Bill Haley and his Comets had the first rock ‘n’ roll song to hit number one with “Rock Around the Clock.” It stayed for 8 weeks in the number one spot. The song first hit the charts in 1954 and reached number 23. A year later it was re-released and then climbed to its long hold at #1. Twenty years later in 1974 it would go into the charts for a third time reaching #39 on the charts. This was due to its use as the original opening theme of TV’s Happy Days.
William John Clifton Haley Jr. was born in Highland Park, Michigan on July 6, 1925. He grew up in an Irish-American musical family - specifically a country and western family. His father played banjo and he was introduced to the guitar at an early age.
When he was quite young, Haley’s family moved to the Philadelphia area. In his early teens Haley started playing guitar with local country and western groups. At 15 he left home to travel with the New England Country band called the Down Homers. Several years later, he formed his own group, first called the Four Aces of Swing, later the Saddlemen and finally the Comets. For the first few years, when he wasn’t performing he worked at radio stations.
Haley’s group started out playing western swing, basically upbeat country music with a dance beat. But it wasn’t long before Haley began including features drawn from other styles of music, especially the “back beat” of black dance music. “Around the early 1950’s, the musical world was starved for something new,” Haley said, “The days of the solo vocalist and the big bands had gone. About the only thing, in fact, that was making noise was progressive jazz, but this was just above the heads of the average listener. I felt then that if I could take, say, a Dixieland tune and drop the first and third beats, and accentuate the second and forth, and add a beat the listeners could clap as well as dance to, this would be what they were after. From there the rest was easy.”
From 1953 to 1974 Bill Haley had 31 charted hits, most of them in the middle 1950’s. “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (1954) was his first major hit followed by “Rock Around the Clock” (1955), “Burn That Candle” (1955), and “See You Later, Alligator” (1956).
Unfortunately Haley wasn’t the image of a rock star. A fact that undoubtedly led to his fall from popularity in the U.S. His only visual trademark was his spit curl tumbling onto his forehead. Once others figured out the music, it wasn’t long before he was replaced in the eyes of the public by handsome singers like Elvis and Pat Boone.
While his popularity faded in the States he remained a huge celebrity in Europe and in Mexico. His album Twist is the biggest selling album of all time in Mexico. When the Mexican audience discovered him, Haley responded by moving to that country, where he met and married his wife, Martha. Mexico remained a home base for Haley up until his death.
Haley regularly toured Europe and South America during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The lineup of the Comets constantly changed with the exception of the sax player Rudy Pompilli. In March 1979 he toured Britain for a month and was very successful. He cut a new album and then toured Europe before returning to Britain for a performance before the Queen at the Royal Variety Show.
He died on February 9, 1981 of a heart attack. Right to the end, Haley continued to play his own style of rock ‘n’ roll. Even though he had long been passed over by American audiences, he was still a star in many places. He may not have been the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but he was most certainly the messenger who brought it to the world.