That’s because they are the group behind one of the first huge rock and roll hit songs, “Rock Around the Clock.”
On July 9, 1955, this rollicking two-minute tune was the first rock and roll recording to hit the top of Billboard’s Pop chart.
Famous follow-ups included “Shake, Rattle & Roll” and “See You Later, Alligator.”
But the ride to the top wasn’t direct, and it wasn’t smooth. In fact, Bill Haley was turning 30 as his musical career hit the big time. And when we say big time — it was on fire.
Elvis would soon look up to him. The Beatles’ John Lennon would one day go on record saying, “I had no idea about doing music as a way of life until rock and roll hit me.” And what exactly was it that hit him? “Rock Around The Clock.” David Gilmour from Pink Floyd said the same song probably had something to do with him picking up his first guitar.
So what’s the story with Bill Haley & His Comets? Where did they come from — and where did they go?
Below are insights from two people: one of the guys who was in the Comets, and then Bill Haley himself.
First up is an article by Johnny Grande, the piano player/accordionist in the band. His account, written for the old-school entertainment fan magazine Radio & TV Mirror, offers a unique look at the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, comin’ to you direct from the 1950s.
Along with several rarely-seen photos, Johnny shared how the band got together, their musical inventions, and what life was like for the group when they were on tour.
After that, you’ll find a 1970 interview with Mr Haley, when he took a look back at his career, and talked about his ongoing plans.
Taken together, they offer some interesting behind-the-scenes takes on what it was like to have screaming success during the early days of rock.
Rocking around with Bill Haley & His Comets (1957)
By John Grande of Bill Haley’s Comets – Radio & TV Mirror, February 1957
We were a pair of real sad cats, Billy Williamson and I, that day back in Newark.
It’s strange now to realize that it had anything to do with The Comets — and that happy beat called rock ‘n’ roll — for our gloom was so thick you couldn’t have dented it with a rimshot.
What Billy and I had thought was our first important band job had turned into a stinker.
I was seventeen, Billy was twenty-one, and that hotel room of ours was worn out fifty years before either of us was born. The bed sagged and so did the floor; the curtains were dirty and the carpet torn.
If any of the pretty girls who gave us the eye when we were on stand had ever got a load of that room, they would never have looked at us twice. Had my mother seen it, she wouldn’t have looked more than once. She would have hauled me out by the ear.
We had just been paid. It sounded real great — at home — to say I got ninety bucks a week for playing the accordion. Billy, on steel guitar, got the same.
We had settled our hotel bill, paid our union tax, picked up our laundry and pressing, and had taken care of those extras which always creep in.
I pulled my remaining cash out of my pocket. It didn’t take long to count. If I ate careful, I’d get through the next week. Billy, totaling his loot, was even more disgusted.
“I know kids back in Norristown, Pennsylvania,” he said, “who deliver groceries to make date money and come out better than this.”
“And live better,” I added, thinking of my home in South Philadelphia. About now, my mother would be fixing the spaghetti, my sister, Rose Marie, and my little brother, Dino, would be buzzing around. Dad would get home from work and there would be laughing and singing. The family would be together.
Billy was homesick, too. He has the Irish gift for making a joke out of anything, but now his face was long.
“Man, we’re nowhere. We work in a joint about as big as two phone booths pushed together, everybody’s got a beef and no one gets a chance to play what he wants to play. This band is going to break up for sure.”
That triggered it. We sat around getting all our gripes off our chests and our ambitions into words.
When it came time to go to work, we had settled one thing — we both wanted to get into an outfit where the guys would stick together until we amounted to something. It should be a sort of a musical family.
To head that family, we needed a leader — not just a guy who could stamp out a beat, but someone we could look up to, that we could learn from. A leader who would let you use every bit of talent in you.
It was quite a blueprint. “You know any such guy?” I asked Billy.
It was about the same as asking for a good route to the moon. Billy’s brow had more furrows than his guitar had strings.
