The Early Years 1945-1950
The extraordinary story of Bill's early life has best been told in the Jack Haley/John von Hoelle Book Sound and Glory (sadly out of print). We can't possibly do better than John and Jack, but we do want to draw attention to doubts over the chronology which are raised by a number of magazine articles which have been unearthed covering the 1945 - 1947 period of Bill's life. These articles have all been supplied either by Big Al Turner or Wayne Daniel, to whom we are eternally grateful. We've pulled together a few photos and recordings from various sources to illustrate the story. So here is the story of Bill Haley's early working life, as told in contemporary words, music and pictures.
The earliest mention we have found of Bill Haley is in the 20th January 1945 issue of "Billboard" which reported "a new program of cowboy and hillbilly songs is being broadcast from WSNJ, Bridgeton, NJ, featuring Brother Wayne and Yodeling Bill Haley".
On 3rd March 1945, Jack Howard, later to become Bill Haley's Manager, forms Cowboy Records, the first record company in Philadelphia. Allegedly, the money to found the Company has been borrowed from the Mafia, and Howard has to guarantee free copies of each Cowboy release to supply jukeboxes controlled by the Mafia. We find the following in the 1945-1946 Billboard Who's Who in Music:
|James E. Myers, prexy of disk-manufacturing Cowboy Records Company, tells the story of the firm's policy and set-up in one sentence. "The top cowboy artists singing the top cowboy songs on Cowboy Records." A look at the records shows that Myers has something there, since he's taken over practically the entire staff of artist's on ABC's Hayloft Hoedown radio show. Recording for Cowboy both as a group and individually are the Santa Fe Rangers, Shorty Long, Jack Day, Rusty Keefer and Peewee Miller; the Sleepy Hollow Ranch Gang, Pancake Pete and Elmer Newman; the Murray Sisters, and Monty Rosci, every one of them outstanding attractions for the Hoedown netter. Offices located at 138 North 12th Street, Philadelphia 7, Pa.|
On 12th May 1945 Billboard reports "Fleetwood Jack and His Nevada Ranch Gang are to be featured at the K.P. Ranch in Keshacoquilles Park in Lewistown, Pa., starting May 20 and operating every Saturday night with the Mifflin Country Barn Dance Jamboree and stage-shows.
The Nevada Ranch Gang includes Fleetwood Jack, manager and emcee, Fiddlin' Dusty, Marjorie Lee, Connie Castiglio and Conly Forrester, known as the Nevada Kid. Also joining the group for personal appearances and jamborees are The Red River Boys, with Brother Wayne, Yodelin' Bill Haley, and Slim Bradley, who have been the topnotch attraction on WSNJ, Bridgeton, NJ. The group will be heard over WMRF, Lewistown."
On Friday, July 6, 1945 Bill celebrates his 20th birthday. Sometime in 1945 he had the first of two spells with the Downhomers. The first time around he replaced Kenny Roberts who had been drafted into the Navy.
On Sunday, January 27, 1946 The Down-Homers record 5 tracks for WOWO radio. Four of them are issued on the Vogue label. Haley historians have wondered for years whether Bill Haley was on these recordings, as it was known that he had been a member of the Downhomers. However, when well-known Vogue Records collector and historian Wayne Daniel contacted Kenny Roberts (the tenor singer in the Downhomers) in 1998, Kenny had clear memories of the session. He recalled it was at the Vogue Records Studio in Detroit, Michegan in January 1946, and he was adamant that Bill Haley was not on the recording; "absolutely not" were his exact words in response to Wayne's question. |
The Vogue picture discs are now much sought-after collectors' items. The picture on the right is of Vogue R786 which coupled "Boogie Woogie Yodel" (sung by Kenny Roberts) and "Baby, I Found Out All About You" (sung by Bob Mason).
Kenny Roberts explains the chronology at this point:-
"Bill took my place with the Down Homers at Ft. Wayne, when I went to the navy and I taught him a lot of my yodels and how to play the upright base fiddle before I left. When I left the Down Homers to start my career as a single at WOWO, Bill rejoined them at WTIC Hartford and was once again singing and yodeling Country Music. He recorded one of my yodels, I wrote on his early recordings in Phil."
On 2nd February 1946 Billboard reports as follows: "Slim McCarthy, formerly manager of the Oregon Rangers for three years, now has charge of the Range Drifters. Group is now making personal appearance tours exclusively for the WLS Artists' Bureau. Drifters has such fine folk artists as Bill Haley, Wayne Wright and Tiny Grasso. Slim has made many network appearances and appeared on the Hoosie Hop at WOWO, Fort Wayne, Indiana."
This article would seem to support Kenny Roberts's assertion that Bill was "absolutely not" with the Downhomers for their January 1946 recording session, because he was with a band called the Range Drifters.
In the 11th May 1946 issue of "Billboard" Bill is reported as being with the Downhomers:- "The Down Homers are now on WTIC Hartford Connecticut. A cowboy quintet, they broadcast daily, Monday thru Friday, at 5:30am for early morning listeners to the New England Regional Network. Outfit is headed jointly by Guy Cambell, emcee and violinist, and Shorty Cook, hawaiian guitarist. The quintet includes Shorty and Guy; Lloyd Cornell, bass singer, fiddler and yodeler, Bill Haley, singer and yodeler, and Bob Mason, the world's tallest cowboy, singer and guitarist. They came to New England from WOWO, Fort Wayne, Indiana."
Here are two photos of the Downhomers, including Bill Haley.
