THE HELLBOUND TRAIN TO WATERLOO.
Bill Haley & His Comets In England
by Ian Whitcomb
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com
Young and restless England, stirred up by rough sounds from gramophone and fairground loudspeaker, was waiting breathlessly for Bill Haley to come and take their forlorn, stooped, war-weary country by storm, to shake it out of the doldrums and into the modern world -- as shown in violent American movies like “Blackboard Jungle” and as mythologized in “The Wild One”.
All-leathered Brando astride his motorbike, crotch-armed and ready. Local crooners in cardigans, with pipe and slippers at hand, moaning since the 1930s in mid-Atlantic accents, had better retreat home to their maisonettes. The liberating Yanks were coming!
So it was that Bill Haley and his Merry Men, supported by wives, arrived by boat and took the train to London. Mobs cheered them to the heavens, causing soot to fall, and ancient music halls to lose heavy plaster. Hailed as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, so revered that his hotel bath water was sold as if it was a holy relic, Bill Haley finished his tour as a friendly sort of bloke but no god of the battle beat.
Few, too few, were a Southampton to see him off on the boat home. His chart reign was over. Snarling and pouting from across the ocean waited a band of real raucous rockers and already their discs were spinning blue murder in the land of Shakespeare. Haley's fall from rock & roll was as sudden as his rise from the ranks of hillbilly yodelers.
“Glad it's all over”, he wrote in his tour diary. “Just want to be tucked up at home. So tired.”
What a comfortable, homespun name! As opposed to Elvis Presley, strange, exotic, suggesting rude mountain men heavy
with latent violence. Atavistic, barbaric and biblical.
That's what the Elvis name meant to me, as I gazed at the print in a 1956 issue of “Life” magazine, aware that my history master was breathing down my neck. “Shouldn't we be studying the coming of the Goths and the Mongols?”. I quickly closed the magazine. “No," he continued tapping my back with a ruler. "Carry on! -- perhaps we are simply studying the modern equivalent”. Luckily I was attending a progressive boarding school.
Fond as I was of Bill Haley I knew that Elvis, like a sultry Greek God from a “Classics Illustrated” comic, personified the erotic side of rock & roll, a gazelle always on the move, in a state of constant revolution, never happy in bed unless there was kicks party going on there. Whereas Bill, a cheerful rustic, I could imagine in a nightcap, with a mug of hot chocolate at his bedside.
Both were revered and taken seriously in England, much more so than in their homeland of creating and forgetting, of endless turnover. Both came to a sticky end. But while America fashions the heroes it's we British who preserve them.
Looking back on English life in the early 1950s I realize that ours was a protected world, a cozy corner. True, we suffered privations -- strictly-rationed candy, sausages stuffed with bread, ice cream made from margarine, shapeless clothes of rough material -- but when you're young you know of nothing else, so that while we were living under World War Two conditions long after the end of hostilities it all seemed perfectly normal. If you really got hungry you ate toothpaste.
All in all, though, we youngsters lived comfortably -- at least those of us in the sweetly leafy South of England, where history and culture seeped from old walls, trickling down country lanes where birds still seemed to sing ballads and the hedges were medieval. Charming, but also cold and confining.
The rest of the world consisted of a quilt of colored shapes stamped on the revolving tin globe that took pride of place in the main schoolroom. Much of that globe was red which meant that we owned it, that there was still a British Empire. “Why do we have an Empire, sir?”, I asked my history teacher, my favorite
master, the one who let me listen to his Sophie Tucker and Louis Armstrong 78s. “Why?”, he replied, swiping me gently with his walking stick, "dear boy? Because we do, because we do!” There was no arguing with your elders in those days.
On this same globe, if you revolved it to the far side, across a vast expanse of blue, could be found a great slab of a continent, resembling two six-gun holsters stacked one on top of the other: America -- but more particularly, North America, and specifically, the Wild West and the coast where lay the source of all that was un-English, all that was in full color and full of noise, all those toys that gave you illicit tingles down the spine.
