Stranger In A Strange Land : Bill Haley and The R & B Years ©2002JCMarion


Bill Haley was born in Highland Park, Michigan in 1927. As a teenager he was heavily influenced musically by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys and their style of "Western Swing". Later that influence would also include The Delmore Brothers, Spade Cooley, and Moon Mullican. In his late teens he had moved to suburban Philadelphia and was a fixture on radio station WPWA in Chester. His group called The Saddlemen were part of the broadcasts and their performances gave them a local following which led to recordings for area record labels. During the late forties Bill and The Saddlemen recorded for the Cowboy, Center, and Keystone labels. Somehow Bill and his group release a side for R & B giant-to-be Atlantic Records on #727 - "Why Do I Cry Over You" and "I'm Gonna Dry Every Tear" in 1950.
In November of 1950, Atlantic Records announces that Bill Haley has recorded a cover version of Ruth Brown's "Teardrops From My Eyes" (also on Atlantic). The Brown version is one of the biggest R & B sellers in the country. Simon House, a music publishing firm also makes the announcement as they take over rights to the song from Atlantic's Progressive Music, Inc. In July of 1951, Dave Miller, recording industry entrepreneur based in Philadelphia, announces the forming of Holiday Records in that city. Bill Haley is among the music artists signed to the new label. It is about this time that the music of Bill Haley undergoes a historic transformation.
There are many claims to where the birthplace of rock 'n roll music may be. Some say Central Avenue in South Central L.A. with the Barrelhouse, Club Alabam, and other night spots. Others say the South side of Chicago in the juke joints featuring the new urban electrified blues. Others say 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, home of Sam Phillips and his fledgling Sun Records. Still others claim the street corners of Harlem, New York as the place. There is another place that has a legitimate place in history, and it is the strangest yet. It is what was a small neighborhood bar in the mostly overlooked town of Gloucester City, New Jersey, just South of Camden and across the Delaware River from Philly. It was here at the Twin Bar, located at the corner of Fourth Street and Market according to Bill Haley, that his band began to experiment using R & B jump tunes in their performance and getting a surprising reaction from the audience to his amalgamation of musical styles. At the insistence of Jim Ferguson a fellow dj at WPWA (and sometimes manager), the band dropped the "cowboy" look and adopted a neutral appearance. The cross pollenization of musical styles took substance in his first recording for the new Holiday label (#105) with Haley & The Saddlemen's version of "Rocket 88", a national hit for Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats (actually Ike Turner & The Dukes of Rhythm). The Haley version featured a beginning and end of squealing tires to frame the jumping "car song". Similar followups on Holiday included "Green Tree Boogie" on #108, and "Sundown Boogie" on #113 in early 1952.
By the spring of 1952, the combo records another straight forward R & B cover (of a local Philadelphia R & B hit by Jimmy Preston & The Prestonians) called "Rock The Joint" for the Palda label which is quickly renamed Essex and issued on #303. The record is played not on country stations, but by R & B programmers in the urban Northeast. "Rocking Chair On The Moon" and "Dance With A Dolly" on Essex #305 out in August is the last release by the group as The Saddlemen. Any pretenses of country music appeal are now forgotten as the group now named Bill Haley with Haley's Comets record "Real Rock Drive" in November on #310 to very limited success. But it was the next release that started it all, and could be documented as the fountainhead of all that followed for the next half century and beyond. "Crazy Man Crazy" and "Watcha Gonna Do" on Essex #321 was released in late April of 1953. "Crazy" takes off from a pounding drum roll and into guitar driven eight-to-the-bar boogie beat accented by the heavy drums. The loud shouts of "Go ! Go ! Go ! Everybody !" leading into the guitar break were augmented in the studio by label president Dave Miller, record distributor Jerry Blaine, label promotion man Dave Malamud, and even the building's porter. The flip side also was interesting. The song (no relation to the similarly titled tune by Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters for Atlantic) was a straight ahead up tempo blues tune. The instrumental break features one chorus of guitar followed by the Hawaiian steel trading "fours" with some manic drum breaks (cymbals, cowbells, etc.) and then into a piano chorus that is totally out of place (like a wild west saloon soundtrack).
