Bill Haley – circa 1956
“One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock / Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock / Nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock / We’re gonna rock / Around / The clock tonight” – ‘Rock Around The Clock’’ (James E. Myers [as Jimmy De Knight], Max C. Freedman)
When does rock ‘n’ roll begin? What is the first rock ‘n’ roll record? Rock music historians and critics have wrestled with these questions for years. Because the answers can only be considered opinions, not facts, it is impossible to provide definitive solutions. The term ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ is first used by radio disc jockey (DJ) Alan Freed, though there is some difference of opinion about whether that is in 1950, 1951 or 1954. The three leading contenders for first rock ‘n’ roll record are: ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston with Ike Turner and The Kings Of Rhythm (March 1951), ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by Bill Haley And The Comets (12 April 1954) and ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ by Elvis Presley (July 1954). ‘Rocket 88’ may be authentic, but it seems like a freak because there is no follow through. Plus, ‘Rocket 88’ only tops the rhythm and blues charts; it does not reach a wider audience. ‘Rock Around The Clock’ tops the pop charts and is followed in quick succession by the advent of not only Elvis Presley with ‘That’s All Right, Mama’, but also the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, a whole wave of rock’ n’ roll stars. For these reasons, ‘Rock Around The Clock’ seems like the starting point. “The story has gotten pretty crowded as to who was the Father of Rock and Roll,” says Bill Haley. “I haven’t done much in life except that and I’d like to get credit for it.”
Bill Haley (6 July 1925 – 9 February 1981) is born William John Clifton Haley, Jr., in Highland Park, Michigan, U.S.A. He is blind in the left eye from infancy. Aged 4, he moves with his family to Booth-Winn, Pennsylvania, and is raised on a farm. He begins to play ‘hillbilly music’ as a teenager at County Fairs. In the early 1940s he serves as a guitarist for two years in the band of his cousin, Lee. Bill Haley cuts his first solo record, ‘Candy Kisses’, in 1945. He marries Dorothy Crowe on 11 December 1946 and they have two children.
After spending four years kicking around in various country and western bands, Bill Haley takes a job as a DJ on Radio WPWA in Chester, Pennsylvania. During this time he ‘realises the attraction of black music to some young whites who find big bands [like Glenn Miller’s] and country schmaltz boring.’
From 1939 to 1942, The Glenn Miller Orchestra was one of the most popular recording acts in the United States. They promoted a style of music known as ‘swing’, a syncopated, horn-heavy blend, well-suited to jive-dancing and jitterbugging. An inventive Texan named Bob Wills had already been experimenting with a variant on country and western music involving a much larger number of musicians than was usual. Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys had sixteen members on stage and incorporated not only country fiddles, but a horn section. Immediately prior to 1941 they were offering what they called ‘western swing’, a sort of redneck version of The Glenn Miller Orchestra. Most importantly to this story, amongst The Texas Playboys assemblage was a drummer and an electric guitarist. Bill Haley may have thought traditional big bands were unappealing to his audience, but something like Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys may be a different story.
In 1949 Bill Haley forms a band called The Four Aces Of Western Swing. They broadcast their performances on the radio station where Haley is employed. The Four Aces don’t last very long, but Bill Haley swiftly assembles another backing group for himself. This combo is called The Saddlemen. Haley sports a ten-gallon Stetson hat.
According to Bill Haley, “When I was a young man I loved country and western music…Hank Williams was my idol…And so when I started to play professionally, we started as a country and western group. But I also liked rhythm and blues music, and we saw no reason why a country and western group couldn’t sing rhythm and blues songs, so we started to do that. We were doing this locally around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A record company heard the group on the radio and decided to record us…They decided that was unusual. And there was the birth of rock and roll music. It was just that simple.”
The group actually recorded singles on a variety of labels (including Atlantic Records) before settling on the Essex label in Philadelphia. These recordings are characterised as ‘straight “hillbilly” singles.’ In other words, if there is any rhythm and blues influence there, it is pretty small.
Bill Halley is asked in 1954 to record a cover version of Jackie Brenston’s ‘Rocket 88’. Apparently, ‘it takes a while to agree to do so’, but he does. Haley’s version is latterly considered a ‘rockabilly song’ (i.e. A hillbilly song with a rock influence). It sells ten thousand copies, but is not considered a success. Despite this, Bill Halley persists with the style for his next single.
