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Music / Bill Haley & His Comets

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The 1955-1958 line-up of the Comets. Left to right: Rudy Pompilli, Billy Williamson, Al Rex, Johnny Grande, Ralph Jones, Franny Beecher. Top: Bill Haley.

"On your mark! (On your mark!) Get set! (Get set!) Now ready! (Ready!) GO!!!"

A pioneering American Rock & Roll band, led by Bill Haley (1925–1981), the Comets are credited with popularizing rock & roll to an international young white audience, thanks to their biggest hit and Signature Song: "Rock Around the Clock". They had two other major hits with "See You Later Alligator" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll", scored dozens of smaller hits around the world between 1952 and 1974.

Haley was born in Highland Park, Michigan and worked in radio, primarily in the Philadelphia region, while trying to launch his musical career. Initially a member of the western swing group The Down Homers, he formed his first country music group, the Four Aces of Western Swing, circa 1946. In 1949-1950 this group evolved into the Saddlemen. Their Cover Version "Rocket 88" (1951) fused African-American R&B with country swing and is seen as the very first rock 'n' roll and Rockabilly recording, though it didn't make much impactnote . In the fall of 1952, the Saddlemen changed their name to Bill Haley and His Comets and in 1953 scored their first national chart hit with an original song titled "Crazy Man, Crazy". In 1954, they recorded two of the first international rock and roll hits: "Rock Around the Clock" (technically a cover song, but only virtue of the fact the owner of Haley's previous record label wouldn't let him record it first), which was the first Rock and Roll song to hit No. 1 on the charts when it was reissued in 1955, and "Shake Rattle and Roll," another Cover Version which was the group's first million seller and rock and roll's first international chart hit. A third million-seller, "See You Later Alligator," was recorded in late 1955.

Haley and the Comets are credited with introducing rock and roll to the mainstream (read: white) audiences, forming a buffer between the big band era familiar to most, and the wilder forms of rock and roll developed by artists such as Elvis Presley (who recorded "That's All Right Mama" months after Haley recorded "Rock Around the Clock" and didn't become a national success until early 1956, 18 months after "Clock" was recorded). Much of Haley's popularity was caused by the use of "Rock Around The Clock" in films such as Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Rock Around the Clock (1956), in which the band appeared. (They also appeared in the sequel, Dont Knock The Rock (also 1956).) Such films also helped make the genre more popular in the rest of the world. The band toured in Europe, Australia and South America with equal success during the late 1950s, with Haley's arrival at Waterloo Station in London in the spring of 1957 sparking a riot. The group also filmed an appearance in the 1959 German musical "Here I Am, Here I Stay" during a visit to Germany in October 1958.

As the "father of rock 'n' roll", Haley's music was praised by teenagers, but the elder generation was genuinely outraged and scared by this wild music that inspired teenage rebellion and disobedience of authority. In the wake of theirs, and Chuck Berry's, success, countless other rock & roll performers, most notably such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis became superstars, eclipsing Haley's own stardom in the end, because they looked far younger, sexier and energetic compared to Haley himself. For the Comets, chart hits in the US ended in 1960, however the group continued to have major success in Latin America where they recorded "Florida Twist" in 1961, co-written by Haley's sax player and which for a time was Mexico's biggest-seller ever and today is considered a standard. They also returned to the charts in the UK several times with "Rock Around the Clock" during the 1960s and early 1970s, with a 1974 reissue of the song, tying in with its dual use in American Graffiti and Happy Days leading to it returning to the Billboard Top 40 as well. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Haley and the Comets continued to be popular on the oldies revival circuit and notably secured an 8 1/2-minute standing ovation after a 1969 performance at Madison Square Garden. In 1979, Haley was still selling enough for his label at the time, Sonet Records, to present him with a record award during a TV appearance on UK's ITV.

