Gary James' Interview With
Bill Haley Jr.

He's carrying on with the family tradition and if your last name was Haley, you too would be somehow involved in music. Bill Haley Jr. is keeping alive the music that started the Rock 'n' Roll revolution, a revolution made famous by his father, Bill Haley.

Q - Bill, have you always been a musician? I see at one point you were publishing a business magazine in Southeastern Pennsylvania called Route 422 Business Advisor. Was that anything to do with the music business?

A - No, nothing at all. I actually still do that. To tell you the truth Gary, I actually avoided going into the music business professionally. I've been a musician my whole life. I started playing guitar as a teenager, singing and of course got very interested in what my dad had done. A lot of contemporary stuff. I played in garage bands for fun. But for a variety of reasons I chose not to do it professionally. I really kind of avoided it most of my life, but I always kept a hand in it, but I went into publishing. I got a degree in journalism, a B.A. in journalism. I did some editing and got in the business end of publishing and then started my own publication about twenty years ago (1995), and still have it, called Route 422 Business Advisor. But to your point, about five years ago (2010) I was in a garage band as I said just for fun. One thing led to another and an old friend of mine, a great guitar player from high school days, got back together and said, "Let's do some things and play some original music." I had some tunes I had written. We had an opportunity to make a CD which we released as "Bill Haley And The Satellites". We did a CD release party in a retail store in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. The owners of the store asked if I would do some of my dad's tunes and I said I would be happy to do so because I mentioned I'd always done them for fun my whole life. So there were some Haley fans in the audience that packed the store that night. I guess they put the word out pretty good that we were playing there. Somebody took a cell phone video of us doing "Rock Around The Clock", heard on YouTube and that led to a call from a booking agent in Florida, Wolfman Jack Entertainment, who basically said if I could put together a band to play the music professionally he could probably find some good work for us to do that. So, at that point in my life, five years ago, I think I let go of all the reasons that had kept me from just going out there and doing something professionally and I'm still able to do it and maintain my business. So it's turned into a nice little second career for me and a good way to travel and have fun playing music and I consider myself a storyteller as much as a performer with this show 'cause we really do focus on telling the story of the very, very early days, beginning days of Rock 'n' Roll, particularly the role of my father and his fellow musicians. It's turned into a real kind of fun thing to do and it's worked out great for everybody so far.

Q - I see you're doing a Richard Nader Cruise. Is that the type of venue you would play these days?

A - I know Richard Nadar of course put together a Rock 'n' Roll revival show in the '70s of which my father was a part. I didn't know he was still around. Is he part of the Time - Life Malt Shop Cruises?

Q - He is no longer with us, but it is the Malt Shop Cruise. His wife Deborah has taken over the business.

A - Okay. They booked us for that I believe, but I don't have a contract in my hand yet. I did notice on their website they're promoting us as one of the acts coming up. I'm thinking it's next October. We should be on it. I'm always reluctant to say we're going to do something until I actually have a contract in my hand. If you've heard about it, it's gonna happen I'm sure.

Q - This newsletter you publish has nothing to do with the music business then?

A - That's correct.

Q - Before you put this band of yours together, and you said "My name is Bill Haley," did people ever say, "Are you any relation to?" Did that drive you up the wall, or was it something you got used to?

A - (laughs) It never drove me up a wall and I did get used to it, although I would say if you're really interested in the psychological aspect of it, it's kind of, well, I don't want to go off in a tangent here. Let's put it that way. As you can imagine, for the offspring of famous people, musicians particularly who are constantly traveling, the home life is not a great story. It wasn't in our case either. My dad was really absent most of the time. When he left he didn't stay in contact with us until the last years of his life. He got back in touch. But most of my childhood he was absent from my life and we were really left in kind of a bad way when he left. I'm telling you this because to answer your question, it was like someone constantly reminding you of something you're trying not to focus on in order to move forward with your life kind of thing. So, when I was younger it was difficult and certainly a lot more frequent too. I still get it. They say as a joke, "Are you Bill Haley?" Yes. No, no. They say, "Really?" Then they want to know the story. People always want to know the story of your father and assume that you had this wonderful life. You grew up rich. You got a great relationship. For me, it was not kind of where I wanted to go because I didn't have a good story to tell. It was kind of a mixed bag deal, but of course I'm enormously proud that my father did what he did and became internationally famous. And really as a music fan, someone who loves music and a student of the evolution of American music, I'm immensely proud of my father's role and being kind of a pioneer in generating a new sound. It's always been a mixed bag for me. I'm proud when I talk about my dad, but the personal side of it, there's nothing there that's positive for me.