In October 1946, Bill takes a job as disk jockey in Keene, New Hampshire. This pays him $30 a week, and on 11th December 1946 he marries Dorothy "Dottie" Crowe in Brattleboro, Vermont. Here's an article by Margie Wolverton, from the December 1946 issue of Hillbilly News:-
Bill was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana on July 6th 1924. His full name is William Clifton John Haley. He has light brown hair and blue eyes, and weighs 184 pounds. One sister is the only other child of the family. Bill's hobbies are horseback riding and baseball. When it comes to food his favourites are fried chicken and potato salad. He dislikes swing music. Some of the Stations he has been on are WIP, WAU, WFIL, WDEL, WNEW, WOWO, WSNJ, and the blue network. At the present time Bill is featured with the Down Homers, Guy Cambell, Shorty Cook, Bob Mason and Lloyd Cornell. One of the best and most popular western groups in the east today - are the DOWN HOMERS! They are heard over WTIC in Hartford Connecticut, and the New England Regional Network every week-day at 11:30 to 12:00 noon. Bill is a wonderful yodeler and does a mighty fine job of singing solos, duets, trios and playing guitar and bass fiddle. "Cherry Tree Lane", one of Bill's own songs is very popular in their programs and a very pretty number too. Some others that Bill Has written are "Rose of My Heart", "Yodel Your Blues Away", "My Cute Little Brown Eyed Gal", and others. He has a swell songbook of his own called "Bill Haley's Down Home Melodies" published by Dixie Music Company of New York.
I know Bill personally and as well as a grand entertainer, he is one of the nicest and friendliest persons you'd ever want to meet. He really appreciates his many friends and fans.
|This is the photo of Bill which appeared on the sheet music mentioned by Margie Wolverton "Bill Haley's Down Home Melodies". I'd be very interested to hear from anyone who has a copy of the entire songbook. Although Margie's article refers to Bill being with the Downhomers in December 1946, there is a radio broadcast in existence from 28th November 1946 in which the Downhomers' line up is Shorty Cook, Rusty Rogers, Slim Cox, Guy Campbell and Hank Gunder. We presume she was working with out of date information.|
Bill Campbell, the son of Guy Campbell has explained that "Bill was fired from the Down Homers for trying to recruit band members to go with him and leave the Down Homers".
|An early shot of Bill Haley, which was used many years later on the front cover of a re-issue of Jimmy Preston's Rock the Joint. The photo is autographed by Bill "sincerely best wishes Frank and Len from Bill Haley"|
I found the following mention in the July 1947 issue of "The Bill boyd Ranch House News" which reports that Bill is now with the Range Drifters, as he had been according to the Billboard article back in February 1946. Note that the line up has changed again,with Bashful Barney Barnard joining on bass and Bob Mason having quit:
THE RANGE DRIFTERS are heard over WLBR, Lebanon (Pa.) week-days, 7:05 - 7:2 a.m. (DST). The Drifters have been together since 1945, having started then in New Jersey. WAYNE WRIGHT, one of the nation's best fiddlers, plays guitar, bass, mandolin. BILL HALEY (The Rambling Yodeler) plays rhythm guitar and sings tenor in the trio; is an excellent soloist, featuring trick and fancy yodeling. BASHFUL BARNEY BARNARD plays bass; is a good soloist and comedian; also sings lead in harmony numbers. Although he is actually bashful in real life, Barney is the act's "ladies'man". before they came to Lebanon, the group was programmed on the New England Regional Network. We expect new records by the boys soon. CHET HAGEN is doing a splendid job as their publicity agent.
The only known photograph of the Range Drifters, showing (l. to r.) Brother Wayne, Bill Haley, Bob Mason and Lloyd Cornell, the last two of whom had also been in the Downhomers. The band were appearing daily at 1pm on Radio Station WKNE.|
We presume that this was taken AFTER Bill left the Downhomers, as the presence of Bob Mason and Lloyd Cornell corroborates Bill Camopbell's recollection of Bill being fired from the Downhomers for taking them away with him.
|By November 1947, Bill was back home in Chester and secured a regular job on radio station WPWA. After years of roaming the country working and splitting from with a succession of bands , his career at last started to gain momentum. |
We don't know exactly when this was taken, but as it shows Bill singing in front of a Cowboy Records microphone, we believe it dates from his the Cowboy Records period, sometime around 1948 or 1949.
Here we see with his band, The Four Aces of Western Swing, promoting his first Cowboy Records single in 1949.
Billboard has this to say in its April 2nd 1949 edition:-
Tennessee Border. Lively and listenable warbling and orking of the click folk ditty. Candy Kisses. Haley gets good feeling into the delightful folk torcher.
Candy Kisses. Haley gets good feeling into the delightful folk torcher.
|Here is the cover of the Bill Haley songbook published by his friend Jack Howard "the Cowboy Publisher" in 1949. Bill was quickly becoming a major local celebrity, and his April 1949 charity bash for the American Cancer Society attracted national attention. Not long now before Bill starts his next band, The Saddlemen, which would contain Billy Williamson and Johnny Grande, who would eventually become the Comets and invent the music called Rock 'n' Roll...|
|Here is the cover of the sheet music for My Sweet Little Girl From Nevada by "Reno Browne and Her Buckaroos" (Cowboy 1701). "Reno Browne and Her Buckaroos" were in fact none other than Bill Haley and The Saddlemen. Budding discographers will be interested to learn that Cowboy Records allocated an "artist number" to every artist. Bill Haley was 12, and Reno Browne 17. Any references you see to Haley records in the "17" series are spurious.|
|Bill says,"Chris has worked very hard on these pages. If you've enjoyed them, please e-mail him, or sign the guest book. Above all, if you have any Bill Haley stories or reminiscences you want to share, please pass them on. If you visit Bill Haley Central you'll find Chris's e-mail address and you can leave an entry in the visitor's book."|