Bill Haley – Artist of The Month February 2023
William John Clifton Haley (July 6, 1925 – February 9, 1981) was an American rock and roll musician. He is credited by many with first popularizing this form of music in the early 1950s with his group Bill Haley & His Comets and million-selling hits such as “Rock Around the Clock”, “See You Later, Alligator”, “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, “Rocket 88”, “Skinny Minnie”, and “Razzle Dazzle”. Haley has sold over 60 million records worldwide.
Early life and career
Haley was born July 6, 1925 in Highland Park, Michigan. In 1929, the four-year-old Haley underwent an inner-ear mastoid operation which accidentally severed an optic nerve, leaving him blind in his left eye for the rest of his life. Haley’s father William Albert Haley was from Kentucky and played the banjo and mandolin, and his mother, Maude Green, who was originally from Ulverston in Lancashire, England, was a technically accomplished keyboardist with classical training. Haley told the story that when he made a simulated guitar out of cardboard, his parents bought him a real one.
One of his first appearances was in 1938 for a Bethel Junior baseball team entertainment event, performing guitar and songs when he was 13 years old. Apart from learning how to exist on one meal a day and other artistic exercises, he worked at an open-air park show, sang and yodelled with any band that would have him, and worked with a traveling medicine show. Soon after this he decided, as all successful people must decide at some time or another, to be his own boss again – and he has been that ever since. These notes fail to account for his early band, known as the Four Aces of Western Swing. During the 1940s Haley was considered one of the top cowboy yodellers in America as Silver Yodelling Bill Haley.
One source states that Haley started his career as The Rambling Yodeler in a country band, The Saddlemen. It was then known as Bill Haley’s Saddlemen, indicating their definite leaning toward the tough Western style.
During the Labour Day weekend in 1952, the Saddlemen were renamed Bill Haley with Haley’s Comets. The name was inspired by the supposedly official pronunciation of Halley’s Comet and was suggested by Bob Johnson, program director at radio station WPWA where Bill Haley had a live radio program from noon to 1 pm. In 1953, Haley’s recording of “Crazy Man, Crazy” (co-written by Haley and his bass player, Marshall Lytle, although Lytle would not receive credit until 2001) became the first rock and roll song to hit the American charts, peaking at number 15 on Billboard and number 11 on Cash Box. Soon after, the band’s name was revised to “Bill Haley & His Comets”.
In 1954, Haley recorded “Rock Around the Clock“. Initially, it was relatively successful, peaking at number 23 on the Billboard pop singles chart and staying on the charts for a few weeks. On re-release, the record reached #1 on July 9, 1955.
Haley soon had another worldwide hit with “Shake, Rattle and Roll“, another rhythm and blues cover in this case from Big Joe Turner, which went on to sell a million copies and was the first rock ‘n’ roll song to enter the British singles charts in December 1954, becoming a gold record. He retained elements of the original (which was slow blues), but sped it up with some country music aspects into the song (specifically, Western swing) and changed up the lyrics. Haley and his band were important in launching the music known as “Rock and Roll” to a wider audience after a period of it being considered an underground genre.
An admitted alcoholic, Haley fought a battle with alcohol into the 1970s. Nonetheless, he and his band continued to be a popular touring act, benefiting from a 1950s nostalgia movement that began in the late 1960s and the signing of a lucrative record deal with the European Sonet label. After performing for Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Variety Performance on November 26, 1979, Haley made his final performances in South Africa in May and June 1980. Before the South African tour, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Subsequently, Haley’s planned tour of Germany in the autumn of 1980 had to be cancelled.
Despite his illness, Haley started compiling notes for possible use as a basis for either a biographical film based on his life, or a published autobiography (accounts differ), and there were plans for him to record an album in Memphis, Tennessee, when the brain tumour began affecting his behaviour and he returned to his home in Harlingen, Texas.
Haley died at his home in Harlingen on February 9, 1981, aged 55. He was discovered lying motionless on his bed by a friend who had stopped by to visit him. The friend immediately called the police and Haley was pronounced dead at the scene. Haley’s death certificate gave “natural causes, most likely a heart attack” as being the cause. Following a small funeral service attended by 75 people, Haley was cremated in Brownsville, Texas.
Tributes and legacy
Haley was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Songwriters Tom Russell and Dave Alvin addressed Haley’s demise in musical terms with Haley’s Comet on Alvin’s 1991 album Blue Blvd. Surviving members of the 1954–55 contingent of Haley’s Comets reunited in the late 1980s and continued to perform for many years around the world. In March 2007, the Original Comets opened the Bill Haley Museum in Munich, Germany.
On October 27, 2007, ex-Comets guitar player Bill Turner opened the Bill Haley Museum for the public.
To celebrate the Godfather of Rock and Roll, Presley Collectibles are offering a 10% on all our Bill Haley and His Comets signed memorabilia throughout February 2023. Just use the code EPUXHT3XBH when you checkout. T&Cs apply.