Q - Did you ever see him perform?

A - The only time I had an opportunity to see him perform he didn't make it to the show. At that point in his career, this was 1973, a Richard Nader tour they were supposed to play the Philadelphia Spectrum and at that point in his life he was drinking pretty heavily. As far as I know, that's the only show on the tour he missed. But my mother told me before I went to the show, I was in my late teens, my mom said, "He probably won't show up 'cause he can't face the people here he left behind." Sure enough, that was the case, so I did not see him 'live'. I was quite disappointed because I was in the audience like everybody else and planned to go backstage after the show. I learned later my half brother Jack was actually backstage. I was waiting for him to come on when they came out and announced he won't be able to make it. Of course Chuck Berry would make up for it the announcer said. Of course it didn't make up for it to me. So I never saw him 'live'. Of course I've heard some of his 'live' recordings, so I have an idea of what he would have sounded like. There's a great recording done about that time that was released called "Bill Haley's Scrapbook Live At The Bitter End In New York City". They were a great band. I would've loved to have seen them.

Q - Did your father ever tell you any stories about the early days of Rock 'n' Roll?

A - Well, yes. Actually, it was a lot of phone conversations, particularly in the last few years of his life. I'm always reluctant when I'm talking to reporters about how much I want to go into the darker side of my father's life. I'm truthful to a fault and also it is what it is. So basically, to answer your question, I'll say he called quite often very late at night, sometimes in the middle of the night and usually very, very inebriated, and so I would hear a lot of stories. But he would make a lot of things up too, about himself in particular. So it's kind of hard to pick through what's true and what isn't. But he would ramble on about stories, how Sam Cooke really died and talking to Willie Nelson at the airport. He told me a story once about how he was driving by like a Best Western, one of those types of places. He saw on the marquee Bill Haley Jr. was playing. So he went in and this kid was playing. He was okay, but he sat down with the kid. He was trying to give me fatherly advice, but he was doing it through this fantasy that he created in his mind. I guess to him he thought it was real. So, I would have loved to, as a journalist, gotten his story from his mouth about all those stories in the early days. Of course I've been working on a book since then. I've interviewed so many of the musicians and the people in his life, but I would say a lot of the information I got from him was interesting but hard to verify, and I don't know how useful it would be from a historical standpoint some of the things he told me.

Q - I'm interested in what your father told you about Sam Cooke.

A - Well basically what he told me was, he actually implied that he wasn't shot by a woman who thought he was trying to attack her or break in or whatever the official story was. He was actually shot by the police for some reason because he was Black. That's what he implied, but I don't know the actual circumstances. His implication was the official story, the blameless situation, wasn't accurate. My dad told me stories about Chuck Berry when they were on tour getting chased by a lynch mob because he was with a White woman. At one point he ran onto my father's tour bus and the lynch mob came after him and my dad basically said, "He's not here." I don't know what to believe and what not to believe, but he didn't specifically accuse the police that I can remember. I kind of think that's the impression I got. We're talking, these conversations were over thirty years ago. As a journalist when I'm relating some of these stories and other information from people, I'm careful not to put anything in that didn't come from true, reliable sources. So, I don't know how much of what he told me was true or not. Some of it was fantasy. He would say things like he was a Marine. He never was. He couldn't get into the Service. He was blind in one eye since he was four years old. He said he was working with the DEA as a border agent, keeping drugs out of the country. Crazy things he would ramble. As I said, he was always drunk. I don't know if it was more than the drink or not. A lot of what he told me I don't find reliable.

Q - Wasn't your father working on his autobiography? He had written something like a hundred pages.

