Bill Haley 1946 - 1979 A life in pictures

Created by Chris Gardner

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Bill in 1946.This was taken from the cover of his songbook Down Home Melodies which was published by Dixie Music Company of New York. Unfortunately, I only have a poor quality black and white photocopy of the front cover. A better quality print appeared on the front cover of the Jimmy Preston and the Prestonians EP of Rock the Joint which came out a few years back. My copy is up in the attic, but I'll get it out one day. It looks as though Bill is wearing make-up, but I'm pretty sure he didn't do that as a matter of habit!
We move on to 1951, and a publicity poster for Bill and The Saddlemen, which dates from the Summer of 1951. The Saddlemen had already issued their groundbreaking record of Rocket '88', but are seen here still promoting their hillbilly image. It would be late 1952 before they became Haley's Comets and finally broke away from their cowboy roots.
The classic line-up of Comets, the photo probably being taken in late 1955, soon after this particular aggregation came together. Bill is middle front, of course, and left to right along the back are Rudi Pompilii (notice the correct spelling; Bill always insisted on it being spelled "Pompilli", because he thought the real spelling looked like a mistake), Al Rex, Johnny Grande, Ralph Jones, Billy Williamson, Franny Beecher.

I've often wondered how many suits the Comets had in their heyday. I have rarely seen them photographed on two separate occasions wearing the same outfits. The actually had a complete set of suits made in both the patterns you see in this photo, and sometimes Bill would wear the dark, the Comets the light. I wonder what colour they were

Bill had a lifelong passion for fishing. He had his own boat ("The Comet") harboured in Wildwood, New Jersey, and when he was there in the Summer would regularly indulge in fishing trips in between evening appearances. Here he has caught a large fish - I'm no expert, but it looks like a shark. This is a poor quality reproduction, but it's a rare photo and I thought it worth including for that reason. It looks like "Lord" Jim Ferguson at the right of the picture. He was one of Bill's partners and was in charge of administering the enormous Haley empire. While money rolled in it was no problem, but when times got hard, things rapidly went sour for Haley and his partners as no provision had been made for a reduction in income. I was surprised, though, when I met The Comets many years later, that they had nothing but good words for "Lord" Jim.
Bill on stage at the Paris Olympia in October 1958. This was a momentous show, which you can now hear on CD (Europe Records GLS 1001 - I got my copy from Spinning Disc in Chiswick). This must be close to the greatest show Bill ever gave; the performance and crowd reaction are literally unbelieveable.

Bill's European tour of 1958 was supposed to restore his ailing finances. Instead it broke him, leaving him in debt for most of the rest of his life, when Jim Ferguson, borrowed money from the mob to bail them out. The gigs in Italy were cancelled because the Pope died, gigs in Germany were disrupted by politically inspired riots, whilst in Paris, though Bill did get on stage for one night, so bad was the rioting afterwards that the remaining shows were cancelled, and in Spain, General Franco issued an edict banning the Comets from performing. There were a few high spots on this tour, but financially, it took Bill most of the rest of his life to recover.

Bill became a big star in Mexico in the ealry 1960's. Does this picture reveal why he found Latin American so appealing? Surrounded by girls can be seen Rudy Pompillii, Al Rappa, Bill, Franny Beecher, Billy Williamson, and several other males whom I cannot identify.This is not a good quality picture since it was taken from a photocopy of a print which was owned at the time by John Von Hoelle. It would have been taken in 1961, possibly during Bill's first trip to Mexico when he introduced the twist and became known in Mexico as the inventor of the twist.For several years he was the top selling record artist in South America.
Bill would not allow himself to be photographed on the left side, as this was his blind side. Therefore, he's unlikely to have known that this photo was being taken. He certainly wouldn't have been happy with the result! As for when and where it was taken, I don't know. Bill's slightly long hairstyle suggests that it is in the 1960's or 1970's.
I think this was taken at the New Victoria Theatre in London, where Bill did two shows in 1976 after a longer European tour. This was his first foray without Rudy, who had died in February of that year. The replacement, George Baker, was a part-time player and his tuning and playing were little short of disastrous. He managed to play a complete Rudy's Rock on Austrian TV one beat out from the rest of the band, and his attempt to reach the high notes was a dramatic failure. The look on Bill's face whilst this was going on told it all; he was missing Rudy - badly.

The remainder of the band were in-fighting badly. There were two lead guitar players which was a recipe for disaster. Bill Turner, who had been with the band since 1974, found the conditions pretty trying on this tour. A book could be written about this sad period in the band's history.

I forgot to say - the show at the New Victoria closed prematurely because of teddy boys fighting in the orchestra pit. Bill's closing words as the fire curtain was brought down on his performance were "Thank you London. You've been a wonderful audience."

Somehow, I missed this show. I read about it the next day in The Evening Standard, which carried a front page photo of a teddy boy with blood on his face.

In 1979, UK based fans of the King had a double helping of the King. He toured the country in March of that year, and then he came back in November for the Royal Variety Show. This picture shows him in March 1979 receiving a gold disc from Pickwick International for 650,000 sales of his Pickwick album Rock Around the Clock, which had been recorded in Sweden in 1968 for Sonet. The presentation was made at De Lane Lea Studios in Wembley, where Bill recorded some of the tracks for what would turn out to be his last album. From left to right in the picture are Patrick Malynn (Bill'sManager), Bill, Al Whaley (UK Sonet Records' boss), and Pickwick Sales Director, Alan Friedlander.
Here's a shot of a tired Haley arriving at Heathrow airport in March 1979. He had just flown in on a Braniff flight from Houston, arriving in the early morning. Next stop his hotel, and some sleep.
Three pictures taken by me in November 1979, when Bill appeared for four nights on the trot at The Venue in London. The first shows Harry the chauffeur helping him out of the car.The second shows Bill autographing my copy of his Sonet LP Everyone Can Rock 'n' Roll, and the third Bill bowing at the end of his last show. We didn't know it at the time, but apart from the Royal Variety Show a few days later, this would be the last time we would see him on stage in the UK.
And here we have Bill's final bow in the UK. Bill meets the Queen. Supposedly she said "I loved it. It reminded me of when I was young", but reading her lips on TV that was definitely not what she said. 26th November 1979 was the date.
In 1993 the US post office issued a commemorative set of stamps to acknowledge the importance of Rhythm and Blues and Rock 'n' Roll to the American heritage. Given the neglect Bill had suffered in his native country more or less since the late 1950's it was a complete but pleasant surprise to find him remembered in this way. This is a copy of a complete plate of these stamps.

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