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Fame, alcoholism and domestic abuse: The dark side of Bill Haley

Although he might often get overlooked in the history of rock and roll today, Bill Haley did a lot to popularise the genre, and in many ways, you could argue that it was he who set the scene for the likes of the more ‘offensive’ performers such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard to inspire a generation. His 1954 record ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock’, remains one of the most iconic rock singles of all time. 

Unfortunately, although Haley enjoyed massive success at one point in his career, he led a turbulent life and died prematurely at just 55. In his 2019 memoir, Crazy Man, Crazy, Haley’s son, Bill Haley Jr., went into depth about his father’s demons. After Haley’s career plummetted when the likes of Elvis and Little Richard rose to fame in the mid-1950s, he would struggle with severe alcoholism and personality defects.

Unsurprisingly, Haley Jr. had a fraught relationship with his father growing up. He respects what he did to develop rock and roll but remains devastated that the musical hero died young, as they never patched things up. Haley Jr. said that exploring his father’s life was a challenging process but one of necessary personal discovery.

In a 2019 interview with Fox News, Haley Jr. explained his reasons behind writing the book and also revealed some home truths about his father. He said that he was only six when his father walked out on the family and that after this, he would only see him during the summers when he’d perform nearer to their home. 

Haley Jr. said: “I also felt my father was greatly overlooked. He played a crucial role in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. So from that standpoint, I thought this was a great story that needed to be told. But on a personal level, it was a way of dealing with my feelings about my father. It pushed me to learn as much as I could about him. I interviewed people who my father worked with and family members. I just tried to understand the person he was so I could come to terms with the fact that he abandoned our family and his first family. I continued my research over the years and one thing led to another.”

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Before too long, the interviewer managed to turn the conversation towards the dark side of Bill Haley and asked what he was “trying to escape” from. Haley Jr. responded: “I wrestled with that question my whole life. His parents were very supportive of him growing up. His mother always encouraged him and said he would be successful. I suspect he must have felt some type of guilt or shame… He was on the rise and highly regarded. But then his popularity started to wane. I felt that was difficult for him to deal with… and my father didn’t seem to have the ability to just drink a little bit.”

He explained: “When he drank, he drank excessively. It caused a personality change. I never recalled my father being a violent person. And I don’t think he was. But when he drank, he did violent things, like throw ashtrays. There’s one incident where he pulled a kitchen knife and held it up to my mother’s throat, not really knowing who she was. That was not a characteristic of him, but that’s just an indication of how his personality would change as he drank… It’s really hard to answer, except to speculate, but I think it had something to do with his own feelings of inadequacy. Maybe guilt over his personal failures.”

Haley Jr. was then asked if it was only fame that had caused his father’s drinking: “Maybe it was another factor… For a period of about three years, from mid-1954 to mid-1956, my father was one of the most famous musicians in America, if not the world. ‘Rock Around the Clock’ was his biggest record, and then rock ‘n’ roll became really popular… But my father was put in a position to defend his music because some felt it contributed to juvenile delinquency… I think that all contributed to his decision to pick up the bottle as a means to escape.”

Seemingly a man caught between the trappings of fame and personal demons, Bill Haley‘s life was a tragic one. However, his son’s balanced account shows that not everything in his life should be glorified and that the dangers of alcoholism are manifold.

Listen to ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock’ below.