Born William John Clifton Haley, Jr., July 6, 1925, in Highland Park, MI; died of heart failure February 9, 1981, in Harlingen, TX; son of William John Clifton Haley (a farmer) and a church organist mother; married; several children. Singer, songwriter, guitar player, and bandleader, 1945-81. Formed band Four Aces of Western Swing, 1948, and performed on WPWA Radio, Chester, PA, 1948-50; changed group name to Bill Haley and His Saddlemen, 1950, released first single, "Rocket 88" on independent label, 1951; changed group name to Bill Haley and the Comets. Recorded with Essex label, 1951-53, had first hit, "Crazy Man, Crazy," 1952; moved to Decca Records, 1954, had multi-million seller with "Rock Around the Clock," 1954. Music was featured in the film "The Blackboard Jungle," 1955, "Rock Around the Clock," 1956, and "Don't Knock the Rock," 1958. Made numerous live appearances in the United States, Europe, Mexico, and Central and South America, 1955-79. Membership of the Comets between 1951 and 1975 included John Grande (guitar), Bill Williamson (guitar), Marshall Lytle (bass), Dick Richards (drums), Joey D'Ambrosia (tenor saxophone), Al Rex (bass), Ralph Jones (drums), Rudy Pompelli (tenor saxophone), Frank Beecher, John Kay, and Dave Holly.

Bill Haley is known the world over as the Father of Rock 'n' Roll. Haley was the first white artist to combine elements of rhythm & blues, western swing, and hillbilly music to produce the upbeat, danceable, and infectious sound known today as rock 'n' roll. With his band, the Comets, Haley released rock's first certifiable million-seller, "Rock Around the Clock," in 1954. According to Charles T. Brown in Music U.S.A.: America's Country and Western Tradition, Haley "was not original, although he felt that he had invented rock and roll. He simply put together available elements at the right time and had the good sense to get them before the public. But he was the catalyst necessary for rock and roll's success."

Brown's judgment might be unduly harsh. Haley was more than a mere catalyst: he was a clever performer with many years' experience who was able to create a package of rhythm & blues acceptable to white teenagers. Prior to Haley, early examples of rock 'n' roll had reached very few listeners, and some of the most exciting r & b work featured frankly sexual lyrics that rendered the form taboo among much of the white listening public. Haley incorporated the beat but left the erotic lyrics behind; the young post-war generation found a music it could dance to, a signature sound different from all the dance music of the past.

William John Clifton Haley was born July 6, 1925, in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park. While he was still young his parents moved the family east to Chester, Pennsylvania, a small town near Philadelphia. There Haley's father worked as a farmer and his mother played organ in church. Haley himself was interested in music from his earliest years, especially country and western music. Like many aspiring singers, he idolized Hank Williams, an artist whose up-tempo numbers hinted at the rock era to come.

In 1945 Haley left home for a long apprenticeship in country and western swing bands. His travels led him far and wide across the eastern half of the country; gradually he became an able guitar player and an affable showman. He returned to the Chester area in 1948 and formed his own ensemble, the Four Aces of Western Swing. This group could be heard weekly over WPWA in Chester, where Haley also worked as a disc jockey.

Haley's performances on WPWA brought him to the attention of a Philadelphia-area record producer, Jack Howard. Howard thought he might be able to make Haley a hillbilly music star, and at his suggestion Haley re-named his group Bill Haley and His Saddlemen. Under Howard's direction Haley cut three singles, none of which sold outside the Philadelphia area. That exposure was enough, however, to attract the attention of Dave Miller, owner of a slightly larger pop label in Philadelphia. It was Miller who suggested that Haley record "Rocket 88," an r & b hit. That tune sold some 10,000 copies--not a phenomenal success, but encouraging.

