Rockers culture

 

Bill Haley & His Comets

 

The original members of Bill Haley and His Comets, c.1952. Left to right: Marshall Lytle, Johnny Grande, Bill Haley, Billy Williamson.

 

The original members of Bill Haley and His Comets, c.1952. Left to right: Marshall Lytle, Johnny Grande, Bill Haley, Billy Williamson.

Bill Haley and His Comets was a rock and roll band that was founded in the 1950s and continued until Haley's death in 1981. This band, which was also known by the names Bill Haley and The Comets and Bill Haley's Comets (and variations thereof), was one of the earliest groups of white musicians to bring rock and roll to the attention of white America and the rest of the world. Bandleader Bill Haley had previously been a country performer; after recording a country and western-styled version of "Rocket 88", a rhythm and blues song, he changed musical direction to a new sound called rock and roll.

Although several members of the Comets became famous, Bill Haley remained the star. With his spit curl and the band's matching plaid dinner jackets and energetic stage behaviour, many fans consider them to be as revolutionary in their time as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were in theirs.

Following Haley's death, no less than six different groups have existed under the Comets name, all claiming (with varying degrees of authority) to be the official continuation of the group led by Haley.

 

Early history and Rocket 88

The band initially formed as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen c.1949-1950, and performed mostly country and western songs, though occasionally with a bluesy feel. Many Saddlemen recordings would not be released until the 1970s and 1980s, and highlights included romantic ballads such as "Rose of My Heart" and western swing tunes such as "Yodel Your Blues Away." The original members of this group were Haley, pianist and accordion player Johnny Grande and steel guitarist Billy Williamson. Al Thompson was the group's first bass player, followed by Al Rex and Marshall Lytle.

Haley began his rock and roll career with a cover of "Rocket 88" recorded for the Philadelphia-based Holiday Records label in 1951 which sold well and was followed up a cover of a 1940s rhythm and blues song called "Rock the Joint" in 1952 (this time for Holiday's sister company, Essex Records). Both songs were released under the increasingly incongruous Saddlemen name. It soon became apparent that a new name was needed to fit the music the band was now playing. A friend of Haley's, making note of the common alternate pronunciation of the name Halley's Comet to rhyme with "Bailey", suggested that Haley call his band The Comets.

The new name was adopted in the fall of 1952. At that time, the members were Haley, Grande, Williamson, and Lytle. Grande usually played piano on record, but switched to accordion for live shows as it was more portable than a piano and easier to deal with during musical numbers that involved a lot of dancing around. Soon after renaming the band, Haley hired his first drummer, Charlie Higler, though Higler was soon replaced by Dick Boccelli (a.k.a Dick Richards). During this time (and indeed, as late as the fall of 1955), Haley did not have a permanent lead guitar player, choosing to use session musicians on record and either playing lead guitar himself or having Williamson play steel solos, instead.

 

National success and Rock Around the Clock

In 1953, Haley scored his first national success with an original song (co-written by an uncredited Marshall Lytle) called "Crazy Man Crazy", a phrase Haley said he heard from his teenaged audience. Haley later claimed it sold a million copies, but this is considered an exaggeration. "Crazy Man Crazy" was the first rock and roll song to be televised nationally when it was used on the soundtrack for a 1953 television play starring James Dean.

In early 1954, Haley added Joey Ambrose on tenor sax, and soon after this the band left Essex Records for the larger Decca Records label of New York City. For their first recording session on April 12, 1954, with session musicians Danny Cedrone on electric guitar and Billy Gussak on drums (standing in for Boccelli), Bill Haley and His Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock". Haley's biggest hit, and one of the most important records in rock and roll history, sales of "Rock Around the Clock" started slow but eventually sold an estimated 25 million copies (per the Guinness Book of World Records) and marked the arrival of a cultural shift.

Initially, "Rock Around the Clock" was only a modest success. Much more impressive was the million-seller, "Shake, Rattle and Roll", a somewhat bowlderdized version of the Big Joe Turner recording of earlier in 1954. Although Haley's recording is often referred to as a cover version, it technically isn't as the song is a) substantially rearranged and bears almost no resemblence to Turner's version and b) it was not released in direct competition with Turner's original. Although Haley's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" never achieved the same level of historical importance as "Rock Around the Clock", it actually predated "Clock" as the first major international rock and roll hit, although it did not attain the No. 1 position in the American charts. When Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1956, he combined Haley's arrangement with Turner's original lyrics but failed to score a subtantial hit.

