On April 12, 1954— Bill Haley and His Comets recorded “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock.” If rock and roll was a social and cultural revolution, then “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” was its Declaration of Independence. And if Bill Haley was not exactly the revolution’s Thomas Jefferson, it may be fair to call him its John Hancock.
Bill Haley put his enormous signature on rock and roll history during the final 40 minutes of a three-hour recording session in New York City—a session set up not for the recording of “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock,” but of a song called “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town).” It took the group nearly all of their scheduled session to get a useable take of “Thirteen Women,” a song that was entirely new to them but was chosen as the A-side of their upcoming single by their new record label, Decca. With time running out and no chance of extending the session, Haley and his Comets were eager to lay down the song they’d been playing live for many months to enthusiastic audience response. The lead guitarist brought in for the session, Danny Cedrone, had not had time to work up a new solo for the instrumental break on “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock,” so he repurposed one he’d used on a Haley recording two years earlier called “Rock This Joint.” Cedrone was paid $31 for his work that evening, which included performing what is still recognized as one of the greatest guitar solos of all time.
Haley and the band had time for only two takes, and in the first, they played so loud that Haley’s vocals were almost inaudible on tape. In an era before multi-track recording, the only solution was to do a second take with minimal accompaniment and hope for the best. Later, a Decca engineer painstakingly spliced together segments from both takes—a near-miracle given the technology of 1954. The finished version was judged good enough to include as the B-side on “Thirteen Women,” which was released in May 1954.
The single sold a respectable but underwhelming 75,000 copies in the coming months, and was destined to be forgotten until a 10-year-old kid in Los Angeles flipped “Thirteen Women” and fell in love with the now-famous B-side. That kid, Peter Ford, happened to be the son of actor Glenn Ford, who was slated to star in the upcoming teenage-delinquency drama Blackboard Jungle. Peter turned his father on to “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock,” and soon enough, the song was chosen to play over the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle, which is how it became a pop sensation, selling a million copies in a single month in the spring of 1955.
Bill Haley and His Comets record “Rock Around The Clock” - HISTORY
Rock Around The Clock
There is some dispute over what was the first rock song ever recorded (The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says it's Rocket 88, which Haley covered in 1951), but this is indisputably the first rock song to top the charts, and generally considered the beginning of the "Rock Era," at least for chart purposes.
At the time, Billboard magazine compiled charts in three different categories: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played By Disc Jockeys, and Most Played in Juke Boxes - many songs like "Rock Around The Clock" topped all three and were a consensus #1. Elvis had his first chart-topper in 1956 with "Heartbreak Hotel," and rock music made steady gains from there, but to give you some idea of what the charts looked like before Haley hit the pinnacle, the 1955 #1s that hit before Haley were by Joan Weber, The Fontane Sisters, The McGuire Sisters, Bill Hays, Perez Prado, Georgia Gibbs and Les Baxter.
This was written in 1953 by a Philadelphia songwriter named named Max Freedman (who was nearly 60 years old), and by James Myers, a local musician and song publisher who published it under the name "Jimmy De-Knight." In addition to owning half the composer credit on the song, Myers had 100% of the publishing. Haley wanted to record the song, but Dave Miller, who owned his label Essex Records, refused because of a dispute over the publishing. Myers then placed the song with a veteran Country act called Sonny Dae and His Nights, and their version was released in 1953 to little acclaim. In 1954, Myers helped Haley leave Essex records and sign with Decca as part of their agreement, one side of every single Haley recorded had to be a song from Myers' catalog, and the first one they picked was "Rock Around The Clock," which was originally released as the B-side of a Dickie Thompson song called "Thirteen Women," which was about a nuclear bomb that leaves just one man and 13 women alive.
"Rock Around The Clock" first appeared on the charts on June 3, 1953, selling 75,000 copies and convincing Decca to pick up Haley's option. Haley then recorded a successful cover of the Big Joe Turner song "Shake, Rattle And Roll," and on March 25, 1955, "Rock Around The Clock" was featured in the movie Blackboard Jungle, which gave it a surge in popularity and prompted Decca to re-release the single. This time, the song surged to the top of the charts, entering the Top 40 on May 14, 1955 and hitting #1 on July 9, where it stayed for eight weeks.
- Billie Glor from Santa Clarita, Ca This song is also the opener for the movie American Grafitti.
- Barry from Sauquoit, Ny On September 3rd 1955, Billy Haley and the Comets turned down a $2,000 contract, the contract was for a fifteen date tour of Australia.
The reason: Haley and most of the Comets had a fear of flying.
At the time the group's "(We Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" was at #3 on Billboard's Most Played on Jukeboxes chart, #4 on the Best Seller in Stores chart, and #5 on Most Played by Jockeys chart.
- Barry from Sauquoit, Ny On August 14th 1958, the Kingsmen performed "Week End" on the ABC-TV program 'American Bandstand'.
A little under three weeks later on September 1st, 1958 it entered Billboard's Top 100 chart at position #96 it stayed on the chart for three weeks and peaked at #35.
At the time of this appearance on 'Bandstand' they were on the Top 100 chart, as the Comets with Bill Haley, at position #67 with "Lean Jean", and that was also its peak position on the Top 100.
- Barry from Sauquoit, Ny On April 12th 1954, at the Pythian Temple studios in New York City Bill Haley and the Comets recorded "Thirteen Women" and "Rock Around the Clock"…
Twenty three days earlier on March 20th, 1954 and roughly 96 miles south of N.Y.C. in Philadelphia, a quartet named Sonny Dae & his Knights recorded the first original recorded version* of "Rock Around the Clock".
Dae & the Knights' version was on the Arcade Record label and never made the national charts, and we all know what happen to Haley & the Comets' version.
* And of course it’s available on You Tube.
- Barry from Sauquoit, Ny On March 10th 1974, Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" re-entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #99 and nine weeks later on May 19th, 1974 it peaked at #39
and spent 14 weeks on the Top 100 combined with its 24 weeks on the chart in 1956, it spent a grand total 39 weeks on the chart.
- Barry from Sauquoit, Ny Sadly, Francis "Franny" Beecher, lead guitarist for Bill Haley & his Comets, passed away on February 24th, 2014 at the age of 92.
He didn't play on the recording of "Rock Around the Clock" but appeared and played in the movie of the same name.
In 2012 he was elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Comets.
May he R.I.P.
- Barry from Sauquoit, Ny On January 15th 1974, the 30-minute sitcom 'Happy Days' debut on the ABC-TV network.
The series ran from 1974 to 1984 with a grand total of 255 episodes.
As already stated Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" was the opening theme in 1974 & 1975.
Then Pratt and McClain's "Happy Days" became the show's theme song from 1976 to 1983, and in the show's final year Bobby Arvon performed the theme song.
Pratt and McClain's version entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart on March 28th, 1976 and on May 30th it peaked at #5 (for 2 weeks) and spent 14 weeks on the Top 100 (and 5 of those 14 weeks were on the Top 10).
Only Henry Winkler (Fonzie), Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham), and Tom Bosley (Mr. Cunningham) appeared all 255 episodes.
- Barry from Sauquoit, Ny In 1958 The Kingsmen released an instrumental record titled "Week End", it peaked at No. 35 the Kingsmen were actually The Comets without Bill Haley.
- Barry from Sauquoit, Ny The last week that 'Rock Around the Clock' was No. 1 was the week of August 27th, 1955. It would then take 33 weeks before another rock 'n roll record would reach No.1 and it was Elvis who would do it. His "Heartbreak Hotel" made No. 1 on April 21st, 1956 and it stayed there for eight weeks.
- Barry from Sauquoit, Ny The song it knocked out of the No. 1 position was "Cherry Pink & Apple Blossom White" by Perez Prado, which had been No. 1 for ten weeks. Haley held on to No. 1 for eight weeks and was replace by "The Yellow Rose of Texas" by Mitch Miller.
- Eugine from Bangledesh, Bangladesh this is my favourite song, i listen to it all the time on my ipod and when i do i cant help but dance. )
- Timmy from London, United Kingdom i LOVE this song, it is so well played
and i love Bill Haley's dance moves, maybe he can teach me one day:) .
- Ekristheh from Halath, United States Keith: "Rock and roll" probably goes back to the early part of the 20th century as an Afro-American euphemism for 1) dancing 2) sex. It was also heard in some gospel contexts (e.g., charismatic dancing or holy rolling). White people began using it in the 1930s to refer to swing. Benny Goodman recorded a song with the words "rock and roll" in 1935. By the 1940s, R&B songs said "rock and roll" quite often. So it has been around a while, and both black and white listeners who were "hep" would have known what it meant when this song came out.
- Steve Dotstar from Los Angeles, Ca love that jazz guitarist solo in the middle.
the sixteenths at the end..HARD! (busted my bejeebers trying repicate that on my guitar!
- Steve Dotstar from Los Angeles, Ca this friend of mine told me she danced in the aisle of theatre where the song was emanating from the movie Blackboard Jungle. a lot of teens were dancing in that aisle.
- Paddy from Dublin, Ireland This song was produced by Milt Gabler, actor Billy Crystal's uncle.
- Alex from Calgary, Canada Just to prove that you should take comments on this page with a grain of salt, Brian's comment about Haley marrying his pregnant girlfriend is utterly incorrect, although he did marry 3 times. Hampton did not write the song it was written by Max Freedman, with James Myers (under his penname Jimmy DeKnight) claiming co-authorship as its publisher. Sonny Dae (a white artist) recorded the song first because Haley wasn't allowed to by the owner of his then-record label, Essex (per the books "Bill Haley" by John Swenson and "Rock Around the Clock" by Jim Dawson). To correct Sara, the Comets were named the Saddlemen, not Saddle Pals, and prior to that the Four Aces of Western Swing.
- Thunderclap from Sunshine Coast, Australia It is generally accepted by music historians that 'We're Gonna Rock Around The Clock Tonight!' was recorded by Sonny Dae & His Knights, circa October 1953. It was under the 'ARCADE' label, owned by Jack Howard, who died December, 1977. The B-Side was 'Moving Guitar', about which I cannot find the writer, date of recording,the performing artists,nor music publisher. This single was the only one ever released by Sonny Dae & His Knights. I wonder if any exist and how much one would be worth!
