The Haleys had moved to Detroit from Firebrick, Kentucky where William Sr. found work in a nearby service station as a mechanic while his wife gave piano lessons in their home for twenty-five cents an hour. Maude Haley, a woman of strong religious convictions, had come to America with her family from Ulverston in Lancastshire, England before the First World War. Haley's father played the banjo and mandolin and although he couldn't read music he had an ear for Country songs and was able to pick out any tune he wanted. When Bill was seven, the family moved to Wilmington, Delaware and soon after he was playing his own home-made cardboard guitar. At thirteen young Bill received his first real guitar and his father taught him to play the basic chords and notes. It was at this time he began his dream of becoming a singing cowboy like the ones he idolized every Saturday afternoon at the movie houses. In June of 1940, just before his fifteenth birthday, Haley left school after finishing the eighth grade and went to work bottling water at Bethel Springs. This company sold pure spring water and fruit flavored soft drinks in a three state area. Here he worked for 35 cents an hour, filling large five gallon glass bottles with spring water.
At 18 he made his first record, "Candy Kisses" and for the next four years was a guitarist and singer with several local Country And Western bands. After time on the road with a group called the Downhomers, Haley returned to his parents' home in Booth's Corner in September of 1946. He was ill, disillusioned and so broke he had to walk from the train station in Marcus Hook, four miles to Booth's Corner. His only request to his mother was not to tell anyone he was home, not even his fiance Dorothy. Bill fell into bed and slept thirty hours. Over the next two weeks, Mrs. Haley slowly nursed her son back to health.
By the age of 21, Bill felt he wasn't going to make it big as a cowboy singer and left The Downhomers to host a local radio program on WSNJ in Bridgeport, New Jersey. Shortly after, he married his childhood sweetheart, Dorothy Crowe. Haley was hired in 1947 as musical director for radio station WPWA in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he formed a singing group called The Four Aces Of Western Swing. Working twelve to sixteen hours a day, six days a week, he interviewed dozens of local people, always looking for good ideas and new talent. Each Sunday he would go to Radio Park and invite celebrities to do a special half hour program where he would interview them and ask them to sing or play their latest tunes. Haley had not completely given up his musical dreams and still found time to play in various local Country And Western bands.
In 1949, Haley had formed a new group called The Saddlemen and by the summer of 1950, through the efforts of Jimmy Myers, Bill Haley and his Saddlemen cut their first records. They were on Ed Wilson's Keystone label, a small Philadelphia independent publisher. The songs were standard western swing tunes: "Deal Me A Hand", "Ten Gallon Stetson" and "I'm Not To Blame". With their new, exciting sound, the name Saddlemen no longer seemed appropriate and Bob Johnson, program director at WPWA, suggested a new moniker. "Ya 'know, with a name like Haley, you guys should call your group the Comets!" Just before the Thanksgiving holidays in 1952, Haley's band changed their name and their image for the last time. Off came the cowboy boots and the white Stetsons. With some regrets and more than a little apprehension, the four young musicians turned their backs on their beloved Country / Western music and bravely faced an unknown future as Bill Haley And His Comets. The band then cut a song called "Rock The Joint", that even with limited distribution, saw sales topping 75,000. In early 1953 Bill began further developing his formula for what was ultimately to become Rock 'n' Roll. He added drums to the line up, initially hiring young drummer Charlie Higler. He was replaced in the summer of 1953 by Dick Richards. The transformation from Western swing band was almost complete. Only one last ingredient remained to be added in the form of sax player Joey D'ambrosio.
While "Rock The Joint" had been a modest hit, their next release was to give the Comets their first taste of stardom. "Crazy, Man, Crazy", was a tune written by Haley and Marshall Lytle, while sitting at Bill's kitchen table. The lyric was purportedly based on a phrase Bill picked up while performing on one of his numerous high school shows. On a personal level, the pressures of touring began to take their toll on Bill's marriage, ultimately leading to his divorce from Dorothy. He was shortly afterwards to marry a pretty young blonde girl, Barbara Joan Cupchack. "Crazy, Man, Crazy" shot into the U.S. Top 20 and became the first Rock 'n' Roll record to make the Billboard Pop chart, reaching the Top 20. Newspapers ran stories which gave the impression that Bill's story was one of overnight success, conveniently forgetting it was the culmination of many years hard work.
On April 1st, 1954, Jimmy Myers, Milt Gabler and Bill Haley met in Decca's New York offices. The three men discussed a contract for four records a year, a standard royalty of 5% of sales, $5,000.00 in advance royalties, and the understanding that Decca would mail out each release to two thousand disc-jockeys with full support publicity, plus full page ads in Billboard and Cash Box magazines. With the deal set and signed, the three men shook hands and agreed on a recording date four days after their current contract with Essex Records was due to expire. When the recording sessions started, Milt Gabler, who was an experienced producer, having previously recorded The Inkspots, Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald, convinced Haley to change his sound. That change would be evident on April 12th 1954 at Pythian Temple Studio with the recording of a song called "Rock Around the Clock", originally recorded by Sunny Dae in 1952. The record was released and had initial sales topping 75,000 copies. In the spring of 1955, MGM completed a film called The Blackboard Jungle, starring Glenn Ford as a high school teacher confronted by violent students. "Rock Around The Clock" was featured during the opening credits and reaction to it was so strong, the record was re-released as a single. This time it shot to the top of the U.S. charts and became an international sensation, eventually selling over 25 million copies. The Rock 'n Roll era had begun.
