Bill Haley And The Comets Biography
Bill Haley & His Comets was a rock and roll band that was founded in 1952 and continued until Haley's death in 1981. This band, which was also known by the names Bill Haley and The Comets and Bill Haley's Comets (and variations thereof), 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 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 in theirs.
Following Haley's death, no less than six different groups have existed under the Comets name, all claiming (with varying degrees of authority) to be the official continuation of the group led by Haley.
The band initially 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". 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.
Haley began his rock and roll career with a cover of "Rocket 88" recorded for the Philadelphia-based Holiday Records label in 1951 which sold well and was followed up a cover of a 1940s rhythm and blues song called "Rock the Joint" in 1952 (this time for Holiday's sister company, Essex Records). 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 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.)
The new name was adopted in the fall of 1952. At that time, the members 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, instead.
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. Haley later claimed it 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 early 1954, Haley added Joey Ambrose on tenor sax, and soon after this the band left Essex Records for the larger Decca Records label of New York City. For their first recording session on April 12, 1954, with session musicians Danny Cedrone on electric guitar and Billy Gussak on drums (standing in for Boccelli), Bill Haley and His Comets 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 slow but eventually sold an estimated 25 million copies (per the Guinness Book of World Records) and marked the arrival of a cultural shift.
Initially, "Rock Around the Clock" was only a modest success. Much more impressive was the million-seller, "Shake, Rattle and Roll", a somewhat bowdlerdized version of the Big Joe Turner recording of earlier in 1954. Although Haley's recording is often referred to as a cover version, it technically isn't as the song is a) substantially rearranged and bears almost no resemblance to Turner's version and b) it was not released in direct competition with Turner's original. 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. 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.
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.
The band's popularity in the United States began to wane in 1956-57 as sexier, wilder acts such as Elvis 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 Stateside, 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.
In 1961-1962, Bill Haley y sus Cometas (as the band was known in Latin America) signed with the Orfeon Records 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 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. Thanks to the success to "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 TV 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 eventuated. In order to revive his recording career, Haley needed to turn to Europe.
By the late 1960s, Haley and the Comets were considered an oldies act. 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. 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 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 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. 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, were assembled to perform as The Comets, and Haley appeared on many TV 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.
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 "Star 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. 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.
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 1980s, including one contingent (organized by Baltimore-based piano player Joey Welz who was briefly a Comet in the mid-1960s) 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).
The Comets, featuring musicians who performed with Haley in 1954-1955, reunited in 1987 and are still touring the world as of 2006, 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 handling most vocal chores during North American performances starting around 2000-2001).
Two additional groups claim the name Bill Haley's Comets and have extensively toured in the United States since forming in the 1980s: one featuring 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 (some media promotion for Rappa erroneously states that he joined the group in 1956). 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, a piano player who was briefly a member of Haley's band in 1965), but for the most part the bandleaders are the only regular members who have worked with Bill Haley directly.
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.
In 2006, The 1954-55 Comets are scheduled to spend 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 were scheduled to record a new album in Tennessee in early 2006 (though no announcement has been made as to whether this actually occurred).
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, although it has since been announced that he will rejoin the band in 2007. 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.
Several tribute bands patterning themselves after The Comets are also active in Europe, including Phil Haley and His Comments in Great Britain, and the Bill Haley and His Comets Revival (also known as Bill Haley's New Comets) in Germany.
Bill Haley & His Comets recorded many singles and albums. The following list references only their original release and does not include compilation albums or single reissues. This list does not include releases on which the Comets worked as session musicians and only includes releases during Haley's lifetime.