“Matter of fact, I do. There’s this Bill Haley — you’ve heard him on WPWA Radio in Chester.”
Anyone in the Philadelphia area who turned a radio dial could hardly help hearing Bill Haley those days. When he wasn’t talking, he was singing; when he wasn’t playing his guitar, he was spinning records.
“Now, Haley’s a young guy, too,” Billy said. “Maybe he’s even a year younger than I am, but he’s been in this business all his life. He was the kid star of a Western outfit, and he’s played in hot bands all over the country.”
I could tell he liked Haley. When Billy gets worked up about something, he speaks in what I’d call a fast drawl and his voice sort of crackles. Billy had met Bill a few times at the station and had seen him work at an entertainment park outside Wilmington.
“Man, he had a band,” said Billy. “Every guy in it could double and they got a chance to show. Haley doesn’t hog the spotlight himself.
That was for me, too. We agreed that Bill would go up to Chester to see Haley.
He came back deflated. Haley didn’t have an outfit anymore. Didn’t want one, either. Too many worries.
That should have finished it, but Billy wouldn’t give up. In a couple of days, he went back and I went with hun. I remember the way he introduced me to Haley. “Johnny can play piano and accordion, pops. Western or Dixie. He’s had eight years of classical music education, too. And, in eight years, one can’t help learning something — even this guy.”
We talked. The longer the huddle went on, the more I liked Haley. He looked like just a kid with his smooth face and sandy hair and that curl that kept falling down onto his forehead, but Billy was right.
Young as he was, this guy had something. Music to him was more than some notes on a page or sounds dragged out of an instrument. It was direct communication from one person to another.
The start of Bill Haley & His Comets
Haley clinched it by saying, “All my life I’ve been looking for something I haven’t yet found in music. Maybe it’s a sound. Maybe it’s a beat. I’ve always thought if I could get together with some guys who felt the same way I did, we might work it out.”
Billy’s Irish grin was wide as a jack-o-lantern. “What are we waiting for Bill?”
“It’s going to be rough,” Bill warned. “I don’t know where the loot is coming from.”
“Johnny and I have worked odd jobs before,” said Billy. “But what about you? You’ve got a family.”
“I’ll make out,” said Bill. “The way I figure it, I’ve got to know whether I’m ever going to amount to something in music. This is the time I’ve got to make my move as a man. Want to go partners?”
We shook hands on it. That’s all the contract The Comets really have to this day. When we turned into big business, we had to formalize it with corporations, just we’re still just a bunch of guys who trust each other.
We got our fourth partner, Jim Ferguson, who is our promotion and business manager, in about the same off-hand way.
A big, colorful character who has been all over the world, commanded a Navy vessel, and done all sorts of interesting jobs, “Lord Jim” published a little newspaper and was a commentator at the station. He took an interest in us and helped us. When we felt low, he encouraged us.
We were his hobby — until eventually, we took up so much of his time, we asked him if he would let us be his business — if he would become a partner.
Jim is the one who has foraged around, got us bookings, guided us through the time when we didn’t fit anywhere, and now is about to take us around the world.
We had a lot of work to do, however, before much of anybody wanted to hear us Bill Haley connived and contrived to get us pocket money — one show a week, officially, at the station. We sort of drifted into others.
In the beginning, I was paid eighteen dollars a week, and my folks thought I had flipped when I was happy about it.
I found an outside job with the Wilmark System, a department store protective system, and was lucky to have a boss who wanted to see me make it in music. Whenever our bookings were good, I’d quit. When they were bad, he would hire me back.
Billy, at various times, worked in a hosiery mill, a woolen mill, and as a plumber’s helper. Haley, at the station, worked practically around the clock.
When he had his Country Store on at 5:00 A.M., he even slept at the studio.
It’s no wonder his marriage broke up, That’s a personal cost which he paid, and which none of us like to talk about.