The follow up to 'Clock' was "Shake, Rattle & Roll". The song had originally been a hit for Joe Turner, but while Turner's version has a Blues feel to it, Haley's version is most definitely Rock 'n' Roll. The disc soared into the US Top Ten and sold well over a million copies. The band's next two releases "Dim, Dim The Lights" and "Mambo Rock" couldn't match their earlier success, but did make it onto the Billboard R&B charts. More songs of this new style followed, but again, none could crack Billboard's Top 100.
Then late in 1955, Joey d'Ambrosio, Dick Richards and Marshall Lytle left The Comets after a dispute with Bill over money. They formed the Jodimars (a name derived from their respective names, JOey, DIck and MARShall). Capitol records immediately signed them, but unfortunately, success eluded them.
The next stage in the development of The Comets was crucial. Bill needed musicians in a hurry to fulfill his live bookings. Al Rex rejoined to play bass and Frank Beecher, who had been featured on the band's recent recordings, played lead guitar. Finally, they were joined by one of the most enduring members of The Comets, Rudy Pompilli on tenor saxophone. In the coming years, audiences throughout the world would marvel at the antics of Rudy, belting out his sax solos, arching his back until he was virtually lying flat on the floor, and Al throwing his bass up into the air then jumping onto its side while still playing. This was truly the very first integrated Rock 'n' Roll band. Bill was more than happy to share the spotlight with his very talented musicians. Rudy's show stopping solo, "Rudy's Rock" and Frank Beecher's "Guitar Boogie" being examples in point.
The next really big hit came with "See You Later Alligator". A version of the song had already been released by Bobby Charles on the Chess label and Milt Gabler needed to get Bill into the studio quickly to record it. This was the only song the band cut at the main Decca studios and they literally had to break into the place on a Sunday to cut the record, as Gabler forgot the keys to his office. 'Alligator' sold a million copies within a month after its release and was the first Comets' record to feature Ralph Jones on drums. He would now replace Gussack on the remaining Decca recordings.
The next big project on the horizon was the band's feature film Don't Knock The Rock. As well as performing the title track, Bill and the band performed an excellent version of "Rip It Up", a song that they would feature in their live shows for the next 20 years. In an attempt to be original, Bill Haley And His Comets recorded an album of old standards set to a Rock beat. The album failed miserably. They then tried an all instrumental album. It also flopped.
In 1957, Haley decided to tour Britain as his popularity began fading at home. The first American Rock 'n' Roll star to come to Britain, he was met with large and enthusiastic crowds, but the British soon found out what American teenagers already knew. Haley, with his spit curl, was old in their eyes (30), overweight and rather mechanical when compared to Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent and Elvis, who were younger and whose music was more exciting. Bill Haley And His Comets were the first, but now they were part of the establishment.
1958 saw the band reach #22 in the U.S. with "Skinny Minnie" and #35 with "Week End". After that, they recorded a few minor hits and many more that didn't even make the charts. Bill Haley spent the remainder of his life touring and playing Rock 'n' Roll Revival shows, although "Rock Around The Clock" made a surprise return to the Top 40 after it was used as the original theme song for the TV show Happy Days.
By the 1970s, Bill had fallen victim to alcoholism and increasing paranoia. In the early morning hours of February 9th, 1981, Bill called two of his sons, Scott and Jack and had his last known conversations. He died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack about 6:30 that morning at his home in Harlingen, Texas. Haley was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Some of the original band returned to the limelight in 1987 when the Philadelphia Academy of Music put together a tribute to local-boy-made-good, Dick Clark. A long list of Philadelphia music heavies were invited to contribute, including Frankie Avalon, Buddy Greco, Patti LaBelle and The Comets. The show's producers tracked down D'Ambrosio in Las Vegas where he was working as a casino card dealer and appearing regularly with area Jazz bands. After the show the players met a booking agent who told them of their continuing popularity in Europe. In D'Ambrosio's words, "We didn't know any of that. The guy says, 'Would you like to play in Europe?' and we said, 'Geez, that'd be great.'" The reunited Comets' first European appearance, at an outdoor festival in England, convinced the musicians that they were on to something. "The people went wild, big-time," D'Ambrosio remembered. "It was so exciting that we thought we ought to do this more often." The Comets then toured Europe for up to two months a year, playing to sold-out crowds in England, Germany, France and many other countries. As late as 2012 the three surviving original Comets, Lytle, Richards and D'Ambrosio continued to perform in Branson, Missouri. Guitarist Franny Beecher passed away on February 24th, 2014 in a nursing home near Philadelphia. He was 92.
In retrospect, "Rock Around The Clock" wasn't the first Rock 'n' Roll song, but it is one of the most significant. Although no one knew it at the time the record became a musical dividing line, separating everything that came before it from everything that came after and ensured Bill Haley And His Comets a place of honor in Rock 'n' Roll history.
Be sure to read Gary James' interviews with Bill Haley Jr. and The Comets' Marshall Lytle