped for. After a disagreement over royalties with the Orfeon / Dimsa / Maya label corporate group, he chose not to renew his option for further recordings. Also in 1966, he was booked by his new European agent Patrick Malynn for an appearance at the Alhambra theatre in Paris. He was booked as the opening act on a package show starring the younger UK recording chartbreakers of the time, the artists all being the new innovators of the “British Invasion”. The Paris press already wondered about the mis-cast Haley, who would try to ‘steal’ the show from the long haired groups, with his antique kiss curl’. On the 24th and 25th of September 1966, Bill Haley & The Comets appeared on stage, before Jimmy Cliff, The Walker Brothers, The Pretty Things and The Spencer Davis Group in the city on the Seine.
Haley was greeted with banners, “Bill Haley” cheers were still audible in the backstage dressing rooms of the young beat musicians. Although his stage spot was to be only a 20 minute set, he was given, encore after encore and finally after one hour, Bill Haley & The Comets were allowed off the stage, with their dinner jackets soaked from sweat! The Walker Brothers (“The Sun Ain´t Gonna Shine Anymore”) were greeted by the French with booing and were heckled through out their set. The other bands, The Spencer Davis Group and Manfred Mann endured the same experience ... they simply could not follow Bill Haley and his final number “Rock Around The Clock”, on stage!
In 1968 “the national anthem of the teenagers” (Dick Clark) “Rock Around The Clock” made the international charts again, and managed to reach the number 1 spot on some British radio station charts. 1969 gave Bill a minor hit with Nashville songwriter Tom T. Hall’s composition “That´s How I Got To Memphis” in Canada. In 1970 released on the criticially acclaimed album for Sonet Records, “Rock Around The Country” – Bill Haley waxed “Me & Bobby McGee”. Later Kris Kristofferson admitted this to be one of the best versions of his song. The album being recorded in Music City / USA - Nashville, Tennessee.
Yet, as it was proven a year before in 1969 at Madison Square in Garden New York City, on “Richard Nader’s Rock & Roll Revival” when Haley received a 8 ½ minute standing ovation, the public loved him more for his rock & roll. His next album on another new label, in 1973 had been decided to be simply titled: “Just Rock & Roll Music” and featured a selection of songs spanning the rhythm & blues catalog of the 1950s; as well as an understated flirt with more country music, plus more recycled selections from Haley’s old rock & roll sound; instead of trying to modernize his style for the 1970s. This formula worked, and it was commercially a far bigger success, than its predecessor on Sonet Records, “Rock Around The Country”.
On November 26th 1979 Bill Haley & The Comets performed at the Royal Variety Show - a Command Performance for Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second. A lot had happened in the 25 years since Bill Haley & His Comets had stepped into a New York recording studio to cut “Rock Around The Clock”.
On February 9th, 1981 Bill Haley died of an apparent heart attack at his home in Harlingen, Texas. He was only 55 years old...
What lay before, during, after, and in between the many successes and phases of Bill Haley’s career? What was behind the professional image of ‘the star’ Bill Haley? And what led to an untimely death at the age of 55? These a few of the questions this book shall attempt to address. And perhaps one more can be answered in the process: WHO was this man that invented rock & roll?