Bill Haley & His Comets was an American rock and roll band that was founded in 1952 and continued until Haley's death in 1981. The band, also known by the names Bill Haley and The Comets and Bill Haley's Comets (and variations thereof), was one of the earliest groups of white musicians to bring rock and roll to the attention of white America and the rest of the world. From the end of 1954 until the end of 1956 the group would place nine singles into the Top 20, one of those a number one and three more in the Top Ten.
Bandleader Bill Haley had previously been a country performer; after recording a country and western-styled version of "Rocket 88", a rhythm and blues song, he changed musical direction to a new sound which came to be called rock and roll.
Although several members of the Comets became famous, Bill Haley remained the star. With his spit curl and the band's matching plaid dinner jackets and energetic stage behaviour, many fans consider them to be as revolutionary in their time as The Beatles or the Rolling Stones were in theirs.
Following Haley's death, no fewer than six different groups have existed under the Comets name, all claiming (with varying degrees of authority) to be the official continuation of the group led by Haley. As of early 2008, three such groups are still actively performing in the United States and internationally.
Haley began his rock and roll career with a cover of "Rocket 88" recorded for the Philadelphia-based Holiday Records label in 1951 which sold well and was followed up a cover of a 1940s rhythm and blues song called "Rock the Joint" in 1952 (this time for Holiday's sister company, Essex Records). Both songs were released under the increasingly incongruous Saddlemen name. It soon became apparent that a new name was needed to fit the music the band was now playing. A friend of Haley's, making note of the common alternative pronunciation of the name Halley's Comet to rhyme with Bailey, suggested that Haley call his band The Comets. (This event is cited in the Haley biographies Sound and Glory by John Haley and John von Hoelle, and Bill Haley by John Swenson.)
The new name was adopted in the fall of 1952. At that time, the members were Haley, Grande, Williamson, and Lytle. Grande usually played piano on record, but switched to accordion for live shows as it was more portable than a piano and easier to deal with during musical numbers that involved a lot of dancing around. Soon after renaming the band, Haley hired his first drummer, Charlie Higler, though Higler was soon replaced by Dick Boccelli (a.k.a Dick Richards). During this time (and indeed, as late as the fall of 1955), Haley did not have a permanent lead guitar player, choosing to use session musicians on record and either playing lead guitar himself or having Williamson play steel solos, instead.
In early 1954, Haley added Joey Ambrose on tenor sax, and soon after this the band left Essex Records for the larger Decca Records label of New York City. For their first recording session on April 12, 1954, with session musicians Danny Cedrone on electric guitar and Billy Gussak on drums (standing in for Boccelli), Bill Haley and His Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock". Haley's biggest hit, and one of the most important records in rock and roll history, sales of "Rock Around the Clock" started slow but eventually sold an estimated 25 million copies (per the Guinness Book of World Records) and marked the arrival of a cultural shift.
Initially, "Rock Around the Clock" was only a modest success. Much more impressive was the no seller, "Shake, Rattle and Roll", a somewhat bowdlerized cover version of the Big Joe Turner recording of earlier in 1954. Although Haley's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" never achieved the same level of historical importance as "Rock Around the Clock", it actually predated it as the first major international rock and roll hit, although it did not attain the Number 1 position in the American charts, but became his first Gold Record. When Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1956, he combined Haley's arrangement with Turner's original lyrics but failed to score a substantial hit. Late in 1954, Haley also recorded another hit, "Dim, Dim The Lights", which was significant as the first R&B song recorded by a white artist to cross over to the R&B charts.
The (belated) success of "Rock Around the Clock" is attributed to its use in the soundtrack of the film Blackboard Jungle, which was released in March 1955. The song, which was re-released to coincide with the film, rose to the top of the American musical charts that summer and stayed there for eight weeks, the first rock and roll record to do so.
Ambrose's acrobatic saxophone playing, along with Lytle on the double bass -literally on it, riding it like a pony, and holding it over his head- were highlights of the band's live performances during this time. Their music and their act were part of a tradition in jazz and rhythm and blues, but it all came like a thunderclap to most of their audience. In late 1954, Haley and His Comets appeared in a short subject entitled Round Up of Rhythm, performing three songs. This was the earliest known theatrical rock and roll film release.
