Bill Haley facts: The songs, life and death of the Comets leader and rock and roll pioneer

30 April 2024, 16:30

Blackboard Jungle – movie trailer featuring ‘Rock Around The Clock’

By Mayer Nissim

He didn't invent rock and roll, but Bill Haley had the genre's first megahit.

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The story of rock and roll is a contentious tale of swirling origins, with blues, jazz and other Black genres of the 1920s on rubbing shoulders with country music and other styles to truly explode in the 1950s.

While he certainly didn't create rock and roll, Bill Haley (& his Comets) certainly played a part in popularising it, most of all with 'Rock Around The Clock'.

That song actually took a full year and a spot on a movie soundtrack to become a success, but was followed by a run of massive singles that helped bring rock and roll to the masses and cemented it as a true phenomenon.

But how much do you know about Bill Haley himself?

Read on for everything you ever wanted to know about the Comets bandleader.

When was Bill Haley born and where did he grow up?

Bill Haley and his Comets
Bill Haley and his Comets. Picture: Getty Images

William John Clifton Haley was born on July 6, 1925, in Highland Park, Michigan to Kentucky-born dad William Albert Haley and mum Maude Green, who originally hailed from Ulverston, in Lancashire, England.

When the young Bill was just seven, the family upped sticks and moved from Detroit to Bethel Township, Pennsylvania.

What was the story behind Bill Haley's trademark hair curl?

Bill Haley & His Comets "Rock Around The Clock" on The Ed Sullivan Show

When he was four, Bill had to undergo an inner-ear mastoid operation (to remove diseased cells from the spaces in the mastoid bone, which is just behind your ear).

Unfortunately, an optic nerve was accidentally severed in the op, making the young Bill permanently blind in his left eye.

Some have claimed that Bill intentionally cultivated that cute "kiss curl" over his right eye to help draw attention away from his blind left one

How did Bill Haley get into music?

Bill Haley on stage in 1972
Bill Haley on stage in 1972. Picture: Getty Images

While rock and roll wasn't even a thing when he was growing up, Bill came from a musical family.

His dad played the banjo and mandolin, while his mum had classical training on the piano and even gave piano lessons from their home.

As the story goes, the young Bill played his own homemade guitar built from a cardboard box till his dad bought him the real thing when he was 13.

That same year he gave his first public performance, playing and singing for a local junior baseball team event.

Like many kids his age, Bill was a big fan of the big-screen Westerns being churned out, and is said to have wanted to become a singing cowboy.

Rocket "88"

There are conflicting stories of Bill's earlier time in the music biz, but we know he kept up that cowboy image in groups like The Downhomers and The Four Aces of Western Swing.

Between those bands, he took some time out from performance but still stayed in the industry as a DJ for WPWA in Chester, Pennsylvania.

When The Four Aces of Western Swing also failed to strike it big Haley formed The Saddlemen, sometimes listed as Bill Haley and The Saddlemen.

Their sound wasn't straight Country and/or Western, and in 1951, they recorded a cover of the Delta Cats proto-rock and roll song 'Rocket 88', followed by their take on 'Rock The Joint'.

Who were Bill Haley's Comets?

Bill Haley and His Comets
Bill Haley and His Comets. Picture: Getty Images

While fronting The Saddlemen, Bill was still working at WPWA, his programme director Bob Johnson suggested that Bill Haley change the name of his group to reflect their shifting sound.

The Saddlemen became Bill Haley with Haley's Comets (later, Bill Haley and His Comets, or Bill Haley and The Comets )in a witty reference to Halley's Comet, named for the English astronomer who used Newtonian physics to work out the periodicity of that returning ball of ice, dust and frozen methane that pops by every 75–79 years.

And with their new name, the group released 'Crazy Man, Crazy', a song written by Bill himself (with an uncredited Marshall Lytle helping out), which hit the national charts.

Bill Haley and The Comets Crazy Man Crazy 1953

As for who the Comets were, the lineup shifted over the years from 1952 to the band's end in 1974

Key members were of course Bill Haley himself on rhythm guitar and vocals, as well as Billy Williamson on steel guitar, Johnny Grande on piano, and Marshall Lytle on double bass.

Other important comets included lead guitarists Danny Cedrone and Franny Beecher, drummers Billy Gussak and Ralpj Ones, saxophonists Joey Ambrose and Rudy Pompilli, and backing singer and percussionist Dick Richards.

What were Bill Haley's biggest songs?

See you later alligator - Bill Haley and Comets

Bill Haley's most memorable hit was, of course, 'Rock Around The Clock', the first rock and roll record to top the charts in the UK and the US.

The song was written by Max C. Freedman and Jimmy De Knight (aka James E. Myers) as far back as 1952, and despite apparently being written for Haley was actually first recorded by Sonny Dae and His Knights before Haley and his Comets laid down their version a few weeks later on April 12, 1954.

Like so many future classics, 'Rock Around The Clock' was originally a B-side, slinking out under the title '(We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock' on the flip of 'Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town)' on May 10, 1954.

Bill Haley & The Comets - Shake Rattle & Roll

And its path to hit status and era-defining smash was a long time coming, helped massively by its appearance on the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle, having apparently been nabbed from the collection of the young Peter Ford, the son of the movie's star Glenn Ford.

Bill Haley (and his Comets) biggest songs were:

  • Rock Around the Clock
  • See You Later, Alligator
  • Shake, Rattle and Roll
  • Crazy Man, Crazy
  • Rocket 88
  • Skinny Minnie
  • Razzle Dazzle
  • Dim, Dim the Lights (I Want Some Atmosphere)
  • Birth of the Boogie
  • Burn That Candle
  • R-O-C-K
  • Rip It Up
  • Rudy's Rock

Despite their incredible success in the mid-1950s, Bill Haley and the Comets were soon overtaken by their rock 'n' roll peers and successors, but still enjoyed their time on the nostalgia circuit as time went on.

Was Bill Haley married and did he have any children?

Bill Haley and The Comets
Bill Haley and The Comets. Picture: Getty Images

Bill Haley was married three times.

He wed Dorothy Crowe in 1946, and they divorced in 1952 after having two children. He married Barbara Joan Cupchak days after the divorce was finalised, divorcing in 1960 after having five more children.

Lastly, he married Martha Valaesco in 1963, and they remained married until Bill's death in 1981.

When did Bill Haley die and how old was he?

Burn That Candle (Remastered)

Bill Haley died on February 9, 1981, in Harlingen, Texas, when he was just 55.

Haley had been diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1980, soon before he played his last ever shows in South Africa in May and June of that year.

He had also been struggling with alcoholism for several years by this point, which contributed to his ill health.

Haley was found dead in his bed by a visiting friend, with the cause of death attributed to a likely heart attack.

Does Bill Haley really have a comet named after him?

Bill HALEY & His Comets " R.O.C.K. " !!!

We all know that the Comets were named for Halley's Comet, but what of the claim that Bill Haley had his own comet named after him?

That's not exactly true. While he doesn't have a comet named after him, Bill Haley does have his own asteroid or minor planet.

The body – 2.7 km in diameter –  provisionally called "1999 BH5" was given the name 79896 Billhaley in 1999.