- Kenneth from Pencil Bluff, Ar I started playing Western Swing before rock'n'roll was invented, but when Bill Haley recorded Shake Rattle n' Roll, we immediately learned to play his music. I have been a Bill Haley fan every since. He is truly the "Father of Rock'N'Roll" even though, as previously mentioned, Elvis probably popularized the genre.
- Stacy Starr from West Grove, Pa I recently when to Branson MS and saw the Comets at Dick Clarks AB. If you go be sure to see the original Comets. What a show.
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Bill Haley & The Comets: “Rock Around The Clock”
The American Legion and the Boy Scouts denounced it. The New York Times called it “nightmarish and bloodcurdling.” And after it incited a near riot in a local theater, the city of Memphis banned it. 50 years ago, when The Blackboard Jungle hit screens across the country, the controversial opening salvo of the film was a shot of amplified fury called “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets.
Music historians may disagree about who recorded the first rock ’n’ roll song (Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” and Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” are two leading contenders), but there’s no doubt about what record punched an electric guitar–shaped hole in the society at large.
Bill Haley was an unlikely rock ’n’ roll hero. Born July 6, 1925 in Highland Park, Michigan to musical parents, he became known as a teenage yodeler, then worked for a time as a DJ. In his 20s, he led a country swing band and had his sights set on becoming the next Gene Autry. It was one of his band members, a Philly kid named Joey Ambrose, who introduced Haley to rhythm and blues. By the early 1950s, Haley had cut two songs, “Crazy Man Crazy” and “Rock the Joint,” that pointed the way to his future. He’d also started wearing the Brylcreem spit curl that would become an iconic image of early rock ’n’ roll.
“Rock Around the Clock,” copyrighted in 1952, is credited to Max C. Freedman and Jimmy DeKnight, whose real name was James Myers. Myers, a publisher and hustler who “dabbled” in songwriting, had collaborated with Haley on a few tunes in the late 1940s when the singer was with the Saddlesmen. According to what Myers told NPR in 2000, he had “most of the song written” when Freedman helped him finish it. Freedman, who died in 1962, wasn’t around to dispute that account, but others, including founding Comets member Johnny Grande told NPR, “Freedman wrote the song.” Whether Myers pulled an Irving Mills and put his name on it, in a publishing arrangement, we may never be known.
But without Myers, the song may never have been recorded. He championed it, pitching it first to his old friend Bill Haley. At the time, Haley was recording for the Essex label, a company owned by Dave Miller. “Myers and Miller didn’t like each other,” Haley recalled in his biography. “Three times I took the tune in the recording studio. Every time Miller would see it, he’d come in and tear it up and throw it away.”
While Haley played the song in his live set, another act, Sonny Dae and His Knights, cut the first record on it. It went nowhere. By then, Myers had landed a new deal for Haley with Decca. Milt Gabler, the man behind all the great Louis Jordan sides of the early 1950s, was slated to produce the sessions.
On April 12, 1954, Haley and the Comets were booked into the Pythian Temple studio, a converted Masonic temple in downtown New York, to record two songs—“Thirteen Women” and “Rock Around the Clock.” That afternoon, the band got stranded in the Delaware River when their ferry ran aground. They arrived at the studio hours late, with time running out.
Milt Gabler had a stake in the publishing of “Thirteen Women,” so he spent most of the session on it. Two takes were cut on the B-side, with Haley shouting out his vocal above the raucous joy of the band. Comets bass player Marshall Lytle recalled in Haley’s bio, “We spent two-and-a-half hours on the A-side and 30 minutes on the B-side, and in 30 minutes, we came up with what is now the anthem of rock ’n’ roll.”
An explosive snare drum, a thumping bass, a spirited vocal—there were several magical elements to this two-minute, eight-second recording, but what really gave it a jolt of electricity was Danny Cedrone’s fiery, staccato guitar solo. 50 years later, it’s still thrilling. Cedrone, a session player, apparently had done a similar solo on several songs cut prior to “Clock,” including Haley’s “Rock the Joint.” As Lytle would comment, “It was his gimmick.”
“Thirteen Women” failed to ignite the charts, but still Myers didn’t give up on his favorite B-side. He mailed copies to everyone he knew in Hollywood. Though his solicitations were refused, his timing was right. Director Richard Brooks was bringing Evan Hunter’s novel The Blackboard Jungle to the screen, with Glenn Ford starring as an inner city teacher. Brooks needed an opening song to set the mood. Ford’s teenage son Paul had Haley’s 45 of “Thirteen Women,” and with the smarts of youth, knew that the flipside was the hip side. Brooks borrowed the record.
While the movie was being shot, Haley moved on to his next single, a cleaned-up cover of Big Joe Turner’s raunchy “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” It went to No. 1 and made him a star. He followed with “Mambo Rock” and “Dim Dim the Lights,” both of which went Top 20. “Rock Around the Clock” came to bat clean-up and hit a grand slam.
Within a month of The Blackboard Jungle’s release, rock ’n’ roll was a worldwide craze. Over the year, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly all emerged from their respective local scenes to dominate the entire music industry.
Though he scored a few more hits, most notably “See You Later Alligator,” Haley never matched the success he had in 1955. He continued to tour through the next two decades, finding an enthusiastic audience in Europe. In 1974, his signature song re-entered the charts when it was used as the theme of George Lucas’s American Graffiti. The year after, Haley cut a new version for the theme of the TV show Happy Days. After his last public performance in 1979, he endured a sad decline into alcoholism and paranoia. He died in 1981.
Bill Haley and the Comets were the first rock ’n’ roll band to get signed to a major label, the first to have a national hit, the first to have a song in a feature film and the first to appear on a major TV show (Ed Sullivan). “Rock Around the Clock” started a tradition of “counting” songs in rock ’n’ roll, from Chuck Berry’s “Thirteen Question Method” to Gene Vincent’s “Five Days, Five Days.” It has sold over 25 million copies (200 million if you count more than 500 cover versions cut in 32 languages) and appeared in 36 movies.
‘Rock Around The Clock’: Bill Haley Starts The Rock Clock Ticking
Bill Haley and the Comets’ ‘Rock Around The Clock’ may not have been the first rock’n’roll record, but it certainly ignited the fledgling style.
It’s one of those musical oddities. “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock,” the record widely held to have brought rock‘n’roll to Britain, didn’t even get near the UK Top 10 first time around. Moreover, the man delivering this vital message of teenage rebellion, Bill Haley, was already nearly 30 years old at the time. Conversely, he was only 55 when he passed away on February 9, 1981. But the arrival of “Rock Around The Clock” in the UK chart, on January 7, 1955, was a major landmark. The recording in question was made at Pythian Temple Studio, at 135 West 70th Street, New York, on April 12 the year before.
“Rock Around The Clock” wasn’t even the first UK chart entry for Bill and his group the Comets, who were simultaneously enjoying a much bigger hit with “Shake Rattle and Roll,” which climbed to No.4 and had 14 weeks on the chart. The new hit went on to peak at No.17 and was on the bestsellers for precisely two weeks.
You’d also have to be something of a trivia expert to know the names of the writers of the song that came to represent the commercial explosion of rock‘n’roll. It was written by Philadelphia composer Max C. Freedman, who’d had several successes dating back to the end of World War II, with publisher and promoter James C. Myers, whose career also went back to the 1940s. He used the pen name Jimmy DeKnight for the collaboration.
“Rock Around The Clock” was first recorded by Sonny Dae on the Arcade label in 1954, with Haley’s version (cut three weeks later) following that May, when it failed to make the US chart. In fact, it’s another real quirky aspect to the story that “Rock” was a chart record in Britain before it was in the US, if only for those two weeks. After being featured in the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle, it then made the American survey in May, and went on to spend eight weeks at No.1, widely hailed as the first chart-topper of the rock‘n’roll era.
That success, on Decca, prompted a re-release on Brunswick in the UK, and this time, the song really took off, spending three weeks at No.1 in November and December. Then “Rock” showed its staying power, charting again in Britain in September 1956, when it hit No.5. As subsequent generations learned of its importance, it went to No.20 in 1968 and No.12 in 1974. That last outing came after the song was prominent in the movie smash American Graffiti, which also took it back to No.39 in America.
On January 28, 1956, the group entered the US album chart with an LP also entitled Rock Around The Clock, a Decca compilation featuring that and other Haley hits.
“Rock Around The Clock” is on Bill Haley and his Comets’ Universal Masters Collection, which can be bought here.
Follow the 50s playlist for more by Bill Haley and his Comets and other key acts of the decade.
Bill Haley: Rock Around the Clock – the world's first rock anthem
I n January 1955, Britain must have felt like it was finally emerging from the second world war: rationing had ended just a few months earlier, and the country had celebrated Christmas by sending Winifred Atwell's pub piano medley Let's Have Another Party to the top of the charts. Sneaking in at No 18, on the gold Brunswick label, Bill Haley & His Comets had a new entry with Rock Around the Clock, a song the band had recorded as a B-side the previous May. By the time Haley's last hit, Don't Knock the Rock, was leaving the Top 20 two years later, the This Is Tomorrow exhibition had taken place, introducing Richard Hamilton and Pop Art to the world, while Haley had the red-hot likes of Little Richard's Long Tall Sally, Elvis Presley's Hound Dog and Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill for chart company. The world looked entirely different, and Rock Around the Clock was largely responsible.
Sixty years to the week after Rock Around the Clock was recorded, Bill Haley isn't often thought of as a firestarter. Elvis, Gene Vincent and Little Richard have their place in the rock pantheon Rock Around the Clock, though, has the whiff of Happy Days about it. Maybe Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers are to blame, having sent the song back to No 1 in 1989 as part of a medley, like a latter-day Winifred Atwell, squidging it into the Hawaii Five-O theme and Chubby Checker's Let's Twist Again. But in 1955, no one was talking about the rock pantheon. Bill Haley & His Comets had no rivals. They were the first rock'n'roll band, and Rock Around the Clock was the first international rock'n'roll No 1. Whatever the claims of Rocket 88 or Good Rockin' Tonight or Arthur Crudup's That's All Right Mama to be the first rock'n'roll record, Rock Around the Clock was more important because it was the first rock'n'roll record heard by millions of people worldwide. Yet Haley died alone, in the shed at the end of his garden where he lived, in 1981. He was well aware that people thought of him as avuncular and a little embarrassing, the man in the plaid jacket with the kiss curl and the pudgy face. He couldn't understand why he was so overlooked.
