When you think about original rock and rollers, you envisage Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. One name who doesn’t always get the recognition that he deserves, however, is Bill Haley, despite being the first to bring the genre to the masses, his name is one that usually drops off the list.
Haley grew up in a musical household, with his father playing the banjo and mandolin and lending his learning to his son. The Great Depression damaged his youthful exuberance, forcing his family to move from Detroit to Pennsylvania, and Haley always sought solace in music. It was a place that offered him an escape from his dreary surroundings.
His descendency into rock and roll took a while, and bizarrely, Haley first started yodelling in the 1940s with The Saddlemen, later renamed Bill Haley & The Saddlemen, way before he ever picked up a guitar in earnest. They were initially a traditional country outfit, however, they soon evolved into a rhythm and blues band — which would be Haley’s calling.
In 1952, Haley rebranded the band once more as Bill Haley with Haley’s Comets, which was more appropriate for their newfound burning sound. The following year, the group would make history as their track, ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’, became the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll song to infiltrate the Billboard Chart when it climbed to 15.
This landmark achievement alone will maintain Haley’s status as a pioneer forever. Another name change then occurred to Bill Haley and The Comets. Shortly after the track’s success, his ascension to dominance truly got underway.
The Comets’ output was groundbreaking, but rock and roll was still an outsider movement. It was yet to gain mainstream popularity, and following ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’, they released a string of singles that failed to replicate its riches. Then, soon after, one record would completely change their destiny and elevate the group to the mountain top, even if their stay was short-lived.
‘Rock Around the Clock’ will go down in history as one of the most influential songs of all time. When scouring the creative crucible of the swinging sixties, you will find a quite obvious connection to the rock and roll that emanated from the Delta blues and beyond. But for many, Bill Haley was their first real introduction to the genre.
Although the track didn’t initially set the world alight in 1954, the following year, Haley & The Comets’ re-released it, and it eventually became the first-ever rock and roll song to reach number one. ‘Rock Around The Clock’ spread the genre far and wide, making its way to people who had never heard anything as raucous or rambunctious as it before.
Pink Floyd’s guitarist and vocalist, David Gilmour, has been heralded as one of the true greats of the rock genre. Perhaps fittingly, then, ‘Rock Around The Clock’ is the first record he can remember buying. The singer was only ten years old when he first trundled down to the record shops to pick up his first single, which was a life-affirming moment. “The first record I bought and which turned me around a bit was ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by Bill Haley, when I was ten,” the guitarist told BBC 6 Music’s Matt Everitt. Prior to that moment, the songs on the radio had all sounded the same but there was something different about Haley’s tune. “That was the first moment to me when I thought ‘this is something new and original,” effused Gilmour.
The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson is another who holds the track in the highest regard imaginable, and it played a pivotal part in his adolescence. “I had been making music all my life but hearing that taught me to write with more energy and precision,” recalled Wilson to The Guardian. “All my friends were into it. My brothers liked it too. Anyone who heard that record would like it.”
Haley showed that something else was possible, and he helped stoke a sizable interest in rock and roll. Suddenly, the genre was an unavoidable part of American culture, and Haley was the person who lit the match. His stay at the top didn’t last forever, and the group’s career declined in the ’60s as the new guard picked up the reigns.
In 1956, Elvis became The King, and Haley slowly drifted into the periphery, but his legacy still stands tall. Following his death in 1981, Haley was inducted into the inaugural Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987, and he’s since deservedly received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Haley helped rock and roll storm the mainstream and was the first artist to truly popularise it. His work created a domino effect which is still in play today, almost 70 years later. A world without ‘Rock Around The Clock’ is a world without rock and roll, which doesn’t even bear thinking about. Haley single-handedly changed the musical landscape forever and he’s a major player who deserves more recognition.