Bill Haley, who had been singing and playing guitar with a country & western combo since 1940 – when he was 15 years old – was one of the first white singers to realise that blues and country music could be rocked up to great effect.
His first big record, made in 1951, was called Rock The Joint – a fairly prophetic title, it might be said.
On 12 April 1954 Haley and The Comets recorded a pair of songs at Pythian Temple, New York, which would become generally accepted as the first rock & roll records, or at least the first rock & roll records to gain mass popularity with the more affluent white audience.
One of the songs had just been a R&B hit for Joe Turner, but the Haley version of Shake, Rattle and Roll was far more raucous and exciting to a public who didn’t appreciate the subtleties of the blues and provided Haley with his first international Top 20 hit.
It was the other track, however, a novelty dance song called Rock Around The Clock, which really clinched it for rock & roll.
The song had actually been recorded and released to little response by Sonny Dae a couple of years earlier. The story goes that one of the song’s co-writers was Haley’s manager, who had just negotiated an advantageous record contract for him. To express his thanks, Haley recorded the song.
It was actually released before Shake, Rattle and Roll but only sold moderately. A little later though, Haley’s manager was roped in as technical adviser on Blackboard Jungle (1955), one of the earliest films focussing on teenage rebellion, and Rock Around The Clock was used over the opening credits.
The movie caused riots, chaos and devastation, and in Britain, Teddy Boys jived and bopped in the aisles and wrecked numerous cinemas in their exuberance. Bill Haley had arrived at last, and Rock Around The Clock became the great anti-establishment song and teenage anthem, and made Haley the world’s first rock & roll star.
By the end of 1955 it was the best-selling single in both America and Britain. Tragically, guitarist Danny Cedrone would die after a fall down some steps just three weeks after the recording session.
Bill Haley was born William John Clifton Haley on 6 July 1925, and raised in a farming family in Chester, near Philadelphia. He started his musical career playing guitar in various local Country & Western groups, though without much success.
Haley eventually settled down to a six-year spell working at a radio station in Pennsylvania (WPWA), and it was here that he became aware of the influence Black music had on listeners. He soon realised its great potential.
During his spare time, Bill continued to play C&W though occasionally he introduced elements of the Black music that fascinated him so much.
He experimented with the music as often as he could, working new treatments into his stage act with his group The Saddlemen.
Haley had released several singles but had yet to find a winning formula for recording success. So he decided to take his musical experiments a stage further, combining the best of the black R&B with the best of Country. It became the forerunner of Rock & Roll.
The Saddlemen changed their name to The Comets and in 1951 enjoyed moderate success with Rock The Joint, followed by Crazy Man Crazy in 1953 – a self-penned song inspired by the language Haley heard students using at the colleges he played. Two years later, Rock Around The Clock hailed the birth of a brand new age and a brand new music.
By the time Haley first appeared in Britain in February 1957 he was already an anachronism: affable and never less good in concert than on his records, but outdated by the younger guys who had appeared in his wake.
In his later years, Haley lived a life of quiet seclusion in his Rio Grande Valley home, emerging occasionally to tour with The Comets. In 1980, an extensive British and European tour was hurriedly cancelled when Bill was stricken with a mystery disease and confined to his home.
In November he was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital with reports circulating of a suspected brain tumour, and on 9 February 1981, the reluctant hero of Rock & Roll was found dead in a room off his garage in Harlingen, a small town in Texas near the Mexican border.
The exact cause of his death is controversial. Haley’s death certificate states he died of “natural causes, most likely heart attack” while members of his family contest that he died from the brain tumour. He was 55.
More than 100 musicians performed with Bill Haley & His Comets between 1952 and Haley’s death in 1981. The Comets, featuring musicians who performed with Haley in 1954-1955, reunited in 1987 and are still touring the world, playing in the United States and Europe. They have also recorded a half-dozen albums for small labels in Europe and the United States.
Bill Haley was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. The Comets were inducted in 2012.
Comets’ bass player Marshall Lytle died on 25 May 2013.