Personalities | Bill Haley | Fifties | Rock

William John Clifton Haley was born on 6 July 1925 in Highland Park, Detroit, and raised near Chester, Pennsylvania. His parents were both musical, and he got his first proper guitar when he was 13.

Even though he was blind in one eye and shy about his disability (he later tried to distract from it with his trademark kiss-curl), he started playing local shows.

A Professional Yodeller

In his late teens he joined a working country and western band, The Downhomers, and was styled Yodeling Bill Haley. He then fronted The Four Aces Of Western Swing, and landed a job back home on radio station WPWA in Chester, forming The Saddlemen there. His show was scheduled after a black R&B programme called Judge Rhythm’s Court. Here he first heard ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats – which was actually Ike Turner’s band – and recorded it in 1951 with The Saddlemen: the first cover of what is often considered the first rock’n’roll record. Haley started working R&B songs into his set alongside the rocking (but white) country boogie styles they already played. In April 1952, they released a version of Jimmy Preston’s R&B hit ‘Rock The Joint’. They signed to Dave Miller’s Essex label where, under the name Bill Haley with Haley’s Comets, ‘Crazy Man Crazy,’ a Haley original, became the first charting rock’n’roll record in history, going to No. 15. But the follow-ups were weak, and Miller did not like a song that Haley kept pushing….

The Father Of Rock’n’Roll

Milt Gabler at Decca had overseen the career of Louis Jordan whose jump-jive style has a strong claim as an ancestor of rock’n’roll. He signed Haley and set a recording date for 12 April 1954. They spent most of the session working on ‘Thirteen Women’, allowing only two takes of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by Jimmy DeKnight and Max C. Freedman. Time enough for Danny Cedrone to lay down the exact same – but still scintillating – guitar solo he had played on ‘Rock The Joint’ two years previously. The track was more popular than the A-side but hardly set the world alight. Instead the genial, and let us not forget, talented Haley went to No. 12 in summer 1954 with a raucous version of Big Joe Turner’s ‘Shake Rattle And Roll’ (this became his first UK hit in late 1954).

But the wheels of fate were turning. The actor Glen Ford’s son had bought ‘Thirteen Women’. His father’s producer was looking for a song to capture the mood of disaffected youth in a new film, Blackboard Jungle. ‘Rock Around The Clock’ fitted the bill. When the movie came out in 1955, the track stormed to No. 1 – and stayed there for eight weeks.

Haley and his band appeared in films, Rock Around The Clock and Don’t Knock The Rock (both 1956), and had further big hits with ‘Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie’ (1955), ‘See You Later, Alligator’ and ‘The Saints Rock’n’Roll’ (both...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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