That Bill Haley isn't thought of as rock's prime mover is sad and a little ridiculous. Whichever way you slice it, even forgetting Rock Around the Clock, he was at the front of the queue. No one had blended country and R&B on a single before the Comets' Rock the Joint in 1952. No one had scored an American Top 20 hit with anything that could really qualify as rock'n'roll before their single Crazy Man Crazy in 1953. And Rock Around the Clock's international success in 1955 caused rioting in schools and cinemas, and even became the first teen anthem – the film Blackboard Jungle used it as a theme tune and was promptly banned by the American government. It opened the door for modern pop.
Raised in Michigan, Bill Haley had been playing guitar for a long time before he had a band, at auctions and medicine shows, on local radio as the Ramblin' Yodeler. Eventually he got himself a slot as a DJ in Pennsylvania, where he played the hillbilly he loved and the boogie woogie and R&B that kids in the north seemed to go for. Putting a band together called the Saddlemen, he played high schools and picked up slang like "crazy, man, crazy!" and "hot dog!" This was in the late 1940s. As they incorporated boogie and teen slang into their own sets, the Saddlemen became the Comets – the name was space-age and futuristic.
What made Rock Around the Clock such a huge success? The lyrics, written by 60-year old Max Freedman, are pretty tame ("Put your glad rags on, join me hon, we'll have some fun when the clock strikes one") and repetitive. But then there's the whipcrack snare intro, an announcement – get ready! There are the massed saxophones, the drums high in the mix, and the repetition of the lyrics becomes hypnotic, relentless. Finally there's the guitar solo, like manic morse code, so exciting and impossibly fast. It was played by a trusted session man called Danny Cedrone, who wouldn't live to see its impact – he died after falling down a flight of stairs in the summer of 1954.
Britain held a special place in its heart for Bill Haley. It comes as something of a shock to discover that Shake, Rattle and Roll was a hit for him here before Rock Around the Clock. It reached No 4 a full year before Rock Around the Clock reached No 1, and 18 months before Elvis had his first hit with Heartbreak Hotel. Eighteen months, then as now, is a long time in pop, long enough to make and lose a career.
That fact wasn't lost on Bill Haley. In his later years he grew increasingly bitter that his place in history had begun to slip, and he was no longer regarded as the foremost inventor of rock'n'roll. This was no paranoia on his part – it was made official when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, five years after his death, and its 16 initial inductees included Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly – but not Bill Haley.
Why wasn't Haley recognised? His dozen or so hits came in a short space of time, and the only ones still likely to get airplay are Rock Around the Clock, Shake Rattle and Roll and See You Later Alligator. But that was the nature of first wave rock'n'roll, here and gone in a mid-50s flash: Jerry Lee Lewis, in spite of his profile, had just two major hits. Elvis was the exception.
In his last years, Haley would hang out in cafes and bars in the Texas backwater of Harlingen, hoping to be recognised. Sometimes he was. His kiss curl and ready smile may have scuppered his rock credibility, but 60 years ago he caused a social revolution. Bill Haley had the ability to translate hillbilly, boogie woogie and jive speak into something solid that shaped western civilisation in the second half of the 20th century. Rock Around the Clock remains the ur-rock'n'roll record.
Mexico and the late 1960s [ edit source | edit beta ] [ edit | edit source ]
In 1961–1962, Bill Haley y sus Cometas (as the band was known in Latin America) signed with the Orfeón label of Mexico and scored an unexpected hit with "Twist Español", a Spanish language recording based on the Twist dance craze that was sweeping America at the time. Haley followed up with what was, for a time, the biggest selling single inMexican history with "Florida Twist". Although Chubby Checker and Hank Ballard were credited with starting the Twist craze in America, in Mexico and Latin America, Bill Haley and His Comets were proclaimed the Kings of the Twist. Thanks to the success of "Twist Español" and "Florida Twist", among others, the band had continued success in Mexico and Latin America over the next few years, selling many recordings of Spanish and Spanish-flavored material and simulated live performances (overdubbed audience over studio recordings) on the Orfeon label and its subsidiary, Dimsa. They hosted a television series entitled Orfeon a Go-Go and made cameo appearances in several movies, lipsynching to some of their old hits. Haley, who was fluent in Spanish, recorded a number of songs in the language, but the vast majority of the band's output during these years were instrumental recordings, many utilizing local session musicians playing trumpet. There was also some experimentation with Haley's style during this time one single for Orfeon was a folk ballad, "Jimmy Martinez", which Haley recorded without the Comets.
In 1966, the Comets (without Bill Haley) cut an album for Orfeon as session musicians for Big Joe Turner, who had always been an idol to Haley no joint performance of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was recorded, however. In a 1974 interview with BBC Radio, Haley said Turner's career was in a slump at this time, so he used his then-considerable influence with Orfeon to get Turner a recording session. The Comets' association with Orfeon/Dimsa ended later that year.
By 1967, as related by Haley in an interview with radio host Red Robinson that same year, the group was "a free agent" without any recording contracts at all, although the band continued to perform regularly in North America and Europe. During this year, Haley—without the Comets—recorded a pair of demos in Phoenix, Arizona: a country-western song called "Jealous Heart" for which he was backed by a local mariachi band (and similar in style to the earlier "Jimmy Martinez", and late-60s-style rocker called "Rock on Baby" backed by a group called Superfine Dandelion. Neither recording would be released for 30 years. In 1968, Haley and the Comets recorded a single for the United Artists label, a version of Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis" but no long-term association with the label resulted. In order to revive his recording career, Haley turned to Europe.
Las Vegan helped Bill Haley & His Comets make rock history
By playing on one of the most significant rock ’n’ roll songs ever, saxophonist Joey D’Ambrosio helped popularize a new sound for a new generation.
The thing has serious weight, both in heft and history.
Joey D’Ambrosio eyes the statue on the mantel of his Henderson home, a dark, featureless figure with arms outstretched, holding a gold record above its head.
In the most basic sense, it must come in at a good 6 pounds.
But what it symbolizes is much heavier: D’Ambrosio’s role in the popularization of rock ’n’ roll.
The saxophonist received the token of his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Bill Haley & His Comets in 2012.
He played on all of the bands hits, “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “See You Later Alligator,” “Rocket 88,” to name but a few.
But one song in particular changed everything: “Rock Around the Clock.”
It wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll record.
It wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll hit, even.
But it was the song that took the music to the mainstream in unprecedented fashion, topping the charts for eight weeks, becoming a worldwide smash, giving a new generation an equally new musical voice.
“People were looking for something new,” D’Ambrosio explains. “They wanted their own music. When they heard ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ there was something about that record that turned them on.”
It all began for D’Ambrosio when he was 19.
That’s when he joined Bill Haley & His Comets in his native Philadelphia.
“I heard he was going to hire a saxophone player,” D’Ambrosio recalls from his living room, frequently flashing a smile as bright as the gleaming gold records mounted on the wall. “He never used saxophone before on his records. I called him up, I made the audition, and they hired me.
“I was a Dizzy Gillespie guy,” he continues. “So when I listened to music, I heard it in a different way. When I went to rehearsal with the band, he was working on the first song he was going to record with Decca, ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ We worked up an arrangement, and that’s where I came in, thinking musically differently than Bill Haley was. He was a country guy. I said, ‘It’ll go better this way than you have it.’ ”
The next day, they’d hit the studio and make history.
D’Ambrosio would leave the Comets in 1955, start his own band, The Jodimars, and relocate to Las Vegas in 1964. He played with his brother-in-law in The Satellites, performing in showrooms across town, from the Sands to the Stardust and more.
He’d eventually leave the music business to focus on his family life, working at Caesars Palace for 27 years, first as a dealer before graduating to pit boss. In the late s, D’Ambrosio started touring with The Comets again, gigging around the world, from South Africa to Spain.
Now, at 85, he’s the last living member of the classic Comets lineup. He still practices almost every day.
“Right now, I’m looking for a gig,” D’Ambrosio says. “I like to play, you know?”
On a recent weekday afternoon, D’Ambrosio took some time to tell the story behind one of the most significant rock ’n’ roll songs ever.
Review-Journal: Legend has it that the band almost missed the recording session for “Rock Around the Clock” because the ferry from Philadelphia to New York City hit a sandbar.
Joey D’Ambrosio: That’s right. On the Delaware River. We were late for the session, couple hours. But we made it. When we got there, “OK, here’s the song we’re going to do, ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ ” We had never heard it before. They didn’t even have a demonstration record of it.
We had a two-hour session, that’s all it was. By the time they heard the band and got the sound, the engineers balanced everything up, we only had about an hour to do the session. So we did it one time. We said, “No, not too good. Let’s do it again.” We did it twice. The second time we got it down perfect. We played it like we rehearsed it. It came over the system and they said, “This is great.”
Initially you didn’t love the song, right? You thought “Thirteen Women,” the other song you recorded that day, was going to be the hit.
That’s what we thought. That’s what they told us. That was going to be the A-side. So we did that first and they said, “OK, do that ‘Rock’ thing.”
So you only did two takes of a song that ended up altering rock ’n’ roll history, really?
It really did. The thing was, it wasn’t a hit at first.
You recorded it in , but it wasn’t until that it became a hit.
What happened was, we recorded it and we thought, “Nothing is happening.” Then they asked us to do the music for a movie called “Blackboard Jungle.” It so happens that the son of the producer of the movie was up in his bedroom, playing his recordings. And he happened to have “Rock Around the Clock.” His father heard him playing it, and he said, “What’s that song? That’s the song I want to use for this movie. It will go perfect for that.” So he put that on there. We didn’t know anything about it. We weren’t even told they were going to do it.
A year later, the movie came out with that song. It opened up the movie. Well, the movie became a hit. At that time, the kids, teenagers, they didn’t have their own music yet. They were still listening to Harry James and the big bands. But when this movie came out, they started to get up in the aisles in the movie theater and dance.