‘Rock This Joint’ (penned by Crafton / Keane / Bagby) is another ‘race’ record (i.e. a song popular only in the African-American community). Bill Haley’s version is actually intended to be the flipside to a country song the artist releases in 1952. However, it is the cover version of ‘Rock This Joint’ that gets the attention and sells seventy-five thousand copies.
In 1952 Bill Haley divorces his first wife and, on 18 November, marries his second wife, Joan Cupchak, with whom he goes on to have five offspring.
After another three recordings of presumably straight hillbilly tunes, Bill Haley returns to the county / rhythm and blues hybrid format. By this time, his backing band has changed their name from The Saddlemen to The Comets. The new name is the suggestion of a radio station program director who tells the singer, “With a name like Haley, you guys should call your group The Comets.” In 1862, Edmund Halley, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, discovered a comet that appeared in the heavens every seventy-six years. Halley could track this phenomenon backwards through previous comet sightings and correctly predicted its subsequent return trips. This visitor becomes known as ‘Halley’s Comet.’ Actually, the radio program director is perpetuating a common mispronunciation of Edmund Halley’s surname as Hay-Lee. The correct way to say the name of the astronomer is Hal-Ee; the singer is Hay-Lee. Ironically, Halley’s Comet does not appear in Bill Haley’s lifetime. Its most recent passage before Haley’s 1925 birth is in 1910 and its next visit is in 1986, five years after the singer’s death.
The song released by Bill Haley And The Comets in 1953 is ‘Crazy Man Crazy’ (US no. 12). It is reputedly based on ‘high school phrases he hears kids use’, but it is written by professional songwriter Max C. Freedman. It is the first of Haley’s recordings to make the singles charts.
With the change from The Saddlemen to The Comets, Bill Haley has shed the Stetson hat. This exposes the kiss curl above his right-eye that becomes his trademark image. This look is something Haley formulated years earlier to draw attention away from his blind left-eye. The Comets usually wear matching bright red jackets, though their leader wears black, plaid or gold jackets to distinguish him. The classic line-up of Bill Haley And The Comets is : Bill Haley (vocals, guitar), Francis Beecher (guitar), Billy Williamson (pedal steel guitar), Al Reed (acoustic bass), Johnny Grande (piano accordion), Rudy Pompilli (tenor saxophone) and Ralph Jones (drums). The Comets are energetic showmen with Reed clambering over his upright double-bass and the bespectacled Pompilli playing sax while flat on his back on the stage. Musically, Beecher and Pompilli tend to dominate, but The Comets are a remarkably tight combo. Once they find their formula though, they stick to it. There is little variation in their arrangements; changes in musical style are rare. Piano accordion does not go on to be a feature in later rock ‘n’ roll bands and the pedal steel guitar, more commonly associated with country music, seems a holdover from their days as The Saddlemen. Bill Haley rarely contributes to the songwriting; most of the band’s output consists of cover versions of songs originally recorded by other artists or new material from professional songwriters.
On 12 April 1954 Bill Haley And The Comets cut two songs at Pythian Temple Studio in New York City. Milt Gabler produces the session for release on Decca Records. The projected A-side is ‘Thirteen Women’, a post-holocaust jest penned by Dickie Thompson. A double-tracked saxophone lends menace as Haley sings “Last night I was dreaming / Dreamed about the H-bomb [hydrogen bomb] / Well the bomb went off and I was caught / I was the only man on the ground / There was thirteen women and only one man in town.” The survivor finds himself much in demand. The B-side is their finest song, ‘Rock Around The Clock’, written by James E. Myers (as Jimmy De Knight) and Max C. Freedman. The song was previously recorded by Sunny Dae And The Arcades, and Jimmy Knight And His Kings. Haley records it ‘at the request of one of its writers.’ It’s a simple story of a band who are “going strong and so will you” all through the night and day. In these early times, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ is used just as much as a code-term for sexual intercourse as a description of a style of music. So, in one interpretation, if you intend to ‘rock around the clock’, you intend to have sex for twenty-four hours straight. Although ‘Rock Around The Clock’ draws more attention than ‘Thirteen Women’, it is ‘only a modest hit’…at this point. The cause is probably not aided by the bemused record company promoting it as a ‘foxtrot.’
