Awesome Men Throughout History: Bill Haley
It’s a bit sad that Bill Haley’s career has been reduced to one song. I mean, “Rock Around the Clock” is catchy and all, but there was more to Bill’s life than that. He brought rock ‘n roll to white people well before anyone had even heard the name Elvis, and made his own life very difficult in the process.
He was also a raging alcoholic who went crazy shortly before he died, but I’m still adding him to the roster of Awesome Men Throughout History. His spit-curl might get its own entry. Did he shellac that thing to his head?
Anyway, Bill grew up in Chester, PA and was a musician from an early age; his first gig was playing at an auction for $1 a night when he was 13 years old (this is around 1940, keep in mind). He hit the road as a young man, playing in bands and working in a medicine show and starving to death, and was considered one of the best Western yodelers in the country. I don’t get to say that about many people.
Bill ended up forming a band called the Saddlemen, who were renamed the Comets to reference a popular mispronunciation of “Halley’s Comet,” and had some minor hits. They also discovered that their versions of rhythm and blues songs like “Rocket 88” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” were a huge hit in nightclubs, so they recorded them, and their cover of “Shake” became a huge hit. Part of the song’s success was the heavy backbeat – Bill made sure that extra mics were placed around his band’s bass and kick drum to really emphasize what made people dance.
Their most famous song, “Rock Around the Clock,” was a flop until 1955, when it played behind the opening credits of the film Blackboard Jungle and burned up the charts like nothing else beforehand. It was such a big deal that Billboard uses it as a line of demarcation, separating its statistical tabulations into 1890-1954 and 1955–present.
Bill’s song also ended the era of jazz and pop crooners like Jo Stafford and Perry Como, so go ahead and pour one out for him, just for that.
But whirlwind success is weird, especially for a guy like Bill, who didn’t expect it and—as a pudgy, half-blind Midwesterner who really just wanted to play clean versions of “dirty” blues songs in honky-tonk bars—didn’t necessarily want it. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover thought that Haley was part of Communist plot to brainwash American teenagers (no, really), and tried to dig up dirt on him. Bill carried a gun on tour for his own safety thanks to that.
Not only that, but his performances, both here and in England, were often cut short or canceled due to rioting and general unrest in the crowd, and then Elvis came along in 1956 and completely yanked the rug out from under him.
Bill Haley kept touring, and was very popular in Europe and Latin America, but alcoholism took a heavy toll on him, and his mental health deteriorated rapidly prior to his death in 1981. He was a big part of American pop culture history, though, and he deserves to be remembered. I’ll leave you with this scene from Don’t Knock the Rock, in which he and his band perform with some hot dancers.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.