When did you realize the song was a hit?
It just snuck up on us. We’re listening to these disc jockeys, and they’re all starting to play “Rock Around the Clock.” They’re getting more requests. It really caught on. It became No. 1 in the world, not just here in the United States. They all picked up on this record. It was swinging music — just swinging. And that’s what they needed. It became a big, big hit.
I only made $43 for that record. That’s all he ever paid me — me and the guys who arranged it. The other Comets were Bill Haley’s partners, see. They got the money. The royalties started coming in pretty good, you know? You can imagine it was a lot of money coming in. But we didn’t get any of the royalty money. Nothing. All we got was $43.
You didn’t get the money, but you helped popularize rock ’n’ roll for generations to come. When did you realize the impact of that song?
I really started to realize it when you went to amusement parks and you heard it playing it on the loudspeaker. And the slot machines started using it. There were slot machines called “Rock Around the Clock.” The football games started using it. They used to open every football game on Sunday afternoon with “Rock Around the Clock.” That’s when we started to really realize what we had.
And then years later you get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Oh, yeah. I never expected it. It was exciting being inducted. It’s been 60 years now since we recorded that. … I’m the only one alive now (of the original band). I’m the last of the Mohicans.
Getting to know: Joey D’ Ambrosio
Favorite indulgence: I like to ski.
Pets: A Jack Russell terrier, Lulu. She is a smarty.
Favorite sport: I love football, the Eagles.
Favorite movie: “Forrest Gump.”
Place you always take visitors: We generally go up to the mountains.
Food you could eat every day: I’m Italian, so spaghetti and meatballs.
In 1955 ”Rock Around the Clock” went to the top of the charts and turned Bill Haley into the king of rock and roll. Twenty-five years later, he was holed up in a pool house in Harlingen, drunk, lonely, paranoid, and dying. After three decades of silence, his widow and his children tell the story of his years in Texas and his sad final days.
Haley performing in Sweden in 1968.
I n the last desperate months of his life, he would come into the restaurant at all hours of the day and take a seat, sometimes at the counter and other times in one of the back booths. He was always alone. He wore a scruffy ball cap, and behind his large, square glasses there was something odd about his eyes. They didn&rsquot always move together. Barbara Billnitzer, one of the waitresses, would bring him a menu and ask how he was doing. &ldquoJust fine,&rdquo he&rsquod say, and they would chat about the traffic and the weather, which was always warm in South Texas, even in January. He&rsquod order coffee&mdashblack&mdashand sometimes a sandwich, maybe turkey with mayo. Then he&rsquod light up a Pall Mall and look out the window or stare off into space. Soon he was lost in thought, looking like any other 55-year-old man passing the time in a Sambo&rsquos on Tyler Street in downtown Harlingen. He had moved there with his family five years before, in 1976. It was a perfect place for a guy who wanted to get away from it all. And he had a lot to get away from. Twenty-five years before, just about everyone in the Western world had known his face. In fact, for a period of time in the mid-fifties, he had been the most popular entertainer on the planet. He had sold tens of millions of rec­ords. He had caused riots. He had headlined shows with a young opening act named Elvis Presley and had inspired John Lennon to pick up the guitar. He had changed the world.
After ten minutes or so Billnitzer would bring him his food. But usually he was thinking about something, so he ignored it. After a while, though, he&rsquod start to shift in his seat and look around. And then he&rsquod start to hum. Billnitzer, refilling his coffee cup, knew the tune&mdasheverybody knew that tune. It was &ldquo(We&rsquore Gonna) Rock Around the Clock,&rdquo the best-selling rock song of all time. She smiled, because she knew what he was doing. He was giving people around him clues. He wanted people to hear him and say, &ldquoYou&rsquore Bill Haley, aren&rsquot you?&rdquo
But they rarely did. His ball cap covered his famous spit curl, and his glasses covered much of his face. So eventually he would turn to the person next to him or even rise and walk over to a nearby table. The patrons would look up at the tall stranger looming over them. &ldquoYou know who I am?&rdquo he&rsquod ask. &ldquoI&rsquom Bill Haley.&rdquo Then he&rsquod take off the cap and they&rsquod see the curl, and he&rsquod pull out his driver&rsquos license and they&rsquod see his name. Sure enough, there it was: William John Clifton Haley.
He wouldn&rsquot say much beyond that. Some of the customers tried to get to know him, asking simple coffee shop questions such as &ldquoHow are you doing?&rdquo But Haley didn&rsquot seem to be listening. He&rsquod respond in a rambling fashion. Maybe he&rsquod talk about a show he&rsquod done in London back in the sixties or about Rudy Pompilli, his longtime sax player and best friend, who&rsquod died in 1976. He missed Rudy.
Haley appreciated the company in Sambo&rsquos&mdashone time he left a $100 tip for a quiet waitress who could barely speak English. But usually he slipped out without saying a word of goodbye. And though he was mostly a genial customer, he could be volatile. &ldquoOnce,&rdquo remembers Billnitzer, &ldquoour busboy Woody said something to him like, &lsquoHey, Mr. Haley, how are you?&rsquo and Bill got real upset, threw down his money, and stomped out.&rdquo
Haley would get in his Lincoln Continental and drive off. Sometimes he went to the Hop Shop, a bar on South Seventh Street, or Richard&rsquos, a restaurant and bar on south Highway 77, to drink. He liked Scotch&mdashJohnnie Walker Red was his brand. Sometimes he&rsquod drink too much and get back in his car. Occasionally the police, who knew him well, would stop him and take him to jail. If he made it home, he&rsquod stumble to the little pool house out back while his wife and three children slept in the main house. He&rsquod pick up the phone and start calling people he knew from long ago: ex-wives, sons, producers, promoters, band members. He&rsquod tell stories. He&rsquod cry. He&rsquod ramble. Then he&rsquod hang up and call someone else. He felt so isolated out in that room, millions of miles from his past.
He had once been the King of Rock and Roll. He&rsquod written more than a hundred songs and recorded more than five hundred. He&rsquod had nine Top 20 singles, including the biggest one of all. He&rsquod made millions and he&rsquod spent millions. He had performed some 10,000 times, in front of more people than anyone in his era. In England the crowds had yelled, &ldquoWe want Haley!&rdquo and in France, &ldquoVive Haley!&rdquo
Not anymore. Nobody was screaming for him now. No one even seemed to remember him. All they talked about was Elvis being the guy who started it all, Elvis being the King. Well, Bill Haley was making rock and roll records when Elvis was still in high school. For that matter, he was playing rock and roll when Chuck Berry was working in a beauty parlor, Jerry Lee Lewis was studying at the Southwestern Bible Institute, and Little Richard was washing dishes in a bus station. He was the father of rock and roll. Why didn&rsquot anybody seem to remember?
He picked up the phone again.
There are many reasons why Bill Haley hasn&rsquot gotten the credit he deserves. The main one, at least the one that comes to mind when you first think of the man, is that damn curl, which you can see in every picture ever taken of him. It looked like a gimmick, a symbol of the cheerful good-time music Haley made, songs such as &ldquoRock Around the Clock,&rdquo &ldquoSee You Later, Alligator,&rdquo and &ldquoCrazy Man Crazy.&rdquo This wasn&rsquot the sex-crazed, dangerous music made by those other guys. Elvis was all about sex. Bill was the pudgy guy with the curl. Wearing the plaid dinner jacket.
Yes, Haley was a bit of a square. And I&rsquove been a fan of his ever since I saw American Graffiti, in 1973, when I was fifteen. &ldquoRock Around the Clock,&rdquo the first song in the movie&rsquos first scene, jumped out of the theater speakers: an exuberant 128 seconds of driving guitar and sax riffs, an amazing guitar solo, and Haley&rsquos breathless vocal. It made me feel good it made me want to move. And if it did that to me, imagine what it did to teens in 1955. Kids&mdashto say nothing of grown-ups&mdashhad never heard anything like it before. There&rsquos a before &ldquoRock Around the Clock&rdquo and an after &ldquoRock Around the Clock.&rdquo The before is Glenn Miller, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby. The after is Elvis, the Beatles, and Lady Gaga.
Like so many people, I wondered, How did Haley go from The Ed Sullivan Show to Sambo&rsquos, from the top of the world to the bottom of Texas, where he would suffer a lonely death in February 1981? No one seems to know much about his last twenty years. Five books have been written about Haley, and the best one, by his son Jack, treats that period in a fourteen-page epilogue. And those last desperate months&mdashwhat happened?
The person who knows is his widow, Martha. But after his death, she closed the curtain. For thirty years, she refused to be interviewed about her husband or to allow his image or name to be used in videos, TV shows, or even public memorials. She had her reasons, but her silence had an unintended effect: Haley&rsquos life and music were soon relegated to a footnote. He became a one-hit wonder. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its first class in 1986, Presley, Berry, Lewis, and Little Richard made the cut. But not Haley. He had to wait until the following year.
I tried to get Martha to talk about Haley&rsquos lost years back in 2005, on the fiftieth anniversary of the explosion of &ldquoRock Around the Clock,&rdquo but got nowhere. Her son, Pedro, who lives outside Dallas, told me how devastated she was about her husband&rsquos death&mdashstill. She would not talk about him.
Six years passed, and I tried again as we approached the thirtieth anniversary of Haley&rsquos death. Again I called Pedro. He huddled with his sister Martha Maria, and they sat down and talked to their mom. &ldquoWe want Daddy to be remembered and given proper credit,&rdquo they told her, &ldquoand your behavior has been damaging to his legacy.&rdquo Martha knew that that was true, she told them, but she wanted people to remember him the way they already did&mdashsmiling, happy, the way he&rsquod been when she first met him. She didn&rsquot want anyone to know that he had had demons. &ldquoMom, look at Elvis,&rdquo Pedro told her. &ldquoHe had problems with drugs and he died terribly. But he&rsquos still considered the King.&rdquo
This time, Martha said yes.
Saxophone player Rudy Pompilli and Haley in the late sixties.