The band’s follow-up later in 1954 is a cover version of ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’ (US no. 7, UK no. 4), a song written by Jesse Stone (as Charles E. Calhoun) and previously a rhythm and blues hit for Big Joe Turner on 28 April 1954. Haley and company clean up some of the sexual innuendo for a white audience: “I’m like a one-eyed cat, peeping in a sea-food store / When I look at you, I know you ain’t no child no more.” The object of his passion is urged to “Shake, rattle and roll / Well you wouldn’t do nothing to save your doggone soul.” It not only makes the U.S. charts, it is ‘rock’s first international hit.’
A Hollywood film about rebellious teenagers, ‘The Blackboard Jungle’ (1955), uses ‘Rock Around The Clock’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) on the soundtrack. This grants the song a second, far more successful lease of life. The film – and song – also inspires teenagers to riot at movie theatres, creating fears that rock ‘n’ roll is dangerous.
Bill Haley And The Comets find themselves ‘elevated to the highest ranks of stardom.’ On 3 September 1955 they are invited to tour outside the U.S. for the first time, but they turn down the offer to perform in Australia because of a fear of flying.
In a busy year, Bill Haley And The Comets place six more singles on the charts in 1955. ‘Dim Dim The Lights’ (US no. 11), written by African-American husband and wife Julius Dixon and Beverly Ross, finds a youthful narrator charmingly (if unrealistically) “Full of cherry soda and potato chips / But now I want a taste of your sweet lips.” So he bids “Dim, dim the lights / Turn down the lights / I want some atmosphere.” ‘Birth Of The Boogie’ (US no. 17) is next. ‘Mambo Rock’ (US no. 18, UK no. 14) takes listeners to “An island in the Caribbean Sea” amid tin-pot drums, hand claps and shouts of “Hey Mambo!” ‘Mambo Rock’ is composed by Jimmy Ayre, Mildred Phillips and Bix Buchner. Jesse Stone (a.k.a. Charles E. Calhoun), the author of ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’, strikes again with ‘Razzle Dazzle’ (US no. 15). This is intended to be a new dance move. “It’s the hipster’s dance / And the square cats’ too” though it only seems to require its exponents to “Dance like crazy.” Bill Haley himself pens ‘Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie’ (US no. 23, UK no. 4) with the simple lyrics “Rock, rock / Rock everybody / Roll, roll / Roll everybody.” Like all The Comets’ songs, this is bright, infectious fun. Scott Winfield writes ‘Burn The Candle’ (US no. 9). A party-goer heads out for the evening, advising his long-suffering parent to “Keep that candle burning bright, mother / I’ll be kind of late, mother.” Even ‘Rock Around The Clock’ returns to the U.S. chart in November.
The album ‘Rock Around The Clock’ (1955) is also released. Both Bill Haley And The Comets and the nascent rock ‘n’ roll industry are more geared towards singles, but let’s call this his best album.
Five more singles by Bill Haley And The Comets are released in 1956. The best of them is ‘See You Later Alligator’ (US no. 6, UK no. 7), written by New Orleans’ Bobby Charles: “Well I saw my baby walkin’ / With another man today / When I asked her what’s the matter / This is what I heard her say: / ‘See you later, alligator / After a while, crocodile.’” This is followed by ‘R.O.C.K.’ (US no. 16). ‘The Saints Rock ‘N’ Roll’ (US no. 18, UK no. 5) and ‘Rockin’ Through The Rye’ (UK no. 3) are, respectively, a Dixieland jazz tune (‘When The Saints Go Marching In’) and a folk song (‘Comin’ Through The Rye’), fed through the standard Comets rock ‘n’ roll arrangement. ‘Razzle Dazzle’ (UK no. 13) and ‘Rock Around The Clock’ (UK no. 5) both chart in the U.K. after being rereleased. ‘Rip It Up’ (US no. 25, UK no. 4) is The Comets’ version of Little Richard’s hit from the same year.
After the success of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in the movie ‘The Blackboard Jungle’, Hollywood puts Bill Haley And The Comets in starring roles for two movies of their own: ‘Rock Around The Clock’ (1956) and ‘Don’t Knock The Rock’ (1957). ‘In these quickies [a movie made with great haste] Haley plays a musician who appeals to teenagers although their parents accuse him of making barbaric noise. All is forgiven by the last reel, when hep teens and their square parents find themselves dancing to the same drumbeat.’
