Graham Reid | | 13 min read
One of the first victims of rock'n'roll was a founding father of the style: Bill Haley.
A country singer with a love of Western Swing, Haley was 30 when his signature song Rock Around the Clock became a massive hit in '55 when it appeared on the soundtrack to the juvenile delinquent film Blackboard Jungle. He would also appear in the first real rock'n'roll film Don't Knock the Rock the following year alongside Little Richard.
An avuncular character with receding hairline and a kiss curl (a slicked-down curl grown to distract attention from his left eye which had been rendered blind after a childhood operation), Haley never looked the part of a rebel rocker and when Elvis Presley arrived Haley – a John the Baptist for Elvis' rock'n'roll Messiah – was pushed to the margins.
Even before however, as Mark Lewisohn notes in his new book Tune In about the young Beatles, Haley's brief 1956 tour of Britain was an enormous disappointment to rock'n'roll fans (“one of the most embarrassing damp squibs for some years” said Beat magazine) and plans for a tour the following year were cancelled: “Before the tour he'd had 12 different hits on the British charts, after it he had none”, writes Lewisohn.
But his was a slow death of a thousand indignities. Surpassed by Elvis and wanting to get back to country music, Haley was obliged to keep churning out his hits and, worse, writing and singing generic rock'n'roll songs with anonymous Comets (about 100 in total can claim to have been in his backing band). His album Rockin' is a collection of global variations of Rock Around the Clock: Rockin' Matilda includes a melodic line from Waltzing Matilda; there is Oriental Rock, Wooden Shoe Rock (for the Dutch), Piccadilly Rock, Pretty Alouette for the French . . .
When Haley died in '81 it was after a long decline through alcoholism, three marriages and years of cranking out the same old songs.
There has never been a Haley bio-film or even a through biography, although that may be about to change as one of his sons, Bill Haley Jnr, is finally writing one.
Haley Jr – a son to Haley's second wife – has long been a businessman in Pennsylvania but a few years ago at the urging of friends and after playing in covers bands put together a rock'n'roll show (which comes to New Zealand, dates below) during which he tells some of the stories of his father's generation.
And Haley Jr is candid about his father's success and decline.
My understanding is that you are a businessman but you started doing this show a couple of years ago. I don't want to call it a tribute and you can choose what you call it, but it really has built up over the past few years.
Throughout my life at different periods I had been encouraged to do this and I always resisted for a number of reasons, but I also had a strong love of music and music history as a singer and musician. So on the side I would always play music and I had written some songs and played with friends in a garage band.
About three years I got together with an old friend from high school and decided to play some original music. I'd written some songs, and one thing lead to another and we made a CD. We called ourselves Bill Haley and the Satellites and it was all original music. At the release party in a store the owners asked me if I would, as a favour to them, do a couple of my dad's songs which I was happy to do.
Someone who was there made a video of us doing Rock Around the Clock and put it on You Tube and an agent in Florida saw it and contacted me and said if I could put together a band to do this music well he could find work, so I thought, “What the heck”.
It's not a tribute band but really a rock'n'roll history show. I've been working on writing a book about my father for about 30 years so while we do the songs authentically, between them we tell stories and the history of how this music came about. So it's really a history show.
You are telling anecdotes to the background of the songs as much as how rock'n'roll grew?
Yeah, I kind of set the songs up but I also tell other anecdotal stories about my father's relationship with my mother and things that happened to keep it interesting, and to present a clearer picture of the circumstances of how this music came about.
How well did you know your dad? Was he around in your life for a long time?
My mother and father split up when I was eight and he moved to Mexico, so the first eight years of my life we lived together and I have memories of that. Then I only had sporadic contact with my father for much of my teenage years. But then we got back in touch in the last couple of years before he died and spoke very frequently on the phone.
So there was certainly a lot of lost father and son moments over the years and that would have been true whether he'd stayed or not because of the nature of his travel. But I got to know him as well as anyone could.
This would have been when?
They split in '63 and my father passed away in '81 so it was late late Seventies when we reconnected.
He would have been doing a lot of touring in the early Sixties, Europe particularly.
Yeah, he was touring constantly, Europe many times, South and Central America a lot. And he spent a lot of time in Mexico in the early Sixties. South Africa too and he may have made it to the Orient, I'm not sure. He went to Australia in Jan '57 on a tour which was so successful that Frank Sinatra was scheduled to do a tour right after him but when he got to Hawaii he cancelled because he didn't want to follow that act.
You said you are writing a biography. There are some people who are ill-represented by a decent biography and your father is one of them. There is a great story there.