We took any bookings we could get, lodge dances, banquets, weddings, little joints that called themselves nightclubs. But the important thing was that we rehearsed in the studio every day for two years.
The people there, including the owner, went out of their way to help us. One of the engineers gave us a big assist by putting our trial runs on tape and playing them back so we could study them. When we were broke, he would sort of delay putting it on the bill.
Always, we were looking for something. We’d take a standard, like “Ida,” and play it every way we could think of — fast, slow, loud, soft, hillbilly, waltz, Dixie, progressive.
“Haley was like a scientist, putting one thing after another into a test tube,” Billy says, “and he’d be so happy when some experiment came out right.”
One of the most important of those happened the day we were studying some Count Basie records.
Since we didn’t have brasses, we fooled around with the strings, trying to get the same effect, trying to build volume.
Haley, with the bass, discovered that when he plucked the strings in the accepted way, it came out rrom-pahhh. If he back-slapped them, it changed the accent to rrrroom-pah.
That’s how the heavy back-beat became the basic form in our rock ‘n’ roll.
We liked it, but we didn’t know what we had — nor was that, alone, enough. Always we had the feeling that, if we just managed to turn the next corner, we would run into the big surprise — the thing we were hunting for.
We worried most about getting people to dance. Time after time. Bill Haley would say, “We’ve got to get them on their feet. Make them move. Make them feel that rhythm.”
We talked about it constantly, for this, we knew, was the biggest problem any musician faced.
America had quit dancing. That period when the vocalist was the top attraction had brought an end to the big band and the big dance hall.
Kids listened instead of danced. The entertainment tax had killed off dancing in nightclubs — and the jobs with the clubs. Good musicians were out of work.
Every time we did get a club date, we watched every minute to see what effect our music had on people. Once we thought the secret was to play loud. If people couldn’t talk across a table, they got up and danced
We peaked up our amplifiers — and got thrown out of more joints that way. Owners didn’t like it when people danced instead of buying drinks. Volume, alone, wasn’t the answer.
Finally, came the time when the big surprise hit us right in the face. It’s Bill Haley’s story, and I’ll let him tell it:
“Just ahead of my show at the station,” Bill says, “there was a rhythm-and-blues disc jockey who had the wildest sign-off I’d ever heard — something about ‘We’re going to knock down the mailbox, tear up the floor… we’re going to rock this joint…’
“I couldn’t get it out of my head. Out on the job one night, just kidding the band, I went into that thing, hitting it with our rrrroom-pah beat instead of the way the deejay had it on his record.
“Billy and Johnny started to laugh and joined in. Al Rex hit it on the bass.
“We really got a kick out of it ourselves. It was our private joke. Then I looked around — and, so help me, people were dancing. I turned to the guys and asked, ‘What on earth did I do?'”
Whatever we did, one person told another. The next night, we had a bigger crowd. And, the night after, the joint was packed.
Bill went to Lord Jim and said, “We wish you’d come over and see this. Something has happened here.”
His verdict was just what we had hoped to hear. “If you can do it with eighty people in a place like this, there’s no reason you can’t do it with eighty thousand.”
His judgment proved right — a long while later. An independent recording company cut “Rock the Joint,” but disc jockeys didn’t go for it. It wasn’t rhythm-and-blues, it wasn’t pop, it wasn’t Western.
“For about a year, we remained a freak attraction. No one knew where to place us.
What I still think of as our “desperation huddle” brought the turning point — but, believe me, it was a long, slow turn.
Bill, Jim, Billy and I, talking things over, realized that the kids were the ones we had to reach. They were the ones who were tired of the old music which had been warmed over since the days of Benny Goodman.
They were the ones who kept the recording industry going by buying 100 million records a year. How to get to them was the problem.
“You’re not going to find them playing in beer joints,” said Billy. “The kids we want to have hear us aren’t permitted to go into those places.”