"Crazy Man Crazy" was the record that introduced mainstream America to rock 'n roll. It was the first rock record to be on the playlist of "The Make Believe Ballroom" and America's number one radio disc jockey Martin Block. This was the first rock 'n roll record to make a lasting impression on the top selling pop charts in the country, and be on those charts for months. This was the opening salvo in the history of the new music. America sat up and took notice. Essex Records and its parent company Palda Manufacturing, quickly moved into new quarters that allowed them to do the whole deal - recording, milling, die cutting, printing, and distribution. The numbers on the Haley record pushed Palda and Essex immediately into the big time and they wanted to be sure they were ready. A big band cover version of "Crazy Man Crazy" by Ralph Marterie for Mercury did not seem to take away from the Haley original. In June of 1953, Haley and the Comets appear with Bill Randle of WERE in Cleveland with The Dominos and Joe Louis & his combo.
Follow up records for Essex during the rest of 1953 were not as successful. "Fractured" on #327 in July, "Farewell, So Long, Goodbye" on #331, "Ten Little Indians" and in December a cover of Faye Adams "I'll Be True" on #340, and in March of 1954 "Straight Jacket" on #348, were not anywhere near the ground breakers that "Crazy" was. But the oldest major of them all had sat up and heard the future. They signed Bill Haley & Haley's Comets out from under Essex and the group was poised for uncharted territory. In early April the band releases "Rock Around The Clock" on Decca #29124, but the record goes nowhere. In the summer of 1954, Decca releases Haley's cover version of Joe Turner's "Shake Rattle & Roll" (on #29204), a big hit for Atlantic. For the first time the transformation of Bill Haley and his group to a true R & B sound was complete. The first notes of the intro feature the blasting tenor sax of Joey D'Ambrosia on top of the amped up and revved up electric guitar, which heralded the sound of rock 'n roll. In place of a sax break, the sax and guitar reprise the intro figure over the frantic shouts of "Go !", leading into the concluding vocal passage which ends with a concussive "bomb" on the bass drum. The record exploded on the scene and quickly made the best seller charts and was a huge hit in traditional R & B markets such as Louisville, Cleveland, and Kansas City. The version even with its watered down, less explicit lyric content, was a big seller in Harlem and Chicago's South Side, traditional Black R & B record areas.
Despite the huge success of the record, Haley and his band spend most of the summer appearing at a small resort nightspot called The Hofbrau, in Wildwood, at the New Jersey shore. They return to Gloucester to play a few nights at The Log Cabin. They follow that with play dates in Ohio and St. Louis. While in Ohio Haley defends Rhythm & Blues music in an interview with WERE's Bill Randle. Haley and The Comets do a week at the Blue Mirror in Washington D.C., and then a further extended appearance at another D.C. nightspot, the Casino Royale. In January of 1955 Haley and The Comets re-sign with Decca Records as their version of "Shake Rattle & Roll" becomes one of the biggest sellers in the label's history. A week later it is announced that Haley's former Decca release of "Rock Around The Clock" will be used on the soundtrack of MGM's motion picture "The Blackboard Jungle". That announcement precipitates one of the defining moments in American music. In the results of a buyers poll in Chicago, it is reported that Bill Haley and Haley's Comets are the one White musical act that is favored by the R & B market.
In February while doing a series of one nighters in upstate New York, Decca releases "Dim Dim The Lights" by Haley and the Comets on #29317. This record does surprisingly well in all traditional R & B markets. On March 25, 1955, the MGM motion picture "Rock Around The Clock" is released to theaters around the country. The U.S. will never be the same. In a scene of things to come, Haley's record of Rock Around The Clock" causes a near riot at Princeton University. During the spring of the year Haley and his band do a series of one nighters throughout the Eastern states. "Dim Dim The Lights" is reported to be selling big in the R & B field. Haley and the Comets appear on their very first network television show on May 31 with Milton Berle. "Mambo Rock" is released by Decca on #29418 and sells big right off the bat. In July Decca announces that in little more than one year Haley has sold more than three million records for the label. "Shake Rattle & Roll" and "Rock Around The Clock" have topped the million mark easily, while "Dim Dim The Lights" is over three quarters of a million, and the newly released "Mambo Rock" is over three hundred thousand. During late June the song "Razzle Dazzle" is released on Decca #29662. The flip side is "Two Hound Dogs".