Haley and his ever-changing band continued performing right through the 1970s, even getting to perform for Queen Elizabeth II in November 1979. His final performances were in May 1980 in South Africa, but ill health forced him to cancel a fall 1980 German tour and an early 1981 record session planned for Memphis. Haley, who had battled alcoholism since the 1960s, died of a brain tumor on February 9, 1981 (though media reports at the time suggested heart attack). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Since his death, numerous versions of The Comets have continued to perform and record, with at least four different contingents known as of 2017. The Comets as a band, meanwhile, entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 as part of a special induction of backing groups.

Tropes associated with the band:

  • The Alcoholic: Haley suffered from alcoholism beginning in the 1960s, and openly admitted to being an alcoholic in a 1974 interview for BBC Radio. According to a biography by John Swenson, he was inebriated during at least some of the recording sessions for his 1972 album Just Rock and Roll, but another biography, Sound and Glory, suggested he'd kicked the habit by the late 1970s.
    • Surprisingly, Haley recorded virtually no songs about being drunk (unlike many of his contemporaries who sang about their real-life problems). One rare exception: the 1970 recording "I Wouldn't Have Missed It for the World" which was meant to be a comedy song but becomes Harsher in Hindsight knowing of Haley's real-life challenges.
  • Break-Up Song: "See You Later Alligator", in which the protagonist laments over a former girlfriend who left him with the message: "See you later, alligator". One of many in Haley's repertoire, but the best known.
  • The Bus Came Back: Several times. Haley and the Comets enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the UK in 1968, in the US in 1969 (where they received an 8 1/2 minute standing ovation after a concert at Madison Square Garden), and in 1974 "Rock Around the Clock," thanks to being used in American Graffiti and Happy Days, returned to the US and UK Top 40, 20 years after it was recorded. The last time he appeared on television, in November 1979, was for a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II, who reportedly considered Haley's appearance a highlight in a show that included luminaries such as Carol Channing and Yul Brynner and the cast of The King and I.
  • Christmas Songs: Almost averted. Unlike most of their contemporaries, Haley and his group recorded very few Christmas songs. During his lifetime, Haley released only one obscure Christmas single - in 1951, before the Saddlemen had become the Comets. In 1968 he recorded another single for United Artists, but due to being recorded too late in the year (October), UA decided there wasn't enough time to put a single out, so Haley and the Comets' surprisingly on-piste renditions of "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" sat in the vaults until they were unearthed in the early 1990s. Even diehard fans had no idea the recordings existed.
  • Cover Version: As was the case with most performers of the era (including Elvis), the group's repertoire included many cover versions, however they also recorded a huge amount of original material, with many original songs becoming chart hits. Originals like "Crazy Man Crazy" and "Skinny Minnie" would go on to be covered by many other groups as well. Although the song was actually written for them originally, "Rock Around the Clock" ended up being technically a cover due to another band having recorded it first.
  • Counting to Three: 1, 2, 3 o' clock, 4 o' clock rock!
  • Cultural Rebel: In retrospect, Bill Haley must be one of the most unlikely rock 'n' roll stars ever. He was already near 30, balding, and had children when "Rock Around The Clock" broke through (of course, then again, nerdy Buddy Holly didn't fit the mold either, Chuck Berry was older than Haley and Fats Domino was, as his name implied, heavy-set). Today, of course, 30 is considered young, even for a pop singer, and no one cares if someone's bald and has kids or not.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • In keeping with the standard for country and western groups of the time, prior to 1952 most of Haley's recordings had no drummer. This includes the prototypical rock and roll recordings of "Rocket 88" and "Rock the Joint". All percussion heard on these come from the slap bass and guitar strumming. On higher-fidelity issues of these tracks it results in a noticeably sparse sound far removed from the recordings from 1953 onwards when a drummer was part of the mix. The group also didn't start using a saxophone until 1953.
    • Haley was a champion yodeller in his youth; as such a number of early pre-1951 recordings feature him yodelling.