I started it back when I was in college but put it aside for a very long time and in the past year I am trying to tie it all up. It's an extremely interesting story in having all those elements which make an interesting story: rags to riches to rags again, the whole story about the music itself and its obstacles and acceptance, the world travel . . . And I fill the book with anecdotes about jokes they [Bill and the Comets] played on each other, and of course the relationship with my mother and the challenges of trying to maintain a relationship when you are constantly on the road.
There is a lot of drama, funny and sad, and tragedy too because a lot of people who were close to my dad – like family members and musicians – passed away prematurely. There is every element you might conceive of. I am hoping it will be out for next year, the 60th anniversary of Rock Around the Clock.
My understanding your dad was starting an autobiography when he died. Have you had access to those papers?
No, and I even question whether if that information is accurate. I've read what you have about that. One thing I have which is minuscule in terms of its importance for the book is a diary that he kept for about a year in his heyday. That helps to get insights into his perspective. But much of the information comes from interviews with musicians who played with him, and my mother and his first wife. My father's business manager was incredibly helpful in term of documents and interviews, so I hope I can put together a detailed picture of the man.
I look at your father's life and see him as a victim of rock'n'roll given he was a country singer originally, but when he became that star there was not just the pressure to tour but to also repeat the formula. That much have been incredible pressure on him to do that same thing and not break out of that idiom.
That's a very good point, I'll elaborate a bit here.
My father started out loving country music and grew up listening to Grand Ole Opry and he idolised the singing cowboys like Gene Autry. Then he got a chance to go out and be a yodeling cowboy and traveling around the country, and he started getting exposed to what was then called race music which we now call rhythm and blues.
He met and became a good friend of Hank Williams who was known as the king of the hillbilly blues. So even though he was cowboy artist who loved country music he was also interested in Western Swing and opened his arms to the blues. So he had a pretty decent carer as a Western artist and at a certain point he felt he had gone as far as he could and became a disc jockey on a radio station.
In '49, when he was about 24, he was thinking of becoming a radio personality for the rest of his life and didn't foresee going anywhere with the music, even though he still had a band.
At that time there was a lot of segregation and that included music, so race music or rhythm and blues songs weren't played on the major radio stations and you couldn't buy the records in white record stores.
But some of the smaller radio stations like the one my father was programme director on would have a one hour show every devoted to this music. My father was exposed to these songs. So while he is out there playing his Western hillbilly music these rhythm and blues songs were in his head.
One night, as a joke, in 1950 he played a song called Rock the Joint which was the theme song to the radio show which was called Judge Rhythm's Court, and the audience loved it. They were mainly sailors stationed at the Philadelphia naval yard and this was during the Korean War and that was the first time the navy was integrated, so some of these sailors had been exposed to this music for the first time and they took right to it.
That made the lightbulb go off in my father's head, that maybe there was something in trying to integrated these two forms of music.
That's how it started and more and more they had this schizophrenic existence as a band where they had the cowboy hats and boots but were starting to play rhythm and blues tunes in their own style.
Then they started bringing in non-Western instruments like the saxophone and there was an element of jazz which came in.
So it was a cauldron of three musical forms coming together and in '52 and '53 they got the idea that teenagers were the ones who were going to be buying the records.
This was post-World War II America with prosperity and there was that population explosion of the Baby Boomer generation, so they went out and decided they would play for free a total 183 high schools in the Philadelphia area, and they treated it like a science project.
They would play their songs and watch the students and see when they were bobbing their shoulders and tapping their shoes and clapping their hands, and that showed it was something they wanted.
So that's how they created and evolved this sound, in an effort create this music which would appeal to teenagers who would be the ones buying the records. What they learned is teenagers wanted music which was upbeat, easy to dance to and had simple lyrics they could remember.
And that was the driving force in creating the sound.
But this took on a life of its own and they became enormously popular and for two years they dominated the record charts and became identified with this sound which was far away from where they started.
Then what happened was in later years after my father's popularity in America began to wane and he was replaced by Elvis and some of the others, and then all American music changed and by the late Fifties there was all that instrumental music and it was the clean cut Frankie Avalons.
At that point my father did want to go back to his Western and country roots and change in that way, but he found himself in a position where people just wanted to hear Rock Around the Clock, Shake Rattle and Roll and See You Later Alligator.
Even though he wanted to change that wasn't what his audience wanted, so he really was trapped in that identity for the rest of his life and it was bitter-sweet. He appreciated the fact he did have something he was known for and would give him work, but musically he would have preferred to move back to Western and country which he loved.
Or in a new direction, but was unable to do so.