Bill Haley was a shy boy who dreamed of cowboys, especially singing ones. He was born in Michigan on July 6, 1925, to a Kentucky father who played mandolin and banjo and an English mother who played classical piano and sang. When he was four, doctors botched an operation on his ear and accidentally severed the optic nerve of his left eye. For the rest of his life, that eye would look off in a slightly different direction from his nearsighted right one. Other kids made fun of him, and he became something of a loner. He found comfort in music, and after the family moved to Booth&rsquos Corner, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, he played guitar all the time, especially Gene Autry songs. He was a big, good-looking kid, six feet one and 175 pounds, and at eighteen he formed his first band, the Texas Range Riders. His real talent wasn&rsquot his voice, which was high and thin, but his ear: He could hear a song on the radio and remember the words and the melody. He taught himself to yodel and performed as the Rambling Yodeler. Even in those early days he learned to comb the hair from his cowlick into a big curl over the right side of his forehead. It was distinctive. And it drew attention away from his crippled eye.
Haley began touring with a new band. They went all over the northeast and the Midwest and even down into Texas. After he returned to Pennsylvania, he got an on-air job at a radio station (where he sometimes played &ldquorace music&rdquo&mdasha rarity for a white DJ in 1947) and married Dorothy Crowe, who gave birth to a daughter, Sharyn Ann, and later a son, Jack. The Haleys moved to Chester, along the Delaware River, where Haley took a job running the radio station WPWA. He had a western swing show, but he also launched an R&B show, whose theme song was &ldquo(We&rsquore Gonna) Rock This Joint,&rdquo a wild tune by Chester native Jimmy Preston. When Haley started a &ldquocowboy jive&rdquo band, the Saddlemen, who sounded a bit like Bob Wills, they played &ldquoRock This Joint,&rdquo which the hillbillies loved to dance to. Haley was ambitious, but he spread the fame around&mdasheveryone got his turn in front of the mike, because of both Haley&rsquos generosity and his shyness. After shows, his band members had to drag him out of the dressing room to talk to fans.
In 1951 the band recorded a version of a driving R&B song called &ldquoRocket 88.&rdquo Haley abandoned his usual careful vocal style his stand-up bass player created an R&B feel with a loud slapback sound and the electric guitar dueled with the pedal steel. Was it white music or black, western swing or R&B? You couldn&rsquot really tell. Some historians think the original version of the song, performed by Ike Turner&rsquos group, is the very first rock and roll record, while others think Haley&rsquos is. &ldquoA lot of people have said in interviews, &lsquoYou did this deliberately, you were brilliant,&rsquo&rdquo Haley later said. &ldquoBut I didn&rsquot do it deliberately. I did it out of stupidity. I just didn&rsquot realize what I was doing.&rdquo
The next year, he divorced Dorothy and married his pregnant girlfriend, Cuppy. Amid all that domestic turmoil, he recorded &ldquoRock This Joint.&rdquo It was another canny mix of white &rsquobilly and black blues, and Haley had his first hit. Soon the band members traded in their cowboy hats for dinner jackets and ties and got a new name too: Bill Haley and His Comets.
The hits got bigger. &ldquoCrazy Man Crazy&rdquo made it to the Top 20 of the pop charts, the first rock and roll song to do so. Haley got his first Cadillac and a boat&mdashhe loved to go fishing on the nearby Jersey shore. He recorded &ldquoShake, Rattle and Roll,&rdquo a song by his idol Big Joe Turner, and cleaned up the suggestive lyrics. It sold a million copies. By the summer of 1954 Haley was the boss of this new music called rock and roll. He went on a tour of the Midwest, and a young Elvis opened. Elvis told Haley what a fan he was Haley advised the kid to stay away from too many ballads.
That&rsquos one thing the Comets didn&rsquot have to worry about. They were lively onstage they jumped around, just like the R&B bands did. They were loud and tight. The Max C. Freedman and James E. Meyers song &ldquoRock Around the Clock,&rdquo which the band began playing in 1953, was a trite pop tune (&ldquoPut your glad rags on, join me, hon!&rdquo), but the Comets played a raucous live version and, after working up a punchy arrangement, recorded it in a rushed New York City session. When it was used over the opening credits of the teen rebel movie The Blackboard Jungle, the whole world changed. Kids literally danced in the aisles. They tore up seats. They had an anthem. By Haley&rsquos thirtieth birthday it was the number one song in the country, and it stayed there for eight weeks. Haley bought everybody in the band Cadillacs. Before, rock and roll had been a catchphrase now it was an industry.
In 1957 Haley went to England and caused the kinds of riots the Beatles would start in America seven years later. In Australia he played in front of 300,000 people in three weeks. Banners proclaimed, &ldquoThe King Is Here!&rdquo Onstage, Haley wore a constant smile, but offstage he reverted to being the insecure kid with one good eye he was increasingly uncomfortable with the adulation, withdrawing to his hotel room after shows and drinking cups of coffee and chain-smoking. His guitarist, Franny Beecher, later said that Haley was afraid of the fans: &ldquoHe couldn&rsquot handle his popularity.&rdquo Haley had always felt as if he was hiding something. Now his curl, his very disguise, had become his trademark.
Haley had opened the door for rock and roll, and younger, sexier, more audacious singers stepped in after him. By the time he returned home, there was a new king. Elvis had nine number one hits by the end of 1957, and Haley, after doing everything right for six years, started doing everything wrong. He stopped giving interviews to radio stations and the press. He decided to record only songs in which his publishing company had an interest, but those songs weren&rsquot very good. He did an album of rocked-up international folk melodies that he put words to, tunes like &ldquoRockin&rsquo Rollin&rsquo Schnitzelbank.&rdquo Not surprisingly, it didn&rsquot sell. Neither did a country album he recorded for Warner Bros.
His manager did a terrible job of handling the finances, and soon Haley was hounded by the IRS. He had to sell his office building and close his publishing business. To make money to pay his band, he began touring in other countries, which had the added benefit of his not having to worry about the tax man. He especially liked the new frontier of Mexico, where the band became so popular that they were featured in a movie, Besito a Papa. He liked the weather, the culture, the slow pace. Back in Chester, Haley&rsquos marriage to Cuppy, who by then had borne him four children (one of whom died as an infant), was fraying, and he was sleeping on Rudy Pompilli&rsquos couch. South of the border, he could relax. For a man intent on withdrawing from his fans and even his family, Mexico was a great place to hide.
He embarked on a two-week Mexican tour in early February 1961. On the ninth he flew to Monterrey, where he took a bus to Reynosa to perform with the Caravan Corona Extra, a vaudevillian troupe that went from town to town in Mexico in two double-decker buses. The promoter wanted Haley to perform with a female singer. He objected&mdashhe&rsquod never shared the stage with a woman. But the promoter insisted, and Haley gave in. She was a good singer, the man said, and very pretty.
Haley and Martha celebrate their wedding in Harlingen in 1980.
Sitting at a table in a sunny kitchen in McKinney, north of Dallas, Martha Haley explained what happened next. &ldquoWe were in Monterrey waiting on the bus for Mr. Haley to come. Well, where is he? It was hot, and we were waiting and waiting. Finally, three hours later, he shows up. He had on his fedora, dark glasses, a raincoat. I had rollers in my hair, no makeup, pedal pushers. I&rsquom having a ball, talking and laughing with everybody. He comes up the three steps of the bus, goes and sits down with Rudy. After he sat down, he got up and was getting something in his luggage. I looked at him, and it was love at first sight. I don&rsquot know what it was. He was nothing to write home to your mother about.&rdquo
Her children Pedro and Martha Maria, who were also sitting at the table, smiled. They had rarely heard their mother talk about their father this way. Martha continued. &ldquoHe was in a very bad mood. He was hungover, you know? The bus finally started, and later Rudy told me, &lsquoHe was mad at you, all your laughing and talking.&rsquo He asked Rudy, &lsquoHow do you say in Spanish, Shut up, broad?&rsquo&rdquo
Martha laughed hard&mdashand so did her kids. Pedro is 40 and has his father&rsquos eyes. Martha Maria, who is 48, shares her mother&rsquos elegant good looks.
Martha Velasco was a beautiful young chorus girl with a great sense of humor and a sharp look in her eye. She danced in the Caravan Corona Extra, and now she was going to sing with an American rock star. &ldquoI was not a rock and roll fan&mdashit didn&rsquot mean anything to me,&rdquo she told us. &ldquoBut I knew his songs. I used to have a routine to &lsquoABC Boogie.&rsquo&rdquo
Pedro&rsquos eyes widened. &ldquoWait&mdashyou used to do a routine to one of Daddy&rsquos songs?&rdquo
His mother smiled and nodded. &ldquoOh, yeah. I also danced to &lsquoRock Around the Clock.&rsquo&rdquo She looked at me. &ldquoThis is the first time I told them this.&rdquo
Martha was stylishly dressed, with diamonds on her left ring finger and half-dollar-size sun-shaped earrings. She speaks English with a gentle Mexican lilt and is chatty about all subjects but one. &ldquoI never talked about their father to them, because every time I tried, I&rsquod start to cry,&rdquo she explained. &ldquoWhen he died, half of myself went with him. It took years to accept the fact that he was gone. I saw that after he died nothing happened in terms of him getting respect. Nobody lifted a finger. But my kids finally convinced me. Nothing will happen if we don&rsquot start talking. To give him his rightful place in music. They told me, &lsquoYou can&rsquot hold on to this forever.&rsquo&rdquo
Pedro had brought over some old photos. In one, Martha, impossibly young and pretty and wearing a sparkling leotard, stands in front of a microphone. Behind her is Bill Haley y Sus Cometas, in suits. Pompilli&mdashHaley&rsquos closest friend as well as his business partner and right-hand man&mdashwas in charge of rehearsing the musicians. Before the Reynosa show he spent time with Martha going over the songs she would sing with the Comets. As they prepared to go on, Martha walked slowly past Haley in her shining leotard. &ldquoWho&rsquos that?&rdquo he asked Pompilli. They had dinner that night and fell in love. The tour was mind-boggling: They played in front of 80,000 in Veracruz and 100,000 in Julapa. Afterward, Haley went back home. But he kept calling Martha and looking for excuses to return. Finally in 1962 he moved to Mexico City, leaving behind his life in Pennsylvania, including his five children. &ldquoHere I am,&rdquo he said when he showed up at Martha&rsquos door, &ldquowith my guitar, my suitcase, and my ass.&rdquo
He and Martha got an apartment together, and she began accompanying him on the road. She would sing him Mexican songs, which delighted him. And being a show business veteran, it didn&rsquot bother her when women threw their panties at him. She knew what life on the road was like. &ldquoI knew he drank in a big way,&rdquo she said. &ldquoIt was either swim or die. I chose to swim.&rdquo
They married in 1963 by then Haley had signed with the Mexican label Orfeon. Inspired by Chubby Checker&rsquos success with &ldquoThe Twist,&rdquo he started doing his own versions and became the King of the Twist south of the border. He began singing in Spanish, coached by Martha, who sometimes stood next to him at the mike. He taped TV shows and made movies&mdashmostly he and the Comets in nightclub scenes. He rerecorded his hits&mdashin English and Spanish&mdashfor his Mexican label and various U.S. ones. Soon he was one of the biggest-selling recording artists in Mexican history. He was happy&mdashand happier still when Martha delivered their first child, Martha Maria.
