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Bill Haley and His Comets

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AboutWilliam John Clifton Haley (July 6, 1925 – February 9, 1981) was an American rock and roll musician. He is credited by many with first popularizing this form of music in the early 1950s with his group Bill Haley & His Comets and million-selling hits such as "Rock Around the Clock", "See You Later, Alligator", "Shake, Rattle and Roll", "Rocket 88", "Skinny Minnie", and "Razzle Dazzle". He has sold over 25 million records worldwide.

Bill Haley was born July 6, 1925 in Highland Park, Michigan, as William John Clifton Haley. In 1929, the four-year-old Haley underwent an inner-ear mastoid operation which accidentally severed an optic nerve, leaving him blind in his left eye for the rest of his life. As a result of the effects of the Great Depression on the Detroit area, his father moved the family to Bethel, PA when Bill was seven years old. Haley's father William Albert Haley was from Kentucky and played the banjo and mandolin, and his mother, Maude Green, who was originally from Ulverston in Lancashire, England, was a technically accomplished keyboardist with classical training. Haley told the story that when he made a simulated guitar out of cardboard, his parents bought him a real one.

During the Labor Day weekend in 1952, the Saddlemen were renamed Bill Haley with Haley's Comets (inspired by the supposedly official pronunciation of Halley's Comet, a name suggested by WPWA radio station program director, Bob Johnson, where Bill Haley had a live radio program from noon to 1 p.m.), and in 1953, Haley's recording of "Crazy Man, Crazy" (co-written by him and his bass player, Marshall Lytle, although Lytle would not receive credit until 2001) became the first rock and roll song to hit the American charts, peaking at no.15 on Billboard and no.11 on Cash Box. Soon after, the band's name was revised to Bill Haley & His Comets.

In 1953, "Rock Around the Clock" was recorded by Haley.[8] Initially, it was relatively successful, peaking at no. 23 on the Billboard pop singles chart and staying on the charts for a few weeks. A month later it re-entered at number 1.

Haley soon had another worldwide hit with "Shake, Rattle and Roll", which went on to sell a million copies and was the first ever rock 'n' roll song to enter the British singles charts in December 1954, becoming a Gold Record. He retained elements of the original (which was slow blues), but sped it up with some country music aspects into the song (specifically, Western swing) and changed up the lyrics. Haley and his band were important in launching the music known as "Rock and Roll" to a wider audience after a period of it being considered an underground genre.

When "Rock Around the Clock" appeared as the theme song of the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle starring Glenn Ford, it soared to the top of the American Billboard chart for eight weeks. The single is commonly used as a convenient line of demarcation between the "rock era" and the music industry that preceded it. Billboard separated its statistical tabulations into 1890–1954 and 1955–present. After the record rose to number one, Haley was quickly given the title "Father of Rock and Roll" by the media, and by teenagers who had come to embrace the new style of music. With the song's success, the age of rock music began overnight and ended the dominance of the jazz and pop standards performed by Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Perry Como, Bing Crosby and others. Nevertheless, in the United Kingdom Haley was supported by former Dankworth Seven lead vocalist Frank Holder among others.

"Rock Around the Clock" was the first record ever to sell over one million copies in both Britain and Germany. Later on in 1957, Haley became the first major American rock singer to tour Europe. Haley continued to score hits throughout the 1950s such as "See You Later, Alligator" and he starred in the first rock and roll musical films Rock Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Rock, both in 1956. Haley was already 30 years old and so he was soon eclipsed in the United States by the younger, sexier Elvis Presley, but continued to enjoy great popularity in Latin America, Europe and Australia during the 1960s.

Bill Haley and the Comets performed "Rock Around the Clock" on the Texaco Star Theater hosted by Milton Berle on Tuesday, May 31, 1955 on NBC in an a cappella and lip-synched version. Berle predicted that the song would go no. 1: "A group of entertainers who are going right to the top." Berle also sang and danced to the song which was performed by the entire cast of the show. This was one of the earliest nationally televised performances by a rock and roll band and provided the new musical genre with a much wider audience.

Bill Haley and the Comets were the first rock and roll act to appear on the iconic American musical variety series the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday, August 7, 1955 on CBS in a broadcast that originated from the Shakespeare Festival Theater in Hartford, Connecticut. They performed a live version of "Rock Around the Clock" with Franny Beecher on lead guitar and Dick Richards on drums. The band made their second appearance on the show on Sunday, April 28, 1957 performing the songs "Rudy's Rock" and "Forty Cups of Coffee".

Bill Haley and the Comets appeared on American Bandstand hosted by Dick Clark on ABC twice in 1957, on the prime time show October 28, 1957 and on the regular daytime show on November 27, 1957. The band also appeared on Dick Clark's Saturday Night Beechnut Show, also known as The Dick Clark Show, a primetime TV series from New York on March 22, 1958 during the first season and on February 20, 1960, performing "Rock Around the Clock", "Shake, Rattle and Roll", and "Tamiami".