In 1955, Lytle, Richards and Ambrose quit the Comets in a salary dispute and formed their own group, The Jodimars. Haley hired several new musicians to take their place: Rudy Pompilli on sax, Al Rex (a former member of the Saddlemen) on double bass, and Ralph Jones on drums; in addition, lead guitarist Franny Beecher, who had been a session musician for Haley since Cedrone's death in the fall of 1954, became a full-time Comet and Haley's first performing lead guitarist. This version of the band became even more popular than the earlier manifestation, and appeared in several motion pictures over the next few years.
Other hits recorded by the band included "See You Later, Alligator" in which Haley's frantic delivery contrasted with the Louisiana languor of the original by Bobby Charles, "Don't Knock the Rock", "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie", "Rudy's Rock" (the first instrumental hit of the rock and roll era) and "Skinny Minnie".
Overseas, however, Haley and his band continued to be extremely popular, touring the United Kingdom in February 1957, during which Haley and his crew were mobbed by thousands of fans at Waterloo Station in London at an incident dubbed the Second Battle of Waterloo by media. That same year, the Comets toured Australia and in 1958 enjoyed a successful (if riot-dominated) tour of the European mainland. Bill Haley & His Comets were the first major American rock and roll act to tour the world in this way. Elvis who was on duty in Germany visited them backstage at some shows. During an off day in Berlin they performed two songs in the Catarina Valente movie "Hier Bin ich Hier Bleib Ich" (Here I Am Here I Stay).
Back in the U.S., Haley attempted to start his own record label, Clymax, and establish his own stable of performers, most notably Sally Starr TV Hostess (a children's show hostess) and the Matys Brothers. Members of The Comets were commissioned to work as session musicians on many of these recordings, many of which were written or co-written by Haley and/or members of The Comets. The Clymax experiment only lasted about a year. In 1959, Haley's relationship with Decca collapsed and after a final set of instrumental-only recordings in the fall, Haley announced he was leaving Decca for the new Warner Bros. Records label.
In 1960, the band enjoyed its last new hit in the United States with an instrumental version of "Skokiaan" on Decca, although another instrumental for Warner Bros. that same year called "Tamiami" almost became a hit. Meanwhile, Haley and the Comets began recording for Warner Bros. in January, creating a series of critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful songs over the next 13–14 months, many in the country and western style. From 1961 to 1969, Haley and His Comets recorded unsuccessful singles for a number of small labels in America such as Newtown Records, Guest Star Records, APT Records, as well as for United Artists. APT Records even went so far as to release a single under the name B.H. Sees Combo in order to trick American radio stations into playing music by the so-called "has been" group. Guest Star Records released an album of Haley recordings under the name Scott Gregory, possibly due to the fact Haley was having major problems with the Internal Revenue Service at the time. In 1964 there was an abortive attempt to return to Decca with a low-selling recording of Jim Lowe's "The Green Door" backed by "Yeah, She's Evil!" a song that would later be recorded by Elvis Presley as "The Meanest Girl in Town" for the soundtrack of his movie, Girl Happy. That song's writer, Joy Byers, also wrote "Stop, Look and Listen" which Haley recorded in 1965 for APT Records; the next year it was again recycled by Elvis, this time for his film, Spinout.
For commercial success in the 1960s, the band had to turn to venues outside the United States. The group continued to be a top concert draw in Europe throughout the 1960s, including a successful stint at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany where they played around the same time the Beatles performed there.
In 1966, the Comets (without Bill Haley) cut an album for Orfeon as session musicians for Big Joe Turner, who had always been an idol to Haley; no joint performance of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was recorded, however. In a 1974 interview with BBC Radio, Haley said Turner's career was in a slump at this time, so he used his then-considerable influence with Orfeon to get Turner a recording session. The Comets' association with Orfeon/Dimsa ended later that year.