Haley had his first comeback in 1964, when he toured Europe, playing to 30,000 in Berlin. In the UK he was called the Father of Rock and Roll, and &ldquoRock Around the Clock&rdquo reentered the UK Top 10. Even so, he still doubted himself. &ldquoI can&rsquot understand why I made it,&rdquo he&rsquod say. &ldquoI know guys who are ten times better than me.&rdquo His sets didn&rsquot vary much, with Haley singing four or five songs and the band singing the rest. As long as he did his money song, he could do anything else. Backstage, Haley would croon country classics like &ldquoYour Cheatin&rsquo Heart&rdquo and his guitar player Johnny Kay would encourage him to do them in the show, but Haley would shake his head. &ldquoI came from country,&rdquo he&rsquod say, &ldquobut people don&rsquot know me as a country singer. I&rsquom rock and roll.&rdquo
For the next few years, the Haleys moved around a lot&mdashto Del Rio, Houston, the Gulf Coast of Florida, then back to Houston, and finally to Juárez. &ldquoWhy did you move so much?&rdquo I asked.
&ldquoHe couldn&rsquot find the perfect place,&rdquo Martha replied.
Amid the chaos of moving and touring, Haley followed his heart and did something he had never done&mdashin 1967 he recorded a country song without his rock and roll band. The session was in Phoenix, and the song was the old country ballad &ldquoJealous Heart.&rdquo Martha had the idea to record it with a Mexican bolero trio backing him up, and the couple drove around town until they found one. The result is gorgeous, with rising and falling Spanish guitar riffs, pedal steel, and Haley&rsquos yearning voice straining at the high end of the melody. Most of Haley&rsquos songs were frenzied odes to teen cool or nonstop dancing. &ldquoJealous Heart&rdquo sounds downright personal, and it&rsquos one of his best.
And then it was back to work. After Haley&rsquos relentless touring, &ldquoRock Around the Clock&rdquo returned to the UK Top 20 once again. Rock and roll was old enough to have its first revival tour, and Haley headlined it. He signed with Sweden&rsquos Sonet Records and immediately cut a double live album and then a studio album filled with his old hits, including, of course, two more versions of &ldquoRock Around the Clock.&rdquo Sonet also put him in the studio with veteran producer Sam Charters. Haley had the chance to make another country album, but he was scared to jettison his rock and roll formula entirely. So he mixed together old rock songs like &ldquoBony Maronie&rdquo with sentimental country ballads like &ldquoA Little Piece at a Time&rdquo and contemporary rootsy tunes like &ldquoMe and Bobby McGee.&rdquo Rock Around the Country didn&rsquot sell much at all.
Haley was ecstatic when Martha gave birth to Pedro, in 1971, but deeply unhappy with his career. After the revival tour he was back to playing one-nighters in crappy motels, and with the exception of Pompilli, he was frustrated with his band, who were hired guns. His drinking got worse. He told Martha he needed a change and in 1974 persuaded her to move to Veracruz. &ldquoHe kept talking about fishing&mdashhe wanted to be near the ocean. He kept saying, &lsquoCome on, baby, let&rsquos go to Veracruz.&rsquo I didn&rsquot want to&mdashit was hot, humid, and ugly. Finally I said okay. He found a half-built hotel and bought it and started working on it. He wanted to go into the hotel business.&rdquo He bought a boat, a 21-footer, which he named Martita, and found three local men who taught him how to fish by hand. The four of them would head out into the Gulf at five in the morning and return at seven at night.
Haley made two more albums with Charters, but his heart wasn&rsquot in the music business anymore. He was miserable. He drank constantly. Charters remembers when country star Donna Fargo visited the studio to watch him sing. &ldquoShe idolized Bill,&rdquo said Charters, &ldquobut he was so drunk I had to help him reach out and touch the microphone so he&rsquod know which direction to sing in. I was watching Donna and I could see the light go out of her eyes.&rdquo When they finished recording, Haley went on a rampage back at the motel, roaming the halls, raving and shouting. The motel manager told Charters, &ldquoIf this weren&rsquot Bill Haley, we&rsquod have the police in and have him arrested.&rdquo Haley was increasingly bitter that all the credit for rock and roll had gone to Elvis. &ldquoHe talked and talked about how Elvis got so famous,&rdquo says Charters. &ldquoHe couldn&rsquot get over it.&rdquo
&ldquoRock Around the Clock&rdquo put Haley back on the charts again when it was used in both American Graffiti and the TV show Happy Days. But Haley&rsquos mojo was gone. The last straw came when Pompilli died of cancer, in February 1976. Haley was fed up: the road, the one-nighters, the same set every night. He didn&rsquot want to play music anymore.
Martha, on the other hand, was fed up with Veracruz. She had just had their third child, Georgina, and she put her foot down. It was time to go back to the U.S. Yes, they could live near the ocean, but it had to be north of the border. Haley agreed. They settled on a house in Harlingen, a giant two-story structure on a huge lot at the back end of a quiet neighborhood. It had a nice backyard and a pool with a diving board.
Not long after arriving, Haley visited the police station and introduced himself to everyone, from police officers to secretaries. He befriended detective Buddy Larimore. He stopped in to visit attorney Lee Wiley, just in case he might ever need his services. Wiley was amazed at how quiet Haley was. &ldquoI couldn&rsquot place him with a guitar, onstage singing &lsquoRock Around the Clock,&rsquo&rdquo he said. &ldquoYou almost wonder how he was that person.&rdquo
Sometimes Haley would just get in his car and drive. He loved to motor along the border, blasting Hank Williams or early Willie Nelson from the tape deck of his Continental. He felt at home in Texas, under the wide-open skies romanticized in those cowboy songs he&rsquod sung when he was a Yankee teenager. But now that Haley was retired, he needed something to do. One day he was cruising down Highway 83 just west of Donna when he saw that the Val Verde Trailer Park was for sale. Val Verde wasn&rsquot just any trailer park. In the Depression it had been a luxury country club, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a three-story tower, and a dozen cottages. Movie stars like Bette Davis and, reportedly, gangsters like Al Capone had hidden out there. Now the pool had no water, but the cottages and RV spaces would fill every October with winter Texans. Haley was excited about his new venture. He oversaw chores like collecting rent, cleaning toilets, and mowing the grass.
The Haleys were homebodies and invited few people over, usually friends of their kids, who would swim in the backyard pool. Haley refused interview requests with local reporters, and Martha insisted that the kids keep quiet about their dad&rsquos identity.
&ldquoWe had a routine,&rdquo says Martha Maria. &ldquoHe&rsquod take us to school then drive to Port Isabel and spend the day there.&rdquo
&ldquoDoing what, I don&rsquot know,&rdquo said Martha.
&ldquoThen he&rsquod come pick us up. Dinner was at five. He loved Walter Cronkite, who was on at five-thirty, so dinner had to be done by then.&rdquo Monday was hamburger night and Wednesday Italian. Haley loved for Martha to make him soup and sandwiches, especially liverwurst, tomato, and mayo. And chocolate cake with milk.
He was an old-school guy and didn&rsquot talk much about his feelings, but he doted on his kids, donning his ball cap and going to their school plays and ball games. He&rsquod even go to Pedro&rsquos baseball and football practices, park the car by the field, light a Pall Mall, and watch. He took his son to the yearly Commemorative Air Force show at the airport. He made special trips to Houston to buy his kids Christmas toys. When Martha Maria was a senior, he bought her a burgundy Trans Am. In the summer he&rsquod pile the family into his Continental and they&rsquod head west for a long vacation.
He loved his Continentals, and since there wasn&rsquot a dealer in Harlingen, he would make special trips to a Houston dealership, where he befriended Russell Doty, from whom he bought three. Sometimes Haley would get there early and wait for Doty to come to the office, then spend half the day with him. &ldquoHe&rsquod talk and talk,&rdquo says Doty. &ldquoHe was a good story-teller and a nice guy. He never talked about himself. He&rsquod talk about famous people he&rsquod known. After Elvis died, in 1977, Bill told me, &lsquoIf I could&rsquove gotten in to see Elvis, I could&rsquove helped straighten him out.&rsquo You had to sympathize with the poor guy&mdashhe just seemed a little bit lost.&rdquo
Haley had turned his back on stardom, but now he was lonely. He&rsquod visit Wiley and talk, mostly about Mexico. &ldquoHe talked about what it was like fishing in the morning, how the sun looked coming up over the ocean,&rdquo says Wiley. Haley would stop for coffee at Dunkin&rsquo Donuts or the Koffee Klatch and go to Richard&rsquos for some Scotch and companionship. Then he&rsquod get in his Continental and drive home drunk. He&rsquod been thoughtful enough to introduce himself to the police, and now they got to know him even better. Haley was arrested four times between 1976 and 1981 for DWI and drunkenness. On the evenings that he avoided the law, he&rsquod sit in his house and talk to old friends on the phone for hours. He had left them so long ago, and it was good to hear their voices.
At some point in 1978 he began to think about another comeback, maybe because Elvis had recently died and everyone was saying he was the guy who had started rock and roll. Maybe Haley just missed the cheers. In 1979 he sold the trailer park and drove to the legendary Muscle Shoals studio, in Alabama, to make Everyone Can Rock and Roll, another album with a mix of classic rock and country. Martha kept him sober and focused the whole time &ldquoI couldn&rsquot get through any day without Martha,&rdquo Haley told Rod Buckle, who ran Sonet&rsquos London office. Haley&rsquos manager set up a couple of European tours, and about a week before each one, Bill retreated to the pool house with his guitar to practice.
