Bill Jr keeps Haley's legacy loud and alive

Last updated 06:00 18/01/2014
Southland Times photo
Proud son Bill Haley Jr.

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His dad was the founding father of rock'n'roll and now Bill Haley Jr is set to shake, rattle and roll Stadium Southland. He tells Michael Fallow to expect something deeper than a hazy tribute.

Spare a thought the FBI agent in charge of the Bill Haley debauchery investigation. Bureau director J Edgar Hoover put his men on the case of the chubby rocker with the spit-curl who was getting the youth of America so het up with that mongrelised music. Something was wrong there, and J Edgar sought to do his country the service of ensuring rock'n'roll was not there to stay.

The old tyrant would not have been pleased with what his guys reported back.

"I know the FBI tried to discredit my father," Haley Jr confirms. "They looked into his personal habits, for drinking, fooling around with women . . . of course they didn't find anything that would help them."

As a proud son, Haley Jr could have ended the quote right there. But as befits a man who values authenticity over mere nostalgia, he adds that it was perhaps a matter of timing.

"His drinking came much later."

The show that Haley Jr brings to Invercargill on March 15 is no rough-enough tribute compromised for modern sensibilities.

He is doing his oh-so-famous dad the service of replicating the actual sound, the actual dynamics, of the famous original performances from the man at the centre of rock'n'roll's Big Bang.

The instruments are right, the musicianship is right, and Haley Jr has spent enough time with the people who were there to keep the on-stage dynamics right too.

Between songs, he tells stories drawn not only from family knowledge but also deep insider research. He is close to completing a biography of his father.

Bill Haley was a seasoned performer before rock'n'roll existed; a road-hardened western musician who sang - and, OK, yodelled - far and wide. But he also worked in radio and it was as musical director for a Pennsylvania station that he came to know the "race music" that many stations played for perhaps an hour a day.

In a bar one night, pretty much as a joke, he and his band, the Saddlemen, began to play Rock the Joint by Jimmy Preston.

The crowd went crazy, man. Crazy.

Haley took the lesson. His hillbilly band with western instruments - steel guitar, accordion, upright bass - began playing this race music and even dipped into jazz territory by adding drums.

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Haley Jr is not saying that without his father rock'n'roll would not have come about.

"It was going to happen anyway. Those two forces in American music were bound to come together at some point."

But it was Haley who did it, famously well - and not out of blind instinct.

He studied as he went.

"It wasn't by accident, it was by design.

"I don't think my father ever felt he was the inventor - but he was the one who saw it first, recognised it first, and worked very very hard to find a way to take the fusion of those sounds and turn it into something."

With a band now called the Comets, Haley volunteered to play high schools for free, closely watching the reactions of teenagers, always zeroing in on what seemed to work.

And work it did. Haley's Crazy Man Crazy became the first rock'n'roll hit, though the great detonation into the public consciousness was when his Rock Around the Clock became the soundtrack song to the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle.

This brought success but also what Haley Jr calls phase 2 of his dad's challenges.

Phase 1 had been trying to get club owners and the general public to give this music a chance. Now Haley found himself defending its success and influence against the mistrust of more than just the Feds.

Was this not the music of juvenile delinquency? Time and again Haley explained that if there was a level of societal rebellion out there, rock'n'roll was not the instigator.

The kids just wanted their own sound.

The FBI might not have swallowed this but Haley Jr is adamant that for his dad "the entire and absolute goal was to create fun music. He wasn't trying to spread a message or to rebel, really, against anybody."

Out there in the real world, the release was cathartic.

"You had literally thousands and thousands of teenager at record hops and concerts, and there was no residual violence or anarchy.

"The backlash was based more on fear than reality. This was simply a way for teenagers to dance, have fun and release pent-up emotion.

"Really no different from the generation that danced to the Charleston in the 1920s."

A lot of what we would now call rhythm and blues had strong sexual connotations, and Haley tidied up most of it.

Big Joe Turner's original Shake, Rattle and Roll was in places strikingly profane and if Haley's version did still retain one of the most out-there lines - "I'm like a one-eyed cat peepin' in a seafood store" - we should remember Haley was blind in one eye.

Haley Jr does detect an element of racism in the backlash, with death threats in Alabama and a bomb found under a stage in North Carolina.

It was during a highly successful late-50s tour of Australia and Britain that Haley really discovered the appeal of scotch over coffee. He became a regular drinker, then a hard drinker, and then an alcoholic.

Haley did have cause for bitterness as well as satisfaction.

Even though the band was incredibly popular 1955-57 and made millions of dollars, that money was soon gone after a raft of bad business decisions.

"It's not an excuse," reflects Haley Jr, "but if you're telling the story of what happened, and how he became alcoholic, that was a contributing factor as well."

Although Haley's music remained mightily popular internationally, in the United States - "where there's a tendency always to look towards the next thing" - the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis had emphatically claimed the national limelight from him.

Much as Haley respected other musicians, and was gracious in his comments about them, it stung.

"When he died, I think he was somewhat disappointed that he was not recognised or appreciated in the US appropriately, though he was always very gratified that he was in Europe and the wrest of the world"

Bill Haley married three times. Bill Haley Jr is his second son and first with Joan Barbara "Cuppy" Haley-Hahn.

Haley Jr is bringing his own band on the New Zealand tour and though it features no original Comets, the lineup of multi- instrumentalist Bobby Michaels, Mike Denaro on electric guitar, Christopher Davis Shannon on upright base and Rich Flamini on drums is.

"It's not just that they're great musicians.

"They're also very dedicated to replicating the original sound," says Haley Jr.

'They have the feel . . ."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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