Bill Haley, of all the rock & roll pioneers, is the one who deserves the utmosrespect, for not only did his “Rock Around The Clock” start the age of rock & roll, he also laid the foundation for what we recognize today as “teenage culture”. Moreover, he was the archetype of the modern rock singer. Not necessarily visually, in the manner of what Elvis was to become a couple of years later, but artistically. Among a notable list of “firsts”, Bill Haley was the:
01. First band leader to form a rock & roll group;
02. First rock & roll star to write and publish his own music;
03. First rock & roll star to reach the national charts – with music he wrote and recorded;
04. First rock & roll star to actually own his own music publishing companies;
05. First rock & roll star to own his own record label and recording company;
06. First white artist to be elected as the “Rhythm & Blues Personality of the Year”;
07. First rock & roll star to sell a million records;
08. First rock & roll star to receive a gold record;
09. First rock & roll star to go on a world tour;
10. First rock & roll star to sell a million records in the United Kingdom;
11. First rock & roll artist to star in a full length motion picture;
12. First white rock & roll star to tour with all-black supporting artists; and
13. First rock & roll star to appear on a national network television show.
(Courtesy: Sound & Glory / Dyne American Publications)
The greatest accomplishment of Bill Haley & His Comets lies in their paving the way for all the other artists that followed.
From 1952 until 1960, Bill Haley & His Comets scored 30 hits in the US and 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 year, his 1958 European tour included appearances in Germany, (which began approximately three weeks after Elvis Presley was shipped there, courtesy of Uncle Sam) and caught the attention of the international press. The Haley concerts held at the West Berlin Sportspalace erupted in mass rioting and became a daily news item. The East German newspaper “Neues Deutschland” condemned him as “the rock & roll gangster, Haley celebrating an orgy of American un-culture. ”The West German periodical “Rheinische Merkur” reported: “he, of all people, the Comet of instinct-unchaining started a major offensive against taste, standing and self-respect. All that in the bishopric of Essen on the day of the Papacy vote”.
The Soviet paper “Pravda” declared him, along with rock & roll, as “a secret weapon of the west against socialism”, whereas the FBI under the infamous J. Edgar Hoover (best known for his wiretapping of anyone whom he viewed as “suspicious”) 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 as 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, however, 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”, claiming, “…it is insecurity and rebellion. It impels teenagers to wear ducktail haircuts, wear zoot suits, and carry on boisterously at rock & roll affair”. While classical cellist Pablo Casals described the music of Bill Haley in the 1950s as the “distillation of all disgust of our time”, the German music expert Barry Graves (recognized equally in the 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 listenerscan 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 Brothers. It was not that the label he was on until then – Decca (now as MCA, a part of Universal) – did not want to keep the star who had served them well with 30 hit singles and strong album sales, but the offer by Warner Brothers was this new label’s attempt at building an artist roster by signing a number of well-established stars. After fulfilling his Decca contract with the album “Strictly Instrumental”, which besides providing a pair of instrumental hit singles with “Joey’s Song” (1959) and “Skokiaan” (1960) also pointed the Comets in a musical new direction with it’s Billy Vaughn influenced approach, also made the music of Bill Haley interesting to listeners beyond the strictly teenage radio audiences. Bill Haley then signed with Warner Brothers’ new label venture along with the Everly Brothers, who had similarly departed from Cadence Records. However, 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” then pressed on gold vinyl, only reached the lower end of Billboard’s Top 100 chart. The musical hit-making machinery that Bill Haley & His Comets had always possessed, began losing momentum as the musical market now began to focus upon the new younger, good looking, clean cut, but not necessarily untalented teen idols of the time; such as fellow Philadelphians, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vee, as well as New Jersey’s Bobby Darin and Ricky Nelson. The time of the wild, animalistic rockabilly/rock & roll sound of the likes of Bill Haley, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, and Buddy Holly was, for various reasons, seemingly over, in no small part due to the exploding “Payola” scandal which erupted in June 1959 and the ensuing witch hunt launched by the House Legislative Oversight Committee, sending the recording industry as well as the radio and TV broadcasting industries into panic mode. Seemingly all at once, the individual radio disc jockeys were stripped of their own artistic “license” to feature recordings and artists they themselves felt stronglyabout (or were paid to feel strongly about, by the record labels) to promote heavily over the airwaves. In the tumult, the labels and radio decided to “play it safe” and thus, programming committees were formed to decide upon which records and artists should be played; a much criticized practice that still continues to the present day in almost all commercial radio formats; while the record labels began seeking benign, less threatening young artists who would appeal to their imagined image of public decency. Public tastes were again changing as a direct result 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, newer orchestrated sounds began usurping public attention in the record industry and on the airwaves. Bill Haley performing on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”. A completely unforseen remaining tax debt from Haley’s wildly successful 1957 UK tour led to a hasty and 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 Mexican “Orfeon” label, and as a new supper club and casino star attraction on the Mexican nightclub circuit, introducing the new American “Twist” dance craze and ironically, beating Chubby Checker to this international market! His fame in Latin America increased with cameo appearances in several Mexican movies loosely based on the “Blackboard Jungle” theme. They 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 the history of Latin America, while “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets concurrently 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 (presently owned by Sony Latino) up until 1966, having a string of hits with their interpretations of the new American twist dance 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, including “Jalisco Twist” (1962), “Avenida Madison” (1963) and albums such as “Surf, Surf, Surf” (1964) and “Whisky A-Go-Go” (1966).