While I ought to have been studying the Wars Of The Roses or even the current Korean conflict, I was actually studying about this faraway paradise of fun factories. My sources, hidden under desktops and dormitory blankets, were The Western Film Annual, Top Record Stars (hardback) and then the weekly cheap paper inkies like New Musical Express and Melody Maker. My hands were black after touching them but my rapture was complete. Here, in America, was an industry working night and day, cranking out amazing sights and sounds, a clanking carousel expelling non-stop excitement, ever-changing. A child in men's clothing. A boy's world run by adults. These grown-ups created the cowboys, gangsters, crooners, tight jeans, ten gallon hats, snap-brim fedoras. Everything considered tasteless and vulgar in England.
“Now you're over-excited and making too much noise. You're also reading a comic and that's not allowed. You need punishment” “But sir!” “ Don't contradict! You laugh and sing all the time -- and, what's worse, you lead the other boys in laughter and song”. “But…” “You talk too much. You must learn to take your place in proper society. Report to the Headmaster for punishment!”
However, there was another man in my life, a commanding figure to counter the masters of joylessness: Bill Haley chief of his very own Comets. Something deliciously harsh and metallic in the name coupling -- Haley & Comets -- suggesting whizzing around in space, far from country lanes. In the inkies (the pop papers),
Haley and His Comets were pictured as big, broad, genial bruisers in jackets that spelled circus -- tuxedos in plaid -- aided by a whiff of western outlawry. But, on the other hand, their sunny smiles suggested they could also be related to Hopalong Cassidy and his saddle pals, heroes of the 6pm children's hour fare on BBC television.
It was the habit of other boys to cut out photos of their idols and paste them up in their lockers: soccer stars, ace airmen, runners, mountaineers. I my case, I liberated Haley and His Comets from an inkie and taped them lovingly to the front of my modern History Assignment binder. My gesture towards the rock ‘n’ roll movement. My passport out of old-time Britain.
Pictures are potent but it was the music that had hit me first. I’ll never forget that night in the dormitory when my huge hissing radio finally made proper contact with Radio Luxembourg, the only station brave enough to play the new music, away out over the English Channel, in the Grand Duchy.
Suddenly there came roaring the sound of a great honking train, clickety-clacking across the sky, firing off rim shots at gray music teachers cowering below, dropping molten rock on the history-laden trees, trailing no sad tales of oppressed Negroes or landless, loveless hillbillies. A sound pure and simple, stripped down and springing at us fully-armed and complete. A care package from America.
That was “Rock Around The Clock”, the disc. Making a movie in my mind, a pleasant one starring Big Bill Haley, the perfect Scoutmaster, the perfect uncle calling out a new kind of route march.
There was another “Rock Around The Clock”, though, and it was sinister and sexy and conveyed across a cinema screen. During the school holidays, that Easter of 1955, I slinked up to the West End of London to catch a film whose reputation was preceding it in a vast wash of ink: “The Blackboard Jungle”, is part of a “new cycle of violent Hollywood movies”, warned my weekly “Picturegoer” magazine. “There's ‘Black Tuesday’ and ‘The Desperate Hours’, spreading the disease of the Big City and
enticing youngsters to catch the fever”, lectured the editors. “And now, picturegoers, there's this slice of reality”. The topical story of juvenile delinquency in the classroom, a far cry from “Tom Brown's Schooldays where chaps played the game by the rules,
contains an “icy, terrifyingly tense knife fight scene between master and pupil that has had British picturegoers tingling on the edge of their seats!” And worse, after the light go up and even after ‘God Save The Queen’ has been played, customers, incited by what they have experienced, “push and shove their way out of the cinema”. Placed to the left of the article about the new wave of Hollywood violence was a column on the latest L.P. releases. A salute to jazz pianist “Cow Cow Davenport”, lately deceased”, and an exponent of the boogie-woogie style now established as a crucial ingredient of rock ‘n’ roll. Added the columnist, a true jazz lover of the old school: “Boogie-woogie originally meant ‘trouble’ or ‘bad’. The Boogie Man was the Devil”. Were we picturegoers meant to put two and two together?