    • Bill Haley didn't hire a full-time lead guitarist to perform concerts until Franny Beecher was promoted to full-timer in the fall of 1955. Prior to this, live performances usually featured Billy Williamson playing lead guitar parts on his steel guitar, or Haley himself would play solos. Recordings of this exist, and the short film Round Up of Rhythm shows Haley playing lead guitar for the instrumental "Straight Jacket". There is also surviving footage of an appearance on Milton Berle's show in which the group had to lip-synch to the original recording, requiring Haley to pretend to play the famous "Rock Around the Clock" guitar solo himself as the original musician had died a year earlier. This led to some misconception (including in the 1999 TV movie Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story in which Haley is depicted) that Haley played the guitar solo himself.
  • Egocentric Team Naming: The band's name.
  • Foreshadowing: A musical equivalent. Not only was their 1952 hit "Rock the Joint" very similar in arrangement to the later "Rock Around the Clock," Danny Cedrone even plays an early version of the same guitar solo immortalized in "Clock." If you want to hear an early version of the second instrumental break in "Rock Around the Clock", listen to the original 1952 recording of "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie" by the Esquire Boys - a group that also featured Cedrone on guitar.
  • Glory Days: While it is a myth that Haley's career ended in 1959 - he continued to score hits in Latin America, remained one of the 1960s most successful touring artists, and returned to the top 40 in 1974 - it is true that he never scored any more hits of the magnitude of "Rock Around the Clock", "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "See You Later Alligator." It is little surprise, then, that Haley rarely performed any of his newer material on stage after the mid-1960s, with his shows primarily consisting of performances of his older songs, mixed in with other artists' rock and roll classics, and he also frequently re-recorded his biggest hits ("Rock Around the Clock" alone was re-recorded in the studio no less than four times), with at every one of his studio albums from 1963 onwards containing at least one such remake, and two albums ("Biggest Hits" in 1968 and "R-O-C-K" of 1976) consisted totally of re-recordings. This, according to biographer John Swenson, was despite the wishes of Haley's management who wanted him to cut new material.
  • Hairstyle Inertia: Haley's trademark was a curl of hair (variously called a kiss curl or spit curl) that he always let droop down over his foreheadnote . According to biographies, he began sporting the curl when he was a teenager and kept it for the rest of his life. His basic hairstyle remained unchanged throughout his career, too. The purpose of the curl is actually Harsher in Hindsight for those who categorize it initially as cheesy: at a very young age, Haley underwent surgery that went wrong and resulted in his being blinded in one eye, which subsequently became a "lazy eye" (which is why he looks a bit wild-eyed in some photos and was rarely photographed straight on or from the left side when posing for publicity images). He adopted the curl, the biographies say, to call attention away from his bad eye, and later kept it as his trademark - although not right away as there are numerous publicity images from his early (late 1940s) country music career in which the curl is kept hidden under a cowboy hat.
  • Heavy Meta: * "R-O-C-K" refers directly to Haley and his previous hit, "Crazy Man Crazy". (Haley recorded a number of songs that reference earlier hits this as early as 1952, right up to 1979 - including several tunes like "Mambo Rock", "Vive la Rock and Roll" and "Dance Around the Clock" that name-drop "Rock Around the Clock," but this is the best known example.)
  • I Am the Band: It was Bill Haley's band, unquestionably. Although technically incorrect, there are countless examples of reissues of recordings by the group that are credited to Bill Haley alone, and it was very rare for the individual members of the Comets to receive credit on contemporary album sleeves.
  • Iconic Outfit: The band trademark outfit in the 1950s was plaid jackets, and they can be seen wearing them in the Rock Around the Clock film, and during their landmark 1957 UK tour. Although some might dismiss the outfit as cheesy by today's standards, it's worth noting that similar apparel was worn on stage by Bo Diddley around the same time and was often also sported by iconic deejay/movie personality Alan Freed. And there are even fashion photographs of Audrey Hepburn wearing a plaid jacket similar to that worn by Haley.
  • Lazy Bum: "Shake, Rattle & Roll"
    Well, you'll never do nothin' to save your doggone soul.
