William John Clifton "Bill" Haley (July 6, 1925 – February 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 early 1950s with his group Bill Haley & His Comets (inspired by Halley's Comet) and million selling hits such as, Rock Around the Clock, See You Later, Alligator, Shake, Rattle and Roll, Skinny Minnie, and Razzle Dazzle. He has sold over 25 million records worldwide.
Early life and career
Bill Haley was born in
on Highland Park, Michigan July 6, 1925 to William and Maude Haley. The
couple's second child, Haley had a sister Margaret who was born two years
The Haleys had moved to Detroit from Firebrick, Kentucky, where William Sr. found work in a nearby service station as a mechanic while his wife gave piano lessons in their home for twenty-five cents an hour. Maude Haley, a woman of strong religious convictions, had come to
with her family from Ulverston in America before the First World War. Later
the family moved to Boothwyn, near the town of Lancastshire, England , Chester . Pennsylvania
Haley's father played the banjo and mandolin. Though he couldn't read music he had an ear for country music and was able to pick out any tune he wanted by ear.
At thirteen Haley received his first guitar. His father taught him to play the basic chords and notes by ear. It was at this time he began his dream of becoming a singing cowboy like the ones he idolized every Saturday afternoon at the movie houses in nearby Marcus Hook or
His first performances date from about 1938, when as a child he sang and played guitar at variety shows, put on by local children to raise money for local causes. Haley was a shy child, perhaps due to the fact that he had been blind in his left eye since infancy. This made him extremely self conscious about his appearance.
In June of 1940, just before his fifteenth birthday, Haley left school after finishing the eighth grade and went to work bottling water at Bethel Springs. This company sold pure spring water and fruit flavored soft drinks in a three state area. Here he worked for 35 cents an hour, filling large five gallon glass bottles with spring water.
In his late teens, Bill found work playing the local amusement parks, which featured live entertainment. 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. Because of his disability, he avoided being called into the armed forces in WWII. At this time a group called the 'Downhomers' was looking for a singing yodeler to replace their lead singer, who had been drafted in 1944. Haley joined the group and even at this early stage was talking about combining country and pop music. At the age of 22, Bill left the 'Downhomers', and returned to
to host a
local radio program on the newly formed station WPWA. In 1946, Haley married first wife Dorothy
Crowe and had two children with her. Chester
The Four Aces of Western Swing
In 1948, Bill released his first records on the 'Cowboy' label with his backing group the 'Four Aces of Western Swing', made up of Al Constantine (Accordion), Barney Barnard (bass) and Tex King (guitar).
The 'Four Aces' disbanded in mid '49 and Haley formed a new band, 'The Saddlemen' which in turn was ultimately to become the very first rock and roll band in history, the 'Comets'. Al Rex on bass, Billy Williamson on steel guitar and Johnny Grande played piano and accordion. Haley fronted this group wearing a ten-gallon stetson covering his trademark kiss-curl, a hair style he developed to take attention away from his blind eye. Bass player Al Rex would leave the group in 1951 to be replaced by 17 year old Marshall Lytle.
Bill Haley & His Comets
During the Labor Day weekend in 1952, The Saddlemen were renamed Bill Haley with Haley's Comets (inspired by a popular mispronunciation of Halley's Comet). During that same year, Haley married second wife, Barbara Joan Cupchack, with whom he had two children, but only one survived through infancy. In 1953, Haley's recording of "Crazy Man, Crazy" (co-written by Haley and his bass player, Marshall Lytle although Lytle would not receive credit until 2001) became the first rock and roll song to hit the American charts, peaking at no.15 on Billboard and no.11 on Cash Box. Soon after, the band's name was revised to Bill Haley & His Comets.
In 1953, a song called "Rock Around the Clock" was written for Haley. 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. He retained elements of the original, but threw some country music aspects into the song (specifically, Western Swing) and cleaned up the lyrics. Haley and his band were important in launching the music known as "Rock and Roll" to a wider, mostly white audience after a period 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 chart for eight weeks. The single is commonly used as a convenient line of demarcation between the "rock era" and the music industry that preceded it; Billboard separated its statistical tabulations into 1890-1954 and 1955–present. After the record rose to number one, Haley was quickly given the title "Father of Rock and Roll," by the media, and by teenagers that had come to embrace the new style of music. With the song's success, the age of rock music began overnight and instantly ended the dominance of the jazz and pop standards performed by Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and others.