In March he arrived in London carrying a briefcase and wearing a tan raincoat, a white shirt, and a tie. He looked as if he was there to talk to the British about actuarial tables. In November he played one of the biggest shows of his life, the Royal Variety Performance, in front of the queen. Haley wore a gold tux, and his curl was longer and thicker than ever. He looked thicker too. But &ldquoRock Around the Clock&rdquo sounded like it used to, and afterward, Haley shook hands with the queen, who smiled and made small talk with him. It was one of the highlights of his life.
Haley returned to Harlingen and began working on his autobiography. He was also working on a screenplay for a movie to be called The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll.
Of course, no one invented rock and roll: not Elvis, not Chuck Berry, not Jerry Lee Lewis, not Little Richard, and not Bill Haley. They were all pioneers, all fathers of rock and roll. Haley at least had the modesty to admit that his paternity was an accident, and he had the pride to know that if anyone was prepared to stumble onto something so historic, it was him&mdasha boy who&rsquod heard his dad sing Kentucky mountain music, a teen who&rsquod sung cowboy ballads, a young man who&rsquod played western swing, a DJ who&rsquod spun R&B records. He didn&rsquot know what he was doing back in 1951&mdashnone of those guys did. They were just musicians playing songs they liked.
If only Haley had kept doing that, playing the songs he genuinely liked&mdashthe country songs he&rsquod adored since he was a boy&mdashand then recording them the way he heard them in his head, not the way he thought his aging audience wanted them. If only he hadn&rsquot been trapped by that one song that had made him immortal&mdash128 seconds that made people so happy. Maybe he would have been a happier man at the turn of the decade. But Haley was not. As Martha, Pedro, Martha Maria, and I looked through several scrapbooks of old photos, we came upon pictures taken of Bill and Martha at their wedding anniversary, on January 14, 1980. Martha&rsquos face is calm and happy Bill&rsquos smile looks pained and his whole body seems stiff. &ldquoThat&rsquos the photo of a broken spirit,&rdquo said Pedro, &ldquosomeone who&rsquos given up.&rdquo
But something else was happening too. In May Haley went to South Africa for three weeks of shows that proved to be his last. Martha went with him, so he wasn&rsquot drinking much. But she says he started acting strangely onstage. &ldquoOne night,&rdquo she remembers, &ldquohe spent most of the set just talking to the audience, rambling on about things. They were all looking around, embarrassed, like, &lsquoWhat&rsquos going on?&rsquo&rdquo
They got back to Harlingen, and Haley got worse. &ldquoIt was like sometimes he was drunk even when he wasn&rsquot drinking,&rdquo says Martha Maria. &ldquoBut he wasn&rsquot drinking, at least not like before.&rdquo He&rsquod take off in his Continental and not come home until late. Martha started hiding his car keys&mdashand he&rsquod go out walking. Sometimes the police found him wandering on a road, confused about where he was. Martha asked him to go to the doctor, but he refused. She was worried about the children&mdashPedro was nine and Georgina four, and they were scared of their father&rsquos irrational behavior. &ldquoHe was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,&rdquo said Martha Maria, who was seventeen at the time. &ldquoWhen he was sober he could be sweet, but when he was drunk he was awful.&rdquo
Bill and Martha fought all the time, and finally she gave him an ultimatum: Stop drinking or move out. &ldquoHe decided to move out,&rdquo she says, her voice slow, &ldquoto our room by the pool. He took a radio and a TV. But I kept taking care of him. He&rsquod come in and eat, though he ate very little.&rdquo
&ldquoThere were days we never saw him,&rdquo said Martha Maria.
Haley would sit in his room and make calls. He had recently reconnected with his first son, Jack, who lived in New Jersey and whom he hadn&rsquot seen since 1973. Haley apologized for not being a good father, for putting his career ahead of his family. Jack was grateful to be talking with his father again, but he was concerned: His dad acted strange on the phone, screaming at him and at mysterious phantoms down in Harlingen. &ldquoHe&rsquod act like someone was knocking at the door he&rsquod say, &lsquoWait a minute,&rsquo and I&rsquod hear him yelling at someone,&rdquo Jack said. &ldquoBut I wouldn&rsquot hear anyone yelling back. Then he&rsquod get back on the phone and start screaming at me again.&rdquo
That fall, the police picked Haley up and put him in a cell, and Martha had to go to a justice of the peace to get him out. &ldquoI asked the judge to put him in a hospital, and he agreed,&rdquo Martha said. &ldquoBill was seen by a psychiatrist here in Harlingen. He said Bill&rsquos brain was overproducing a chemical, like adrenaline. He prescribed something to stop the overproduction, but he said Bill had to stay away from alcohol. I said, &lsquoThis is pointless.&rsquo&rdquo She took him home, gave him his first dose, and fed him. &ldquoAs soon as he felt better,&rdquo Martha said, &ldquohe went back to the room.&rdquo Martha chose her words carefully. She was shaking. Pedro sat in silence, stunned he&rsquod never heard any of this before.
Since mental health records are confidential, there&rsquos no way to know for sure what the doctor said. I spoke with James Maynard, an Austin psychiatrist who deals with alcoholism, and gave him a précis of Haley&rsquos symptoms to see what he thought the Harlingen doctor might have said. &ldquoBill Haley may have had an underlying anxiety disorder,&rdquo Maynard theorized, &ldquoa form of social anxiety, and was self-medicating with alcohol to relieve it. That psychiatrist probably said Haley had too much serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine in his brain from the anxiety disorder and prescribed Valium.&rdquo The paranoia and hallucinations, he said, may have been withdrawal symptoms or &ldquoalcoholic hallucinosis,&rdquo which can come on within a day or two of a serious alcoholic&rsquos last drink.
Haley was supposed to do an October tour of Europe, but ticket sales were slow and he didn&rsquot want to go anyway. An October issue of a German magazine quoted his manager saying that Haley had an inoperable brain tumor, a story that was reprinted in newspapers and later in all of his biographies. Martha insists he never had a tumor. An old friend of his, Hugh McCallum, who was in constant contact with the Haleys, never heard either say anything about a tumor. &ldquoIt&rsquos my unproven gut feeling that that was said to curtail talks about the tour and play the sympathy card,&rdquo McCallum said. &ldquoThough Bill might have said that because he may have thought he had one.&rdquo
In October Martha, fed up, took Pedro and Georgina to stay at her sister&rsquos house, south of Houston (Martha Maria stayed with a friend in Harlingen). Martha didn&rsquot tell her husband where they were going. Haley called his son Jack and begged him to visit. Jack got on the first plane to Harlingen. He and his dad had some good times that week, but Haley was clearly not in his right mind, telling his son about being a Harlingen deputy sheriff and about his days as a Marine. He was paranoid. He had spray-painted the windows of the pool house and was convinced someone was out to get him. And he was wildly unpredictable, even when not drinking. One afternoon they were sitting in the living room of the main house and Jack was talking about how much he missed his wife and daughter. All of a sudden his father started screaming at him, saying that Jack wasn&rsquot going back to New Jersey, he was staying there with him. A frightened Jack called Detective Larimore to come pick him up. &ldquoMy dad was still sitting in the living room with his head down. Buddy said, &lsquoHe&rsquos leaving.&rsquo My dad didn&rsquot care. Buddy said, &lsquoBill, you gotta quit the drinking. You&rsquore losing the people you love the most.&rsquo I flew out the next morning.&rdquo
Martha and the kids returned before Christmas, and around the same time Haley was again picked up and thrown in jail. Again Martha asked the judge for help. This time he denied it. She remembers telling him, &ldquoYour Honor, he&rsquoll be dead in a month.&rdquo Haley had basically stopped eating. He would get in his car and drive&mdashto Sambo&rsquos, where he&rsquod drink coffee, or Richard&rsquos, where he&rsquod hit the harder stuff. He would return to his room and pick up the phone. His calls got weirder and more rambling. He called Rudy&rsquos widow and cried about his dearest friend. &ldquoI&rsquom only fifty-five,&rdquo he told Rex Zario, a musician he had known in Philadelphia. &ldquoThat&rsquos too young to die.&rdquo
During the weekend of February 7 and 8, he called Larimore repeatedly and appeared to be hallucinating. He also kept calling Buckle to talk about his next album for Sonet. On Sunday night he called Martha Maria.
&ldquoMom, I don&rsquot know if you know this,&rdquo Martha Maria said as she looked across the table, &ldquobut that last night, he called and asked if I&rsquod make him some soup. I did, and took it out to him. I was scared. I didn&rsquot know what would happen. I think he was lonely, and he wanted me to come out and see him. I got out there, and he gave me the biggest hug.&rdquo Tears welled in her eyes and she paused. She began crying. &ldquoI think he was saying goodbye. I think he knew.&rdquo Her mom reached over and held her hand. &ldquoI wanted to get out of there. It was so painful to see him in that condition. He was lonely and wanted to feel loved.&rdquo
Martha and Pedro sat in silence.
Jack Haley may have been the last person to speak to his father that night. Around 1 a.m., his phone rang in New Jersey. It was his father. &ldquoJackson, do you know who I am? I&rsquom Bill Haley and you are my son. Remember, you&rsquore a Haley and that&rsquos something to be proud of. Never forget that.&rdquo Haley hung up. The call had been so short that Jack expected his father to call back. He never did.
The next morning a friend came by to visit Haley and saw him lying motionless on his bed and called the police. He was dead. It was February 9, twenty years to the day that he had flown to Monterrey and met Martha Velasco. The cause of death was recorded as &ldquomost likely heart attack.&rdquo For 25 years Bill Haley had compared himself to his onetime acolyte Elvis Presley. Now he had died much as Elvis had&mdashalone, isolated, and terribly confused.
Pedro, Georgina, Martha Maria, and Martha Haley, in Martha&rsquos house in McKinney on March 5, 2011.
