Bill Haley and his Comets was a rock and roll band of the 50s led by guitarist Bill Haley, one of the earliest groups of white musicians to record rock and roll bring it to the attention of white America and the rest of the world. Haley was a country performer who converted to rock and roll almost before there was such a thing.
Although several members of the Comets became famous, Bill Haley was the star. With his spit curl and the band all in plaid dinner jackets jumping about, many fans consider them to be as revolutionary in their time as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were in theirs.
The band was formed as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen c.1949-1950, and performed mostly country and western songs, though occasionally with a bluesy feel. 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."
Haley began his rock and roll career with a cover of "Rocket 88" in 1951 which sold well and was followed up a cover of a 1940s rhythm and blues song called "Rock the Joint" in 1952. Both songs were released under the increasingly incongruous Saddlemen name. It soon became apparent that a new name was needed to fit the music the band was now playing. A friend of Haley's, making note of the common alternate pronunciation of the name Halley's Comet to rhyme with "Bailey", suggested that Haley call his band The Comets.
The original members of the Comets when the band officially received its new name in the fall of 1952 were Johnny Grande (piano/accordion), Billy Williamson (steel guitar) and Marshall Lytle (string bass). 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.
In 1953, Haley scored his first national success with an original song (co-written by an uncredited Marshall Lytle) called "Crazy Man Crazy", a phrase Haley said he heard from his teenaged audience.
In April of 1954 Haley met with executives at Decca Records in New York City. A deal was struck for four records a year with standard royalties of 5% of sales. Also in the deal was $5000.00 in advance royalties and the agreement that Decca would send each release out to two thousand disc-jockeys. With a large business cash advance in hand and full page ads in Billboard and Cash Box magazines Haley knew the transfer from country/western to rock and roll was complete.
Later, he added Joey Ambrose on tenor sax and Dick Boccelli (aka Dick Richards) on drums. Along with the other original Comets, plus session musicians Danny Cedrone on electric guitar and Billy Gussak on drums (standing in for Boccelli), this was the group that recorded "Rock Around the Clock" for Decca Records on April 12, 1954. Haley's biggest hit, and one of the most important records in rock and roll history, "Rock Around the Clock", started slow but eventually sold an estimated 25 million copies and marked the arrival of a cultural shift.
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. 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 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 Saddlemen musician prior to 1951) on double bass and Ralph Jones on drums, as well as Frank Beecher aka Franny Beecher on electric guitar. This version of the band became even more popular, and appeared in several motion pictures over the next few years.
Other hits enjoyed by the band included R&B covers of "See You Later Alligator" in which Haley's frantic delivery contrasted with the Louisiana langour of the original by Bobby Charles. Furthermore, Haley's cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was a completely new performance built out of incompletely bowdlerized bits and pieces of the original by Big Joe Turner. The difference between the two illustrates the difference between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Many more people heard Joe Turner's version because Haley covered it. When Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1956, he combined Haley's arrangement with Turner's original lyrics but failed to score a subtantial hit.
In 1956, Bill Haley and His Comets appeared in two of the earliest rock and roll movies: Rock Around the Clock, and Don't Knock the Rock. In 1957, the band became the first major American rock and roll act to tour England, and their arrival at Waterloo Station in London was greeted by thousands of screaming fans who created a scene that became known as The Second Battle of Waterloo.
The band's popularity began to wane as sexier, wilder acts such as Elvis and Little Richard began to dominate the record charts. After "Skinny Minnie" hit the charts in 1958, Haley found it difficult to score further successes Stateside. In 1960, the band enjoyed its last new hit in the United States with an instrumental version of "Skokiaan". That year, Haley left Decca Records for the new Warner Brothers label, where his band recorded a series of critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful songs, many in the country and western style. Between 1961 and 1969, Haley and His Comets recorded unsuccessful singles for a number of small labels in America such as Newtown Records, Guest Star Records, APT Records, as well as for United Artists Records. APT Records even went so far as to release a single under the name B.H. Sees Combo in order to trick American radio stations into playing music by the so-called "has been" group. Guest Star Records released an album of Haley recordings under the name Scott Gregory, possibly due to the fact Haley was having major problems with the Internal Revenue Service at the time. In 1964 there was an abortive attempt to return to Decca with a low-selling recoring of Jim Lowe's "The Green Door" backed by "Yeah, She's Evil!" a song that would later be recorded by Elvis Presley for the soundtrack of his movie, Girl Happy.
For commercial success in the 1960s, the band had to turn to venues outside the United States. The group continued to be a top concert draw in Europe throughout the 1960s, including a successful stint at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany where they played around the same time the Beatles performed there.
In 1961-1962, Bill Haley y sus cometas (as the band was known in Latin America) scored an unexpected hit with "The Spanish Twist" and later had what was, for a time, the biggest selling single in Mexican 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. 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). They hosted a TV series entitled Orfeon a Go-Go and appeared in several movies. In 1966, the Comets (without Bill Haley) cut a Mexican album with Big Joe Turner, who had always been an idol to Haley; no joint performance of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was recorded, however.
By the late 1960s, Haley and the Comets were considered an oldies act, and toured with great success with Richard Nader's Rock and Roll Revival tours through the early 1970s. The band's popularly 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. 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 music flavor. 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.
In February 1976, Haley's saxophone player and best friend, Rudy Pompilli, died of cancer after a 20-year career with the Comets. Haley continued to tour for the next year with a replacement musician, but confessed that his heart was no longer in it. In early 1977 he announced his retirement and settled down at his home in Mexico. The Comets continued to tour on their own.
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, were assembled to perform as The Comets, and Haley appeared on many TV shows as well as the movie Blue Suede Shoes, filmed at one of his London concerts. 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 show in Johannesburg show Haley in good spirits and good voice. But further concerts and recording sessions were cancelled -- including a potential reunion with past members of the Comets -- and he returned to his home in Harlingen, Texas where he died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack on February 9, 1981.
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 Comets reunions were attempted in the 1980s.
The Original Comets, who performed with Haley in 1954-1955, are still touring the world as of 2004, packing showrooms in the United States and Europe. Two additional groups also claim the name Bill Haley's Comets and extensively tour in the United States: one featuring Haley's 1965-68 drummer John "Bam-Bam" Lane, the other run by his 1959-69 bass player, Al Rappa. All three groups lay claim to the title of "official" band, and on Oct. 1, 2004, Lane filed a lawsuit against the 1954-55 Comets, alleging trademark infringement.
|Bill Haley and the Comets--"Shake, Rattle and Roll" (1954); "Dim, Dim the Lights" (1954/5); "Mambo Rock"/"Birth of the Boogie" (1955); "Rock Around the Clock" (1955); "Razzle-Dazzle" (1955); "Burn That Candle" (1955); "See You Later, Alligator" (1956); "R-O-C-K"/ "The Saints Rock 'N Roll" (1956); "Rip It Up" (1956); "Rudy's Rock" (1956); "Skinny Minnie" (1958)|