Success came at somewhat of a price as the new music confused and horrified most people over the age of 30, leading to Cold War-fueled suspicion that rock-and-roll was part of a communist plot to corrupt the minds of American teenagers. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover attempted to dig up incriminating material on Bill Haley, who took to carrying a gun with him on tours for his own safety.
"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. Haley was already 30 years old and so he was soon eclipsed in the United States by the younger, sexier Elvis, but continued to enjoy great popularity in Latin America, Europe, and Australia through the 1960s.
As the years went by, Haley’s popularity declined. The people who once loved Bill Haley and His Comets turned their musical obsessions to musicians like Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Haley began to have money problems and fled to Mexico in 1962. In that same year he met and married third wife, Martha Velasco, who was a Mexican dancer. Haley stayed out of the public eye and mostly spent time with his family over the next few years.
Death and legacy
A self-admitted alcoholic (as indicated in a 1974 radio interview for the BBC), Haley fought a battle with alcohol into the 1970s. Nonetheless, he and his band continued to be a popular touring act, benefiting from a 50s nostalgia movement that began in the late 60s and the signing of a lucrative record deal with the European Sonet Records label. After performing for Queen Elizabeth II at a command performance in 1979, Haley made his final performances in South Africa in May and June 1980. Prior to the South African tour, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and a planned tour of Germany in the fall of 1980 was canceled.
The October 25, 1980 edition of the German paper Bild reported that Haley had a brain tumor. It quoted British manager Patrick Maylan as saying that Haley "had taken a fit and went over the seat. He didn't recognize anyone anymore" after being taken to his home in Beverly Hills. It also reported that a doctor at the clinic where Haley had been taken said, "The tumor can't be operated on anymore."
"The Berliner Zeitung" reported a few days later that Haley had collapsed after a performance in Texas and been taken to the hospital in his home town of Harlingen, Texas. However this account is questionable as Bill Haley never performed in the United States in 1980.
Despite his ill health, Haley began compiling notes for possible use as a basis for either a biographical film based on his life, or a published autobiography (accounts differ), and there were plans for him to record an album in Memphis, Tennessee, when the brain tumor began affecting his behavior and he went back to his home in Harlingen, Texas, where he died early in the morning of February 9, 1981.
Martha, Bill's widow, who was with him in these troubling times, denies he had a brain tumor as does his old, very close friend, Hugh McCallum. Martha and friends related that Bill did not want to go on the road any more and that ticket sales for that planned tour of Germany in the fall of 1980 were slow. According to McCallum, "It's my unproven gut feeling that that [the brain tumor] was said to curtail talks about the tour and play the sympathy card."
It was obvious that his drinking problem was getting worse. According to Martha, by this time she and Bill fought all the time and she told him to stop drinking or move out so he moved out into a room in their pool house. Martha still took care of him and sometimes he would come in the house to eat, but he ate very little. "There were days we never saw him," said his daughter Martha Maria.
In addition to the drinking problems, it had become obvious that he also was having serious mental problems; Martha Maria said that, "It was like sometimes he was drunk even when he wasn't drinking." After he'd been jailed by the Harlingen Police, Martha had the judge put Haley in the hospital where he was seen by a psychiatrist who said Bill's brain was overproducing a chemical, like adrenaline. The doctor prescribed a medication to stop the overproduction but said Bill would have to stop drinking. Martha said, "This is pointless." She took him home, however, fed him and gave him his first dose. As soon as he felt better, he went back out to his room in the pool house and the downward spiral continued until his death on February 6, 1981.
Haley's death certificate listed "Natural causes: Most likely heart attack" as the 'Immediate Cause' of death. The next lines, 'Due to, or as a consequence Of" were blank.
Haley made a succession of bizarre, mostly monologue late-night phone calls to friends and relatives in which he seemed incoherently drunk or ill. Haley's first wife has been quoted as saying, "He would call and ramble and dwell on the past, his mind was really warped." A belligerent phone call to a business associate was taped and gives evidence of Haley's troubled state of mind.
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 described Haley painting the windows of his home black, there is little information extant about Haley's final days.
Haley was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. His son Pedro represented him at the ceremony. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Comets were separately inducted into the Hall of Fame as a group in 2012, after a rule change allowed the induction of backing groups (the Comets were mass-inducted alongside several other groups such as Hank Ballard's the Midnighters and Gene Vincent's Blue Caps.
Songwriters Tom Russell and Dave Alvin addressed Haley's 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 still tour the world. They released a concert DVD in 2004 on Hydra Records, played the Viper Room in West Hollywood in 2005, and performed 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. On October 27, 2007, ex-Comets guitar player Bill Turner opened the Bill Haley Museum for the public.