Bill Haley & His Comets
(Read all about Bill Haley & His Comets after the video)
Bill Haley & His Comets were an American rock and roll band, founded in 1952 and continued until Haley's death in 1981. The band, also known as Bill Haley and the Comets and Bill Haley's Comets (and variations thereof), was the earliest group of white musicians to bring rock 'n' roll to the attention of 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 behavior, many fans consider them to be as revolutionary in their time as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones were a decade later.
Following Haley's death, no fewer than seven different groups have existed under the Comets name, all claiming (with varying degrees of authority) to be the continuation of Haley's group. As of the end of 2014, four such groups were still performing in the United States and internationally.
Early history and "Rock the Joint"
In the mid-1940s, Bill Haley performed with the Down Homers and formed a group called the Four Aces of Western Swing. The group that later became the Comets 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 were 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 and steel 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 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". Slap-back had been used by bassist Al Rex, although to a lesser extent, on the Saddlemen's "Yodel Your Blues Away". Slap-back bass was a necessity for the group, because in its early years (prior to the fall of 1952), it did not feature a stage drummer, so the bass provided percussion in addition to the bass line.
"Rock the Joint" and its immediate follow-ups 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, Earl Famous. Displeased with lineup, Haley sought out Dick Boccelli (also known as Dick Richards), who turned down the job, but recommended a young drummer Charlie Higler. Soon after, Haley asked Richards again, who then accepted the role. During this time (and 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"
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, again released on Essex. 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.
In the spring of 1954, Haley and His Comets left Essex for New York-based Decca Records, where they were placed under the auspices of veteran producer Milt Gabler, who would produce all of the band's recordings for the label and who had been involved in creating many proto-rock and roll recordings by the likes of the Andrews Sisters and Louis Jordan dating back to the 1940s. Their first session, on April 12, 1954, yielded "Rock Around the Clock", which would become Haley's biggest hit and one of the most important records in rock and roll history. Sales of "Rock Around the Clock" started slowly, since it was the B-side of the single, but it performed well enough that a second Decca session was commissioned.
"Shake, Rattle and Roll" followed, a somewhat bowdlerized cover version of the Big Joe Turner recording of earlier in 1954. The single was one of Decca's best-selling records of 1954 and the seventh-best-selling record in November 1954.
In March 1955, the group had four songs in Cash Box magazine's top 50 songs: "Dim, Dim the Lights, (I Want Some Atmosphere)", "Birth of the Boogie", "Mambo Rock", and "Shake, Rattle and Roll".
Haley's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" never achieved the same level of historical importance as "Rock Around the Clock", but it predated it as the first international rock and roll hit. It did not attain the Number 1 position on the American charts, but it became Haley's first gold record. Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1956, combining Haley's arrangement with Turner's original lyrics, but his version was not a substantial hit. Late in 1954, Haley 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 Number 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 on March 19, 1955. The song, which was re-released to coincide with the film, now shifted to the single's A-side, 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.
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 Danny Cedrone's death in the fall of 1954, became a full-time Comet and Haley's first performing lead guitarist (Cedrone had played the guitar solo on the original recording of "Rock Around the Clock" and died shortly after the recording session for "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in the summer of 1954). 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".
Bill Haley and the Comets performed "Rock Around the Clock" in an a capella and a lip-synched version on the NBC television program Texaco Star Theater, hosted by Milton Berle, on May 31, 1955. Berle predicted that the song would go to Number 1: "A group of entertainers who are going right to the top." Berle also sang and danced to the song, which was performed by the entire cast of the show. This was one of the earliest nationally televised performances by a rock and roll band and provided the new musical genre a much wider audience.
Bill Haley and the Comets were the first rock and roll performers to appear on the CBS television musical variety program The Ed Sullivan Show, or Toast of the Town, on Sunday, August 7, 1955, in a broadcast from the Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, Connecticut. They performed a live version of "Rock Around the Clock" featuring Franny Beecher on lead guitar and Dick Richards on drums. The group made a second and final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday, April 28, 1957, performing "Rudy's Rock" and "Forty Cups of Coffee".
Bill Haley and the Comets appeared on American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark on ABC television, twice in 1957, on the prime-time show on October 28 and on the regular daytime show on November 27. The band also appeared on Dick Clark's Saturday Night Beechnut Show, also known as The Dick Clark Show, a prime-time TV series from New York on March 22, 1958, during the first season (performing "Rock Around the Clock" and "Ooh, Look-a There, Ain't She Pretty") and on February 20, 1960, performing "Rock Around the Clock" and "Tamiami".
In 1956 the group appeared in two of the earliest full-length rock and roll movies with Alan Freed: Rock Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Rock. The Platters were co-stars in the first movie, and Little Richard appeared in the second.
Decline in popularity
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", released in direct competition with Little Richard's original recording, outsold the original). After "Skinny Minnie" hit the charts in 1958, Haley had little further success 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) had a hit with an instrumental, "Weekend", that same year.
