Bill Haley Jnr: History lesson

By Graham Reid

Bill Haley jnr is keeping his father's pioneering rock'n'roll alive. Graham Reid reports...

Bill Haley's musical legacy lives on through his son Bill Haley jnr.
Bill Haley's musical legacy lives on through his son Bill Haley jnr.

Bill Haley was rock'n'roll's first star, but wasn't really cut out for the job. Nearly 30 when he broke big with Shake, Rattle and Roll (a rocked-up country version of the Big Joe Turner song) and then the enormous hit Rock Around the Clock after it appeared on the soundtrack to the juvenile delinquency film Blackboard Jungle in 1955, the genial and portly Haley hardly looked the part of a teen idol.

He'd been a country singer and radio disc jockey before adding a hillbilly beat to black rhythm'n'blues and although he dominated the charts for a couple of years, by 1958 he had been replaced by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry in the affections of teenagers. Then there was the slow decline through three marriages, alcoholism and having to play the same hits year after year. He died, age 55, in 1981.

But Haley's music lives on through Bill jnr, the son of his second wife who three years ago got together with some pals, made a record of originals he'd penned, and at the launch - as a favour to their hosts - played a couple of his dad's songs.

In a true 21st-century twist, someone filmed them playing Rock Around the Clock, the clip went on YouTube and a promoter from Florida offered Haley jnr and his band a deal to tour.

"Throughout my life at different periods I had been encouraged to do this and always resisted for a number of reasons," he says. "But I thought, 'What the heck'.

"It's not a tribute band but a rock'n'roll history show. We do the songs authentically but between them we tell stories and the history of how this music came about."

Haley jnr had a patchy relationship with his father: his parents separated in 1963 when he was 8 and Bill went to live in Mexico. In the final years of his life, however, drinking heavily and often making erratic late-night phone calls to old friends, Haley and his son reconnected.

Haley jnr says his father had "a tendency to fabricate things" and he's in no doubt the alcoholism killed him, "but then you have to address what are the causes of alcoholism".

"It's hard to play psychologist but my father self-destructed because he had very personal demons he was dealing with in how he lived his life. He didn't live up to his responsibilities as a father and I think that troubled him, but the fact he became an alcoholic really spun him out of control and there was a physical deterioration and mental instability."

This was a sad end for a man who brought rock'n'roll to a generation, but was also troubled by his famous song's association with teenage violence in Blackboard Jungle.

Haley jnr says his father was shocked when he saw the film and "told his manager, 'If this is what my music does to kids I don't want to do this anymore' because he was so upset by that intended association."

But he did continue to play rock'n'roll because, despite wanting to get back to playing country music, that's what people wanted. That too ate at him. "So he really was trapped in that identity for the rest of his life and it was bittersweet. He appreciated he had something he was known for, but musically he would have preferred to move back to western and country, which he loved."

Haley jnr also notes his father was forced to defend rock'n'roll against those who linked it with juvenile delinquency and people who saw this music - a white country version of black rhythm 'n' blues - eroding the barriers of race. "My dad was a victim of the times. There was a lot of racism and a fear this music was indirectly encouraging integration of sorts."

And this too is a story of teenage dance music which Bill Haley jnr tells in his musical tour through his father's back pages.

Who: Bill Haley jnr and the Comets
Where: Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North, March 23; TSB Theatre, New Plymouth, March 25; ASB Theatre, Auckland, March 26; Holy Trinity, Tauranga, March 28; Energy Events Centre, Rotorua, March 29; Founders Theatre, Hamilton, March 30

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