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Bonzer Words!: If The Band Slows Down We'll Yell For More

Graeme Eadie pays tribute to Bill Haley, the first King of Rock and Roll.

Graeme also writes for Bonzer! magazine. For more enjoyable words visit www.bonzer.org.au

I was reading the morning newspaper whilst breakfasting in the Best Western on Market Street, San Francisco. It was the 10th of February 1981 and I was horrified to learn that in Golden Gate Park the body of a man was found in a sleeping bag on a bench, his head had been neatly cut off and replaced with a dead chicken! I was still reeling from this news when I turned the page and came across the announcement that Bill Haley had died in his sleep from a heart attack, in Harlingen Texas. I grieved for the First King of Rock and Roll; the man who started it all off.

Bill Haley and his Comets are best remembered for the immortal song: Rock Around the Clock*, recorded in 1954. It was a modest hit until it was featured in the film The Blackboard Jungle in 1955. The song took off and it can still be heard in most parts of the world, in music collections and in reruns of TV's Happy Days. It is arguably the best rock and roll song ever recorded. A great beat to dance to, a memorable jazz-influenced electric-guitar break – it is just so exciting! Bill became world-famous as he introduced the dance-music of the American blacks to the record-buying white population. His music wasn't the blues – he generally wrote up-beat happy songs. Bill even made his sad song See You Later, Alligator! amusing and fun to dance to.

William John Clifton Haley was born in the midst of a hot Detroit summer, on 6th July, 1925. His father William was part Cherokee from eastern Kentucky, who worked as a mechanic in a local service station. His mother Maude hailed from Ulverston, Lancashire England and migrated prior to The First World War. His father was shy with a speech impediment but he joyfully played both the mandolin and the banjo.

As Bill Haley Jr. entered his teen years, he dreamt of becoming a singing cowboy like those he idolised in the Saturday matinee movies. At the age of thirteen, Bill's parents presented him with a green second-hand guitar that Bill quickly learned to master. Two years later, Bill finished his eighth grade and worked for a company filling bottles with spring water, later drove their delivery truck, and then changed employers to a locomotive works in Pennsylvania.

On Saturday nights, he would cruise the city of Chester with his country friends. He'd sit in the back seat of the car with his guitar and sing, to break the ice with the accommodating city girls. By 1943 Bill had decked himself out in a white ten-gallon hat, western boots and a bright-red cowboy suit with white fringes, somewhat resembling a yodelling Santa Claus. He performed with Country and Western bands such as the Range Drifters and The Downhomers and in that year he recorded his first song, Candy Kisses.

It is not known how he avoided the armed services, but if Bill Haley had been killed in the war, Rock and Roll would not have evolved in the way that we know it.

After three years of touring, Bill was tired and unhealthy. At the age of twenty-one he came home, deciding that he couldn't make it as a cowboy singer. His childhood sweetheart Dorothy Crowe managed to nurture Bill slowly from his deep depression and they married in that year of 1946.

With renewed enthusiasm, Bill became a musical director of radio station WPWA. He worked long and hard, particularly showcasing local musical talent and visiting celebrities. Bill soon formed a new band, The Four Aces of Western Swing and he tried to introduce a mix of Dixieland, Hillbilly and Western Swing via WPWA and on excursion boats on the Delaware River.

In 1949 he formed Bill Haley and his Saddlemen and the next year he cut 78-rpm recordings of such songs as Ten Gallon Stetson. Bill and his band experimented with syncopation and other techniques such as the Rockabilly sound of the bass when used as a percussion instrument. The loud sound he developed was ideal for dancing to and was perfect for radio listening.

In 1952 the band discarded their country costumes for smart suits and changed their name to Bill Haley and his Comets. The term "his" rather than "The Comets" probably reflects the ego of the band leader. That year he recorded Rock the Joint, and wrote Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie for Danny Cedrone and the Esquire Boys, but Bill would reclaim the song later. In 1953 the Billboard Top 20 chart featured Bill's Crazy, Man, Crazy, with sales of 75,000 records.

In April 1954, Bill Haley signed with Decca Records and he recorded Rock Around the Clock on the twelfth of that month. On that day, white Rock and Roll was born! This recording also initially sold 75,000 copies, with 5% being the band's standard royalty. The song had been written by Pliladelphians James Myers and Max Freedman in 1953, and it had been a minor hit for Sonny Dae and his Knights in the Delaware Valley. (James Myers died in May 2001). However Bill's arrangement, featuring saxophone, steel guitar and the sounds of his new lead guitarist Danny Cedrone, was pure magic.

As a kid I recall the song pounding from our free-standing valve radio, and I was awed as Bodgies[1] and Widgies[2] danced to the song in the aisle at the Glen Huntly picture theatre during a screening of Blackboard Jungle. Bill and his signature kiss-curl became world famous through his recordings and teen-movies, and a generation danced to his enthusiastic songs. He toured widely, and in the 1970s I enjoyed his show at the South Melbourne Football Ground, as he headlined appearances by Johnny O'Keefe, and The Coasters. Bill was a real showman, and he reveled in such concert performances.

While he was quickly overtaken by younger sexier singers such as Elvis during the heady days of Rock and Roll, Bill Haley always found enthusiastic audiences in Australia, Europe and South America. While Alan Freed had promoted Rock and Roll on the radio, as Dick Clark did with his American Bandstand TV show, Bill Haley was uniquely the Rock Entrepreneur every time he performed on stage or enthusiastically recorded in the sound studio his simple, joyous, danceable songs of love and life.

Bill surrounded himself with innovative musicians and as a true showman, he lived for his audience. (Ironically, after cheekily naming his band after Halley's Comet, he of course was born too late to see the comet in 1910 and Bill had died by the time of its return in 1986. On the latter occasion, I sadly thought of Bill as I peered at the comet through my telescope).

In the excitement of the late 1950s, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and even Pat Boone would sing and record each other's songs. There was actually a simple camaraderie among 'rival' artists that is so evident from stage and TV shows and movies of the time, despite the cut-throat competition of the record companies.

In the 1960s, Bill lived in Mexico and recorded Florida Twist, the biggest selling single in Mexico's pop history. Bill ignored The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and later heavy metal and disco trends, and kept on rockin'. He must have felt lonely, performing in far-flung corners of the planet as the crazy world rolled on and over him. However, his fans were legion and the promise of a Bill Haley performance brought them rushing to the front of the stage, be it in a football stadium or a crumbling moviehouse.

All they had to hear was Bill shouting: “ONE, TWO, THREE O'CLOCK , FOUR O'CLOCK, ROCK!……..”*

***

(*) “Rock Around the Clock” (© Max C. Freedman & Jimmy de Knight – 1953 Myers Music USA.)

[1] An Australian term from the 1950s for a man who dressed in a particular style and behaved in a wild and uncouth manner.
[2] A female bodgie.


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