In the darkness of the West End cinema I was thrilled to the bone from the very first moment. For there, slap up against the opening credits was the march-to-arms anthem I’d heard under the dorm bedclothes. Only now it was militant in documentary black & white and linked to juvenile delinquency. We'd received our orders and they were set in the asphalt of a grim school yard enclosed by concentration camp chain link fence. The avuncular Haley of radio, disc, and photo had now, by association, become the dictatorial tannoyed voice of rebellion. Do it now! Break out of the prison guarded by grown-ups!
Then, of course, there followed the satisfying scene in which the juves, in class, smash up the prized jazz record collection of teacher Glenn Ford. Satisfying for me because my school peers had lately been nagging me with their cant of jazz, jazz, jazz, and how Haley didn't “swing”. Their kind of “swing” sounded like stodgy indolence to my ears, warmed-over leftovers from the days when Big Bands ruled -- and that was before the war, epochs ago.
No, no, they countered: jazz was modern, progressive,
intellectual, sophisticated. Jazz was de rigeur for someone of my upper middle class stature.
I suffered a dose of doctrinaire when, emerging from the cinema in a state of high excitement, and needing a dose of Haley -- in particular his just-released L.P. -- I raced into the first record store I could see: Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop. I should have known better. I was deep in enemy territory -- but I was drunk on Bill's boogie-woogie beat.
The men who staffed Dobell’s knew their music. And it stopped at jazz -- modern jazz at that. Stern of face, pointing inflammable beards, bursting with left-wing politics, they were famous for their password challenges such as Getz, Stitt, Coltrane, or Monk. Trembling and pink, I dared to say Haley and was promptly given the freeze. The men, rudely interrupted, returned to their discussion on the use of parallel fifth in riffing. I beat a hasty retreat.
In 1955, a decade after the end of the war, Britain was still under the weather, clad in a tin hat. But up the West End, in Soho, away from the bomb craters and ruined churches, clustered the trading posts of American culture. Record shops, movie distributors, hamburger cafes reeking of fried onion, formed part of a multi-decker sandwich that also included marital aid centers, strip clubs, and tobacconist windows displaying physique magazines, frequently using as over boys bare chested U.S. marines cavorting with each other on some unearthly but probably Californian beach.
The streets of Soho were narrow, the buildings disapprovingly Victorian, and the area seemed to be smothering to death under a blanket of venerable soot. Black was the native color but American brightness was on sale. Round the corner and into Oxford Street I hurried because I knew that there, at the HMV record shop, I could definitely obtain the Haley L.P.
In those days you could audition your prospective purchase in the shop. They'd let you take the disc into a booth and drop the needle. L.P.s were a novelty and although I’d already bought a ten incher starring The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (their brand
of jolly jazz I liked -- peppy, danceable, a raggy 1918 version of Haley music and one of a kind, never to be repeated), I’d never had a 12 incher.
The cover had a red background and on top was simply the word ROCK with each letter designed as an object: bobby sox shoes (or were they white bucks of the kind favored by Pat Boone?), a pair of regular socks, an alarm clock, a geometry square, and a bow tie with arms clapping. Not very enticing, stirring or revolutionary. And where was Bill? Not attractive enough?
Still, Bill's name was in good solid company there in the grand HMV record shop, stacked up among such class acts as Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. I mean, he was legitimate, he was a contender. To be signed to a record company seemed as lofty as being a film star. You were enshrined in vinyl and then sheathed in shiny lamination. You were on a perch above us punters. Not far from HMV was EMI, a house of many labels, set in a magnificent 18th century classical square. The front entrance of EMI was guarded by old soldiers bedecked in medals and ribbons from world wars. No entry for the likes of me -- but once, passing by sheepishly, I glimpsed an American lady singing star emerging with full entourage and dripping in diamonds and furs. I was certain she sang of cocktails in the moonlight and trips to the moon on gossamer wings. A sophisticated world, far from my dreams.
Bill, on the other hand, appeared down to earth. His kiss curl was quaint, his eyes looked inviting if a trifle independent. The L.P. liner notes informed me that Bill, as a poor lad, had been “forced to manufacture his own guitar out of cardboard”. After that he'd yodelled with a traveling medicine show (Whatever that was). His first band was called “The Down Homers”. More to the point, and ominously, the liner note writer told us: “Let it rock -- this is hard-driving stuff not for babies and grandmothers, tough music for a tough generation.”
