The son of a musical couple, Haley got his
start playing guitar and singing at variety shows organized by
himself and other children hoping to raise money for local
causes. Blind in his left eye since he was an infant, Haley was
a shy child who nevertheless assimilated to performing in
public, though his blindness was something that would foster
self-consciousness in the performer for the remainder of his
In his late teens, Haley filled the lead
position in a band called the Downhomers, already expressing his
hopes to one day combine country and pop music. At age 22, he
left the band to host a local radio program in Chester, Pa.,
where he and his family had relocated. During this time, he
married his childhood sweetheart and formed his own band, the
Four Acres of Western Swing, a quartet that featured accordion,
guitar, bass and drums. Together for only a year, the group
released one record before Haley formed a new band, the
Saddlemen, in 1949.
The Saddlemen, composed of Al Rex on bass,
Billy Williamson on steel guitar and John Grande on piano and
accordion, the outfit would eventually become what is considered
rock 'n' roll's first band, the Comets. Led by Haley, the group
released their first single, "Rocket 88," in 1951.
Haley quickly developed an image by wearing a kiss-curl in his
hair that hung down over his left eye; a style he hoped would
distract fans from his blind eye.
The Comets recorded several successful singles
in the next two years, including "Rock the Joint", a
single that sold more than 70,000 copies, and "Crazy, Crazy
Man," a single that soared into the Top 20 and made Haley a
national rock 'n' roll hero.
It was in 1954 that the Comets most successful
tune, "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock," hit the
airwaves. Recorded in a ballroom in New York City, the success
of the single and a second recorded at this time, "Thirteen
Women," landed Bill Haley and the Comets a recording
contract with Decca Records. "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the
Clock" eventually sold more than 25 million copies.
In the next year, Haley and the Comets would
record five new singles. The first, a song originally done by
Joe Turner as a blues tune, "Shake, Rattle and Roll,"
featured a true rock 'n' roll vibe, becoming the first record to
sell more than 1 million copies. "Dim, Dim the
Lights," the next single, broke into the R&B charts.
Just as Haley was making his dream come true, Joey d'Ambrosio,
Dick Richards and Marshall Lytle left to form their own band,
the Jodimars. They would release several successful singles in
the years to come, all of which mimicked Haley's true rock 'n'
Late in 1955, Haley had to rebuild his band.
Bassist Al Rex agreed to rejoin, and Frank Beecher, a session
guitarist who had played on some previous recordings, joined
full-time. Rudy Pompilli was added on tenor saxophone. The
musicians' chemistry was unsurpassed, an element that made
Comets' performances some of the best on the rock 'n' roll
stage. They released their first album, Rock and Roll Stage
Show, in 1955.
The Comets continued to record for Decca until
1964, producing some of early rock 'n' roll's staple tunes
including "Move it on Over," "Skinnie
Minnie" and "Lean Jean." Throughout the course of
his career, Haley landed nine albums in the Top 40. A true
pioneer until his death in 1981, Haley will be remembered as the
first artist to bring rock 'n' roll to the mainstream. Rolling
Stone ~Lana Fanelli