In mid-July Haley does a few shows at the Regal Theater in Chicago before leaving on an extensive tour throughout the Midwest and Canada. Billboard awards Haley a "triple crown" when "Rock Around The Clock" tops the pop, R & B, and country charts at the same time. In August Bill Haley enters a lawsuit against Dave Miller and Essex Records to try and halt the release of old masters that he recorded for that label. He also sues to stop Essex from using the Comets name, and an accounting of past sales for lost royalties claimed by Haley. Suddenly Bill Haley's music is on a number of movie soundtracks such as "How To Be Very Very Popular" and "Running Wild" after the huge success of "Blackboard Jungle". By September Haley & his Comets are the highest grossing rock act on the road. In September, the Comets split apart with former members D'Ambrosia, Marshall Lytell on bass, and drummer Dick Reynolds, forming a new group called The Jodimars, and sign to record with Capitol. Taking their place are Francis Beecher on guitar, Al Rex on bass, Don Raymond on drums, and most importantly, tenor sax honker Rudy Pompilli who would remain with Haley until the end. In October Haley and his group join Hank Snow, country music's "Singing Ranger" for a bunch of state fair dates in the Midwest. Joining the tour in Oklahoma City is a new recording personality from Memphis named Elvis Presley.
In October "Burn That Candle" is issued on Decca #29713 with "Rock-A-Beating Boogie" on the flip side. Once again the new side sells well in the R & B markets. Over the Thanksgiving Day weekend at the Brooklyn Paramount, Haley and The Comets join LaVern Baker and Johnny Ray for a well received show with an interesting lineup. Haley does huge box office in Baltimore, Boston, and Springfield, Massachusetts. At year's end Columbia Pictures readies a deal to film "Rock Around The Clock" to feature Bill Haley and Alan Freed. In December Haley and The Comets record a cover of Bobby Charles "See You Later Alligator" on #29791. Haley and the band sign on for a big barnstorming R & B tour throughout the South and Midwest during January and February. They are the only White act on the bill which includes The Platters, LaVern Baker, Shirley & Lee, The Drifters, Joe Turner, The 5 Keys, Turbans, Bo Diddley, Roy Hamilton, and the Red Prysock band. In March Decca issues a "Rock Around The Clock" LP featuring six songs from the movie of the same name. The original version of Haley's "Rock" is now at three and a half million in sales. Western Europe shows Haley is the top music performer in record sales. Haley and the band kick off another national tour in late April sharing the stage with Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, Clyde McPhatter, The Colts, Flamingos, Teen Queens, and others. Once again Haley and his group are the only White act in the R & B revue. " R-O-C-K" is released on Decca #29870 sells moderately well, and the next side "Hot Dog Buddy Buddy" on #29948 does a bit better but change is in the wind once more.
The nationwide following of Elvis Presley overwhelms most of the rock 'n roll world and in its wake, Bill Haley is the chief casualty. White teenagers now had their own anti-hero, seen as more of their own rather than the staid Haley now in his thirties. Haley and The Comets still had some push left. They played an SRO date in Denver in November despite an early season blizzard that hit the city. He was also readying a world tour, one that would give the music much negative publicity because of riots in England, and a particularly violent outburst in West Berlin. He would never hit the top of the charts again, but revamped his style for late fifties hits "Skinny Minnie" and the derivative "Lean Jean". He faded in and out through the 60s and 70s with stints in Mexico and South Texas before passing away in February of 1981.
Bill Haley was never the rebel with a cause that personified the spirit of the music. He was unthreatening, older than most of his audience, and was a mannered personality. Because of these characteristics, he does not fit the mold of a true rock idol, and as such, is most often snubbed by retro historians seeking to re-write history to fit the image. But the facts remain - he was there, he was first, and he set the table for all that would follow. He was the first, and as it ended up, the only White R & B act that mattered during the early fifties. The opening thunderous drum roll of "Crazy Man Crazy" heralded the start of the rock 'n roll age and Haley found himself indeed, a stranger in a strange land.
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