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Bill Haley & His Comets

From Academic Kids

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The original members of Bill Haley and His Comets, c.1952. Left to right: Marshall Lytle, Johnny Grande, Bill Haley, Billy Williamson.

Bill Haley and his Comets was a rock and roll band of the 50s. It was one of the earliest groups of white musicians to bring rock and roll to the attention of white America and the rest of the world. Bandleader Bill Haley had previously been a country performer; after recording a cover of the seminal rock and roll song "Rocket 88", he changed musical direction to the new sound.

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 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 new name was adopted in the fall of 1952. At that time, the members 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.

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.

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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 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.

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Vintage magazine cover published during the Comets' pioneering 1957 tour of the United Kingdom.

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, playing 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.

Selected musical highlights

This list consists of songs that are often cited by Comets fans as among their best recordings, however Bill Haley and His Comets recorded hundreds of songs between 1952 and 1979. For a complete discography and song list, visit Bill Haley Central (http://www.billhaleycentral.com).

  • "Rocket 88" (1951) - originally released under the name Bill Haley and the Saddlemen
  • "Rock the Joint" (1952) - originally released under the name Bill Haley and the Saddlemen
  • "Crazy Man Crazy" (1953)
  • "Real Rock Drive" (1953)
  • "Rock Around the Clock" (1954)
  • "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (1954)
  • "Dim, Dim the Lights" (1954)
  • "Mambo Rock" (1955)
  • "Razzle-Dazzle" (1955)
  • "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie" (1955)
  • "The Saints' Rock and Roll" (1955)
  • "See You Later Alligator" (1955)
  • "Rudy's Rock" (1956) - instrumental featuring Rudy Pompilli
  • "Goofin' Around" (1956) - instrumental featuring Franny Beecher
  • "Hot Dog Buddy Buddy" (1956)
  • "Don't Knock the Rock" (1956)- title song of the film
  • "Rockin' Thru the Rye" (1956)
  • "Rip it Up" (1956) - cover of the Little Richard hit
  • "Rock Lomond" (1957)
  • "Rock the Joint" (1957) - re-recording of the 1952 hit
  • "Ain't Misbehavin'" (1957) - Fats Waller composition
  • "Skinny Minnie" (1958) - Haley's last top-40 hit in the United States
  • "Corrine Corrina" (1958) - folk song also recorded by Big Joe Turner
  • "Joey's Song" (1958) - instrumental featuring Rudy Pompilli
  • "A Fool Such As I" (1959) - previously recorded by Elvis Presley
  • "Skokiaan" (1959), cover of one of the first Afro-pop hits
  • "Tamiami" (1960) - instrumental featuring Rudy Pompilli and Johnny Grande
  • "Stagger Lee" (1960) - folk blues based upon the story of Frankie and Johnny.
  • "I Don't Hurt Anymore" (1960)
  • "Hawk" (1960)
  • "Chick Safari" (1960)
  • "Florida Twist" (1961) - top-selling single in Mexican history up to this time
  • "Yakety Sax" (1962) - cover of the Boots Randolph classic
  • "The Spanish Twist" (1962)
  • "Marie Twist" (1962)
  • "Tenor Man" (1963)
  • "One Phone Call" (1963) - instrumental featuring Rudy Pompilli, unreleased until 1999
  • "Jimmy Martinez" (1964) - recorded in Spanish without the Comets
  • "She Thinks I Still Care" (1964), country cover
  • "The Green Door" (1964) - recorded for Decca
  • "Land of A Thousand Dances" (1966)
  • "How Many?" (1966) - remake of a song originally recorded for Decca in 1957
  • "Jealous Heart" (1967) - solo recording made by Haley without the Comets. Unreleased until 1999
  • "Cryin' Time" (1968) - country cover originally by Buck Owens
  • "Flip, Flop and Fly" (1968) - Big Joe Turner cover (Haley recorded this song many times over the years, but the 1968 version for Sonet is considered his best attempt)
  • "That's How I Got to Memphis" (1968) - cover of the Tom T. Hall hit
  • "Almost Persuaded" (1969) - country cover featuring a vocal by drummer Bill Nolte. Unreleased until 1999
  • "Dance Around the Clock" (1970) - re-recording of a song Haley introduced in 1964 as a sequel to "Rock Around the Clock"
  • "A Little Piece at a Time" (1970)
  • "No Letter Today" (1970) - re-recording of a song Haley first recorded in 1960
  • "Games People Play" (1970) - cover of the Joe South protest song
  • "Rudy's Rock" (1975) re-recording; Rudy Pompilli solo recording with the Comets sans Haley
  • "Same Old Loverman" (1975) - Rudy Pompilli solo instrumental recording of the Gordon Lightfoot song
  • "I Got a Woman" (1976) - Ray Charles cover previously recorded by Haley in 1959.
  • "Hail Hail Rock and Roll" (1979)
  • "God Bless Rock and Roll" (1979) - Haley's final single release

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