Bill Haley Biography

William John Clifton Haley, 6 July 1925, Highland Park, Michigan, USA, d. 9 February 1981, Harlingen, Texas, USA. Haley was one of the great pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll and was the first artist to take the new musical form to the world stage. His roots were in country music and he began his career as a yodelling cowboy. After playing in such country groups as the Downhomers and the Range Drifters, he formed the Four Aces Of Western Swing in 1948. At that point, his repertoire included compositions by both Red Foley and Hank Williams. His next group was the Saddlemen, who played a stirring mixture of western swing, mixed with polka. In 1951, he recorded the R&B hit ‘Rocket 88’, which indicated how far he had already travelled in assimilating the styles of rock ‘n’ roll. Haley’s fusion of country, R&B and a steady beat was to provide the backbone of the musical genre that he immortalized. The jive talk used on the following year’s ‘Rock The Joint’, coupled with the distinctive slap bass playing on the record, continued the experiment.

In 1953, Haley abandoned the cowboy image and formed a new group, Bill Haley And His Comets. The line-up of the group would change frequently over the years, but Haley himself was a constant. Their first single, the exuberant ‘Crazy Man Crazy’, crossed over into the national charts and was the first rock ‘n’ roll Top 20 US hit. After signing to Decca Records in April 1954, Haley recorded a series of songs with Comets Joey Ambrose (saxophone), Billy Williamson (steel guitar), Johnny Grande (b. 14 January 1930, USA, d. 2 June 2006; piano) and Marshall Lytle (string bass), and session men Danny Cedrone (d. 1954; lead guitar) and Billy Gussak (drums), that were historically crucial in bringing rock ‘n’ roll to the world. ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was a staggering achievement, a single whose timing, vocal, spine-tingling guitar breaks by Cedrone and inspired drumming were quite unlike any other commercial recordings up until that time. Amazingly, it was initially issued as a b-side and, even when the sides were flipped, it initially became only a minor hit. Haley returned to the studio to record a follow-up: ‘Shake Rattle And Roll’. This was another seminal work, whose jive-style lyrics and brilliant employment of saxophone and upright bass brought a new sound into the US Top 20. Haley enjoyed further, though less important hits, during the next year with ‘Dim, Dim The Lights’ and ‘Mambo Rock’. Then, in the spring of 1955, his career took a dramatic upswing when the previously issued ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was included in the controversial film The Blackboard Jungle. Suddenly, the world woke up to the importance of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ and it became a veritable rock ‘n’ roll anthem and rallying cry. It soared to the top of the US charts for a lengthy spell and achieved the same feat in the UK, and went on to sell over 25 million copies all told. When The Blackboard Jungle was shown in Britain, enthusiastic youths jived in the aisles and ripped up their seats in excitement.

Haley was crowned the king of rock ‘n’ roll and dominated the US/UK chart listings throughout 1955/6 with such songs as ‘Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie’, ‘See You Later Alligator’, ‘The Saints Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Razzle Dazzle’, ‘Burn That Candle’, ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘Rudy’s Rock’. The latter was an instrumental that focused attention on Haley’s saxophone player, the excellent Rudy Pompilli (d. 5 February 1976), who often played onstage lying on his back. His brother, Al Pompilli, was another important component in the group, renowned for his acrobatic displays on the stand-up bass. Haley’s exciting stage act provoked hysteria among the youth population, which soon became pandemic. In February 1957, he travelled to England, the first rock ‘n’ roll star to tour abroad. He was mobbed when his train arrived in London and there were rabid scenes of fan mania when he performed at the Dominion Theatre, London. Inevitably, the moral pundits criticized such performances but Haley proved himself an adept apologist and emphasized the point by recording the protest ‘Don’t Knock The Rock’, the title theme of an Alan Freed film.

Haley’s star burned brightly for a couple of years, but his weakness was his age and image. At the age of 32, he was a little too old to be seen as the voice of teendom and his personality was more avuncular than erotic. Once Elvis Presley exploded onto the scene, Haley seemed a less authentic rock ‘n’ roll rebel and swiftly lost his standing among his young audience. He was still respected as a kind of elder statesman of rock - the man who first brought the music to the masses. Not surprisingly, he maintained his popularity by constantly touring, and his recordings veered from Latin dance excursions to novelty and straight country. He was always called upon to carry the rock ‘n’ roll mantle whenever there was a nostalgic outbreak of 50s revivalism. It is a testament to the power of Haley’s influence that ‘Rock Around The Clock’ returned to the UK Top 20 on two separate occasions: in 1968 and 1974. His music effectively transcended the generation gap by reaching new listeners over three decades. By the late 70s, Haley was reportedly ill and drinking heavily. He returned to England in November 1979 for a memorable performance at the Royal Variety Show. The following year reports filtered through that he was suffering from a brain tumour. On 9 February 1981, he died of a heart attack in Harlingen, Texas, USA. His inestimable influence on rock ‘n’ roll still continues, and he was posthumously inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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