I remember working my first year in professional radio at WWCT 106FM in Peoria. I worked the overnight shift from 2-6 a.m. Monday through Friday. It was a lonely job, and sometimes kind of a scary job since I was the only one there in this big, empty building in downtown Peoria. I would do a lot of things to keep me going through those long early-morning hours. If someone called in for a request, usually they were in the same boat that I was, so we would often strike up a conversation. Plus, there were a LOT of lonely women that called, but that’s another blog entry.
One of the things that I was required to do during the overnight hours was to clear the UPS news teletype every half hour or so. Once I cleared the wire, I would tear apart and separate the stories and organize them for the news director, who would get to the station about 5 a.m. There were many important news events going on during that period. The murder of John Lennon was still fresh in our minds. The Iranian Hostage Crisis was finally being solved. And one morning, a particular news item caught my eye. It made such an impression on me that I’m pretty sure I still have the original teletype piece somewhere in my files. The night before, February 9, Bill Haley had been found dead.
It seems strange to mention the name “Bill Haley” without immediately placing “and the Comets” behind it. Many folks consider him the father of rock and roll, and I’m not sure that isn’t true. However, Haley did not have the looks, the talent or the staying power to remain in the spotlight.
He was born William John Clifton Haley on July 6, 1925 in Highland Park, Michigan, but moved to the Chester, Pennsylvania area when he was young. At the age of 15, he left home to become a musician, playing in a string of country swing bands. Around the time he landed in radio as a music director at WPWA in Chester, he was fronting his own western band called “Bill Haley’s Saddlemen”. They dressed in western outfits, wore ten gallon hats, and twanged their way up and down the east coast.
Haley had the feeling that he would never make it big as a country-western artist. He noticed that more and more American teenagers were listening to rhythm and blues music because they liked the beat. So Bill decided to experiment a little. While still recording country swing, he mixed in covers of R&B songs, like Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88”. In 1952, he went for broke and recorded a similar R&B song, “Rock the Joint”. Even though this was the early stages of rock and roll, the Essex label still bore the name “Bill Haley’s Saddlemen”.
The group soon ditched the ten gallon hats and cowboy outfits, bought some flashy stage suits, and renamed themselves “Bill Haley and his Comets”. They made their own attempt at songwriting and came up with “Crazy Man Crazy”, which caught the attention of Decca Records, who offered Haley’s group a contract. It also brought in more songs from outside sources. In 1954, the band released the single “Thirteen Women (and only one man in town), with a b-side called “Rock Around The Clock”. It stayed on the charts for about a week, and was forgotten.
In the meantime, the Comets recorded a cover of Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and had a pretty major hit on their hands. It was then that, for some unknown reason, “Rock Around The Clock” was chosen to run behind the opening credits of a juvenile delinquency flick starring Glenn Ford, “Blackboard Jungle”. It soon became a massive hit, and stayed on the charts for eight weeks. And it made Haley a star.
That song may not be the first rock and roll song, and it may not be the best rock and roll song, but it’s considered by many as the bridge between early 50’s white-bread pop and mid-50’s R&B-influenced rock and roll.
Haley had a successful career until he was eclipsed by Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He became more and more of a footnote through the 60’s and 70’s, and alcohol took its toll. Living his final days in Texas, he was a recluse and would often be found just wondering aimlessly in the middle of the night. He died of a heart attack at the age of 55. And although he may be gone, it’s important that he’s never forgotten.