“Bill Haley Y Sus Cometas” on “Orfeon A Go Go” (Mexican Television Show). This new-found success filled the pockets, quite literally speaking, of the now slightly heavier Bill Haley during the sixties, though 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 contract option for furtherrecordings. Also in 1966, he was first booked by a new UK/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 chart breakers of the time; the artists all being the new innovators of the “British Invasion”. The Paris press already speculated if the seemingly mis-cast Haley, could possibly compete in comparison to ‘the long haired groups, with his antique kiss curl’. On the 24th and 25th of September 1966, Bill Haley & His Comets appeared on stage opening before Jimmy Cliff, The Walker Brothers, The Pretty Things and The Spencer Davis Group in the city on the Seine. Spencer Davis & Bill Haley Haley was greeted with banners and screams of “Biiil Haaleeey”and cheers that were still audible in the backstage dressing rooms of the young beat musicians. Although his stage spot was supposed to only be a 20 minute set, he was forced to perform encore after encore and finally, after performing for one hour, Bill Haley & His Comets were allowed off the stage, their dinner jackets soaked in sweat! The Walker Brothers (“The Sun Ain’t Gonna’ Shine Anymore”) were greeted by the French audience with booing and were heckled throughout their set. The other bands, The Spencer Davis Group and Manfred Mann, endured the same treatment. They simply could not follow Bill Haley and his final number, “Rock Around The Clock” on stage. In 1968, “the national anthem of teenagers” (as it was also called by Dick Clark), “Rock Around The Clock”, made the international charts once again and even managed to reach the number 1 spot on several British radio station charts. In 1969, Bill had a minor hit in Canada with Nashville songwriter Tom T. Hall’s composition “That’s How I Got to Memphis”. In 1970, on the critically acclaimed album for Sonet Records, “Rock Around the Country”, Kris Kristofferson gave special praise for the Haley reading of his composition “Me And Bobby McGee”. This album was recorded by Haley and the band in the famous Music City, USA – Nashville, Tennessee. Yet, as was proven a year before in 1969, when at Madison Square Garden in New York City on the first of “Richard Nader’s Rock & Roll Revival “ concerts, Haley received a 8 ½ minute standing ovation, the public seemed to still love him more for his rock & roll. His next album was released on another new label, GNP Crescendo, in 1973. Instead of trying to modernize his style for the 1970s, however, it was decided that it should be simply titled “Just Rock & Roll Music”. It featured a selection of songs spanning the rhythm & blues catalog of the 1950s, as well as an understated flirt with more country music alongside more recycled selections from Haley’s older rock & roll sound.. This formula worked, and it was commercially a far greater success than its predecessor on Sonet Records, “Rock Around the Country”. On November 26th 1979, Bill Haley & His Comets performed at the Royal Variety Show – a Command Performance for Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. A lot had happened in the 25 years since Bill Haley & His Comets had stepped into a New York recording studio, Decca Records’ “Pythian Temple” on Broadway & West 70th Street, to cut “Rock Around The Clock”. On February 9th, 1981 Bill Haley died suddenly of an apparent heart attack at his home in Harlingen, Texas. He was only 55 years old. What occurred before, during, after, and in between the many successes and phases of Bill Haley’s career? What was actually behind the professional image of “the star” Bill Haley? And what led to his untimely death at the relatively young age of55? These are a few of the questions that this book shall attempt to address. And perhaps one more can be answered in the process: WHO, really was the man who invented rock & roll?