The (belated) success of "Rock Around the Clock" is attributed to its use in the soundtrack of the film Blackboard Jungle, which was released in March 1955. The song, which was rereleased to coincide with the film, rose to the top of the American musical charts that summer and stayed there for eight weeks, the first rock and roll record to do so.

Ambrose's acrobatic saxophone playing, along with Lytle on the double bass--literally on it, riding it like a pony, and holding it over his head--were highlights of the band's live performances during this time. Their music and their act were part of a tradition in jazz and rhythm and blues, but it all came like a thunderclap to most of their audience.

Bill Haley and His Comets in 1956. Left to right: Rudy Pompilli, Billy Williamson, Al Rex, Johnny Grande, Ralph Jones, Franny Beecher. Top: Bill Haley.

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Bill Haley and His Comets in 1956. Left to right: Rudy Pompilli, Billy Williamson, Al Rex, Johnny Grande, Ralph Jones, Franny Beecher. Top: Bill Haley.

In 1955, Lytle, Richards and Ambrose quit the Comets in a salary dispute and formed their own group, the Jodimars. Haley hired several new musicians to take their place: Rudy Pompilli on sax, Al Rex (a former member of the Saddlemen) on double bass, and Ralph Jones on drums; in addition, lead guitarist Franny Beecher, who had been a session musician for Haley since Cedrone's death in the fall of 1954, became a full-time Comet and Haley's first performing lead guitarist. This version of the band became even more popular than the earlier manifestation, and appeared in several motion pictures over the next few years.

Other hits recorded by the band included "See You Later Alligator" in which Haley's frantic delivery contrasted with the Louisiana langour of the original by Bobby Charles, "Don't Knock the Rock", "Rock-a-Beatin Boogie", "Rudy's Rock" (the first instrumental hit of the rock and roll era), "Skinny Minnie".

In 1956, Bill Haley and His Comets appeared in two of the earliest rock and roll movies: Rock Around the Clock, and Don't Knock the Rock. In 1957, the band became the first major American rock and roll act to tour England, and their arrival at Waterloo Station in London was greeted by thousands of screaming fans who created a scene that became known as The Second Battle of Waterloo.

 

Decline in popularity

The band's popularity in the United States began to wane in 1956-57 as sexier, wilder acts such as Elvis and Little Richard began to dominate the record charts (although Haley's cover version of Little Richard's "Rip It Up" - which was released in direct competition - actually outsold the original). After "Skinny Minnie" hit the charts in 1958, Haley found it difficult to score further successes Stateside, although a spin-off group made up of Comets musicians dubbed The Kingsmen (no relation to the later group of "Louie, Louie" fame) did score a hit with the instrumental, "Weekend" that same year.

Overseas, however, Haley and his band continued to be extremely popular, touring the United Kingdom in the spring of 1957 during which Haley and his crew were mobbed by thousands of fans at Waterloo Station in London at an incident dubbed the "Second Battle of Waterloo" by media. That same year, the Comets toured Australia and in 1958 enjoyed a successful (if riot-dominated) tour of the European mainland. Bill Haley & His Comets were the first major American rock and roll act to tour the world in this way.

Back in the U.S., Haley attempted to start his own record label, Clymax, and establish his own stable of performers, most notably Sally Starr (a children's show host) and the Matys Brothers. Members of The Comets were commissioned to work as session musicians on many of these recordings, many of which were written or co-written by Haley and/or members of The Comets. The Clymax experiment only lasted about a year. In 1959, Haley's relationship with Decca collapsed and after a final set of instrumental-only recordings in the fall, Haley announced he was leaving Decca for the new Warner Brothers label.

