Bill Haley

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Bill Haley
Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

Bill Haley was one of the earliest acts to bring rock and roll to the attention of white America and the rest of the world. He sold over 60 million records during his career.

As a rule, people don’t like new things. Or is it the media who don’t like change? With any new craze, we – the public are always warned about the hidden dangers of the ‘new fad’.

This happened at the birth of Rock & Roll.

Fans of rock ‘n’ roll music were warned that tuning into music on the car radio could cost you more money. Researchers from the Esso gas company said the rhythm of rock & roll could cause the driver to be foot heavy on the pedal, making them waste fuel.

Rock ‘n’ Roll fans in Cleveland aged under 18 were banned from dancing in public (unless accompanied by an adult), after Ohio Police introduced a law dating back to 1931.

In 1955, after complaints from his neighbours, Rock ‘n’ Roll fan Sidney Adams was fined £3 and 10 shillings, ($9.80) by a London Court after playing Bill Haley’s “Shake Rattle and Roll” all day at full volume.

Haley was always an unlikely pop star. Blinded in his left eye as a child due to a botched operation, he later adopted his distinctive spit-curl hairstyle to distract attention from his blind eye. He wasn’t sexy, he looked more like a bandleader or your uncle than a rock ‘n’ roll star.

Bill Haley

William John Clifton Haley was born at Highland Park, Michigan. His father, William Albert Haley was from Firebrick, Kentucky. His mother, Maude Green was English, she came from Ulverston in Lancashire and had emigrated to the States during her teens.

At home, Bill was surrounded by music, his father played the Banjo, his mother who had been classically trained, taught piano. Little did Bill know that later in life he would be responsible for bringing a new dangerous beat to popular music.

Haley paid his dues. In his late teens, Bill found work playing the local amusement parks, his first break came when he signed on with ‘Cousin Lee’s Band’ who had a popular radio show. Haley sang, played his guitar and yodelled. He also worked with a travelling medicine show. At the age of 22, Haley was hosting a local radio programme on the newly formed station WPWA.

When “Rock Around the Clock” appeared behind the opening credits of the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle it soared to the top of the American Billboard chart for eight weeks. After the record rose to #1, Haley was quickly given the title “Father of Rock and Roll,” by the media.

A self-admitted alcoholic, Haley fought a battle with alcohol into the 1970s. Nonetheless, he and his band continued to be a popular touring act. In 1980 it was reported that Haley had a brain tumour, a doctor at the clinic where Haley had been taken said, “The tumour can’t be operated on anymore.”

On 9th Feb 1981 Haley was found dead – fully clothed on his bed at his home in Harlingen, Texas from a heart attack.

So there we have it. The final twist in the tale is all of this almost didn’t happen. The recording session in 1954 was about to be cancelled because the band were travelling on a ferry that got stuck on a sandbar en route to New York from Philadelphia.

Once at the studio, the producer insisted the band work on a song entitled “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)” – which was going to be Haley’s first single for his new label Decca. Near the end of the session, the band finally recorded a take of “Rock Around the Clock,” but Haley’s vocals were drowned out by the band. A second take was quickly made with minimal accompaniment. Decca engineers later combined the two versions together into one version. And that is the song as we know and love.

The same year, newer stars came and took over the charts – Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard – but William John Clifton Haley did change the face of popular music as we know it – forever. Haley died on 9th February 1981.

Important Dates In The Life Of Bill Haley:

On this day in music
24 May 2020
American bassist Al Rex died age 91. He started playing for Bill Haley & His Comets and its predecessor Bill Haley and the Saddlemen in 1949 and became noted for 'wild antics' on stage.
24 Feb 2014
Franny Beecher the lead guitarist for Bill Haley & His Comets from 1954 to 1962 died in his sleep from natural causes. He was 92 years old. He continued to perform with surviving members of the Comets into 2006.
25 May 2013
American rock and roll bassist Marshall Lytle, died aged 79. He was best known for his work with the groups Bill Haley & His Comets and The Jodimars in the 1950s. He played upright slap bass on the iconic 1950s rock and roll records 'Crazy Man, Crazy', 'Shake, Rattle and Roll', and Rock Around the Clock.
1 Jan 2005
In most of Europe, copyright expired on a number of classic pop and rock-and-roll songs recorded in 1954 and earlier, including Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock and 'Only You' by The Platters.
22 Mar 1996
American steel guitar player Billy Williamson died aged 71. He was a member of Bill Haley and His Saddlemen, and its successor group Bill Haley & His Comets, from 1949 to 1963. Williamson had the distinction of being the only Comet allowed to record lead vocal tracks during Haley's tenure at Decca Records (such as the song ‘Hide and Seek’ on their 1956 album, Rock and Roll Stage Show and ‘B.B. Betty’ on the 1958 Bill Haley's Chicks album.
8 Oct 1992
The US Postal Service issued a set of commemorative stamps to celebrate pop music legends. The stamps included Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding Ritchie Valens, Clyde McPhatter and Dinah Washington.
23 Nov 1985
American blues artist Big Joe Turner died of a heart attack aged 75. Wrote 'Shake Rattle and Roll', (a hit for Bill Haley and His Comets) and 'Sweet Sixteen.'
9 Feb 1981
American singer and musician Bill Haley who became known as the first Rock 'n' Roll star, was found dead, fully clothed on his bed at his home in Harlingen, Texas from a heart attack, aged 55. He scored the 1955 UK & US No.1 single Rock Around the Clock as well as 'See You Later, Alligator’, ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’, ‘Rocket 88’, ‘Skinny Minnie’, and ‘Razzle Dazzle’. Haley was blinded in his left eye as a child due to a botched operation and later adopted his distinctive spit-curl hairstyle to distract attention from his blind eye.
2 Jan 1980
US singer Larry Williams was found dead from a gunshot wound to his head in his Los Angeles, California home aged 45. Williams had the 1957 US No.5 & UK No. 21 single 'Short Fat Fannie.' Also known for 'Bony Moronie' and 'Dizzy Miss Lizzy.' The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dr. Feelgood, Flying Burrito Brothers, Johnny Winter, Little Richard, The Who, Ritchie Valens and Bill Haley & His Comets all covered his songs.
5 Feb 1976
American saxophonist Rudy Pompilli died of lung cancer aged 52. Although not a smoker himself, it is believed he contracted the disease through second hand smoke. With Bill Haley and his Comets, he had the 1955 UK & US No.1 single with Rock Around the Clock. Pompilli released one solo album, Rudy's Rock: The Sax That Changed the World.
1 May 1962
The Beatles started a month long residency at The Star Club, Hamburg, Germany. American musicians including Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Everly Brothers, Bill Haley, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Lee Lewis also all appeared here. The club had a capacity of 2,000 people, and cinema-style seating was destroyed by a fire in 1987.
26 Oct 1958
Bill Haley and his Comets played the first rock 'n' roll concert in Germany. Over 7,000 rock 'n' roll fans turned the show into a riot.
20 Feb 1958
Billed as 'The Big Gold Record Stars' Bill Haley and his Comets, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly & The Crickets, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmie Rodgers all appeared on the first date of a six day tour of Florida.
5 Feb 1957
5,000 fans greeted Bill Haley when he arrived from New York on the liner Queen Elizabeth at Southampton, for his debut UK concert tour. Haley was the first American rock artist to tour the UK.
31 Jan 1957
Decca Records announced that Bill Haley & His Comets, Rock Around the Clock had sold over a million copies in the UK, mostly on 10inch 78's. The version of 'Rock Around the Clock' used in the movie Blackboard Jungle differs from the hit single version. The difference is in the two solo breaks.
8 Jan 1957
Bill Haley & His Comets started the first ever 'rock & roll tour' of Australia, playing two sold out nights in Sydney.
29 Sep 1956
Bill Haley had five songs in the UK Top 30; 'Rockin Through The Rye', 'Saints Rock n' Roll', Rock Around the Clock, 'Razzle Dazzle', and 'See You Later Alligator'.
17 Sep 1956
The BBC announced the removal of Bill Haley and His Comets' ‘Rockin' Through The Rye’ from its playlist because they felt the song went against traditional British standards, (and included the lyrics "All the lassies rock with me when rockin' through the rye"). The record, based on an 18th century Scottish Folk tune, was at No.5 on the UK charts.
9 Jul 1956
After the June 30th trouble at Asbury Park, Bill Haley and His Comets were denied permission to play at the Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. A city ordnance was passed that read: "Rock and roll music encouraged juvenile delinquency and inspired young females in lewd bathing suits to perform obscene dances on the city's beaches."
1 Jan 1956
Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock went to No.1 on the UK singles chart for the second time. The single is often cited as the biggest-selling vinyl rock and roll single of all time with sales over 25m.
20 Nov 1955
The song that changed popular music history Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets went to No.1 on the UK singles chart. The song was used under the opening credits of the film Blackboard Jungle. The song entered the charts a further six times until 1974.
20 Oct 1955
Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and his Comets both appeared at Brooklyn High School auditorium, Cleveland.
9 Jul 1955
Bill Haley & His Comets went to No.1 on the US singles chart with Rock Around the Clock, staying at No.1 for eight weeks and becoming one of the biggest selling singles of all time.
25 Mar 1955
The movie Blackboard Jungle was released, remembered for its innovative use of rock and roll in its soundtrack, for casting grown adults as high school teens, and for the unique breakout role of a black cast member, film icon Sidney Poitier, as a rebellious yet musically talented student. The song Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley which was featured in the film became the first ever rock song to chart at No.1.
7 Jan 1955
Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and his Comets, entered the UK chart for the first time. The original full title of the song was 'We're Gonna Rock Around the Clock Tonight!' and is often cited as the biggest-selling vinyl rock and roll single of all time with sales over 25m.
11 Nov 1954
Bill Haley scored his first US Top ten single with 'Shake Rattle And Roll'. He had dropped his cowboy image about a year and a half earlier, while renaming The Saddlemen to Bill Haley and His Comets. The song became the theme song for the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League. ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ was originally made popular by Big Joe Turner.
17 Jun 1954
Guitarist Danny Cedrone died following a freak accident; 10 days after he had recorded the lead guitar break on 'Rock Around the Clock' with Bill Haley and His Comets. Session player Cedrone was paid $21 for his work on the session, as at that time Haley chose not to hire a full-time guitarist for his group. He died of a broken neck after falling down a staircase.
12 Apr 1954
Bill Haley recorded Rock Around the Clock at Pythian Temple studios in New York City. Considered by many to be the song that put rock and roll on the map around the world. The song was used over the opening titles for the film 'Blackboard Jungle', and went on to be a world-wide No.1 and the biggest-selling pop single with sales over 25 million. Written by Max C. Freedman and James E. Myers, 'Rock Around The Clock' was first recorded by Italian-American band Sonny Dae and His Knights.
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