By 1967, as related by Haley in an interview with radio host Red Robinson that same year, the group was "a free agent" without any recording contracts at all, although the band continued to perform regularly in North America and Europe. During this year, Haley -- without the Comets -- recorded a pair of demos in Phoenix, Arizona: a country-western song called "Jealous Heart" for which he was backed by a local mariachi band (and similar in style to the earlier "Jimmy Martinez", and late-60s-style rocker called "Rock on Baby" backed by a group called Superfine Dandelion. Neither recording would be released for 30 years. In 1968, Haley and the Comets recorded a single for the United Artists label, a version of Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis" but no long-term association with the label resulted. In order to revive his recording career, Haley turned to Europe.
In the United States in 1969, promoter Richard Nader launched a series of rock and roll revival concert tours featuring "oldies" acts of the 50s and 60s. One of the first of these shows, held at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in New York City, resulted in Haley receiving an eight-and-a-half minute standing ovation following his performance, as Nader related in his recorded introduction to Haley's live album Bill Haley's Scrapbook, which was recorded a few weeks later at New York's Bitter End club.
The band appeared in several concert films in the early 1970s, including The London Rock and Roll Show and Let the Good Times Roll. After 1974, tax and management problems prevented Haley from performing in the United States, so he performed in Europe almost exclusively, though he also toured South America in 1975. The band was also kept busy in the studio, recording numerous albums for Sonet and other labels in the 1970s, several with a country music flavor. In 1974, Haley's original Decca recording of "Rock Around the Clock" hit the American sales charts once again thanks to its use in American Graffiti and Happy Days.
The Comets continued to tour on their own during this period.
In 1979, Haley was persuaded to return to performing with the offer of a lucrative contract to tour Europe. An almost completely new group of musicians, mostly British - including Pete Thomas (saxophonist) - were assembled to perform as The Comets, and Haley appeared on many TV shows as well as in the movie Blue Suede Shoes, filmed at one of his London concerts in March 1979. A few days later, a performance in Birmingham was videotaped and aired on UK television; it was released on DVD in 2005. During the March tour, Haley recorded several tracks in London for his next album with Sonet, completing the work that summer at Muscle Shoals in Alabama; released later in the year, the resulting album Everyone Can Rock & Roll was the last release of new recordings by Bill Haley before his death.
In November 1979, Haley and the Comets performed for Queen Elizabeth II, a moment Haley considered the proudest of his career. It was also the last time he performed in Europe and the last time most fans saw him perform "Rock Around the Clock".
In 1980, Bill Haley and His Comets toured South Africa but Haley's health was failing and it was reported that he had a brain tumor. The tour was critically lambasted, but surviving recordings of a performance in Johannesburg show Haley in good spirits and good voice. Nonetheless, according to the Haley News fan club newsletter and the Haley biography Sound and Glory, planned concerts such as a fall 1980 tour of Germany, and proposed recording sessions in New York and Memphis were cancelled -- including a potential reunion with past members of the Comets -- and Haley returned to his home in Harlingen, Texas where he died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack on February 9, 1981.
In April 1981, Bill Haley & His Comets returned to the British musical charts once again when MCA Records (inheritors of the Decca catalog) released "Haley's Golden Medley", a hastily compiled edit of the band's best known hits in the style of the then-popular "Stars on 45" format. The single reached No. 50 in the UK but was not released in the United States.
In 1987, Bill Haley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At that time, supporting bands were not also named to the hall. This policy has since changed and efforts have been under way for several years to have The Comets also named to the Hall. Bill Haley and His Comets have also been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and, in July 2005, the surviving members of the 1954–55 Comets (see below) represented Haley when Bill Haley and His Comets were inducted into Hollywood's Rockwalk, a ceremony also attended by Haley's second wife and youngest daughter. The Comets placed their handprints in cement; a space was left blank for Haley.
The Comets, featuring musicians who performed with Haley in 1954–1955, reunited in 1987 and are still touring the world as of 2007, playing showrooms in the United States and Europe. They have also recorded a half-dozen albums for small labels in Europe and the United States. This version of the group has also been credited as Bill Haley's Original Comets, and in circumstances where the use of the Comets name is in dispute, A Tribute to Bill Haley and The Original Band. The basic line-up of this group from 1987 to May 2006 consisted of Marshall Lytle (bass), Joey Ambrose (sax), Johnny Grande (piano), Dick Richards (drums) and Franny Beecher (guitar). British singer Jacko Buddin augmented the group on vocals during most of their European tours, with Lytle taking over on vocals for US/Canadian tours beginning in 2000 and full-time in Europe in the mid-2000s. Since they connected with Klaus Kettner's Rock It Concerts (Germany) in 1991 they have played hundreds of shows all over Europe, dozens of TV shows and in March 2007 pre-opened the Bill-Haley-Museum in Munich, Germany (www.rockithydra.de).
