Bill Haley & His Comets were an American rock and roll band that was founded in 1952 and continued until Haley's death in 1981. The band, also known by the names Bill Haley and The Comets and Bill Haley's Comets (and variations thereof), was the earliest group of white musicians to bring rock and roll to the attention of white America and the rest of the world. From late 1954 to late 1956, the group placed nine singles in the Top 20, one of those a number one and three more in the Top Ten.
Bandleader Bill Haley had previously been a country music performer; after recording a country and western-styled version of "Rocket 88", a rhythm and blues song, he changed musical direction to a new sound which came to be called rock and roll.
Although several members of the Comets became famous, Bill Haley remained the star. With his spit curl and the band's matching plaid dinner jackets and energetic stage behaviour, many fans consider them to be as revolutionary in their time as The Beatles or the Rolling Stones were a decade or two later.
Following Haley's death, no fewer than six different groups have existed under the Comets name, all claiming (with varying degrees of authority) to be the official continuation of Haley's group. As of early 2008, three such groups were still performing in the United States and internationally.
Early history and "Rocket 88"[edit source | edit]Edit
The band initially formed as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen c. 1949–1952, and performed mostly country and western songs, though occasionally with a bluesy feel. During those years Haley was considered one of the top cowboy yodelers in America. Many Saddlemen recordings would not be released until the 1970s and 1980s, and highlights included romantic ballads such as "Rose of My Heart" and western swing tunes such as "Yodel Your Blues Away". The original members of this group were Haley, pianist and accordion player Johnny Grande andsteel guitarist Billy Williamson. Al Thompson was the group's first bass player, followed by Al Rex and Marshall Lytle. During the group's early years, it recorded under several other names, including Johnny Clifton and His String Band, The Four Aces of Western Swing, and Reno Browne and Her Buckaroos (although Browne, a female matinee idol of the time, did not actually appear on the record).
Haley began his rock and roll career with what is now recognized as a rockabilly style in a cover of "Rocket 88" recorded for the Philadelphia-based Holiday Records label in 1951. It sold well and was followed in 1952 by a cover of a 1940s rhythm and blues song called "Rock the Joint" (this time for Holiday's sister company, Essex Records). Slap-back bass, one identifying characteristic of rockabilly, was used on the Comets' recordings of "Rocket 88", "Rock the Joint", "Rock Around the Clock", and "Shake, Rattle, and Roll". Prior to becoming the Comets, slapback was also used by bassist Al Rex, although to a lesser extent, on "Yodel Your Blues Away".
"Rock the Joint" and its immediate followups were released under the increasingly incongruous Saddlemen name. It soon became apparent that a new name was needed to fit the new musical style. A friend of Haley's, making note of the common alternative pronunciation of the name Halley's Comet to rhyme with Bailey, suggested that Haley call his band The Comets. (This event is cited in the Haley biographies Sound and Glory by John Haley and John von Hoelle, and Bill Haley by John Swenson and in Still Rockin' Around The Clock, a memoir by Comets bass player, Marshall Lytle.)
The new name was adopted in the fall of 1952. Members of the group at that time were Haley, Grande, Williamson and Lytle. Grande usually played piano on record, but switched to accordion for live shows as it was more portable than a piano and easier to deal with during musical numbers that involved a lot of dancing around. Soon after renaming the band, Haley hired his first drummer, Charlie Higler, though Higler was soon replaced by Dick Boccelli (a.k.a. Dick Richards). During this time (and indeed, as late as the fall of 1955), Haley did not have a permanent lead guitar player, choosing to use session musicians on record and either playing lead guitar himself or having Williamson play steel solos.
National success and "Rock Around the Clock"[edit source | edit]EditBillHaley/Elvis/HankSnowTicket - October 16, 1955
In 1953 Haley scored his first national success with an original song called "Crazy Man, Crazy", a phrase Haley said he heard from his teenage audience. Haley later claimed the recording sold a million copies, but this is considered an exaggeration. "Crazy Man, Crazy" was the first rock and roll song to be televised nationally when it was used on the soundtrack for a 1953 television play starring James Dean. Haley and His Comets then recorded "Rock Around the Clock", Haley's biggest hit, and one of the most important records in rock and roll history. Sales of "Rock Around the Clock" started slowly but eventually sold an estimated 25 million copies (per the Guinness Book of World Records) and marked the arrival of a cultural shift.
