Bill Haley (July 6 1925 – November 9 1981) was one of the first American rock and roll musicians. He is credited by many with first popularizing this form of music in the mid-1950s with his group Bill Haley & His Comets and their hit song Rock Around the Clock.
Haley was blinded in his left eye as a child due to a botched operation. According to biographer John Swenson, Haley later adopted his distinctive spit-curl hairstyle to distract attention from his blind eye. The spit-curl caught on as a 50's style signature, although Haley and others had worn the hairstyle much earlier.
In 1943, Haley joined his first professional group, the Cousin Lee Band (a Wilmington, Delaware-based country music group) as a guitarist and yodeler. In 1946, Haley joined a Pennsylvania-based western swing band called the Down Homers run by Kenny Roberts. It has often been reported in musical reference works that Haley's first professional recordings were made with the Down Homers on a pair of singles released in 1946 by Vogue Records. This was later debunked by Roberts and others, stating Haley had already left the group by the time the singles were made. In the early 2000s, however, a set of 1946 radio recordings by the Down Homers were discovered and Haley is definitely present as he is identified by name and sings a solo number "She Taught Me to Yodel"; these recordings were commercially released for the first time in 2006.
When Haley gigged and became experienced on the professional music front, he created several groups. These included the Four Aces of Western Swing and the Range Drifters. With the Four Aces, he made some country hit singles in the late 1940s for Cowboy Records while working as a touring musician and, beginning in 1947 as musical director at WPWA. (Many of Haley's early recordings from this period would not be released until after his death.)
After disbanding the Four Aces and briefly trying a solo career using the names Jack Haley and Johnny Clifton (as chronicled in the biography Sound and Glory), Haley formed a new group called The Saddlemen in either 1949 or 1950 (sources vary as to the exact year); this new group recorded for several labels, including one single for Atlantic Records.
Haley was signed to Dave Miller's Philadelphia-based Holiday Records in 1951 and began to change musical styles, recording Rocket 88 (originally by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats), and in, 1952, "Rock the Joint", previously recorded by several bands including Jimmy Preston and His Prestonians. (By the time of "Rock the Joint", Haley had graduated from Holiday Records to Miller's larger Essex label. The relative success of these recordings (both sold in the 75,000-100,000 copy range in the Pennsylvania-New England region) made Haley believe that the combination of rhythm and blues, along with country could be successful.
In 1951 Haley crossed paths with The Treniers while playing in Wildwood, NJ. After writing "Rock a Beatin' Boogie" The Treniers used the song in their live shows, and Haley arranged for the song to be recorded by two bands: in summer 1952 it was covered by the Esquire Boys (a band that featured Haley session guitarist Danny Cedrone), and in 1953 by The Treniers. Haley and The Comets did not record their own version of the song till 1955.
In 1953, a song called Rock Around the Clock was written for Haley (Dawson 2005). He was unable to record it until April 12, 1954. Initially, it was relatively unsuccessful staying at the charts for only one week, but Haley soon scored a major worldwide hit with a cover version of Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll," which went on to sell a million copies and became the first ever rock'n'roll song to enter British singles charts in December 1954 and became a Gold Record. Haley and his band were important in launching the music known as "Rock and Roll" to a wider, mostly white audience after years of it being considered an underground genre. When "Rock Around the Clock" appeared behind the opening credits of the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle starring Glenn Ford, it soared to the top of the American Billboard charts for eight weeks, launching a musical revolution that opened the doors for the likes of Elvis Presley. The single is commonly used as a convenient line of demarcation between the "rock era" and the music industry that preceded it; Billboard Magazine separates its statistical tabulations into 1890-1954 and 1955-present.
"Rock Around the Clock" was the first record ever to sell over one million copies in both Britain and Germany and, in 1957, Haley became the first major American rock singer to tour Europe. Haley continued to score hits throughout the 1950s such as "See You Later, Alligator" and he starred in the first rock and roll musical movies Rock Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Rock, both in 1956. His star was soon surpassed in the USA by the younger, sexier Elvis, but Haley continued to be a major star in Latin America, Mexico, and in Europe throughout the 1960s.
