Mr. Rockin’ Rollin’
When a person brings up the term rock and roll, many things could pass through one’s mind. Someone’s immediate thought could swing to Elvis Presley, ACDC, or even Britney Spear’s version of “I Love Rock and Roll.” It all depends on how much one knows about the subject and what era of time one grew up in.
According to Dictionary.com, rock and roll is “a genre of popular music originating in the 1950s; a blend of Black rhythm-and-blues with White country-and-western; a rock is a generic term for the range of styles that evolved out of rock’ n ‘roll.” It is essentially a combination of different music that was put together and tested by many artists in the early to mid 1900’s. Billy Haley was one of the artists that introduced that new sound of music into the world.
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Billy Haley, whose full name is William John Clifton Haley, was born on July 6th 1925 into a family that was musically inclined. His musical abilities were not a surprise to his mother Maude who was a classically trained pianist and to his father William who played the banjo. Throughout his life as a child, he was surrounded completely by music. BillHaley.com states that “his first performances date from about 1938, when as a child he sang and played guitar at variety shows put on by local children to raise money for local causes.” Though Bill Haley did perform in front of people, he was a shy child due to the fact that he was blind in his left eye since infancy.
As a child, a handicap like this tends to leave a mark of self-consciousness and concern about outer appearances. Music was a gift to Bill Haley that allowed him to grow through his self-consciousness and focus not on his partial blindness but his love for performing.
Bill Haley’s teenage years brought more opportunities to polish his act and become known by more people. He readily performed music at amusement parks and fell in love with the idea of becoming a “real, certified, singing cowboy (Gregoire, 6).” As he persistently pursued his passion through his teenage years and onto his early twenties, in 1946 he finally got a break when he joined his first professional country group known as the “Down Homers.” Through his journey with them did not last long, he went on to make many unsuccessful songs with a record label called Cowboy Records. A disheartened Bill Haley fell ill and returned home to be nursed back to health by his mother.
As to Bill Haley’s response to his previous endeavours, he stated, “I returned with the idea of getting out of show business. I had had a pretty decent career but I wasn’t getting anywhere. I needed to get a steady job, forget my foolish ideas, and accomplish something that was real. The road can be hard on a kid if he’s not careful. I needed a rest, I wanted someplace to hide. All I could think of is I’m a failure, and now everybody id going to know it (Gregoire, 6).” When Haley returned, he began hosting a newly formed radio station called WPWA.
According to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame Presentation on Billy Haley, “he threw all his energy and soul into it. He would work twelve to sixteen hours a day, six days a week. He interviewed dozens of local people…and each Sunday he would go to Radio Park to invite celebrities to do a special half-hour program.” Bill Haley had a number of talents, all adding up to the same thing; he was born to be in the spotlight.
Around 1950, Bill Haley’s journey had really just begun when he decided to form a band he called “The Saddlemen.” They had a change in style and performed cover songs to Jack Breston’s “Rocket 88” and “Rock this Joint.” As success and popularity of these covers hit the top, Haley was convinced “he could be a successful rock and roller (Hull, 2).” A change of name came about in 1952 when the band decided to call themselves “Bill Haley and His Comets.” Though, suspicion surfaces in that fact that this was more Bill Haley’s idea than the rest of the band. His band consisted of Al Rex on bass, Billy Williamson on steel guitar and Johnny Grande playing piano and accordion.
Al Rex left the group though in 1951 and was replaced by Marshal Lytle. Later, Haley also added a drummer and a sax player to formulate a style of music known as rock and roll. Everything was coming together for the group and Haley even developed a trademark hairstyle, the kiss curl, to take attention away from his blind eye. In 1953, the band’s original song ‘Crazy Man Crazy,” written by Haley and Lytle, shot to the top and became the first rock and roll song to ever hit the American charts.
As Haley thought his success was at its highest peak, he was wrong as it climbed higher with songs like “Rock Around the Clock”, “Shake Rattle and Roll” and “See You Later Alligator.” Rock and roll was considered an underground movement before Bill Haley came along. Haley and his band opened a door for the young white generation to enjoy and experience a new sound of music. It formed out of two very different styles of music that were combined to form a beautiful, new, and exciting genre of music.
As Haley began to make history, he made a path for those trailing not far behind him. “When “Rock Around the Clock” appeared on the soundtrack of the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle it launched a musical revolution (Hull, 4).” It allowed musical sensations like Elvis Presley to hit the charts and to become a worldwide phenomenon. Bill Haley’s fame not only allowed him to tour the country, but he also starred in the first rock and roll musical movies. As Bill Haley made way for the upcoming rock and roll stars like Elvis Presley, he also was pushed out of the direct American spot light. Elvis Presley, having more appealing features and dance moves that made one want to get down, he became the star in the immediate spot light.
Bill Haley continued down his path of stardom and became a huge success in Latin America and Europe in the 1960’s. Haley toured for the rest of his career and became the epitome of a rock and roll idol. His accomplishments far surpass many artists today and many artists that are to come.
Haley was the first to accomplish on many occasions. According to Rockabilly Hall of Fame Presentation on Bill Haley, “He was the first bandleader to form a rock and roll group, to write his own music, to reach the national charts with the music he wrote and recorded, to own his own music publishing companies, to own his own record label and recording company, to be elected as the Rhythm and Blues Personality of the Year, to sell a million records, to receive a gold record, to go on a world tour, to sell a million records in England, to star in a full-length motion picture, to tour with all-black supporting artists, and the first to appear on a network television show.”
Billy Haley’s accomplishments are the reason we have rock bands today. He was an inspiration to many that brought a pure sense of joy into many lives. As Haley toured for the rest of his career, his last performances were made in South Africa in 1980. He died on the 9th of February in 1981 of a heart attack at his home in Harlingen, Texas. Haley was only 55 years old when he died, but the life he lived was far greater than most who live to be 85 years old. Billy Haley’s songs are still heard today and played on local radio stations.
They are songs that Americans will never be able to forget or stop replaying in their head. Even America’s newer generation have heard his songs and can even sing along with the lyrics. William John Clifton Haley was a man of passion, a legend, a foundation, and rock that developed a sensational and never-ending style of music. To acknowledge his accomplishments as an artist, in 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Without rock and roll, America would be lost in a heap of music that would never be able to touch the soul as rock and roll can.
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