Much more impressive was "Shake, Rattle and Roll", a somewhat bowdlerized cover version of the Big Joe Turner recording. of earlier in 1954. The record was one of Decca's best-selling records in 1954. The song was the seventh best selling record in November 1954.
In March 1955, the group had four songs in Cash Box magazines top 50 songs: "Dim, Dim the Lights, (I Want Some Atmosphere)", "Birth of the Boogie", "Mambo Rock", and "Shake, Rattle and Roll".
Although Haley's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" never achieved the same level of historical importance as "Rock Around the Clock", it actually predated it as the first major international rock and roll hit, although it did not attain the Number 1 position in the American charts, but became his first gold record. When Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1956, he combined Haley's arrangement with Turner's original lyrics but failed to score a substantial hit. Late in 1954, Haley also recorded another hit, "Dim, Dim The Lights", which was one of the first R&B songs recorded by a white group to cross over to the R&B charts. Johnnie Ray had reached No. 1 with "Cry" in 1952.
The (belated) success of "Rock Around the Clock" is attributed to its use in the soundtrack of the film Blackboard Jungle, which was released in March 1955. The song, which was re-released to coincide with the film, rose to the top of the American musical charts that summer and stayed there for eight weeks, the first rock and roll record to do so.
Ambrose's acrobatic saxophone playing, along with Lytle on the double bass -literally on it, riding it like a pony, and holding it over his head- were highlights of the band's live performances during this time. Their music and their act were part of a tradition in jazz and rhythm and blues, but it all came like a thunderclap to most of their audience. In late 1954, Haley and His Comets appeared in a short subject entitled Round Up of Rhythm, performing three songs. This was the earliest known theatrical rock and roll film release.Bill Haley and His Comets in 1956. Left to right: Rudy Pompilli, Billy Williamson, Al Rex, Johnny Grande, Ralph Jones, Franny Beecher. Top: Bill Haley.
In 1955, Lytle, Richards and Ambrose quit the Comets in a salary dispute and formed their own group, The Jodimars. Haley hired several new musicians to take their place: Rudy Pompilli on sax, Al Rex (a former member of the Saddlemen) on double bass, and Ralph Jones on drums; in addition, lead guitarist Franny Beecher, who had been a session musician for Haley since Cedrone's death in the fall of 1954, became a full-time Comet and Haley's first performing lead guitarist. This version of the band became more popular than the earlier manifestation, and appeared in several motion pictures over the next few years.
Other hits recorded by the band included "See You Later, Alligator" in which Haley's frantic delivery contrasted with the Louisiana languor of the original by Bobby Charles, "Don't Knock the Rock", "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie", "Rudy's Rock" (the first instrumental hit of the rock and roll era) and "Skinny Minnie".
Decline in popularity[edit source | edit]Edit
The band's popularity in the United States began to wane in 1956–57 as sexier, wilder acts such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard began to dominate the record charts (although Haley's cover version of Little Richard's "Rip It Up" - which was released in direct competition - actually outsold the original). After "Skinny Minnie" hit the charts in 1958, Haley found it difficult to score further successes in the United States, although a spin-off group made up of Comets musicians dubbed The Kingsmen (no relation to the later group of "Louie, Louie" fame) did score a hit with the instrumental, "Weekend" that same year.
Overseas, however, Haley and his band continued to be popular, touring the United Kingdom in February 1957, during which Haley and his crew were mobbed by thousands of fans at Waterloo Station in London at an incident which the media dubbed the Second Battle of Waterloo. The group also toured Australia in 1957, and in 1958 enjoyed a successful (if riot-dominated) tour of the European mainland. Bill Haley & His Comets were the first major American rock and roll act to tour the world in this way. Elvis who was on duty in Germany visited them backstage at some shows. During an off day in Berlin they performed two songs in the Caterina Valente movie Hier Bin ich Hier Bleib Ich (Here I Am Here I Stay).