One of his first appearances was in 1938 for a Bethel Junior baseball team entertainment event, performing guitar and songs when he was 13 years old.

The anonymous sleeve notes accompanying the 1956 Decca album Rock Around The Clock describe Haley's early life and career: "When Bill Haley was fifteen [c. 1940] he left home with his guitar and very little else and set out on the hard road to fame and fortune. The next few years, continuing this story in a fairy-tale manner, were hard and poverty-stricken, but crammed full of useful experience. Apart from learning how to exist on one meal a day and other artistic exercises, he worked at an open-air park show, sang and yodelled with any band that would have him, and worked with a traveling medicine show. Eventually he got a job with a popular group known as the "Down Homers" while they were in Hartford, Connecticut. Soon after this he decided, as all successful people must decide at some time or another, to be his own boss again – and he has been that ever since.' These notes fail to account for his early band, known as the Four Aces of Western Swing. During the 1940s Haley was considered one of the top cowboy yodelers in America as "Silver Yodeling Bill Haley".

The sleeve notes conclude: "For six years Bill Haley was a musical director of Radio Station WPWA in Chester, Pennsylvania, and led his own band all through this period. It was then known as Bill Haley's Saddlemen, indicating their definite leaning toward the tough Western style. They continued playing in clubs as well as over the radio around Philadelphia, and in 1951 made their first recordings on Ed Wilson's Keystone Records in Philadelphia." On June 14, 1951 the Saddlemen recorded a cover of "Rocket 88".

Bill Haley was married three times:
Dorothy Crowe (11 December 1946 - 14 November 1952) (divorced) (2 children)
Barbara Joan Cupchak (18 November 1952 - 1960) (divorced) (5 children)
Martha Velaesco (1963 - 9 February 1981; his death) (3 children)

Bill Haley had at least ten children. John W. Haley, his eldest son, wrote Sound and Glory, a biography of Haley, and had another child, Sharyn, with his first wife, Dorothy Crowe. His youngest daughter, Gina Haley, is a professional musician based in Texas. Scott Haley is an athlete. His youngest son Pedro is also a musician.

He also had a daughter, Martha Maria, from his last marriage with Martha Velasco.

Bill Haley Jr. (Haley's second son and first with Joan Barbara "Cuppy" Haley-Hahn) publishes a regional business magazine in Southeastern Pennsylvania (Route 422 Business Advisor). He sang and played guitar with a band called "Bill Haley and the Satellites," and released a CD in 2011. He also has occasionally appeared with the "Original Comets" at the Bubba Mac Shack in Somers Point, New Jersey, from 2004–2011, and at the Twin Bar re-dedication ceremony in Gloucester City, New Jersey, in 2007. In February 2011, he formed a tribute band "Bill Haley Jr. and the Comets," performing his father's music and telling the stories behind the songs. Bill Haley Jr. and the Comets currently perform at venues throughout the US at festivals, car shows, casinos, and upscale retirement communities. In March 2014 the band completed a successful three week tour of New Zealand. Bill Jr. appeared in the UK at Hemsby Rock 'n' Roll Weekenders in the spring of 2015, and is scheduled for a return engagement in October 2016.

An admitted alcoholic (as indicated in a 1974 radio interview for the BBC), Haley fought a battle with alcohol into the 1970s. Nonetheless, he and his band continued to be a popular touring act, benefiting from a 1950s nostalgia movement that began in the late 1960s and the signing of a lucrative record deal with the European Sonet label. After performing for Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Variety Performance on November 10, 1979, Haley made his final performances in South Africa in May and June 1980. Before the South African tour, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and a planned tour of Germany in the autumn of 1980 was cancelled.

The October 25, 1980 edition of the German paper Bild reported that Haley had a brain tumor. It quoted British manager Patrick Malynn as saying that Haley "had taken a fit and went over the seat. He didn't recognize anyone any more" after being taken to his home in Beverly Hills. It also reported that a doctor at the clinic where Haley had been taken said, 'The tumor can't be operated on any more.'"

The Berliner Zeitung reported a few days later that Haley had collapsed after a performance in Texas and been taken to the hospital in his home town of Harlingen, Texas. However, this account is questionable as Bill Haley did not perform in the United States at all in 1980.

Despite his ill health, Haley began compiling notes for possible use as a basis for either a biographical film based on his life, or a published autobiography (accounts differ), and there were plans for him to record an album in Memphis, Tennessee, when the brain tumor began affecting his behavior and he went back to his home in Harlingen, where he died early in the morning of February 9, 1981 (the 17th anniversary of the "British Invasion" with the Beatles first performance in the US on Ed Sullivan).

Martha, Bill's widow, who was with him in these troubling times, denies he had a brain tumor as does his old, very close friend, Hugh McCallum. Martha and friends related that Bill did not want to go on the road any more and that ticket sales for that planned tour of Germany in the fall of 1980 were slow. According to McCallum, "It's my unproven gut feeling that that the brain tumor was said to curtail talks about the tour and play the sympathy card."