  • Lead Singer Plays Lead Guitar: Prior to hiring Franny Beecher as his full-time lead guitarist, Haley himself usually played lead guitar parts. This can be seen in their performance of the instrumental "Straight Jacket".
  • Never Say Goodbye: Instead say: See you later, alligator. After a while, crocodile.
  • Never Smile at a Crocodile: "See You Later Alligator".
    See you later, alligator. After a while, crocodile.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: Most people know that "Rock Around The Clock" was the originator of rock 'n' roll, but the band themselves is far lesser known in pop culture. Yes, rock 'n' roll fans and music historians will know their name, but even they won't be able to tell much about the group. There isn't even one biographical film dedicated to him (though no less than Jeff Bridges and John Ritter attempted to make their own). Attempts by revisionists to paint certain artists as being the only originators of the genre (Elvis being the usual target) haven't helped.
  • Pun-Based Title: Bill Haley & His Comets refers to the Comet of Halley (in the US, it is common to mispronounce the name "Hay-lee"). The group's original (1952-53) billing made the pun more obvious: "Bill Haley with Haley's Comets".
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: "Shake, Rattle & Roll" is one long tirade against somebody who "never done nothin' to save (her) doggone soul" and has a "heart cold as ice".
  • Revolving Door Band: Close to 100 different musicians worked with Haley at some point as members of The Comets, with the "classic line-up" (or, at least, the lineup seen in the Columbia films that everyone knows) only in place from 1955 to 1958. Some members also came and went: Al Rex quit in 1951, only to return in 1955; Johnny Kay left the group in 1968 but returned in 1972; Nick Nastos came and went several times between 1964 and 1974; and even stalwart Rudy Pompilli left the group in 1960, only to rejoin the next year.
  • Rockabilly: Bill Haley's 1951 version of "Rocket 88" (not the Jackie Brentson original) is often seen as the first song in this genre, though a recently discovered 1950 cover of Ruth Brown's "Teardrops from My Eyes" reveals Haley was playing with the style even earlier than that.
  • Rock & Roll: Pioneers of the genre. They may not have been the originators of rock 'n' roll, but they sure popularized it towards a young white audience.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Rock Around The Clock" has become somewhat of a cliché idea of The '50s. Expect every film or TV series that takes place in this decade to have a scene where teenagers drive by while this song plays on their car radio, for instance in Superman: The Movie (1978) and more recently in a 1950s-set episode of Legends of Tomorrow that aired in 2016. American Graffiti and the first two seasons of Happy Days both used it as their theme song.
    • "Rock Around The Clock' has been covered many times. The most bizarre one must be a version by Mae West and an ultra-slow adaptation sang (one should say spoken) by the Belgian band Telex in 1979. There have been versions ranging from waltz to zydeco too.
    • Frank Zappa's song "Father O' Blivion" from Apostrophe (') (1974) references "Rock Around The Clock."
    • "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" by Beastie Boys, from Licensed to Ill (1986) namedrops "Rock Around The Clock".
    Tour around the world - you rock around the clock
    • Other examples include "Crocodile Rock" by Elton John and the Billy Joel single "We Didn't Start the Fire". In the case of the Joel song, its Music Video actually features a brief film clip of Bill Haley and the Comets from their 1955 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when the singer reaches this lyrical reference.
    • In 2006 an asteroid was named after Haley.
  • Spinning Clock Hands: Different hours are mentioned in "Rock Around The Clock," having everybody rock from 12 o' clock until 12 o' clock.
    • There's also a little-known sequel song, "Dance Around the Clock" that Haley recorded in the studio no less than three times (one of those times being in Spanish) between 1963 and 1970.
  • Tick Tock Tune: "Rock Around The Clock."
  • 12-Bar Blues: Used in "Rock Around The Clock" and many others.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve: "Rock Around The Clock". (However, the song is not the trope namer.)
    "When the clock strikes twelve, we'll cool off then/ Start rockin' 'round the clock again..."
  • Younger Than They Look: Haley was only 30 when "Rock Around the Clock" took off. Due to the ageism that existed back in the 1950s, and continues to today, there are those who think he looks older. Due in part to alcoholism, Haley aged rather quickly in the 1970s and looked somewhat older than 54, his age when he made his final TV appearance on the Royal Command Performance special in November 1979.

"So long! That's all! Goodbyyyyye!!!"