“If the kids won’t come to you,” said Jim, “why don’t you go where they are — in the high schools?”
We knew that score. No dough. But Haley had an idea and took a vote. “You guys game to do it — for free?” Billy and I nodded.
That’s how it happened that we played 183 high-school assemblies. It was tough to do at the time, but it proved the smartest thing we ever tried. The kids taught us.
We tried our experiments on them. When their shoulders started moving, their feet tapping and their hands clapping, we knew that particular tune or style was worth keeping in the act.
It was the Haley ear, the Haley sensitivity to his audience, which brought us our first hit.
Bill noticed that the kids’ favorite expression was “Crazy.” A crazy sweater, a crazy tie, a crazy beat.
Bill took their word — and their football chant “Go! Go! Go!” — and gave it back to them in a song.
As he says, “‘Crazy, Man, Crazy” sold a million records so fast it would make your eyeballs shimmy.”
It was the first non-classifiable tune to break over into pop record sales. Riffs we had invented in our band were copied by others. Our rrrroom-pah was picked up everywhere. The big back beat was rocking the country.
You rock ‘n’ roll fans know the rest. It was our pal, disc jockey Alan Freed, now at WINS in New York, who popularized the name, “rock ‘n’ roll.”
He was one of the first to recognize that here was the new music which all of the young people in America wanted to hear.
This wasn’t jazz — fine as that is — left over from their parents’ day. Neither was it the swing of their younger uncles and aunts.
This was their own. The thing that is happening now. The big beat.
Many, many others helped build it. We happened to be the ones chosen to appear in the movie, “Blackboard Jungle” — which got it into films. We caught a lot of grief when some squares decided that we were thereby the voice of juvenile delinquency.
This is not true. For every kid who makes a nuisance of himself, I’ll show you a hundred thousand who are real great. Some time, maybe, you can get Bill Haley to tell you what he thinks about that.
We had a better time with our own picture, for Columbia, “Rock Around the Clock.” “Don’t Knock the Rock” is now being released. We’ll soon have news for you about the next.
Recording-wise, we’ve made eighteen hits for Decca — the highest sales anyone has had during the past couple of years. You’ve liked best “Rock Around the Clock,” “See You Later, Alligator,” “R-O-C-K,” and a couple of others.
We got our own kicks out of seeing you kids at our concert tour. You were just great, coming into the theater every night, from Alabama to Canada, dressed in your party best.
When you started clapping and beating your feet, any man in the world would give you the best show it was possible for him to give.
You behaved yourselves, too. You didn’t always get credit for that, but we knew it.
Now we’re headed around the world. We realize it is a long time — nine years, in fact — since Billy Williamson and I sat in that dismal hotel room in Newark and blueprinted our ideal leader, our ideal band, the way we wanted to live.
We’ve got the band Billy and I wanted — the guys who would stick together. Everyone who has joined us has been chosen to fit the gang.
Al was the first to come in. We’ve now got Franny Beecher on electric guitar, Rudy Pompillii on sax, and Ralph Jones on drums. It’s a good crew.
We’ve got the beat, got the whole world rolling, because The Comets have got a star any guy would be glad to follow.
Perhaps the most important thing about keeping us together is the fact that we know, to keep this happy beat of rock ‘n’ roll going, each one of us has to have a happy life of his own.
We’ll work up a storm. We’ll drive 500 miles a night to play the next day’s date, we’ll make a picture as fast as a studio can focus its cameras, but we have to know where home is.
Sometimes our phone bills, for calling home, run up to a thousand dollars a month. We say there are fourteen in this outfit, not seven, for all the guys are married now. Rudy was the last holdout.
As you might expect, from our own long friendship, Billy married an Italian girl, and I married an Irish girl.
Cathy was a practical nurse at the Delaware County Hospital when she came to hear us in Lima, Pennsylvania, and suddenly, that confirmed bachelor, Billy, wasn’t quite so “confirmed” anymore.