In 1960, the band enjoyed its last new hit in the United States with an instrumental version of "Skokiaan" on Decca, although another instrumental for Warner Brothers that same year called "Tamiami" almost became a hit. Meanwhile, Haley and the Comets began recording for Warner Brothers in January, creating a series of critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful songs over the next 13-14 months, many in the country and western style. Between 1961 and 1969, Haley and His Comets recorded unsuccessful singles for a number of small labels in America such as Newtown Records, Guest Star Records, APT Records, as well as for United Artists. APT Records even went so far as to release a single under the name B.H. Sees Combo in order to trick American radio stations into playing music by the so-called "has been" group. Guest Star Records released an album of Haley recordings under the name Scott Gregory, possibly due to the fact Haley was having major problems with the Internal Revenue Service at the time. In 1964 there was an abortive attempt to return to Decca with a low-selling recording of Jim Lowe's "The Green Door" backed by "Yeah, She's Evil!" a song that would later be recorded by Elvis Presley for the soundtrack of his movie, Girl Happy.

For commercial success in the 1960s, the band had to turn to venues outside the United States. The group continued to be a top concert draw in Europe throughout the 1960s, including a successful stint at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany where they played around the same time the Beatles performed there.

 

Mexico

In 1961-1962, Bill Haley y sus cometas (as the band was known in Latin America) scored an unexpected hit with "The Spanish Twist" and later had what was, for a time, the biggest selling single in Mexican history with "Florida Twist." Although Chubby Checker and Hank Ballard were credited with starting the Twist craze in America, in Mexico and Latin America, Bill Haley and His Comets were proclaimed the Kings of the Twist. The band had continued success in Mexico and Latin America over the next few years, selling many recordings of Spanish and Spanish flavored material and simulated live performances (overdubbed audience over studio recordings) on the Orfeon Records and Dimsa Records labels. They hosted a TV series entitled Orfeon a Go-Go and made cameo appearances in several movies, lipsynching to one of their old hits. In 1966, the Comets (without Bill Haley) cut a Mexican album with Big Joe Turner, who had always been an idol to Haley; no joint performance of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was recorded, however. In a 1974 interview with BBC Radio, Haley said Turner's career was in a slump at this time, so he used his then-considerable influence with Orfeon Records to get Turner a recording session. The Comets' association with Orfeon/Dimsa ended later that year.

Vintage magazine cover published during the Comets' pioneering 1957 tour of the United Kingdom.

 

Vintage magazine cover published during the Comets' pioneering 1957 tour of the United Kingdom.

 

Revival

By the late 1960s, Haley and the Comets were considered an oldies act, and toured with great success with Richard Nader's Rock and Roll Revival tours through the early 1970s. The band's popularly never waned in Europe, and the group signed a lucrative deal with Sonet Records of Sweden in 1968 that resulted in a new version of "Rock Around the Clock" hitting the European charts that year. The band appeared in several concert films in the early 1970s, including The London Rock and Roll Show and Let the Good Times Roll.

After 1974, tax and management problems prevented Haley from performing in the United States, so he performed in Europe almost exclusively, though he also toured South America in 1975. The band was also kept busy in the studio, recording numerous albums for Sonet and other labels in the 1970s, several with a country music flavor. In 1974, Haley's original Decca recording of "Rock Around the Clock" hit the American sales charts once again thanks to its use in American Graffiti and Happy Days.

 

Late career

In February 1976, Haley's saxophone player and best friend, Rudy Pompilli, died of cancer after a 20-year career with the Comets. Haley continued to tour for the next year with a replacement musician, but confessed that his heart was no longer in it. In early 1977 he announced his retirement and settled down at his home in Mexico. The Comets continued to tour on their own.

In 1979, Haley was persuaded to return to performing with the offer of a lucrative contract to tour Europe. An almost completely new group of musicians, mostly British, were assembled to perform as The Comets, and Haley appeared on many TV shows as well as the movie Blue Suede Shoes, filmed at one of his London concerts in March. A few days later, a performance in Birmingham was videotaped and aired on UK television; it was released on DVD in 2005.

In November 1979, Haley and the Comets performed for Queen Elizabeth II, a moment Haley considered the proudest of his career. It was also the last time he performed in Europe and the last time most fans saw him perform "Rock Around the Clock."