About 75 people came to the funeral, where Haley lay in an open coffin, curl on his forehead. Afterward he was cremated. Martha won&rsquot say where the ashes are. She left Harlingen in 1993 and hasn&rsquot returned.
Her children left too, and now all of them live in the Dallas area. Martha Maria married her high school sweetheart, has two children, and works for Raytheon. Like his father, Pedro found that he has a natural ear for music and plays and teaches classical guitar. He also found that he suffers from anxiety, especially around strangers, and takes beta-blockers when he performs. Georgina too is a performer she moved to Los Angeles in the nineties to try to make it as a singer and a songwriter. In March she went on a three-week European tour, singing with Bill Haley&rsquos New Comets. They played Munich, home of the Bill Haley Museum, and several cities in England, where Haley is considered to be as important a musical figure as Elvis and Buddy Holly.
The United States has not been so kind to his memory. At least Harlingen put up a large mural on a downtown wall. Occasionally locals will see English, Dutch, or German tourists wandering around downtown, looking for it. When they find it, they look around and wonder: &ldquoIs this it? There&rsquos not even a plaque?&rdquo
Here&rsquos what such a monument might say:
Down these streets walked Bill Haley, the very first rock star, and maybe the unlikeliest. His rise was meteoric, his peak unprecedented, and his fall terrifying. He was a pioneer of American music, a father of rock and roll. And he created a work of art, the perfect pop moment, 128 seconds that changed the world in 1955 and then hit the charts again and again over the next generation. At some point he should have quit playing it&mdashfor the sake of his life, his career, his very soul.
But the clock would strike twelve, he&rsquod cool off&mdashthen, start rocking around the clock again.
 The Comets
More than 100 musicians performed with Bill Haley & His Comets between 1952 and Haley’s death in 1981, many becoming fan favorites along the way. [ 5 ] Several short-lived Comets reunions were attempted in the 1980s, including one contingent (organized by Baltimore-based piano player Joey Welz who was briefly a Comet in the mid-1960s) that appeared on The Tomorrow Show, and another run by an Elvis Presley impersonator named Joey Rand (this group later lost a legal action over the right to use the Comets name).
The Comets, featuring musicians who performed with Haley in 1954–1955, reunited in 1987 and are still touring the world as of 2007, playing showrooms in the United States and Europe. They have also recorded a half-dozen albums for small labels in Europe and the United States. This version of the group has also been credited as Bill Haley’s Original Comets, and in circumstances where the use of the Comets name is in dispute, A Tribute to Bill Haley and The Original Band. The basic line-up of this group from 1987 to May 2006 consisted of Marshall Lytle (bass), Joey Ambrose (sax), Johnny Grande (piano), Dick Richards (drums) and Franny Beecher (guitar). British singer Jacko Buddin augmented the group on vocals during most of their European tours, with Lytle taking over on vocals for US/Canadian tours beginn
ing in 2000 and full-time in Europe in the mid-2000s. Since they connected with Klaus Kettner’s Rock It Concerts (Germany) in 1991 they have played hundreds of shows all over Europe, dozens of TV shows and in March 2007 pre-opened the Bill-Haley-Museum in Munich, Germany.
Two additional groups claim the name Bill Haley’s Comets and have extensively toured in the United States since forming in the 1980s: one originally Haley’s 1965–68 drummer John “Bam-Bam” Lane, the other run by Al Rappa who played bass for Haley off-and-on between late 1959 and early 1969 (some media promotion for Rappa erroneously states that he joined the group in 1956). Both these musicians claim trademark ownership of the Bill Haley’s Comets name this dates back to Lane and Rappa (during a period when they worked together as one band) winning a trademark infringement lawsuit against the aforementioned Joey Rand group in 1989. Both Rappa and Lane’s bands have, from time to time, recruited other former Comets for their line-ups (for example, in 2005, Rappa joined forces with Joey Welz), but for the most part the bandleaders are the only regular members who have worked with Bill Haley directly. Lane died in 2007 but his group continues to perform, led by bandleader Lenny Longo, who has no direct Bill Haley connection. Al Rappa incorporated numerous professional musicians from the Southern Indiana area such as Warren Batts, Joe Esarey, Dave Matthews, John Urbina and many others to make a full band. Al Rappa performed his Upright Bass show before thousands in audiences all over the country. The band members from Al Rappas “Comets” went on to form the LocoMotion showband and continued touring the States without Al Rappa. LocoMotion is now no longer a band. Esarey went on to graduate from Cedarville University and Luther Rice Seminary and now pastors a growing church in Ohio. Esarey has released two Saxophone solo albumns and is currently writing and producing Christian music for a worship group, “poiema”. http://www.HisPoiema.org http://www.JoeEsarey.com
In March and July 2005, the members of the 1954–55 group, now billed as simply The Comets after decades of controversy over the use of the name, made several high-profile concert appearances in New York City and Los Angeles organized by Martin Lewis as part of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of rock and roll, the release of Blackboard Jungle, the 50th anniversary of “Rock Around the Clock” hitting Number 1, and the 80th birthday of Bill Haley. [ 6 ] [ 7 ] During a July 6, 2005 concert at the Viper Room in West Hollywood, The Comets were joined on stage for one song by Gina Haley, the youngest daughter of Bill Haley at a similar appearance in March they were joined by Haley’s eldest son, John W. Haley.
In 2006, The 1954–55 Comets spent much of the year in residence at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Missouri. Meanwhile, the John Lane edition of Bill Haley’s Comets recorded a new album in Tennessee in early 2006 which has yet to be released.
On June 2, 2006, Johnny Grande, keyboardist with the 1954–55 Comets and an original founding member of the band, died after a short illness. The following month, 85-year-old guitarist Franny Beecher announced his retirement, though he was at one point announced as participating in an early 2007 tour of Germany. The three remaining original Comets (Lytle, Richards, and Ambrose) continue to perform in Branson with new musicians taking over the keyboard and lead guitar positions. During September 2006, PBS in the United States aired a series of programs videotaped in Branson during the spring of 2006 these shows include the last recorded performances of the complete Original Comets line-up including Grande.
John “Bam-Bam” Lane died on February 18, 2007 [ 8 ] but his edition of Bill Haley’s Comets is expected to continue touring, with the 2006 recordings to be released in Lane’s memory.
On October 27, 2007 ex Comets guitar player Bill Turner opened the afore mentioned Bill-Haley-Museum in Munich, Germany.
Several tribute bands patterning themselves after The Comets are also active in Europe, including Phil Haley and His Comments in Great Britain, and Bill Haley’s New Comets in Germany [ 9 ] .
According to Haley, the recordings were not commercially successful. Despite this, his father went on to record "Shake, Rattle and Roll" a month later, which would become a monster hit.
Then, in 1955, "Rock Around the Clock" was featured on the soundtrack to the film "Blackboard Jungle," starring Glenn Ford.
"All of a sudden, it got new life," Haley said. "In July 1955, it became the first Rock and Roll record to reach Number One on the Billboard charts."
Haley tells such behind-the-scenes stories and performs authentic music of the era, through his own band, Bill Haley Jr. and the Comets, who will perform at the Sunnybrook Ballroom in Pottstown, April 13.
From Satellites to Comets
Haley is the owner and publisher of the Pottstown-based "422 Business Advisor," a free, monthly magazine, focusing on the news and issues of business communities along the Route 422 and Route 100 corridors in Montgomery, Chester and Berks counties.
The publication was started in 1995, and Haley, 57, said that his work keeps him busy. However, Haley added that he has always had a passion for music, and learned to play guitar as a teenager.
As a youth, Haley said he made the decision not to pursue a musical career, considering that his music may live in the shadow of his father's legacy.
"I wanted to establish my own identity," Haley said. "It would be hard to top that."
Still, while managing his business, Haley said he has tried to dedicate a few hours each week just to play music with a couple of friends in a garage band.
Through this band, Haley got to perform his own music, and eventually became encouraged enough to begin recording an album in 2010 with his new band, "Bill Haley and the Satellites."
During the album's release party, which took place at the Diving Cat Studio Gallery in Phoenixville, Bill Haley and the Satellites were invited to perform. However, the owner of the studio also requested that Haley perform one of his father's hits.
"Fans of my father's music were there," Haley said. "One of them took out a cell phone and took a video of me doing 'Rock Around the Clock.'"
Haley said the video was later posted to YouTube, when a representative of Wolfman Jack Entertainment saw it.
The representative encouraged him to put together a tribute band and perform the hits of the mid-1950s, as well as those of his father's band Bill Haley and the Comets, adding that Haley Jr. sang just like Haley Sr.
"I decided to put aside my reservations and do it for the fun of it," Haley said. "Much to my surprise, there is still a lot of interest in this music."
The Ongoing Rock and Roll History Show
For the last three years, Haley Jr. and the Comets have traveled around the country at well-attended shows. Haley was also invited to appear on a German television program, translated as "I Have a Famous Name," in which he was given first-class and five-star accommodations, explaining that his father's music is still popular around the world.
His audiences stateside are often mixed, spanning generations from one another, with at least a quarter of the audience being teenagers themselves in the mid-1950s.
"They remember the music," Haley said. "'Rock Around the Clock' has enduring value."
Haley said that he is particularly looking forward to his band's first performance at the Sunnybrook Ballroom, as the venue is legendary, hosting such musical acts as Bill Haley and the Comets themselves.
"This is exciting for me, because I'll be playing on the same stage my father played on," Haley said. "Maybe even on the same spot."
Haley said that audience members at the April 13 performance won't expect so much a tribute band, but rather a Rock and Roll history show. Along with the behind-the-scenes stories, Haley emphasizes that he and his band mates perform the hits just as they sounded in the 1950s.
"We play as authentically as possible," Haley said. "They specialize in this kind of music."
While Haley does not yet see pursing a musical career full-time, he is working on a book about his father and early Rock and Roll. He said there is much potential for the book, and is currently searching for an agent to help publish it.
Haley expects that once the book is published, there will be more demand for Haley Jr. and the Comets, for which he will then dedicate more time to write original music in the same vein of early Rock and Roll.
Ultimately, he'd like to see his book become a film, but in the mean time, he's content just being able to bring back such timeless music.
"This music is just happy music," Haley said. "You'll have a really fun time and your curiosity will be satisfied."