One of the most impactful rock acts of all-time, yet not always one of the most respected, his legacy seems to be always in flux, hailed for years as The Father Of Rock and at other times seen as merely an opportunist.

Bill Haley was born in Michigan in 1925, moving to Pennsylvania in the early 1930’s. The shy boy, blind in one eye after a botched ear operation severed his optic nerve as a child, took up the guitar at 13 and dreamed of being a country singer.

From 1947 through the early 1950’s Haley’s primary musical outlet was radio where he worked as a disc jockey, while playing country music on the side including some records cut with various groups. He’d taken up electric guitar along the way and was trying to combine Dixieland music, without the horns, and hillbilly music to come up with something new, an innovative mindset that led steel guitarist Billy Williamson and pianist Johnny Grande to ask to join him and start a band together.

In 1951 The Saddlemen were asked to record a cover of the number one rock record in the country, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88”. Not enthusiastic about it, the band with guitarist Danny Cedrone sitting in for the first of countless sessions, laid into it with conviction though and Haley’s vocals rounded into form, making it the first white rock record – that is, one designed for a white audience played by a white act but despite a big push by Holiday Records it failed to connect as black audiences had no interest in a pale imitation and white audiences had no affinity for rock ‘n’ roll under any guise.

Still viewing their future as a country outfit the Saddlemen continued recording straight country songs mixed with a few sides they referred to as “cowboy jive” but when they tackled another rock song in 1952, a version of Jimmy Preston’s “Rock The Joint” which Haley had learned when it was the theme song to a program ahead of his on radio back in 1949/50, their fortunes turned. The record sold better than anything they’d done before but it came with a much different audience.

They began playing high schools for free to try out new material and see what went over well and to make the transformation complete The Saddlemen changed their name to The Comets, discarded their cowboy hats and string ties, Haley greased his hair into a spit curl and started to write many of their songs, largely based on nursery rhymes or on slang they picked up in these free shows – “Crazy, Man, Crazy”, which became their first big hit in 1953 – and they worked up a lively stage act after seeing The Treniers perform.

After a few other minor national hits as rockers they added a saxophonist, Joey Ambrose which was the final step away from their country roots and the last piece of the musical puzzle. Upon signing with major label Decca in 1954 The Comets were a tight band with a distinctive sound and they had a song in “Rock Around The Clock” they’d been offered two years earlier but Essex Records had refused to let them cut it.

Decca issued it as their first single and it barely made the charts. Their next release however, a cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle And Roll” with cleaned up lyrics but arguably a more powerful musical performance, hit the Top Ten in the summer of ’54. The following spring the year old “Rock Around The Clock” was used as the theme music for a hit movie about juvenile delinquency, The Blackboard Jungle, which launched the song into orbit, topping the pop charts for two months, the first rock song to do so, and ensuring that white America now knew was fully aware of the music that had reigned supreme in Black America for seven years.

No rock artist in the mid-1950’s was as visible as Haley making the cherub faced thirty year old white man the unlikely face of rock ‘n’ roll as it took over the national consciousness. The band’s sound was loud and exuberant but also somewhat atypical yet their records were huge, they were drafted to star in cheap exploitation films about rock ‘n’ roll and in 1957 were the second rock act to play Great Britain (LaVern Baker in 1953 was first), where their shows induced pandemonium and helped to plant the seeds of The British Invasion through inspiration alone.

By now however their ages and backgrounds became a hindrance to their continued success, as younger artists with their fingers on the pulse of the audience were able to write more authentic songs dealing with subjects that connected with the listeners while Haley and company were churning out lightweight songs or rocked up versions of standards. Their international popularity was such however that they were able to continue playing to huge crowds around the world even as their American fortunes fell drastically.

In the 1960’s they settled in Mexico to avoid tax issues brought about by their unscrupulous manager’s financial problems, including an unpaid loan from a mobster. Despite the exile The Comets became huge stars in the country with a series of twist records. The Comets however were now breaking apart, with Grande and Williamson both leaving in 1962 after the departure of drummer Ralph Jones and longtime guitarist Franny Beecher in the previous couple of years. Of the mid-1950’s act only saxophonist Rudy Pompilii, who’d joined in 1955, remained.

In 1968 “Rock Around The Clock” re-entered the charts in Britain and Bubbled Under in America and the next year, his tax debts settled, he returned in triumph to the states headlining Richard Nader’s first Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival Show in New York, earning an eight minute standing ovation. The rest of his life was spent playing his old hits, alternately basking in the glow of memories of his glory days and embittered by his inability to extend that run longer than it lasted.

Haley died in 1981 after a battle with brain cancer but while his enduring hit ensured he’d always be remembered, he still had to wait for the second year to be inducted into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame. In the end, though he was not the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll as many people once claimed, he was an artist whose career was unlike any other. Blessed with good timing and a good band, Haley’s music from 1953-1956 was monumental in its impact in spreading rock ‘n’ roll to a wider audience than previously seemed possible and if nothing else he remained a vocal champion of the music until his final days.
BILL HALEY & THE COMETS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Holiday 105; June, 1951)
Though Haley seems to show his displeasure of having this forced on them with his singing, the band is taking it seriously with some good rhythm work and Bill eventually comes around too, but this is still a detour for them, not their preferred destination. (4)

(Holiday 108; August, 1951)
Another incremental step towards rock for Haley is this self-penned Western Swing cut and while it’s included here mostly to explain his eventual transformation, it does have a somewhat distorted guitar and Bill’s more rhythmic vocal to show those first steps on that path. (2)

(Holiday 113; January, 1952)
The first real attempt by Haley to voluntarily move towards rock ‘n’ roll, albeit still holding onto a lot of country music aspects in the arrangement, but while the song is weak the effort is sincere and the rhythm section is pretty strong. (3)

(Essex 303; March, 1952)
Finally the pieces are falling into place thanks to an already established rock song which Haley adds country-elements with the band that give this a different flavor, but which is propelled by Danny Cedrone’s fiery guitar solo and Haley’s enthusiastic vocals. (8)

(Essex 305; August, 1952)
Another very conscious and deliberate move towards fully embracing the rock persona, Haley’s original composition incorporates more of the slang and instrumental features he’d become known for even if he’s still a little unsure of how to best make it come together still. (5)

(Essex 305; August, 1952)
One of the last vestiges of the group’s country background is this recycled old tune with prominent steel guitar and other likeminded touches, but it’s Haley who is trying to push it closer to rock by emphasizing that word throughout the song in his eager impatient delivery. (3)

(Essex 310; October, 1952)
Showing just how out of touch they were with rock fans, Haley tries to pass off this century old nursery rhyme – and fifteen year old song based on it – as a suitable rock song, but the insipid childish melody and his own dry delivery drags down a few nice moments by the band. (2)

(Essex 310; October, 1952)
Further evidence as to how far Haley still needs to travel to be an authentic rocker, as he ripped off a country song almost word for word – only adding the title phrase – while the band played it as nothing more than slightly spruced up country music. (2)