In 1951 Haley took a regular gig at a dance bar in New Jersey. While there he began performing an upbeat number called "Rock the Joint" that proved very popular with the young crowd. Like "Rocket 88," "Rock the Joint" was originally a black hit. Haley recorded it early in 1952 and it eventually sold 150,000 copies. By then Haley was signed to the larger Essex label and his band had been re-named the Comets. Haley and his group left behind their country garb, donned tuxedos, and added a tenor saxophonist and drummer to their ranks. From there, Bill Haley and the Comets took off.

In 1953 they recorded a number Haley wrote himself, "Crazy Man, Crazy." The song--Haley's first Top Ten hit--proved especially popular in dance halls. At the time, Haley was sitting on another number, "Rock Around the Clock," but Miller discouraged him from recording it. Finally Haley left the Essex label, signed with Decca, and brought "Rock Around the Clock" to the recording studio. The song was released on May 10, 1954. Initially, "Rock Around the Clock" did not sell well, but a Haley follow-up, "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," made the Top Ten. In the wake of that success, Decca decided to re-release "Rock Around the Clock." The tune was featured prominently in the film "The Blackboard Jungle," one of the first movies geared toward the rebellious teens of the 1950s.

"Rock Around the Clock" spent seven weeks at Number One on the pop charts in 1955 and has subsequently sold more than 20 million copies. The song brought Haley into the limelight he had sought for more than ten years and made him a veritable superstar. He and the Comets turned out three more hits in 1955, "Dim Dim the Lights," "Birth of the Boogie," and "Razzle Dazzle," and then embarked on a dizzying round of concert appearances in the United States and England.

Backed by the spirited saxophone playing of Rudy Pompelli and fine side work of a variety of other musicians, Bill Haley and the Comets caused a sensation wherever they performed. Unfortunately for Haley, however, other singers were quick to incorporate the new sound and almost immediately edged him out of the record market. The aging, homely Haley could hardly compete with the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the outrageous Little Richard; after 1955 he had only one hit, "Skinny Minnie."

American fans might have shrugged Haley off, but British and Mexican fans were more respectful. Haley and his Comets staged fabulously successful tours of England in the mid-1960s and again in the mid-1970s, on both occasions upstaging more modern acts. Throughout the 1960s Haley recorded music in Mexico and sold the majority of his singles there. He also toured the United States, but his performances there were confined to smaller stages.

Bitter over the indifference he faced in his native country, Haley became a recluse as the 1970s progressed. In one of his last interviews he said: "I wrote 'Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie,' which was the song that gave rock 'n' roll its name. Remember how it started out? 'Rock, rock, rock everybody! Roll, roll, roll everybody!' Well, that started it. The story has got pretty crowded as to who was the father of rock. These days, you'd think everybody did it. But we were the first. I haven't done much in life except that. And I'd like to get credit for it." Indeed, Haley's was no small accomplishment. His music was a breakthrough combination of styles that had previously been split along racial lines, conjured at a time when a young audience with increasing record-buying power was craving novelty.

Bill Haley died in his sleep on February 9, 1981, in the small town of Harlingen, Texas. Stuart Colman offered a tribute to Haley in the book They Kept On Rockin': "Leaders in the music world are always predestined, and Bill had every right to be a star.... Whatever ... [the] criticisms of the Haley style of music, the fact remains that the slick three chord pop songs at which he so excelled, have always been the hardest to write successfully." Colman concluded, "Rest assured, any future songwriter would give his eye teeth to unlock the secret of some of the all-time greats created by Bill Haley and the Comets!" Fittingly, Bill Haley was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as one of its first members.

by Anne Janette Johnson

Bill Haley's Career

Bill Haley's Awards

Inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, 1986.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Books

Periodicals

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 9 years ago

The composer of this story tells some wrong facts. Bill Haley was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1987, not in 1986. The laudator was Chuck Berry. Of course, he had more hits after 1955 such as "Rip it up" (1956), "Hot Dog Buddy Buddy" (1956) and "Rudy's Rock" (reached #34 in the US-Popcharts).