Back in the U.S., Haley attempted to start his own record label, Clymax, and establish his own stable of performers, most notably Philadelphia children's show hostess Sally Starr and theMatys Brothers. Members of The Comets were commissioned to work as session musicians on many of these recordings, many of which were written or co-written by Haley and/or members of The Comets. The Clymax experiment only lasted about a year. In 1959, Haley's relationship with Decca collapsed and after a final set of instrumental-only recordings in the fall, Haley announced he was leaving Decca for the new Warner Bros. Records label where two more albums were released to moderate success in 1960.
Mexico and the late 1960s[edit source | edit]Edit
In 1961–1962, Bill Haley y sus Cometas (as the band was known in Latin America) signed with the Orfeón label of Mexico and scored an unexpected hit with "Twist Español", a Spanish language recording based on the Twist dance craze that was sweeping America at the time. Haley followed up with what was, for a time, the biggest selling single inMexican history with "Florida Twist". Although Chubby Checker and Hank Ballard were credited with starting the Twist craze in America, in Mexico and Latin America, Bill Haley and His Comets were proclaimed the Kings of the Twist. Thanks to the success of "Twist Español" and "Florida Twist", among others, the band had continued success in Mexico and Latin America over the next few years, selling many recordings of Spanish and Spanish-flavored material and simulated live performances (overdubbed audience over studio recordings) on the Orfeon label and its subsidiary, Dimsa. They hosted a television series entitled Orfeon a Go-Go and made cameo appearances in several movies, lipsynching to some of their old hits. Haley, who was fluent in Spanish, recorded a number of songs in the language, but the vast majority of the band's output during these years were instrumental recordings, many utilizing local session musicians playing trumpet. There was also some experimentation with Haley's style during this time; one single for Orfeon was a folk ballad, "Jimmy Martinez", which Haley recorded without the Comets.
In 1966, the Comets (without Bill Haley) cut an album for Orfeon as session musicians for Big Joe Turner, who had always been an idol to Haley; no joint performance of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was recorded, however. In a 1974 interview with BBC Radio, Haley said Turner's career was in a slump at this time, so he used his then-considerable influence with Orfeon to get Turner a recording session. The Comets' association with Orfeon/Dimsa ended later that year.
By 1967, as related by Haley in an interview with radio host Red Robinson that same year, the group was "a free agent" without any recording contracts at all, although the band continued to perform regularly in North America and Europe. During this year, Haley—without the Comets—recorded a pair of demos in Phoenix, Arizona: a country-western song called "Jealous Heart" for which he was backed by a local mariachi band (and similar in style to the earlier "Jimmy Martinez", and late-60s-style rocker called "Rock on Baby" backed by a group called Superfine Dandelion. Neither recording would be released for 30 years. In 1968, Haley and the Comets recorded a single for the United Artists label, a version of Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis" but no long-term association with the label resulted. In order to revive his recording career, Haley turned to Europe.
Revival[edit source | edit]Edit
By the late 1960s, Haley and the Comets were considered an oldies act. The band's popularity never waned in Europe, and the group signed a lucrative deal with Sonet Records of Sweden in 1968 that resulted in a new version of "Rock Around the Clock" hitting the European charts that year. The band would record a mixture of live and studio albums for the label over the next decade.
In the United States in 1969, promoter Richard Nader launched a series of rock and roll revival concert tours featuring "oldies" acts of the 50s and 60s. One of the first of these shows, held at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in New York City, resulted in Haley receiving an eight-and-a-half minute standing ovation following his performance, as Nader related in his recorded introduction to Haley's live album Bill Haley's Scrapbook, which was recorded a few weeks later at New York's Bitter End club.
The band appeared in several concert films in the early 1970s, including The London Rock and Roll Show and Let the Good Times Roll. After 1974, tax and management problems prevented Haley from performing in the United States, so he performed in Europe almost exclusively, though he also toured South America in 1975. The band was also kept busy in the studio, recording numerous albums for Sonet and other labels in the 1970s, several with a country musicflavor. In 1974, Haley's original Decca recording of "Rock Around the Clock" hit the American sales charts once again thanks to its use in American Graffiti and Happy Days.
Late career[edit source | edit]Edit
In February 1976, Haley's saxophone player and best friend, Rudy Pompilli, died of cancer after a nearly 20-year career with the Comets. Haley continued to tour for the next year with a succession of new sax players, but his popularity was waning again and his 1976 performance in London was critically lambasted by music media such as Melody Maker. That year, the group also recorded an album, R-O-C-K at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio for Sonet Records. In early 1977, Haley announced his retirement from performing and settled down at his home in Mexico. According to the John Swenson biography of Haley, the musician was quoted as saying that he and Pompilli had an agreement that if one died, the other would retire.
