Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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HALEY, Bill

(b 6 July 1925, Highland Park MI; d 9 February 1981, Harlingen TX) Singer, guitarist, bandleader, pioneer of rock'n'roll. He toured with C&W bands, worked as a disc jockey '49, led bands called the Four Aces of Western Swing, Down Homers, the Saddlemen; signed with Philadelphia label Essex '50; recorded country songs, then covered R&B hits 'Rocket 88' (no. 1 '51 by Jackie Brenston) and 'Rock The Joint' (no. 11 '49 by Jimmy Preston), and decided that R&B-influenced dance music was the way to go.

He did not even have a regular drummer until he changed the name of group to Bill Haley and His Comets; his 'Crazy Man Crazy' was a no. 15 hit '53 and was covered by bandleader Ralph Marterie, who got some jukebox play and lent legitimacy to the style, then regarded as a fad. Haley switched to Decca, where he was produced by Milt Gabler, who had produced hits by Louis Jordan in the 'jump band' style and later claimed to have pushed Haley in that direction, though it is clear he was already going there. Rumour has it that jazz drummer Cliff Leeman played on some of the early Comets records. Haley covered Joe Turner's no. 2 R&B hit 'Shake Rattle And Roll' '54: no. 7 hit (with lyrics whitewashed) became his first gold disc, followed by top 20 hits 'Dim Dim The Lights' and 'Mambo Rock'. 'Rock Around The Clock', recorded April '54, seemed to flop, but used in the film Blackboard Jungle it became his only no. 1 hit '55 (no. 4 in R&B chart; his only no. 1 in UK as well), eventually sold 22 million. The next biggest hit was 'See You Later, Alligator' (no. 6 '56); he had 14 top 40 hits '53-8, then was washed off the charts by younger stars, though his party music continued selling for years.

The best record was an up-tempo instrumental 'Rudy's Rock' (no. 34 '56), with tenor sax Rudy Pompilli (b c.1928; d 5 February 1976 after 20 years with Haley, a close friend); it was more exciting than the rest, which was teenage dance fodder: anyone who already listened to country music and R&B was not impressed by R&B songs played with slapped bass and a loud, unswinging backbeat. (The bassist was Marshall Lytle, b 1 September 1933, Old Fort NC; d 25 May 2013, New Port Richey FL.) Of two LPs that charted in '56, Rock Around The Clock was a compilation, while Rock'n'Roll Stage Show was titled as though live but wasn't; in the UK, where the BBC fuelled mania for rock'n'roll by refusing to play it, the latter sold so well it made no. 30 on the singles chart. Compilations still sell; The Decca Years And More was a complete edition on Bear Family; on Rollercoaster Hillbilly Haley compiled '48-51 material including the Saddlemen 'from before it all began', as well as Rock The Joint/The Essex Recordings 1951-4. The unlikely hero was a chubby, unpretentious man with a famous 'kiss curl' on his forehead; he enjoyed his success and it was an irony that he was associated in the public mind with hoodlums ripping up seats in cinemas. (In retrospect many years later, Sam Phillips of Sun Records described Haley's music as 'laughably inoffensive'.) The band appeared in films Rock Around The Clock and Don't Knock The Rock, and remained more popular in England than in USA until his death.