In 1980, Bill Haley and His Comets toured South Africa but Haley's health was failing and it was reported that he had a brain tumor. The tour was critically lambasted, but surviving recordings of a performance in Johannesburg show Haley in good spirits and good voice. Nonetheless, planned concerts such as a fall 1980 tour of Germany, and proposed recording sessions in New York and Memphis were cancelled -- including a potential reunion with past members of the Comets -- and Haley returned to his home in Harlingen, Texas where he died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack on February 9, 1981. Media reports after his death suggested that Haley displayed erratic and deranged behavior during the final months of his life, but little of this has been definitively confirmed.

In 1987, Bill Haley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At that time, supporting bands were not also named to the hall. This policy has since changed and efforts have been under way for several years to have The Comets also named to the Hall. Bill Haley and His Comets have also been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and, in July 2005, the surviving members of the 1954-55 Comets (see below) represented Haley when Bill Haley and His Comets were inducted into Hollywood's Rockwalk, a ceremony also attended by Haley's second wife and youngest daughter. The Comets placed their handprints in cement; a space was left blank for Haley.

 

The Comets

More than 100 musicians performed with Bill Haley & His Comets between 1952 and Haley's death in 1981, many becoming fan favorites along the way. Several short-lived Comets reunions were attempted in the 1980s, including one contingent that appeared on The Tomorrow Show, and another run by an Elvis Presley impersonator named Joey Rand (this group later lost a legal action over the right to use the Comets name).

The Comets, featuring musicians who performed with Haley in 1954-1955, reunited in 1987 and are still touring the world as of 2005, playing showrooms in the United States and Europe. They have also recorded a half-dozen albums for small labels in Europe and the United States. This version of the group has also been credited as Bill Haley's Original Comets, and in circumstances where the use of the Comets name is in dispute, A Tribute to Bill Haley and The Original Band. The basic line-up of this group is Marshall Lytle (bass), Joey Ambrose (sax), Johnny Grande (piano), Dick Richards (drums) and Franny Beecher (guitar). British singer Jacko Buddin augments the group on vocals during European tours, and guitarist Andrew Norblin recently joined the band as a featured guest performer.

Two additional groups claim the name Bill Haley's Comets and have extensively toured in the United States since forming in the 1980s: one featuring Haley's 1965-68 drummer John "Bam-Bam" Lane, the other run by Al Rappa who played bass for Haley off-and-on between late 1959 and early 1969. Both these musicians claim trademark ownership of the Bill Haley's Comets name; this dates back to Lane and Rappa (during a period when they worked together as one band) winning a trademark infringement lawsuit against the aforementioned Joey Rand in 1989. Both Rappa and Lane's bands have, from time to time, recruited other former Comets for their line-ups, but for the most part the bandleaders are the only regular members who have worked with Bill Haley directly.

In March and July 2005, the members of the 1954-55 group, now billed as simply The Comets after decades of controversy over the use of the name, made several high-profile concert appearances in New York City and Los Angeles as part of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of rock and roll, the release of Blackboard Jungle, the 50th anniversary of "Rock Around the Clock" hitting No. 1, and the 80th birthday of Bill Haley. During a July 6, 2005 concert at the Viper Room in West Hollywood, The Comets were joined on stage for one song by Gina Haley, the youngest daughter of Bill Haley; at a similar appearance in March they were joined by Haley's eldest son, John W. Haley.

In 2006, The Comets will spend much of the year in residence at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Missouri. Meanwhile, the John Lane edition of Bill Haley's Comets are scheduled to record a new album in Tennessee in early 2006.

 

Unreleased recordings

As with Elvis Presley and other contemporaries of the 1950s, a large stock of previously unreleased recordings by Bill Haley exist. Many of these are early country and western tracks recorded as demos or, for some reason, unreleased. However, occasionally tracks from the 1950s and 1960s have emerged, as have live recordings. Since the early 1990s several European labels have released a number of previously unreleased recordings, including Hydra Records, Rollercoaster Records, Rockstar Records, Buddah Records, and Bear Family Records. Highlighted discoveries have included an April 1955 concert in Cleveland, Ohio, a concert recording from the German tour of 1958, live recordings from New York's The Bitter End in 1969, many demos and unreleased recordings from the 1946-54 era (the Bear Family label is scheduled to release a box set with many of these recordings in early 2006), and demos and unused tracks from the 1958-1961 era. To date, however, no one has discovered any alternate takes of any of Haley's most famous songs, in particular "Rock Around the Clock" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll".