Two additional groups claim the name Bill Haley's Comets and have extensively toured in the United States since forming in the 1980s: one featuring Haley's 1965–68 drummer John "Bam-Bam" Lane, the other run by Al Rappa who played bass for Haley off-and-on between late 1959 and early 1969 (some media promotion for Rappa erroneously states that he joined the group in 1956). Both these musicians claim trademark ownership of the Bill Haley's Comets name; this dates back to Lane and Rappa (during a period when they worked together as one band) winning a trademark infringement lawsuit against the aforementioned Joey Rand group in 1989. Both Rappa and Lane's bands have, from time to time, recruited other former Comets for their line-ups (for example, in 2005, Rappa joined forces with Joey Welz), but for the most part the bandleaders are the only regular members who have worked with Bill Haley directly.
In March and July 2005, the members of the 1954–55 group, now billed as simply The Comets after decades of controversy over the use of the name, made several high-profile concert appearances in New York City and Los Angeles organized by Martin Lewis as part of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of rock and roll, the release of Blackboard Jungle, the 50th anniversary of "Rock Around the Clock" hitting Number 1, and the 80th birthday of Bill Haley. During a July 6, 2005 concert at the Viper Room in West Hollywood, The Comets were joined on stage for one song by Gina Haley, the youngest daughter of Bill Haley; at a similar appearance in March they were joined by Haley's eldest son, John W. Haley.
In 2006, The 1954–55 Comets spent much of the year in residence at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Missouri (their second season at the theater is scheduled to begin on March 30, 2007). Meanwhile, the John Lane edition of Bill Haley's Comets recorded a new album in Tennessee in early 2006 which has yet to be released.
On June 2, 2006, Johnny Grande, keyboardist with the 1954–55 Comets and an original founding member of the band, died after a short illness. The following month, 85-year-old guitarist Franny Beecher announced his retirement, though he was at one point announced as participating in an early 2007 tour of Germany. The three remaining original Comets (Lytle, Richards, and Ambrose) continue to perform in Branson with new musicians taking over the keyboard and lead guitar positions. During September 2006, PBS in the United States aired a series of programs videotaped in Branson during the spring of 2006; these shows include the last recorded performances of the complete Original Comets line-up including Grande.
Several tribute bands patterning themselves after The Comets are also active in Europe, including Phil Haley and His Comments in Great Britain, and the Bill Haley and His Comets Revival (also known as Bill Haley's New Comets) in Germany.
Bill Haley & His Comets recorded many singles and albums. The following list references only their original release and does not include compilation albums or single reissues. This list does not include releases on which the Comets worked as session musicians and only includes releases during Haley's lifetime.
As Bill Haley & His Comets (and name variations thereof)
Other notable album releases by the group included Rock with Bill Haley and the Comets (Essex 102; 1954), Shake, Rattle and Roll (Decca DL5560; 1955), Rock Around the Clock (Decca DL8225; 1956) and Rockin' the Joint (Decca DL8775; 1958). These were all compilations of previously issued material.
Notable discoveries that have been commercially released have included:
A number of recordings exist in the hands of private collectors and remain to be commercially released, including a number of privately made live recordings of several 1960s and 1970s concerts, and a number of rehearsal recordings from 1960. To date, however, no one has discovered any alternative takes of any of Haley's most famous recordings of the 1950s, in particular "Rock Around the Clock" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll".
In addition, Haley and the Comets also scored chart hits in Latin America during the period 1961–1966 with recordings such as "Twist Español", "Florida Twist" and "Land of a Thousand Dances". Reportedly, "Chick Safari", a 1960 recording, reached the No. 1 position on the Indian musical charts. Both the single "Florida Twist" and the Twist LP Record went to No. 1 in Mexico.