The tragic life and career of rock 'n' roll's originator.
Controversial book by James F. Cullinan
Of all the fifties rockers none were more interesting than Bill Haley.
When Hollywood abandoned its film biography of the singer it betrayed its own lack of imagination, for Haley's improbable life defied the mind of its scriptwriters!
Whilst other rockers were out of touch with day-to-day life, Haley's feet were firmly on the ground. Even at the height of his fame - and the highest paid entertainer in the world - he took the 6.30 train to be home with his wife and kids.
He was the most improbable rock star, yet the one 'closest to us'. Because when all is said and done, 'we' - meaning everyman - have to face the reality that life is about responsibilities and the mundane and we just get on with it. Wild rockers lived outside the norm, so in truth we cannot relate to them as ordinary mortals.
Haley is easy to empathise with, which makes the ultimate tragedy of his life all the more upsetting.
This book is a compelling account of a complex man - hugely creative and innovative - a man many loved, yet whose life and fortunes defied the imagination of script writers!
His life and career was extraordinary!
Cullinan's book is not the definitive Haley biography - that would require several hefty volumes - but it does go straight to the heart of the Haley phenomenon and gets to the facts.
The book demolishes various myths and misconceptions about Haley.
Haley was nothing but paradoxical.
'Of all the rockers he was the most fascinating,' writes Cullinan, 'The others seem one-dimensional by comparison.'
The other great rockers were highly gifted individuals who happened to be in the right place at the right time. R & R was their calling.
For Haley there was no such 'calling', for there was no R & R, only pop and country and what was called R & B. He had been around a lot longer and worked night and day to develop a new sound, a new style. Unlike the others who simply adapted to R & R . He didn't adapt - he created it.
He had no context in which to come - he created his own context.
'Pioneer' is one of those over-worked and misleading words applied to '50s acts. There was only one 'pioneer' - and that was Bill Haley.
Yet he was the unlikeliest pioneer and trendsetter: he was full of self-doubt, bashful, apprehensive - yet he was driven.
The book does not invoke the usual cliches of the era. So much nonsense has been churned out about Haley and R & R that you wonder if the writers were 'fans' at all.
This was the man who would always strum rhythm on stage, yet in truth he was a virtuoso lead guitarist, but he kept that truth well under wraps.
On stage he would often lack dynamism and charisma seemed absent in his films. Yet rare TV footage from the era reveals a dynamic and vital performer.
On stage in 1955 he would often swap rhythm for upright bass. The slap bass sound was almost certainly his creation and he taught his players.
He was loved for his generosity and he would take pity on those down on their luck. On the other hand, not everything seemed what it appeared.
What went on behind the scenes during the hottest period 1954-57 just seemed so improbable.
The author is not an apologist for Haley - on the contrary, he shines a light on his shortcomings, grievous shortcomings which some try to gloss over.
But nothing can detract from his achievement.
'Some of this book's content: On stage in 1938...Down and out in the early '40s...Street busking; a hobo's life...A 'shotgun wedding'?...Aged 22, he's running a local radio station...1949 writing country hits for others...Beat that bass!...'Rock The Joint'...the problem of his hillbilly image...1953: Crazy, Man, Crazy': kids chanting in the street for Haley...'Girls were always there'...Fiasco of the 'Rock Around The Clock' session...'Shake, Rattle And Roll' - the record that would shake and rattle cosy middle America; and Haley would never forget Big Joe Turner...1955: his encounter with the demoralised Elvis Presley and the night Buddy Holly saved his bacon...Supreme public triumph and crushing private tragedy...Personal trauma...'The Lord's vengeance'...1956: in Britain Haley's sales surge 20% ahead of Presley...Haley 'owns' a quarter of the UK top 20, week in, week out...Teddy Boys...Riots...Fiasco in London...Shattered nerves...'Never did any star fall so far so sharply'...'Meanwhile, back in the States', Haley boycotted by blacks...Threats to his life...Ku Klux Klan...Jerry Lee Lewis won't take second billing to anyone...Hitting the bottle...Australia and '40 Cups of Coffee'...Crooks and con-men...debts...bounced cheques...'Twin evils' of persuing ex-wives and persuing tax man...Enter the mob...Beware of managers calling themselves 'Colonel' and 'Lord'...He's a has been, but don't tell anyone...he's selling millions elsewhere...Treachery...The work load takes it's toll...Comets shattered; tensions and fissures...The Spanish twist, the Mafia and a certain Senorita... Drunk north of the border, sober south of it...Rudy Pomilii, hero of the story...Lawsuits...'Bill Haley the most amiable of men'...Singer and publisher scam the man to whom they owe so much...Mexican fiascos...Awash with money yet forced to kip on Rudy's couch...Where did all the money go?...How was the mob paid off?...Rock 'n' roll revival? - he had more pressing things on his mind...1970: Haley so bombed in the studio, he didn't know where the microphone was...Stone sober...The ultimate betrayal...Damaged hotel rooms...Seventies: the pain of working with musicians and sessionmen who don't understand R & R.
He was a prolific songwriter; he owned his own publishing and production companies. In his bid for a new sound he experimented with everything: blues, folk, polka, waltzes: he experimented with tempos, sound effects, coaxing the Comets to play this way and that; mixing styles, attempting to get guitars to replicate the sound of brass.
He was full of contradictions. He seemed limited as a vocalist, but in fact he had remarkable range and stamina. He was notorious for giving short shows, yet in other situations would give an hour and a half set.
Like Presley, he indulged others with cadillacs, but unlike him he was very much his own man. Not manipulated by his manager, he called all the shots. He ran a tight ship. Which makes it all the harder to explain away his failures.
At the peak of his career he lost the mother he dearly loved; then the father he was so close to died a cruel premature death. Struggling to recover, he loses a sister, and is shattered absolutely by the death of his child. Always a reserved and private man, he kept these personal traumas from public view: always the professional, in public he smiled and talked up the joys of R & R.
The world was beating a path to his door whilst privately he felt abandoned and racked with guilt.
In a strange way that also draws us closer to him. Guilt is not a comfortable emotion, but he had enough self-doubt and most of us can relate to that.
There is not enough room to explain Haley's highs and lows here. The author had a tough time trying to condense so much fascinating information into one compact volume. It is packed with detail, the author being an R & R obsessive.
The book carries no hype, no bull: not necessary, for Haley was the unlikeliest character with the most unlikeliest career.
It's time for you to look at the Haley phenomenon again; and the rock 'n' roll phenomenon of the mid '50s again. The facts, the reality, are better than the illusion. 'Writing this book changed my perceptions', wrote the author. Whatever your take on Haley, this book will fascinate and compel. You won't regret it's purchase.