Media reports immediately following his death indicated Haley displayed deranged and erratic behavior in his final weeks, although beyond a biography of Haley by John Swenson released a year later which describes Haley painting the windows of his home black and making rambling late-night phone calls to friends and relatives, there is little information extant about Haley's final days. The exact cause of his death is controversial. Media reports, supported by Haley's death certificate (reproduced in the book Bill Haley: The Daddy of Rock and Roll by John Swenson), suggest he died of "natural causes most likely heart attack". Members of Haley's family, however, contest that he died from the brain tumor. Haley was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Songwriters Tom Russell and Dave Alvin addressed Haley's sad demise in musical terms with "Haley's Comet" on Alvin's 1991 album "Blue Blvd." Dwight Yoakam sang backup on the tribute.
Haley's original Comets from 1954 and 1955 still tour the world to packed houses. Despite ranging in age from 72 to 84, the band shows no sign of slowing down, releasing a concert DVD in 2004 on Hydra Records, playing the trendy Viper Room in West Hollywood in 2005, and performing at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Missouri in 2006-07. In March 2007 The Original Comets pre opened the Bill-Haley-Museum in Munich Germany (Schleissheimerstr.321,München www.rockithydra.de). On October 27, 2007 ex Comets guitar player Bill Turner opened the Bill-Haley-Museum for the public. The Museum keeps the legacy and importance of Bill Haley & His Comets alive. There are hundreds of photos, posters, books, instruments, Gold Records, business papers and merchandise on display.
Bill Haley Jr. (b. 7/28/55), Bill's second son and first with Joan Barbara "Cuppy" Haley-Hahn, publishes a regional business magazine in Southeastern Pennsylvania (Route 422 Business Advisor). He sings and plays guitar with a band called "Lager Rhythms," and appeared with the "Original Comets" at the Bubba Mac Shack in Sommers Point NJ in 2004 and 2005, and at the Twin Bar re-dedication ceremony in Gloucester, New Jersey in 2007. He is currently writing a biography about his father, concentrating on the years 1949-61.
Bill Haley has also been portrayed - not always in a positive light - in several "period" films:
In March 2005, the British network Sky TV reported that Tom Hanks was planning to produce a biopic on the life of Bill Haley, with production tentatively scheduled to begin in 2006. However this rumor was quickly debunked by Hanks.
As Bill Haley and the Four Aces of Western Swing
As Johnny Clifton and His String Band
1949 or 1950
Many Haley discographies list two 1946 recordings by the Down Homers released on the Vogue Records label as featuring Haley. Haley historian Chris Gardner, as well as surviving members of the group, have confirmed that the two singles: "Out Where the West Winds Blow"/"Who's Gonna Kiss You When I'm Gone" (Vogue R736) and "Boogie Woogie Yodel"/"Baby I Found Out All About You" (Vogue R786) do not feature Haley. However, the tracks were nonetheless included in the compilation box set Rock 'n' Roll Arrives released by Bear Family Records in 2006.
A number of previously unreleased Haley country-western recordings from the 1946-1950 period began to emerge near the end of Haley's life, some of which were released by the Arzee label, with titles such as "Yodel Your Blues Away" and "Rose of My Heart." Still more demos, alternate takes, and wholly unheard-before recordings have been released since Haley's death. Notable examples of such releases include the albums Golden Country Origins by Grassroots Records of Australia and Hillbilly Haley by the British label, Rollercoaster, as well as the aforementioned German release by Hydra Records. In 2006, Bear Family Records of Germany released what is considered to be the most comprehensive (yet still incomplete) collection of Haley's 1946-1950 recordings as part of its Haley box set Rock n' Roll Arrives.