Today is the birthday of rock and roll pioneer Bill Haley (1925-1981). While some make claims for him as “the first rock and roller” (and plenty of those claims were contemporaneous with his chart breakthroughs in the early 1950s), in retrospect (to me, at any rate) the true revolution came a tad later with the well known figures who pushed the risks a bit farther (e.g., Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis).
Structurally most of Haley’s big tunes are jump blues, of the type that had been popular with black audiences for many years prior to Haley’s mainstream success. (Easier for us to see now with our access to EVERYTHING. But in the 1950s that stuff was under the radar as far as many white people were concerned). The principle difference between the Comets’ sound and jump blues is the electric guitar, an element retained from Haley’s earlier efforts since the 1940s. With groups such as “The Four Aces of Western Swing” and “The Saddlemen”, Haley was originally one of the top proponents of western swing (thus a country musician) and was even considered one of the top yodelers in the country. Elements of the Comets sound, the electric guitar, the slapped upright bass, and the drummer smacking the rim of the snare drum, make up the core of what we today call rockabilly. And Haley brought flash to his act, dressing the members in matching jackets (his was plaid), and having the musicians move in unison to the rhythm of the music. He came off like a hep cat and was loads of fun and this helped pave the way for many who came after him. Seminal tunes included “Rocket 88″, Rock the Joint”, “Crazy Man Crazy”, “Rock Around the Clock”, “See You Later, Alligator”, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Skinny Minnie”.
By the late 50s though, he was already in eclipse, not only by the wilder acts we mentioned but also by a whole slew of guys who wrote their own, original material like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, by doo wop groups, by teen heart throbs, by, it seems, everybody. By contrast, Haley was in his mid 30s and had one foot in the 1940s and swing. His last couple of decades were spent as a nostalgia act and tours abroad.
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.