A - That's the information that's out there, but it's never surfaced. Nobody seems to know anything about it. I kind of doubt that it does exist, but I don't know for a fact because my father re-married and basically left us out of his will. I have no legal justification for asking for any documentation from his third wife, Martha, who is very reclusive and from what I was told recently, didn't even want to talk to anyone about my father. So, I've know people who've known her. I've asked about it, but I seriously doubt if it exists.

Q - You actually performed with the original Comets?

A - Yeah, a few times I've sang a few tunes with 'em down at the Jersey Shore at the Bubba Mack Shack. I appeared with Marshall Lytle at somewhere in Philly with Joey (Ambrose) and Dick (Richards). Various times I've sang with 'em. I didn't put the band together until after that. They went out to Branson, Missouri for a number of years and that kind of fell apart and they went their separate ways. A couple of 'em are still around doing things, but when I appeared with them it was prior to putting this band together five years ago.

Q - How did it feel to you to be on the stage with the same guys that played with your father?

A - Oh, tremendous. Johnny in particular, Johnny Grande, was just a great guy. A great friend of my mother's. So I had an opportunity to really talk to him quite a bit at like over dinner, things like that. But I liked all the guys. They were all very nice to me. It's funny when I sang with 'em the first time. They all looked around like they heard my father on stage. I can sing just like him, certainly more than anybody they worked with for that particular music. Marshall did not want to give up his lead vocal chores to myself, so he kind of brushed me off the stage. He didn't want me to be taking over with them, not that I was looking to at that point. But they were good guys. Of course Joey is still around and Dick. Franny (Beecher) was wonderful. He was just a great, great guy. Actually I'm doing some local things with Franny in Pennsylvania 'cause he lived in the area and he played with some bands in some of the clubs around here, so I would go out and do some things with him once in awhile as well. Al Rex, the original bass player, still around. They're all great guys. I had a lot of fun talking with 'em. I'm just so impressed with what they did when they did it.

Q - At what age did you realize you had a famous father or a famous last name?

A - That's a funny one. Honestly, I didn't know much as a kid about it. I didn't think much about it. I would kind of get funny looks. The teachers at school would kind of make a big deal about it. I really didn't kind of get any of that. I really got it in like 1964 or 1965. So I'm nine or ten years old. I was a huge Beatles fan. I had all The Beatles cards. I just loved everything they did. I couldn't get enough of them. My mom said, "Oh, yeah. Your dad knows them." And that's when I got it. Oh, okay. Now I got you. Actually, I can even remember before that being a young kid. When you're a kid you don't really know what's going on. We really went through when my dad was on top, we had a big house. Basically my dad left and we were just going from home to home. I remember playing on a construction site and some kid came up to me and said, "Oh, you know what? Rock 'n' Roll is on the way out. Little Richard went and found Jesus." I'm thinking, what does that mean? I guess his mom told him Bill Haley and Rock 'n' Roll are on the way out. The kid heard it from his parents and had to kind of throw it in my face. I didn't even know the kid. So, I didn't understand any of it. I didn't get the connection, but when my mom told me my dad knew The Beatles, then I knew he was famous for something and then of course I learned more over time and then it probably wasn't until I was in college that I really got interested and started doing research and I started calling up and tracking down the band members and interviewing them and the agents and the managers, asking my mom a lot questions, doing all the research I could. This was before the Internet. I'd go to the libraries and get the Haley news copies from Temple Library. I learned a lot about not only my dad, but of course about the American music scene in the late '40s, early '50s, into the '60s and I've pretty much been fascinated by that the rest of my life, reading about things, learning.

Q - Did your father in fact know The Beatles?

