Bill Haley - Biography

By Nick Castro


Bill Haley is one of the pioneers of early rock and roll, often called the Father of Rock and Roll. Haley was known for his combination of r&b and western music. Some music critics have accused Haley of being overrated, and not as original as many claim, but regardless of these accusations, Haley is definitely one of the most famous musicians from his era. Haley was also responsible for helping black music crossover to a white audience. He is most famous for his short lived group, The Comets, as well as for his biggest hit songs, including "Rock Around the Clock" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll".


Haley was born in 1925, though many older accounts claim it to be 1927, which is said to have been a publicity maneuver to shave a few years off his age. This was not an uncommon practice in the music of the 50's, which was usually geared towards teenagers, yet the musicians playing the music were often over thirty, such as when Chuck Berry sang the song, "Sweet Little Sixteen". Haley was born outside of Detroit, though soon moved with his family to Chester, Pennsylvania, to a father who was a farmer and a mother who played organ for the local church. Haley played music since he was young and by the time he was a teenager he was playing professional gigs.


One of Haley's first groups was the Four Aces of Western Swing, which would get regular radio spots at the Chester station Haley was a DJ at, WPWA. One the radio's listeners was Jack Howard, who was a record producer and would soon begin working with the group. One of his first maneuvers with Haley was to reinvent him as a hillbilly musician and Haley changed the band name to Bill Haley and His Saddlemen. The first singles he recorded for Howard were regionally popular. Soon Haley was recording other singles for different labels.


One of Haley's first sizably successful record was with the song "Rocket 88", which was said to have sold around 10,000 copies in the first year. This minor success allowed Haley to get jobs in the city, such as when he began working at a dance club in New Jersey. It was there that Haley was able to build his repertoire and he began playing songs geared towards the youth that attended his shows. One of his most popular stage songs was "Rock the Joint". This was another of slew of hits,  Haley would have, of black songs reinterpreted for white audiences. When he recorded the song, it sold over 100,000 copies regionally. Haley signed to Essex, which was the biggest record label he had been on, and he changed the band's name to His Comets. After this success, Haley was convinced that his new style of white rock and roll, combining wester swing with r&b, was going to be the next big sound.l He was absolutely right. The band would take many gigs at high school dances and other youth oriented shows, mainly as a form of demographical study. Once they felt that they had a firm grasp on the pulse of young music scene, they were equipped with the information they needed to launch a hugely successful career. It was also during this time that the band perfected their art of performance and showmanship. Haley was a pioneer of the slick and well choreographed performance. The band even would talk to and listen to teenage speech and attempt to incorporate youth slang and vernacular into their material, as they did on songs like "Crazy, Man, Crazy" and "Dance With a Dolly". The former single would be the group's first major hit, reaching the top ten charts. Meanwhile though, James Myers, a prominent rockabilly artist and songwriter, offered Haley the song, "Rock Around the Clock", which was written by Max C. Freedman. Haley was intrigued by the tune, but his record label wanted nothing to do with it so the idea was temporarily shelved.


The next major single by Haley was the song, "Shake, Rattle, and Roll". Once Haley moved to the Decca label, he recorded the "Rock Around the Clock", which did not do well, at first. The label rereleased it again after the success of "Shake, Rattle, and Roll", this time with more promotion, and the song became a huge success, reaching number one for nearly two months. The next year, 1955, Haley released his first full length album, which was still rather rare in those days of the 45. He recorded Shake Rattle & Roll (1955 - Decca), which did not sell as well as the single, yet was a monumental achievement for the group, in terms of finding their sound. None of the songs on this debut effort were penned by Haley, but all of the songs like sounded like his own, as the band was so polished. As was customary in the early days of recording, Haley's first album was repackaged, with a few extra songs, as Rock Around the Clock (1956 - Decca). This album did contain two songs, that Haley had helped pen, "The Saints of Rock & Roll" and "Rock-A-Beatin' Boogie". Soon, the song "Rock Around the Clock" was featured over the credits of the film Blackboard Jungle, thereby adding to the already popular record.


Just as seemed that Haley had the magic formula, tons of other, younger, stars were popping up, most notably Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was difficult for the aging Haley to compete so he took his music to Europe, where he found a new and excited audience for his music. by the 60's Haley was recording and releasing the majority of his music in Mexico, where he was now a huge star. Apparently though, haley was upset over his lack of success in America, though he is now remembered as a legend there. He spent much of the 70's in seclusion and did but a few interviews throughout that decade. Haley died in his sleep in 1981.

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