Bill Haley – The Father of Rock 'n' Roll
Bill Haley helped usher in the rock 'n' roll era with hits like "Rock Around the Clock." Thirty-one years after his death, we take a look back at his life and music. Originally published February 2011.
Born William John Clifton Haley in Highland Park, Michigan, Bill Haley had music in his blood. His father played the banjo, his mother was a classically trained pianist, and when they saw young Haley try to make a guitar out of cardboard, they decided to buy him a real one.
The family moved to Pennsylvania, and by the time Haley was 13 he was playing professionally (albeit for one dollar a night). At age 15, he hit the road with his guitar, determined to make a career for himself in music. He played guitar in other people's bands, performed with yodeling groups, and released records with his own band Bill Haley And The Four Aces of Western Swing.
The band eventually changed its name to Bill Haley and The Saddlemen and then, in 1952, to Bill Haley and Haley’s Comets. The next year they recorded “Crazy Man, Crazy,” a song Haley said was inspired by slang he heard kids using at the high school dances where the band often played. It would become the first rock 'n' roll song to land on the Billboard Juke Box. Though it peaked only at number 15, a revolution was underway. “Crazy Man, Crazy” would also be the first rock 'n' roll song to appear on TV when it was used as the soundtrack for an Omnibus live theatre production starring James Dean.
As Bill Haley & The Comets, the band would next have a hit with a B-side called “Rock Around the Clock,” a song written for them by Max C. Freedman and James E. Myers. The tune saw only modest commercial success in the U.S., but was a hit in the U.K., Germany and Australia and was credited with bringing rock 'n' roll to mainstream audiences worldwide. Rolling Stone named it to their list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and it’s widely thought to be the biggest-selling vinyl single in history, notching an estimated 25 million sales.
The song was featured in the hit teen movie Blackboard Jungle, and Columbia Pictures hopped on the rock 'n' roll bandwagon by signing Haley and his band to appear in the first rocksploitation movies, Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Don’t Knock The Rock. The band scored another big hit with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” a song originally performed by Big Joe Turner.
In 1957, Bill Haley & His Comets became the first American rock 'n' roll act to tour Europe, and their appearances had a catalytic effect. Much as every punk or New Wave band to come out of Europe in the 1980s claimed they’d attended a Sex Pistols show, many of the artists who would make up the 1960s British Invasion cited Haley’s tour as a watershed moment.
“The first time I really ever felt a tingle up my spine was when I saw Bill Haley and The Comets on the telly,” Paul McCartney told Gibson.com. “Then I went to see them live. The ticket was 24 shillings, and I was the only one of my mates who could go, as no one else had been able to save up that amount. But I was single-minded about it. I knew there was something going on here.”
He wasn’t alone. Graham Nash recalled, “I've still got the ticket stub in my wallet from when I went to see Bill Haley and the Comets play in Manchester in February 1957—my first-ever concert. Over the years I've lost houses...I've lost wives...but I've not lost that ticket stub. It's that important to me.”
Though in America his star was soon eclipsed by young upstarts like Elvis Presley, Haley continued to be popular well into the 1960s in Europe and South America. Though he struggled with alcoholism throughout his life, he continued touring with the band through the 1970s, one of his final performances being a 1979 command performance for Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1980, it was revealed that Bill Haley was suffering from a brain tumor. He died on February 9th, 1981. “There has to be a Cadillac music and a Ford music,” Haley told NME in 1955. “Tchaikovsky and Bach is Cadillac music, while we play more down-to-earth Ford music. It's got a good solid beat that can't be missed.”
Thirty years after his death, the beat goes on.