A - Well, he did, actually right at the time when they were coming up. They played the Cavern Club, but they also played the Star Club in Germany. My father appeared there too, but it wasn't at the same time. I think Gerry And The Pacemakers were on the same bill with my dad. So, they never appeared at the same time, however, my father was in Europe and England enough around that time. It's likely as musician that they crossed paths socially or whatever. My father was actually a fan of their music. As I said, I read the interviews he gave back at the time. He thought they were great and even though there was criticism of them, the same way there had been criticism of him as something new, a new sound, my dad was a big supporter of their sound. He was doing a lot of recording and entertaining in Mexico at the time. So he actually went back and tried to introduce what they called The Mercy Beat, but ironically my dad went down there and started doing Twist music and had a hit record called "The Florida Twist", which I think today is still the biggest selling record in the history of Mexico. When Chubby Checker was the King Of The Twist, people wouldn't believe it. They felt Bill Haley was the King Of The Twist. Of course Hank Ballard was the one who invented it. That's kind of the way music is. Artists get hold of a style or sound and go to a different culture. Of course today everything is so available to everyone because of the Internet and media. Back then you could take a musical form that hadn't been familiar and kind of re-introduce it to a new culture and make it yours. I'm digressing, but my dad was a supporter of The Beatles and a fan of them. I'm sure he ran into them. I don't have any specific stories. Of course, I'd love to get a hold of Paul McCartney and ask him about when he saw my dad in '57 in Liverpool or that area. I guess he went to seem them later in 1968 when my dad did a Command Performance for the Queen. Paul McCartney was in the audience. I'd love to get his take on what that was like.

Q - I take it you have never seen any of The Beatles in person or met any of them.

A - No.

Q - Growing up, you went to private schools or public schools?

A - My dad left when I was seven years old, so you're talking first grade. At one point, I'm going to say 1955, 1956, they (Bill Haley And His Comets) probably made three million dollars. But by 1958, 1959, the organization was broke. They were basically living off the performance fees. They had developed into a company with a recording studio, music publishing. They were promoting eight or ten or twelve acts. They had some other financial interests that all failed, kind of like sheet welding, industrial mechanics. They had a lot of people on the payroll and expenses and nothing was generating money except for the band. The record sales had kind of diminished considerably by '58, '59, even though they recorded with Decca up until '59. They signed another recording contract with Warner Brothers in 1960. Those records weren't really selling. So when my dad left, we had nothing. Lost everything. He didn't support the family. We really fell on hard times. It was very hard for my mother to keep us together. So I went to public schools and actually went to a different school in first, second, third, fourth grade until we finally kind of settled down in one spot. So that would've been 1968. Something like that. I did not have a private school, silver spoon childhood by any stretch of the imagination.

Q - Are there Bill Haley tribute acts out there and is your act considered a Bill Haley tribute act?

A - The answer to both questions is yes. I say mine's a little different in that I think most tribute acts are trying to be that act, not fool the audience, but allow the audience to engage in that kind of suspended belief that they're seeing the original act, what that act would be or should be. We do that. We play the music extremely authentically. I have some very talented musicians. They really worked hard, listening to the records, getting authentic with our style and our sound. In that respect we are a tribute band. The difference being I am Bill Haley Jr. and I've talked to so many people who knew the stories back then that we make it a Rock 'n' Roll history show. In between songs I kind of, not expansively, but I'll add some anecdotes and some dialogue to set up a song. So that's a little different than you would see with any kind of tribute act. Now there are a couple of acts that have been around for a number of years which really have hurt us, that are true tribute acts. They're just trying to do the Bill Haley thing. No stories. No explanations. And they're not very good. And actually, from what I hear, some of 'em are pretty lousy. So what happened was, and I didn't realize this when this agent called me up five years ago and said, "Hey, if you can do that authentically there's some good work for you out there," I didn't realize at the time that these other acts had kind of been out there for twenty years. I'm not talking about the original Comets we talked about earlier. They were tremendous and everywhere they went they were well received. But these other acts, a couple of 'em were just like a guy who played with my dad for fifteen minutes or the drummer who once played with my dad for six months. They started these bands. So these bands have been out there for a long time and a lot of the places that booked them, when my agent contacted them and said, "Hey, Bill Haley Jr." they said, "Oh, no. We had them here and they didn't go over." Well, they didn't have us there. They had the other Haley acts which they confuse us with. So, these other bands call themselves Bill Haley's Comets or something else. They've made it much more difficult for us to be busier as a band. So we've been overcoming that. When we get jobs we're extremely well received, particularly I guess because of the stories. We always meet the crowd afterwards. I know the kind of response we get. So we've been overcoming the negative perception that's been created by the not-so-good tribute bands that have been out there for years.

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