Bill Haley and his Comets produced basic but truly gripping music, a form of Rock ‘n’ Roll that transcended life itself.
Bill Haley is best remembered for this one song, Rock Around The Clock which is stated as the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll but Bill was recording Rock ‘n’ Roll back in 1951......
Yodel Your Blues Away...
William John Clifton Haley was born in Michigan in July of 1925. His was a musical family with his daddy playing banjo and his mom playing clasically taught piano. The young William Haley made himself a cardboard guitar but his parents soon replaced it with a real one.
Years passed and the family relocated to Boothwyn near Chester in Pennsylvania. In 1938 local kids would put on shows to raise money for good causes and the shy William John would sing some and strum on his guitar. He was shy and self conscious because he’d been blind in his left eye since infancy, the young William was intensely self conscious about his appearance. As a teenager Bill performed at local amusement parks and in 1943 he joined up with Cousin Lee’s Band who had a radio show on which he yodelled and played his guitar on.
America had entered the 2nd World War but Bill was not called up because of his eye. Instead he joined groups like the Range Riders and sang and yodelled with the Downhomers with talk of combining Hillbilly and Pop music even at this early stage. Aged 22 he left the Downhomers and returned to Chester to host a radio show on the WPWA station. He married his childhood sweetheart Dorothy Crow who was a beautiful part Indian girl and they had 2 children. He also took up with The Four Aces of Western Swing who featured Al Constantine on accordion, Barney Barnard on stand up bass and Tex King on guitar .Music was changing and Bill was aware of the coming of this change. The Four Aces of Western Swing disbanded in mid 1949 and a new group was soon put together called The Saddlemen.
Billy Williamson on steel guitar, John Grande on piano and accordian, Al Rex on bass and Bill Haley playing rythm guitar and singing, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. This was a fundemental step in the story of Rock ‘n’ Roll, for a white outfit to sometimes perform in a Rock ‘n’ Roll style. A heavy bass sound combined with an accordion, excellent steel guitar and the easy going vocal style of Bill Haley.A new form of music had been forming for years in many ways and the sound the Saddlmen produced was noticeably this new form of music.....Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Recordings show that the Saddlemen created pure Hillbilly like Ten Gallon Stetson but they also started adding Rhythm ‘n’ Blues to their western swing origins which produced an early form of Rock ‘n’ Roll which can be seen so clearly in recordings such as Rocket 88 laid down in 1951. A session guitarist by the name of Danny Cedrone played lead guitar on this recording and he would work with Bill and the boys a lot. Rocket 88 was originally an R&B song recorded by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats that same year. Also in 1951 bass player Al Rex left the band to be replaced by the 17 year old Marshall Lytle. Signed to the Holiday Record Company in 1951 Rocket 88 was released and in 1952 Rock The Joint was released on its sister record company Essex. These were hybrid recordings a mixture that produced Rock and Roll music.
The name of the Saddlemen no longer fitted the music this band produced. So, during Labor Day weekend 1952 the Saddlemen became the Comets. A name taken from Halley’s Comet. The magical name of Bill Haley and his Comets.
Crazy Man Crazy..
The historical name of the Comets was adopted in the fall of 52’ and the line up at this time was Bill Haley on vocals and rhythm guitar, John Grande on piano for recording but he still adding brilliantly to the sound of the band at gigs on accordion, Bill Williamson on steel guitar, Marshall Lytle on bass and very soon a drummer joined the Comets, Charlie Higher who was quickly replaced by Dick Richards.
In 1953 Crazy Man Crazy was released and it was their first national hit and it shows how phrases used by teenagers were being used in the Comets songs. ‘M-a-n..that’s crazy man, crazy! All that was needed was the addition of Gospel music and this would have been mid-fifties Rock ‘n’ Roll but the sound of this early line up of the Comets stood out loudly as a form of the Big Beat anyway. The vital sounding recording of Crazy Man Crazy hit number 20 on the Billboard charts and is said to have sold a million copies. It gained national recognition when used as the soundtrack in a CBS television series called Glory in the Flower which starred James Dean also in 1953. Superb recordings followed; Sundown Boogie, Dance With a Dolly, Rockin’ Chair On The Moon, Stop Beatin’ Round The Mulberry Bush, Real Rock Drive, What’cha Gonna Do, Pat-A-Cake, Fractured, Farewell So Long Goodbye. The band toured relentlessly and an all action stage act grew and now the Comets swayed all in time and the double bass was spun round and around as this band all stood dressed in sharp plaid tux’s but the tremendous pressure on Bill lead to him divorcing the beautiful Dorothy and quickly marrying a pretty young blond gal called Barbara Joan Cuppy.
Music is always on the move and the Comets sound and line up naturally changed.
The Comets sound was added to so much with the addition of saxophone firstly by Joey d’Ambrosio through 1954 and 1955. The great guitarist Franny Beecher began working as a session musician in 1954 and first recorded with Bill Haley on Dim Dim The Lights but it wasn’t until 1955 that Franny joined the group full time. But this story needs backing up, some! 1954.....54...
A sunny day in April of 1954 on West 80th Street in New York, the place Pythian Temple Studio and an historical record was about to be waxed. It wasn’t the first Rock ‘n’ Roll recording because that mixture had actually been forming for years but this recording was j-u-s-t right for the place and time! The musicians were right and everything was set up! Open the flood gates cos we’re gonna Rock Around The Clock! The excitement of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the feeling, the emotion and just hearing the drive and sureness of such a recording for the very first time, but it was a relatively unsuccessful record and only stayed in the charts for a week. The fact that this B side got any place at all is amazing and at the time the Comets just shrugged their shoulders and went on to record a cover of Big Joe Turners Shake Rattle and Roll which hit number 1 on the Billboard R&b charts.
A manic infestation was about to hit the earth as Rock Around The Clock was used in the opening credits of the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle. This movie’s theme was the story of delinquent youths at school and a teacher called Mister Dadier attempts to engage his students in learning but there seems no hope but this was the 1950s and everything ends well. Life on this earth would never be the same again! Teenagers across the whole, wide world rebelled into fits of riotous hooliganism! In Australia Bodgies and Widgies rebelled and in the Elephant and Castle area of London Town Teddy-Boys tore up cinema seats, outrage and delinquency! This earth shattering recording reached number 1 on the Billboard charts and Rock ‘n’ Roll, once an underground music was now the talk of everyone across the globe!
But turmoil took hold of the Comets as Joey d’Ambrosio, Dick Richards and Marshall Lytle left the band and formed the Jodimars in 1955 but also in that same year top sax man Rudy Pompilli joined the Comets! One door shuts and another opens!
Bill Haley and His Comets are truly unforgettable and important as hell in the story of Rock ‘n’ Roll, so help me....