The irony of Rock Around the Clock being associated with Blackboard Jungle meant this great party song became a kind of rebel anthem for bad teenagers. Your dad was aware of that and hurt by it?
Rock Around the Clock was originally the B-side of the record and was largely overlooked when it came out. The A-side was Thirteen Women which was not a big record but did okay. The next record they made was Shake Rattle and Roll and it was a monster bit, so it wasn't until a year after Rock Around the Clock was recorded that it was reissued when it was on the soundtrack to Blackboard Jungle.
When the movie came out my father and his business manager Sam Short went up to New York to see the premier and sat in the back of the theatre and didn't know what to expect. When my father had got the call from Hollywood asking for permission he thought it was great because it was good for business but he didn't know much about the movie.
It was a shock and surprise to him when he saw it, and saw the intentional association of that song with juvenile delinquency. It troubled him when they watched it and they drove back the hour and half back to Philadelphia and my father didn't say a word for most of the drive. Finally he pulled into a rest stop and said to Sam, “If this is what my music does to kids I don't want to do this anymore” because he was so upset by that intended association.
Of course he did continue to do it and have many more hits but from that point onwards it was incumbent on him to become the spokesman for that music and the one who attempted to defuse the situation and explain the situation and say that this music does not cause juvenile delinquency, it was all about having fun and no different to what that generation of parents did when they listened to the Charleston back in the Twenties.
But because he was the first one to have success with this music and by far the most popular for at least the first two years before Elvis came out, it was incumbent on him to answer those questions about juvenile delinquency.
It troubled him deeply that he had to defend the music but he took that role seriously and believed in his heart of hearts that this music did not cause juvenile delinquency.
But my dad was victim of the times. It was a conservative society and let's not overlook also the second thing, not just juvenile delinquency, but there was a lot of racism and there was a fear this music – because many of the rhythm and blues artists whose songs were now being covered and played [were black] – were encouraging indirectly integration of sorts.
My father was put in the position also of defending the music against those who feared race mixing and also delinquency.
I've always thought these people were often very courageous, sometimes unconsciously so, and they eroded the barriers of race just by what they were doing. Your dad wrote a lot of songs and did he keep the publishing or, like most people at the time, did he never get his dues on that?
For some of the songs he did. Personally I've never shared in any of that and my father did remarry and when he died in his will he left everything to his third wife.
So there is a Haley estate that goes to his family he created after my family. I think the estate did keep some of that [publishing] but of course his most popular songs were written by others. But songs like Crazy Man and hits like Hot Dog and Buddy Buddy had writing credits and I'm sure his estate still benefits from them.
Your dad had a sad end and we have to address that as an historical fact. Some say alcoholism, some say a mental instability which we might now recognise. What is your take on his final years, do you know?
Yes, certainly I do because we spoke and without a doubt alcohol was the major factor. But then you have to address what are the causes of alcoholism. It's hard to play psychologist and you have to resist the tendency to be judgement as well but – trying to keep an open about it -- my father self-destructed because he had some very personal demons he was dealing with in terms of how he lived his life. I'm addressing that in my book and trying to be honest about it.
My father didn't live up to his responsibilities as a father and I think that troubled him and ate at him, but the fact he became an alcoholic really spun him out of control and there was a physical deterioration and mental instability. There were rumours he had brain cancer and there were other explanations for his erratic behaviour. He would spend hours and hours in the middle of the night calling friends and acquaintances, myself included, but I can tell you of one instance in particular where he said “I'll call you in the morning”.
Now I didn't think he would, but he did and he was sober which was the exception not the rule. And he was clear, alert and lucid. So I think the drinking was the real cause of the behaviours which leads to the speculation as to what the real issues were.
And I gotta say this about my dad, he had a tendency to fabricate things – why I don't know – but I think it goes into the cause of his alcoholism which was guilt.
If the question is what do I think killed him, it was alcoholism exacerbated by a guilty conscience. That's my best answer.
BILL HALEY JR AND THE COMETS NEW ZEALAND TOUR
Sat March 15: Stadium Southland, Invercargill
Sun March 16: Town Hall, Dunedin
Mon March 17: Theatre Royal, Timaru
Tue March 18: Aurora Centre, Christchurch
Wed March 19: Trafalgar Centre, Nelson
Thurs March 20: Opera Houise, Wellington
Sat March 22: Hawkes Bay Opera House, Hastings
Sun March 23: Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North
Tues March 25: TSB Theatre, New Plymouth
Wed March 26: ASB Theatre, Auckland
Fri March 28: Holy Trinity, Tauranga
Sat March 29: Energy Events Centre, Rotorua
Sun March 30: Founders Theatre, Hamilton