One, Two, Three o'Clock, Four o'Clock . . . riot!

From yodeler to rock and roll pioneer, Bill Haley sent teenagers wild
From yodeler to rock and roll pioneer, Bill Haley sent teenagers wild

by Ray Setterfield

July 6, 1925 — Blackboard Jungle, released in 1955, was the first Hollywood film to feature a rock and roll soundtrack. Teenagers across the world were so excited about it that many danced in the aisles when the music was played. Some went further, tearing up seats and creating riots at cinemas where the film was shown.

It might have been expected that a young, sultry, sexy heart-throb such as Elvis Presley would have caused the commotion, but he was relatively unknown at this time. No, the man behind the movie mayhem was a chubby, middle-aged performer who sported a curious kiss-curl and had been regarded as one of the top cowboy yodelers in America.

His name was Bill Haley and he was born on this day in history.

William John Clifton Haley, who came from Michigan, US, developed a strong love for country music and began playing guitar and singing. He left school at 14 to follow a career in music, played with various country and western bands and established himself as a singing and yodeling cowboy. He first appeared on record in the 1940s.

By 1952, Haley headed a group called Bill Haley and His Comets (inspired by the celestial phenomenon Halley's Comet). They had discarded their cowboy hats and other country paraphernalia, switching to the more popular rhythm and blues sound.

The single Rock Around The Clock was released in 1954 and scraped into the bottom of the charts, selling 75,000 copies. But the following year it was used on the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle. The film, which starred Glenn Ford as a teacher dealing with rebellious students – including a young Sidney Poitier – was a huge hit and Haley's re-released song shot up the charts, spending eight weeks at Number One in America and other parts of the world.

Though he recorded several other successful songs such as See You Later, Alligator; Shake, Rattle And Roll; and Crazy, Man, Crazy, it was Rock Around The Clock that established Haley as a megastar and led to him being described as "the father of rock and roll".

Appropriate, really, since he was old enough to be the father of millions of youngsters who bought his records.

Sightless in his left eye due to a botched operation when he was a child, Haley adopted his trademark "kiss curl" early in his career, attempting to draw attention away from his blind eye.

But nobody cared and in the late Fifties he enjoyed huge success on stage, screen and in the recording studio. In 2010, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) listed the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle among the top 15 most influential movie soundtracks of all time.

In 1979 Haley was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died in February 1981. In the years following his death, surviving members of the Comets, all in their 70s and 80s, continued to work together and attracted sell-out crowds in Europe during the 1990s and early 2000s.

And what higher tribute could there be to a rock and roll legend than this?: in February 2006, the International Astronomical Union announced the naming of asteroid 79896 as Billhaley, honouring the 25th anniversary of Bill Haley's death. A true star.

Published: June 13, 2018

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