 

Selected musical highlights

This list consists of songs that are often cited by Comets fans as among their best recordings, however Bill Haley and His Comets recorded hundreds of songs between 1952 and 1979. For a complete discography and song list, visit Bill Haley Central.

  • "Rocket 88" (1951) - originally released under the name Bill Haley and the Saddlemen
  • "Rock the Joint" (1952) - originally released under the name Bill Haley and the Saddlemen
  • "Crazy Man Crazy" (1953)
  • "Real Rock Drive" (1953)
  • "Rock Around the Clock" (1954)
  • "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (1954)
  • "Dim, Dim the Lights" (1954)
  • "Mambo Rock" (1955)
  • "Razzle-Dazzle" (1955)
  • "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie" (1955)
  • "The Saints' Rock and Roll" (1955)
  • "See You Later Alligator" (1955)
  • "Rudy's Rock" (1956) - instrumental featuring Rudy Pompilli
  • "Goofin' Around" (1956) - instrumental featuring Franny Beecher
  • "Hot Dog Buddy Buddy" (1956)
  • "Don't Knock the Rock" (1956)- title song of the film
  • "Rockin' Thru the Rye" (1956)
  • "Rip it Up" (1956) - cover of the Little Richard hit
  • "Rock Lomond" (1957)
  • "Rock the Joint" (1957) - re-recording of the 1952 hit
  • "Ain't Misbehavin'" (1957) - Fats Waller composition
  • "Skinny Minnie" (1958) - Haley's last top-40 hit in the United States
  • "Corrine Corrina" (1958) - folk song also recorded by Big Joe Turner
  • "Joey's Song" (1958) - instrumental featuring Rudy Pompilli
  • "A Fool Such As I" (1959) - previously recorded by Elvis Presley
  • "Skokiaan" (1959), cover of one of the first Afro-pop hits
  • "Tamiami" (1960) - instrumental featuring Rudy Pompilli and Johnny Grande
  • "Stagger Lee" (1960) - folk blues based upon the story of Frankie and Johnny.
  • "I Don't Hurt Anymore" (1960)
  • "Hawk" (1960)
  • "Chick Safari" (1960)
  • "Florida Twist" (1961) - top-selling single in Mexican history up to this time
  • "Yakety Sax" (1962) - cover of the Boots Randolph classic
  • "The Spanish Twist" (1962)
  • "Marie Twist" (1962)
  • "Tenor Man" (1963)
  • "One Phone Call" (1963) - instrumental featuring Rudy Pompilli, unreleased until 1999
  • "Jimmy Martinez" (1964) - recorded in Spanish without the Comets
  • "She Thinks I Still Care" (1964), country cover
  • "The Green Door" (1964) - recorded for Decca
  • "Land of A Thousand Dances" (1966)
  • "How Many?" (1966) - remake of a song originally recorded for Decca in 1957
  • "Jealous Heart" (1967) - solo recording made by Haley without the Comets. Unreleased until 1999
  • "Cryin' Time" (1968) - country cover originally by Buck Owens
  • "Flip, Flop and Fly" (1968) - Big Joe Turner cover (Haley recorded this song many times over the years, but the 1968 version for Sonet is considered his best attempt)
  • "That's How I Got to Memphis" (1968) - cover of the Tom T. Hall hit
  • "Almost Persuaded" (1969) - country cover featuring a vocal by drummer Bill Nolte. Unreleased until 1999
  • "Dance Around the Clock" (1970) - re-recording of a song Haley introduced in 1964 as a sequel to "Rock Around the Clock"
  • "A Little Piece at a Time" (1970)
  • "No Letter Today" (1970) - re-recording of a song Haley first recorded in 1960
  • "Games People Play" (1970) - cover of the Joe South protest song
  • "Rudy's Rock" (1975) re-recording; Rudy Pompilli solo recording with the Comets sans Haley
  • "Same Old Loverman" (1975) - Rudy Pompilli solo instrumental recording of the Gordon Lightfoot song
  • "I Got a Woman" (1976) - Ray Charles cover previously recorded by Haley in 1959.
  • "Hail Hail Rock and Roll" (1979)
  • "God Bless Rock and Roll" (1979) - Haley's final single release

 

 

 

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