‘Don’t Knock The Rock’ has its world premiere in Australia on 23 January 1957 during the delayed two-week tour of that nation commenced by Bill Haley And The Comets on 8 January. Haley overcomes his band’s fear of flying by simply hiring a new bunch of Comets for the tour. Haley continues his travels with a British tour in February. In the U.K. he is ‘mobbed by many thousands of fans.’ At least some of those fans are responsible for rereleases of ‘Rockin’ Through The Rye’ (UK no. 19) and ‘Rock The Joint’ (UK no. 20) as well as the new movie’s title tune, ‘Don’t Knock The Rock’ (UK no. 7), making the U.K. singles charts.
And then, suddenly, it’s all gone. Perhaps the strategy of movies and international tours works against Bill Haley. Many of his fans loved the records but had not previously seen the man. ‘He was deserted for the man who could provide the sex appeal he couldn’t, Elvis Presley’, ‘a hero of their own generation.’
The last new song Bill Haley places on the charts has a brush with the U.K. Top 40 in 1958. ‘Skinny Minnie’ is a song he co-writes with producer Milt Gabler, Rusty Keefer and Catherine Cafra.
Haley divorces his second wife in 1960. He cuts another album, ‘Twistin’ Knights At The Round Table’ (1961). In 1963 Bill Haley marries his third wife, Martha Velaesco. She remains his spouse for the rest of his life and provides him with three more children. In 1968 ‘Rock Around The Clock’ (UK no. 28) returns to the U.K. singles charts again.
Bill Haley receives an eight-and-a-half minute standing ovation when he appears at a Rock ‘N’ Roll Revival concert in New York City on 18 October 1969. Chuck Berry is also on the bill. Haley subsequently appears at many such ‘Golden Oldies’ shows. Haley becomes ‘a problem drinker’ and, in 1973, is arrested twice in one week for public drunkenness. ‘Rock Around The Clock’ (US no. 39, UK no. 12) returns to the charts again in 1974.
Bill Haley makes frequent relocations to various U.S. States, and even to Mexico, over the next few years. Amongst this restlessness, Harlingen, Texas, seems to be his main place of residence. Rudy Pompilli, The Comets’ flamboyant saxophonist, dies of lung cancer in 1976. Haley is ‘distraught’ and the news hastens ‘his descent into alcoholism.’ He makes two more albums, ‘Armchair Rock ‘N’ Roll’ (1978) and ‘Everyone Can Rock And Roll’ (1979). In November 1980 Haley is admitted to a Los Angeles hospital with a suspected brain tumour. On 9 February 1981 he is found dead, and his death is attributed to a heart attack.
Bill Haley’s desire to be credited as the Father of Rock ‘N’ Roll may be contentious but, for at least may of his fans, ‘Rock Around The Clock’ is seen as ‘ground zero’ in the first explosion of rock ‘n’ roll. ‘Bill Haley’s career lived up to the name of this backing group, The Comets, it was bright and fiery, but soon passed.’ Bill Haley And The Comets ‘were the first rock ‘n’ roll band, the prototype that spread the word around the world.’
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Elvis Presley’ by Peter Guralnick, ‘The Rise of Top 40 AM’ by John Morthland, ‘Rockfilm, Rollfilm’ by Carrie Rickey (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p.27, 103, 115
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p.13
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 19, 21, 22, 23
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 5, 9, 16, 17, 28, 163
- ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 41, 86, 88
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 97
- Notable names database – nndb.com as at 6 March 2013
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 100
- rockabillyhall.com – 1972 Bill Haley interview
- wikipedia.org as at 6 March 2013
- ‘Strange Stories, Amazing Facts’ by various authors (Reader’s Digest Association Ltd., 1975), p. 26
- lyricsfreak.com as at 8 September 2014
Song lyrics copyright Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC with the exceptions of: ‘Shake Rattle And Roll’ (Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC); ‘Dim Dim The Lights’ (obo Endangered Songs); ‘Razzle Dazzle’ (Warner Chappell Music, Inc.); ‘See You Later Alligator’ (BMG Platinum Songs obo Arc Music Corp)
Last revised 10 September 2014