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Introduction to Bill Haley and the Comets

Bill Haley and the Comets were founded and led by Bill Haley (1925­ 1981). His act is considered one of the earliest architects of rockabilly and most of all classic rock and roll music. He and his band, called Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, were playing country music until he changed the band’s name into Bill Haley and the Comets as he created his new musical identity. In the 1950s, Bill Haley and the Comets went on to become a national stars by scoring hits such as “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Burn That Candle,” “See You Later, Alligator,” and their most famous song “Rock Around The Clock,” which critics claim, signaled the birth of rock and roll. After the mid-50s music era, their hits began to dry up. By the late 1960s, they quickly became a popular oldies music act, but Bill Haley and the Comets still retained their popularity in Europe, where they toured extensively and secured lucrative recording deals. By the early 1980s, they were still active touring but Haley’s health was failing. He died in his sleep in his home in Texas, in February 1981. He was 55 years old. After Haley’s death The Comets reunited in 1987 (the same year wherein they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame) and continued to tour as of 2007, performing in the US and Europe.

The Evolving Line-Up

The band’s lineup saw several changes over the years, with Bill Haley remaining the constant frontman. Key members included:

  • Bill Haley: The charismatic leader and vocalist, Haley was the driving force behind the band’s success.
  • Franny Beecher (guitar), Billy Williamson (steel guitar), Johnny Grande (piano, accordion), Marshall Lytle (bass), and Joey Ambrose (saxophone) were among the early members who contributed to the band’s classic hits.
  • Over time, members like Rudy Pompilli (saxophone) and Al Rex (bass) joined, bringing new energy and contributing to the band’s evolving sound.

Top Hits

Bill Haley & His Comets produced a string of hits that became anthems for the rock ‘n’ roll movement. Among these, the following stand out:

  • “Rock Around the Clock” (1954): Often heralded as the song that brought rock ‘n’ roll to the mainstream, this track became an international sensation, defining the genre for generations to come.
  • “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (1954): A cover of Big Joe Turner’s hit, this song showcased the band’s ability to blend rhythm and blues with a rockabilly vibe.
  • “See You Later, Alligator” (1956): With its catchy phrase and upbeat rhythm, this song further cemented the band’s place in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Rock and Rockabilly’s Pioneers

Bill Haley/Elvis/Hank Snow Ticket – Oklahoma City newspaper ad. for Sunday October 16, 1955; two shows at the Municipal Auditorium. Note: Elvis Presley's first appearance to be co-promoted (with Hank Snow) by Colonel Tom Parker.

Bill Haley and The Comets were one of the earliest as well as most phenomenal rock and roll groups during the 1950s. They were also known by other names as Bill Haley and His Comets and Bill Haley’s Comets.

The band’s leader Bill Haley (born William John Clifton Haley on July 6 1925, in Highland Park, Michigan) used to be a country singer, front­lining a country band called Bill Haley and the Saddlemen in the the years 1949 to 1952.

When he put a country spin to Jackie Brenston’s R&B original number “Rocket 88,” it was at that point where he began to change his musical direction to what is known as rockabilly music. His version of “Rocket 88” sold very well. At that time Haley wanted a new direction and identity for his band first by changing the Saddlemen name into Bill Haley and The Comets (a world play based on the real-­life phenomenon Halley’s Comet), to go well into the new musical style.

Haley and his band achieved their first national hit in 1953 with “Crazy Man, Crazy” (at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100), which was co­written by Haley himself. It was followed by “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (#7 US, #4 UK) in 1954 which became a more popularized version of the Big Joe Turner original, and has been considered as a first major rock and roll record.

Then in 1955 another single called “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” (#1 pop, 3 R&B) was released. It became a massive hit that year thanks in part to the film Blackboard Jungle, which used the song as part of its soundtrack.

By then Bill Haley and The Comets became a national sensation; and even before the arrival of Elvis Presley or Little Richard, the band took the country by storm and were hailed as the true pioneers of rock and roll. Onstage, Bill Haley and the Comets were known for their energetic, dynamic presence and especially their matching outfits and Haley’s spit curl, something which many fans saw as revolutionary in their time.

The band underwent some personnel changes as they scored a few more hits like “See You Later Alligator” (#6, US pop, #7 US R&B, #7 UK), “Burn That Candle” (#9, US, #9 R&B), “Birth of the Boogie” (#17 pop), and “R­O­C­K” (#16 pop, #15 R&B), among all others. More minor hits followed such as “Rip It Up” (#25 US, #4 UK), “Razzle­Dazzle” (#15 US, #13 UK), “Skinny Minnie” (#22 US) and a few others.

The Comets’ popularity declined by the mid ­1950s as more come-hither acts such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard began to dominate the charts. Dynamic performers such as guitarist/­singer Chuck Berry and more subtle rock and rollers like Buddy Holly also began to influence the fans’ tastes later on. But the Comets still soldiered on.

Their European and Australian tour in the years 1957-1958 were punctuated by mobbing fans as well as riots. Bill Haley established his own label Clymax, but it soon folded; then he left Decca and signed up with Warner Bros. Records, where he released records to moderate success. The band found some success in Latin America as their “Twist Espanol” became a surprise hit in the early 1960s, as the Twist dance craze caught on in the region; the band continued to have commercial successes there.

Since the late 1960s the Comets had become a popular oldies/nostalgia act. The band went on with performing and touring this time in Europe, most particularly in the UK. There, Haley performed for Queen Elizabeth in 1979, which he saw as the “proudest” moment of his career. The band was still active but Haley’s health continued to worsen, and in 1981 Haley died in Texas. He was 55 years old.

After his death, a new breed of musicians as well as members of the original 1950s lineup are still playing under the names Bill Haley’s Comets, or just simply The Comets. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In a bid to carry on his father’s legacy, Haley’s son Bill Haley Jr. formed Bill Haley Jr. and The Comets in 2011 and embarked on a small tour in some parts of the US.

Interesting Facts

  • Pioneers of the Music Video: The band was among the first to produce a precursor to the modern music video, a soundie for “Rock Around the Clock.”
  • A Global Sensation: They were one of the first major American rock ‘n’ roll acts to tour Europe and Australia, spreading the genre globally.
  • Innovative Recording Techniques: Haley’s innovative use of double tracking on “Rock Around the Clock” was revolutionary at the time.

Impact on Generational Music

Bill Haley & His Comets were more than just a band; they were a cultural phenomenon. “Rock Around the Clock” became an anthem for rebellious youth of the 1950s, symbolizing a break from the conservative norms of the time. Their music appeared in films like “Blackboard Jungle,” further embedding rock ‘n’ roll in the fabric of American culture and spreading its influence worldwide.

Bill Haley & His Comets were not just musicians; they were part of a cultural revolution. Their music did more than just entertain; it broke barriers, challenged norms, and opened the door for countless artists who followed. By blending the rhythms of the past with the energy of the future, they created a timeless sound that continues to inspire and excite audiences around the world. The legacy of Bill Haley & His Comets is a testament to the enduring power of rock ‘n’ roll.

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