I met Helen O’Shaughnessy in Philadelphia — and when my folks, like good Italians, were still saying I should have a steady job before I thought of getting married, Helen was saying, “I’m a good office worker. That makes one regular income in the family.”
We got married when the band found its first two-week engagement. Billy and Catherine Cafra on November 29, 1950; Helen and I on December 2, 1950.
The girls went with us, and our fine friends, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Caletti, of the Edgemont Inn, Trenton, New Jersey, greeted us with a double wedding cake and a party.
Bill Haley, too, found his big romance when a pretty girl came to hear the band. On November 18, 1951, he married Joan Barbara Cupchak at Camden, New Jersey.
They now have three children — Joan, born March 15, 1953; William John Clifton Haley, Jr., born July 28, 1955; and James (named for Lord Jim, of course), born October 8, 1956.
The Williamsons have a son, Billy Jr., born October 24, 1952. Our daughter, Linda, was born October 3, 1951.
We all live near Chester, Pennsylvania. It turns into a little community of our own, because when we men are on the road, our wives can get together.
When we’re all home, we have parties and picnics. We also have a couple of boats we use for the fishing trips, which are our big recreation.
Only poor Jim remains a bachelor. We were his worry so long he had no time for anyone else. But we have hopes for him. One of these days, he, too, will meet a pretty girl when we’re out on some show.
Then there will be eight families, instead of seven, in the Haley community.
It’s inevitable, for we already have what Billy and I dreamed about, a great big, devoted musical family.
* * *
John “Johnny” Andrew Grande
January 14, 1930 – June 3, 2006
(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock – Bill Haley & His Comets
Rock Around the Clock – First page of hit song sheet music (1953)
One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock, rock…
The history of Bill Haley & His Comets (1970)
Bill Haley interview: The originators of rock ‘n’ roll are still at it
by Mike Gormley – Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) February 13, 1970
“We are still doing old rock, because we are the originators of rock ‘n roll.”
That is a hell of a statement to make! “We are the originators of rock ‘n roll.” To claim that is like saying, “We are the originators of a whole new culture and lifestyle.”
But Bill Haley has all the right in the world to make such a powerful statement. He and his group, The Comets, did start rock.
“At the start it was a deliberate thing to play rock ‘n roll,” Bill said, shortly after completing a set at the Escape, in Ft. Lauderdale. The set had included songs like “Stagger Lee,” “Rockin’ Robin” and, of course, “Rock Around The Clock,” the tune that really sent the Comets soaring.
“In the beginning, we were looking for a style, something different. The era of the big bands had passed and the solo singer was just beginning to fade. The big bands weren’t coming back.
“There was a big push at that time for modern or progressive jazz. I was a great fan and still am, but there was a lull in the business.
“We were a country and western band, and liked rhythm and blues. So it was just a natural thing to combine all our interests.
“We were the only group that did it. We didn’t think what we were putting together would become as big as it has. But there was a deliberate try at our own style.”
Reportedly, and according to Haley, the great disc jockey, Alan Freed, who is considered as important to rock and roll as Haley or Presley, coined the phrase “rock and roll” from a Bill Haley song called “The Rock-a-Beatin’ Boogie.”
The opening words of the song are “Rock, rock, rock everybody. Roll, roll, roll everybody.”
Freed used to yell along with records and pound with the beat on a telephone book with the microphone open. It was so infectious, people started dancing to it. Eventually, they screamed to it.
Rock finally hit the top, then started its short slide down into the pit of snakes, of snaky songs like “Venus” by Frankie Avalon and ‘Tiger” by the voiceless Fabian. Then The Beatles gave the legendary shake to wake us out of our boredom.
Now we have a revival. The old-style rock has returned in a very big way. Presley is selling millions again, Little Richard has been re-starred, and Bill Haley is heading a package tour made up of the Platters, The Penguins, Bo Diddley, and Gary U.S. Bonds (who used to have records out “by U.S. Bonds”).