It was obvious that his drinking problem was getting worse. By this time, Bill and Martha fought all the time and she told him to stop drinking or move out. He then did move out into a room in their pool house. Martha still took care of him and sometimes he would come in the house to eat, but he ate very little. "There were days we never saw him," said his daughter Martha Maria. In addition to Haley's drinking problems, it had also become obvious that he was having serious mental problems as well; Martha Maria said that, "It was like sometimes he was drunk even when he wasn't drinking." After he'd been jailed by the Harlingen Police, Martha had the judge put Haley in the hospital where he was seen by a psychiatrist who said Bill's brain was overproducing a chemical, like adrenaline. The doctor prescribed a medication to stop the overproduction but said Bill would have to stop drinking. Martha said, "This is pointless." She took him home, however, fed him and gave him his first dose. As soon as he felt better, he went back out to his room in the pool house and the downward spiral continued until his death on February 9, 1981.

Haley's death certificate listed "Natural causes: Most likely heart attack" as the 'Immediate Cause' of death. The next lines, 'Due to, or as a consequence of" were blank.

Haley made a succession of bizarre, mostly monologue late-night phone calls to friends and relatives in which he seemed incoherently drunk or ill. Haley's first wife has been quoted as saying, "He would call and ramble and dwell on the past, his mind was really warped." A belligerent phone call to a business associate was taped and gives evidence of Haley's troubled state of mind.

Media reports immediately following his death indicated Haley displayed deranged and erratic behavior in his final weeks, although there is little information about Haley's final days beyond a biography by John Swenson, released a year later, which described him painting the windows of his home black. After a small funeral service, Haley was cremated, although his widow Martha won't say what was done with the ashes.

Haley was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. His son Pedro represented him at the ceremony. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960, for his contributions to the music industry at 6350 Hollywood Boulevard. The Comets were separately inducted into the Hall of Fame as a group in 2012, after a rule change allowed the induction of backing groups (the Comets were mass-inducted alongside several other groups such as Hank Ballard's Midnighters and Gene Vincent's Blue Caps).

Songwriters Tom Russell and Dave Alvin addressed Haley's demise in musical terms with "Haley's Comet" on Alvin's 1991 album Blue Blvd. Dwight Yoakam sang backup on the tribute.

Surviving members of the 1954–55 contingent of Haley's Comets reunited in the late 1980s and continued to perform for many years around the world. They released a concert DVD in 2004 on Hydra Records, played the Viper Room in West Hollywood in 2005, and performed at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Missouri, beginning in 2006–07. As of 2014, only two members of this particular contingent are still alive (Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards), but they continue to perform in Branson and in Europe. At least two other groups also continue to perform in North America under the Comets name as of 2014.

In March 2007, the Original Comets pre-opened the Bill Haley Museum in Munich, Germany. On October 27, 2007, ex-Comets guitar player Bill Turner opened the Bill Haley Museum for the public.

Two of Haley's children, Bill Haley Jr. and Gina Haley, are themselves musicians and have in recent years recorded albums of their father's music and headlined tribute musical shows.

In February 2006, the International Astronomical Union announced the naming of asteroid 79896 Billhaley to mark the 25th anniversary of Bill Haley's death.

Bill Haley's compositions included "Four Leaf Clover Blues", "Rose of My Heart", "Yodel Your Blues Away", "Crazy Man, Crazy", "What'Cha Gonna Do", "Fractured", "Live It Up", "Farewell, So Long, Goodbye", "Real Rock Drive", "Rocking Chair on the Moon", "Sundown Boogie", "Green Tree Boogie", "Tearstains on My Heart", "Down Deep in My Heart", "Straight Jacket", "Birth of the Boogie", "Two Hound Dogs", "Rock-A-Beatin' Boogie", "Hot Dog Buddy Buddy", "R-O-C-K", "Rudy's Rock", "Calling All Comets", "Tonight's the Night", "Hook, Line and Sinker", "Sway with Me", "Paper Boy (On Main Street U.S.A.)", "Skinny Minnie", "B.B. Betty", "Eloise", "Whoa Mabel!", "Vive la Rock and Roll", "I've Got News For You", "So Right Tonight", "Ana Maria", "Yucatán Twist", "Football Rock and Roll", and "Chick Safari"

He also wrote or co-wrote songs for other artists such as "I've Got News for You" for Penny Smith in 1955 on Kahill, "Calypso Rock" for Dave Day and The Red Coats on Kapp in 1956, "A.B.C. Rock" and "Rocky the Rockin' Rabbit" for Sally Starr on Arcade, "Toodle-Oo-Bamboo" for Ray Coleman and His Skyrockets on Skyrocket Records in 1959, "The Cat" for Cappy Bianco, and "(Ya Gotta) Sing For the Ladies" and "Butterfly Love" for Ginger Shannon and Johnny Montana in 1960 on Arcade as well as the unissued "I'm Shook" in 1958.

In 1982 Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honour recordings at least 25 years old and with "qualitative or historical significance."

In December 2017, Haley was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall Of Fame.

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