The Comets continued to tour on their own during this period.
In 1979, Haley was persuaded to return to performing with the offer of a lucrative contract to tour Europe. An almost completely new group of musicians, mostly British - including Pete Thomas (saxophonist) - were assembled to perform as The Comets, and Haley appeared on many television shows as well as in the movie Blue Suede Shoes, filmed at one of his London concerts in March 1979. A few days later, a performance in Birmingham was videotaped and aired on UK television; it was released on DVD in 2005. During the March tour, Haley recorded several tracks in London for his next album with Sonet, completing the work that summer at Muscle Shoals in Alabama; released later in the year, the resulting album Everyone Can Rock & Roll was the last release of new recordings by Bill Haley before his death.
In November 1979, Haley and the Comets performed for Queen Elizabeth II, a moment Haley considered the proudest of his career. It was also the last time he performed in Europe and the last time most fans saw him perform "Rock Around the Clock".
In 1980, Bill Haley and His Comets toured South Africa but Haley's health was failing and it was reported that he had a brain tumor. The tour was critically lambasted, but surviving recordings of a performance in Johannesburg show Haley in good spirits and good voice. Nonetheless, according to the Haley News fan club newsletter and the Haley biography Sound and Glory, planned concerts such as a fall 1980 tour of Germany, and proposed recording sessions in New York and Memphis were cancelled—including a potential reunion with past members of the Comets—and Haley returned to his home in Harlingen, Texas where he died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack on February 9, 1981.
In April 1981, Bill Haley & His Comets returned to the British musical charts once again when MCA Records (inheritors of the Decca catalog) released "Haley's Golden Medley", a hastily compiled edit of the band's best known hits in the style of the then-popular "Stars on 45" format. The single reached No. 50 in the UK but was not released in the United States.
In 1987, Bill Haley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At that time, supporting bands were not also named to the hall. This policy has since changed and efforts have been under way for several years to have The Comets also named to the Hall. In 2012, a special committee finally inducted the Comets into the hall. Bill Haley and His Comets have also been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and, in July 2005, the surviving members of the 1954–55 Comets (see below) represented Haley when Bill Haley and His Comets were inducted into Hollywood's Rockwalk, a ceremony also attended by Haley's second wife and youngest daughter. The Comets placed their handprints in cement; a space was left blank for Haley.
The Comets[edit source | edit]Edit
More than 100 musicians performed with Bill Haley & His Comets between 1952 and Haley's death in 1981, many becoming fan favorites along the way. Several short-lived Comets reunions were attempted in the 1970s and 1980s, including one contingent (organized by Baltimore-based piano player Joey Welz who played piano for the Comets during the summer of 1965) that appeared on The Tomorrow Show, and another run by an Elvis Presley impersonator named Joey Rand (this group later lost a legal action over the right to use the Comets name), but only one group was officially sent out to perform by Haley himself, and his management/production company, which were the official Comets who played with Haley throughout the 1960s and 1970s and continued to perform as the Comets between gigs and during Haley's retirement. This group consisted of Comets lead guitarist "Nick Masters" (Mathias Nicholas Nastos), bassist Ray Cawley, singer "Pudge" Parsons (Ray Parsons), and drummer Buddy Dee. This was the same group who rerecorded "Rock Around the Clock" for the "Happy Days" television series theme music.
The Comets, featuring musicians who performed with Haley in 1954–1955, reunited in 1987 and are still touring the world as of 2007, playing showrooms in the United States and Europe. They have also recorded a half-dozen albums for small labels in Europe and the United States. This version of the group has also been credited as Bill Haley's Original Comets, and in circumstances where the use of the Comets name is in dispute, A Tribute to Bill Haley and The Original Band. The basic line-up of this group from 1987 to May 2006 consisted of Marshall Lytle (bass), Joey Ambrose (sax), Johnny Grande (piano), Dick Richards (drums) and Franny Beecher (guitar). British singer Jacko Buddin augmented the group on vocals during most of their European tours, with Lytle taking over on vocals for US/Canadian tours beginning in 2000 and full-time in Europe in the mid-2000s. Since they connected with Klaus Kettner's Rock It Concerts (Germany) in 1991 they have played hundreds of shows all over Europe, dozens of television shows and in March 2007 pre-opened the Bill-Haley-Museum in Munich, Germany.