“The first inclination I had about any revival was in Paris a few years ago,” Haley said. “We did a show with Spencer Davis, who at that time was very big. I was a little worried about doing the show because they had Number One records, and we were just Bill Haley and the Comets.
“I was so surprised when we walked out to do the show because the French crowd was chanting out our tunes in English. It was one of the greatest surprises I’ve ever had.
“We thought then that maybe we should devote more time to promoting this. We always thought we didn’t want to go around forcing our music on people, but then we found out the kids wanted it.
“From that time on, we talked to young people and found that a new era had come around, and people were really interested in what our rock was all about.
“I thought then there might be a revival, but I honestly didn’t think it would get as big as it has.”
How Bill Haley got his start
Haley started his group 17 years ago in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he was a deejay.
“In 1951, we had our first record with ‘Rock The Joint,’ and in 1952, we had three or four hits, including ‘Dance With The Dolly With A Hole In Her Stocking’ and ‘Stop Beating Around The Mulberry Bush,’ and records that people today have never heard of.
“In 1953, we had our first big break. Not too many people know this, but we had a record called ‘Crazy, Man Crazy’ that sold a million.
“Those were tough days, because this was new music, and I’ll eternally be grateful to disc-jockeys like Alan Freed, Buddy Dean in Baltimore, and Robin Seymour in Detroit. They really were the pioneers, because we couldn’t get people to play the music.
“In those days, we didn’t have any help. Elvis was still growing up and learning.
“In 1954, we did the soundtrack for the movie, ‘Blackboard Jungle,’ and of course, everyone remembers from there on.”
A song from that movie called ‘Rock Around The Clock’ went on to sell many millions.
Right about that time Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Gene Vincent “and all the gang” came along. From there on there was no holding it.
Rock was the voice of the ’50s, ’60s and now.
At this moment, outside of the rock revival, we have, comparatively speaking, intellectual rock. It’s high-energy, thought-provoking music that is the basis for a culture apart from everyday life. The people who are into it dress, think, act and live differently.
Those who take part can feel rock music and get so completely involved they make their own way of life.
But, as opposed to many of today’s songs, Haley thinks politics and protest are not for music.
“If our rock ‘n roll is fun, it’s because it’s calculated to be fun. I don’t mean to put down other types of music, but I don’t think music, especially for kids, should hold a message. I think the kids want to dance and laugh, that’s my opinion.
“We always kept our songs with silly titles like ‘See You Later Alligator’ and things like this because when the kids are young, it’s time for them to have fun. There’s plenty of time when they grow up to protest and all that, you know.”
Haley has had more experience than most with people growing up. His once very wild audience grew up on him a few years ago.
“All we did was go where they went,” Haley said. And that was nightclubs. “When we play it doesn’t matter where. If it’s a nightclub or street corner, we’ll play wherever they want to hear us.
“I don’t think it was simply a natural thing for us to go into clubs, but it’s where the people are. The demand was there and we don’t have any particular preference.”‘
Then the great, massive crowds diminished and, although the nightclubs weren’t empty, well, the whole thing just wasn’t going on for Haley’s Comets. But they welcomed that.
“We couldn’t get out of our hotel room for seven years. People may think that once you can get out, it means you’ve become has-beens, but it isn’t really true.
“Actually, we felt we’d had our share of fame and fortune; we hadn’t been able to do normal things for seven years: and suddenly we were allowed to do it.
“To me, it was great to go into a restaurant. We didn’t regret it. Now we have a very happy life touring the world and living more or less normally.
“There are still certain countries where we’re not as free. Two years ago in Sweden, we needed police dogs, etc. to get us out of the hotels.
“We’re a new act to the kids today, and we realize that. It gives us a chance to show them what we have.”
Go show ’em, Bill.
* * *
illiam “Bill” John Clifton Haley
July 6, 1925 – February 9, 1981