Rock'n'roll time travel

Last updated 12:00 27/12/2013

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Get ready to Rock Around the Clock as Bill Haley Jr and The Comets head to New Zealand in March. Faye Lougher talks to Bill Haley Jr about his father's music. 

If you grew up in the 1950s and 60s (or wish you had), it's likely rock'n'roll music would have been the soundtrack to your life and songs by artists like Bill Haley would have been very familiar.

Haley was an American musician credited by many as one of the first to popularise rock'n'roll music. In the early 1950s, his group Bill Haley & His Comets had numerous hit records and media gave him the title the Father of Rock'n'Roll.

It's now more than 30 years since Bill Sr died, but rock'n'roll fans in New Zealand are about to get the chance to see his son, Bill Haley Jr, perform the music that made his father famous. Bill Haley Jr and The Comets are touring in March, including a show at Palmerston North's Regent on Broadway Theatre.

Bill Jr was 26 when Bill Sr died and says for many years people had tried to get him to play his father's music.

"I actually resisted this for most of my life, for personal reasons - you want to have your own identity. I always had a strong interest in music and about three years ago an old friend of mine from high school said ‘let's form a garage band, let's play original music together'. I had written some songs, so we got together and made a CD of my original songs."

The CD release party was at a shop owned by a friend who asked Bill Jr to do him a favour and play a couple of his father's songs as well.

"I said ‘sure, I can do that, I play them for fun anyway'. And someone took out a smartphone and made a video of us doing Rock Around the Clock and put it on YouTube and I got a call from an agent and he said ‘if you can put together a band and do this authentically, I can get work for you'. So I decided at that point I would not only do the music, but take it a step further. I'm really on a mission to share the music which is just fun music to listen to and to dance to and have fun with, but also in between the songs I tell the stories of how the songs were created."

Bill Jr says it's a rock'n'roll history show, and who better to tell the story of his father's musical career than his son.

"This music is significant, it's fun, it's a story that deserves to be told, and I do happen to be able to sing just like my father, so I'm probably in the best position of anyone on Earth to go out there and try to help people reconnect with this music and to understand and appreciate the impact this music had on our culture."

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In addition to touring with his band, Bill Jr is working on a book about his father.

"I've always been interested in the history of the music, in particular that period we now know as the beginning of rock'n'roll. I've done a lot of research and talked to people who were there during this period and who knew my dad, musicians who played with him, business managers, ex-wives."

Bill Jr says that in his opinion the 1950s and 1960s were a golden age when it came to music.

"What became rock'n'roll and jazz and all that, it really kind of started from a unique situation in New Orleans where you had classical European tradition and the African rhythms and Caribbean music all kind of coming together and then rock'n'roll emerged, beginning with what my father started doing in 1950."

Bill Jr says this was followed by the British invasion of the United States, with bands like The Beatles introducing a new style of music.

"Then we had all these periods of what rock'n'roll became but we're now at a point, 60 years after the birth of rock'n'roll where, at least from my perspective, somehow all those possibilities from that initial spark in New Orleans in the 1890s have kind of been played out and so it seems natural to me that now people would look at something more interesting, to more vibrant kinds of music. It makes sense to me that there would be a kind of resurgence in popularity of this [early rock'n'roll] music and the interest today because it's [music] not evolving any more and there's nothing new coming out and the vacuum has to be filled with something. Popular music has kind of exhausted itself and people are looking back now for something rather than forward."

As to what his favourite song of his father's is, Bill Jr says he favours the early recordings.

"You've got to love Rock Around the Clock of course, and of course I sing them all, so I can't really say I have a favourite. I think I really like the earlier stuff the most, when they were really kind of experimenting rather than trying to perpetuate a formula they had created. Some of the later stuff is OK, it's very professional, but it doesn't have the same element of excitement somehow, and it's not as interesting to me as the older stuff."

The tour next year will be the first time the band has performed outside the US. It will also be the first time Bill Jr has been to New Zealand.

"I have a little time before I get there, so I hope to be able to really research New Zealand and learn about the country. But I know it's an absolutely beautiful country because I've seen Lord of the Rings and seen the panoramic shots of your landscape. It seems to be a really interesting place and I'm very much looking forward to coming there and of course sharing this music and the stories of the beginning of rock'n'roll and interacting with the people of New Zealand."

Bill Haley Jr will be backed up by his talented four-piece band of Comets: multi-instrumentalist Bobby Michaels on saxophone, percussion and keyboard; nimble-fingered Mike Denaro on electric guitar; Christopher Davis Shannon slapping the upright bass; and Rich Flamini with his energetic Gene Krupa-style drumming. Bill Jr says he had a bit of luck finding his band members as quickly as he did.

"I put the word out that I was looking for a certain type of musician, one who had an appreciation for the early music. I was very fortunate to find people who, even before they came to play with me, were already students of this music. For instance, my drummer was a big fan of Gene Kruper, what I call trash can style of drumming. My upright bass player, is once again a relatively young guy, but he's a very old soul and had a lifelong interest in the early music from the 30s, 40s, 50s. My saxophone player has been in a number of bands and is just an incredible musician. So yeah, it's really about finding the right people who have not only the chops, so to speak, and the musical ability, but also the intellectual interest in this period of music."

Bill Jr says he hopes the audience will be taken back in time and get a taste of what it would have been like to see the original Comets.

"We play very authentically. We incorporate many of the little comedic routines in the stage act - the bass player throwing the bass in the air and so on, and I also try very hard to engage the audience with dialogue in between the songs and to tell little anecdotes and stories and interesting little titbits about how these songs were created and some of the issues that came up in terms of the band trying to overcome the fears of juvenile delinquency."

Audiences can look forward to jumping and jiving and singing along to classic 50s favourites such as Rock Around The Clock, See Ya Later Alligator, Shake, Rattle and Roll, Rock This Joint, Chantilly Lace, Johnny B Good and Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.

"I really appreciate the fact that there are so many people out there who appreciate this music and so I feel an obligation to give them the experience they are looking for," says Bill Jr."

He says members of the audience are encouraged to dress in 50s clothing for the shows.

"I think that people coming along will have a good time and we will do all we can to help people have that fantasy for a couple of hours that they are back in the 50s and they're listening to this music. I encourage people to come out, to dress the part, and we'll get you dancing, we'll make you happy."

Bill Haley Jr and The Comets will perform at the Regent on Broadway in Palmerston North on Sunday, March 23, 2014. Tickets are available through Ticketdirect, phone 06 357 9740.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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