Overseas, however, Haley and his band continued to be popular, touring the United Kingdom in February 1957, when 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 military duty in Germany, visited them backstage at some shows. On a free 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, notably Sally Starr (the hostess of a Philadelphia television children's program) and the Matys 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 members of the Comets. The Clymax experiment only lasted about a year. In 1959, Haley's relationship with Decca collapsed; after a final set of instrumental-only recordings in the fall, Haley announced he was leaving Decca for the new Warner Bros. Records label, which released two more albums in 1960, which were moderately successful. In 1960 Franny Beecher and Rudi Pompilli left the Comets to start their own record label. Replacing Beecher was a 20-year-old guitarist, John Kay, from Chester, Pennsylvania. Beecher later returned briefly to play with the Comets, when his record label failed to take off, sharing guitar duties with Kay. Kay left the band in 1966 but returned in the early 1970s for an aborted world tour. He appeared in the Wembley show, which was filmed and released as the London Rock and Roll Show.
Mexico and the late 1960s
In 1961–1962, Bill Haley y sus Cometas (as the band was known in Hispanic 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, which was sweeping America at the time. Haley followed up with "Florida Twist" (#3 MEX, according Billboard Hits Of The World 04.21.62), which was for a time the biggest-selling single in Mexican history. 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, Orfeon a Go-Go, and made cameo appearances in several movies, lip-synching some of their old hits. Haley, who was fluent in Spanish, recorded a number of songs in the language, but most of the band's output during these years was 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 in that 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, "Jealous Heart", on which he was backed by a local mariachi band (similar in style to the earlier "Jimmy Martinez"), and a late-60s-style rocker, "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.
By the late 1960s, Haley and the Comets were considered an "oldies" act. The band's popularity never waned in Europe. The group signed a lucrative deal with Sonet Records of Sweden in 1968 and recorded in a new version of "Rock Around the Clock", which hit the European charts that year. The band recorded 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 artists of the 1950s and 1960s. At one of the first of these shows, held at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Haley received 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 Scrapbook, which was recorded a few weeks later at the Bitter End club in New York.
The band appeared in several concert films in the early 1970s, including The London Rock and Roll Show (for which Haley's 1960–66 lead guitarist, John Kay, briefly rejoined the band —he's the one with the eye patch) 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 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 the film American Graffiti and the television program Happy Days.
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 in the 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 saxophonist Pete Thomas, were assembled to perform as the Comets. Haley appeared on numerous television shows and 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 for Sonet, completing the work that summer in Muscle Shoals; the album, Everyone Can Rock & Roll, issued later in 1979, was the last release of new recordings by 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. Haley returned to his home in Harlingen, Texas, where he died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack on February 9, 1981, at the age of 55.
In April 1981, Bill Haley & His Comets returned to the British musical charts once again when MCA Records (inheritors of the Decca catalogue) 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 Number 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 of Fame. This policy was subsequently changed, and in 2012 a special committee of the Hall of Fame inducted the Comets. Bill Haley and His Comets were also inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. 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.
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 from 1962 to 1965) that appeared on The Tomorrow Show, and another run by an Elvis Presley impersonator, Joey Rand (this group later lost a legal action over the right to use the Comets name). Only one group was sent out to perform by Haley himself and his management and production company, consisting of musicians who had played with Haley throughout the 1960s and 1970s—lead guitarist "Nick Masters" (Mathias Nicholas Nastos), bassist Ray Cawley, singer Ray "Pudge" Parsons, and drummer Buddy Dee—and who had continued to perform as the Comets between gigs and during Haley's retirement. This group rerecorded "Rock Around the Clock" for the television series Happy Days.
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 in which the use of the Comets name is in dispute, A Tribute to Bill Haley and The Original Band. The basic lineup of this group from 1987 to May 2006 was 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 and 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 and have appeared on dozens of television shows. 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 led by 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 Rappa's first recording session with Bill Haley & His Comets. Haley had used Rappa as a fill-in player on live gigs for several years prior to that.) Both these musicians claim trademark ownership of the name "Bill Haley's Comets"; 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's and Lane's bands have, from time to time, recruited other former Comets for their lineups (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 connection with Bill Haley. Rappa incorporated numerous professional musicians from the southern Indiana area (Warren Batts, Joe Esarey, Dave Matthews, Joe Denton, John Urbina and others) to make a full band. Rappa performed his Upright Bass show before thousands in audiences all over the country. Members of Rappa's "Comets" went on to form the LocoMotion show band and continued touring the United States without Rappa before eventually disbanding. Esarey went on to graduate from Cedarville University and Luther Rice Theological Seminary. He has since pastored churches and produced his own saxophone instrumental albums.
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 concert at the Viper Room in West Hollywood on July 6, 2005, 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 an 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 a 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 lineup, 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 aforementioned Bill-Haley-Museum in Munich, Germany. He will also join the New Comets during their Remember Bill Haley Tour 2011 with Haley's daughter Gina Haley.
Several bands patterning themselves after the Comets are also active in Europe, including Bill Haley's New Comets in Germany.
In 2011, Bill Haley Jr. formed the band Bill Haley Jr. and the Comets, and created a "Rock 'N' Roll History Show." The band performed songs from his father's Holiday, Essex and Decca catalogues and offer anecdotes and little-known facts about the songs and his father's life. In 2012, the band did a small tour of the eastern United States.