Two additional groups claim the name Bill Haley's Comets and have extensively toured in the United States since forming in the 1980s: one originally Haley's 1965–68 drummer John "Bam-Bam" Lane, the other run by Al Rappa who played bass for Haley off-and-on between late 1959 and early 1969 (the 1959 album "Strictly Instrumental" on Decca was Al Rappa's first recording session with Bill Haley & His Comets. Bill had used Al as a fill-in player on live gigs for several years prior to that.). Both these musicians claim trademark ownership of the Bill Haley's Comets name; this dates back to Lane and Rappa (during a period when they worked together as one band) winning a trademark infringement lawsuit against the aforementioned Joey Rand group in 1989. Both Rappa and Lane's bands have, from time to time, recruited other former Comets for their line-ups (for example, in 2005, Rappa joined forces with Joey Welz), but for the most part the bandleaders are the only regular members who have worked with Bill Haley directly. Lane died in 2007 but his group continues to perform, led by bandleader Lenny Longo, who has no direct Bill Haley connection. Al Rappa incorporated numerous professional musicians from the Southern Indiana area such as Warren Batts, Joe Esarey, Dave Matthews, John Urbina and many others to make a full band. Al Rappa performed his Upright Bass show before thousands in audiences all over the country. The band members from Al Rappas "Comets" went on to form the LocoMotion showband and continued touring the States without Al Rappa. LocoMotion is now no longer a band. Esarey went on to graduate from Cedarville University and Luther Rice Seminary and now pastors a growing church in Ohio. Esarey has released two Saxophone solo albumns and is currently writing and producing Christian music for a worship group.
In March and July 2005, the members of the 1954–55 group, now billed as simply The Comets after decades of controversy over the use of the name, made several high-profile concert appearances in New York City and Los Angeles organized by Martin Lewis as part of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of rock and roll, the release of Blackboard Jungle, the 50th anniversary of "Rock Around the Clock" hitting Number 1, and the 80th birthday of Bill Haley. During a July 6, 2005 concert at the Viper Room in West Hollywood, The Comets were joined on stage for one song by Gina Haley, the youngest daughter of Bill Haley; at a similar appearance in March they were joined by Haley's eldest son, John W. Haley. The 1954-55 Comets were also joined on stage by Bill Haley Jr. during several appearances in 2005 at Bubba Mac's in Sommers Point, New Jersey, and at a 2005 concert recognizing the tenure of Bill Haley and the Saddlemen at the Twin Bars in Gloucester, New Jersey.
In 2006, The 1954–55 Comets spent much of the year in residence at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Missouri. Meanwhile, the John Lane edition of Bill Haley's Comets recorded a new album in Tennessee in early 2006 which has yet to be released.
On June 2, 2006, Johnny Grande, keyboardist with the 1954–55 Comets and an original founding member of the band, died after a short illness. The following month, 85-year-old guitarist Franny Beecher announced his retirement, though he was at one point announced as participating in an early 2007 tour of Germany. The three remaining original Comets (Lytle, Richards, and Ambrose) continue to perform in Branson with new musicians taking over the keyboard and lead guitar positions. During September 2006, PBS in the United States aired a series of programs videotaped in Branson during the spring of 2006; these shows include the last recorded performances of the complete Original Comets line-up including Grande.
John "Bam-Bam" Lane died on February 18, 2007 but his edition of Bill Haley's Comets is expected to continue touring, with the 2006 recordings to be released in Lane's memory.
On October 27, 2007 ex Comets guitar player Bill Turner opened the afore mentioned Bill-Haley-Museum in Munich, Germany. He will also join the New Comets during their 'Remember Bill Haley Tour 2011' with Bill Haley's daughter Gina Haley.
In 2011, Bill Haley Jr. formed the band Bill Haley Jr. and the Comets, and created a "Rock 'N' Roll History Show" to perform songs from his father's Holiday, Essex and Decca catalogues and offers anecdotes and little know facts about the songs and his father's life. In 2012, the band did a small tour of the Eastern United States.