I was about to closely encounter those toughs.
I had taken the Underground home to Wimbledon; all was well until I changed at Earl's Court. Suddenly I became aware of a bellowing chant getting nearer and that my fellow passengers were pressing themselves against the station walls. Then, peering down the tube platform I saw marching towards me in uneven ranks a mass of costumed youths, flaying their arms out, and reciting their war chant: “One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock fuck! We're gonna fuck around the clock tonight!”. They had found their martial rallying music and it was Bill's!
This monstrous army was made up of Teddy Boys and their ilk. I’d heard all about them. Everybody had. Since 1953 the papers had been scaring us with stories of their doings and their dress style.
Troublesome youths were nothing new: when I was growing up after the war I’d been told to keep away from “common boys”, later termed “yobs” or “oiks”. At that time you hardly ever saw them because, being poor and working class, they had no money to seek public amusement. They had no cars, no motorbikes. They were literally working class, spending their days slaving in factories or down the mine. They wore flat caps and rough suits. They kept quiet and knew their place. Occasionally I’d see them out on Wimbledon common with their sling shots and sticks, attacking small animals -- but I had an airgun and, protected by the fence surrounding our luxury flats, I took pots shots at them with my airgun. It was great to see them leap in pain and look around bewildered. Yet I feared and rather envied these common or vulgar boys. There was a primitive hulkiness and angular masculinity about them that made me feel effete, as if I’d missed out on nature's adventure. That I somehow needed the jungle experience.
Around 1953 these vulgar boys had developed a uniform and were becoming a force to be reckoned with. They had money, they had decent jobs, they were making their presence known. They had no interest in soccer, rugger, or cricket. No interest in the arts -- not even in music, as yet. Dance Halls were for shop girl “slags” and effeminate “poofs”. They were outside of
traditional British society. They belonged to no club. They were a spontaneous eruption.
The streets of London were where the new vulgar boys hung out -- and yet, sartorially, they displayed a sense of the past: proud as peacocks, parody descendants of the “macaronis” of the 18th century, the Teddy Boys more directly derived their name from Edwardian dandies with their costume of drape jacket with velvet lapel, brocade waistcoat, drainpipe tight trousers. Edwardian elegance was spoiled by the Ted's fondness for bootlace-thin tie (in the manner of the B Western riverboat gambler), suede shoes stuck with thick crepe sole (termed “brothel creepers), fluorescent socks, and a nasty habit of filling their voluminous jackets with bicycle chains, flick knives, coshes, and other primitive weaponry. Hair, carefully groomed, too pride of place: long and greased and piled up into a quiff called a “back sweep and crest” so that a decent Ted resembled an angry cockerel. This elaborate coiffure had to be constantly kept in place, due to the cruel wind and rain of London, by skilled manipulation of a heavy metal comb. To see a Ted arrange his hair with one swift swoop was to see urban folk art in action. Or so we were told by bold journalists. These brave writers also noted that the Teds eschewed a traditional romantic interest in girls. They didn't court -- taking their lady to tea, or to a dance. No, girls were “slags” or “birds” whose sole function was to service the Teds -- as in the command: “Clap your laughing gear round the end of my fuck stick, dearie!”
1954 saw the Best-Dressed Ted Contest held at Canvey Island, Essex. The papers also reported a gruesome murder on Clapham Common by a Teddy gang by a Teddy gang. Youth crimes had shot up 50%. There were more boys than girls, a result of wartime birth bias. Proper Britain, still run by the upper classes under a set of rules and regulations based on good manners, was alarmed. It was a world of magistrates and judges and obedience.
And also bear in mind that until the sudden eruption of the Teds young England's appearance in the press was confined to
the reporting of Prince Charles and Princess Anne taking dance classes, say, or high jinks at the exclusive Hurlingham Club where dinner rolls and chicken salads had been hurled about by shrieking debutantes and their squires, disturbing nearby swans.
So there was I on the tube station platform with an army of Teds heading my way as they chanted a foul version of “Rock Around The Clock”. What did I do? I moved out of their way and caught the next train home. Safe at last I enjoyed a supper of sausages and baked beans followed by Queen’s pudding, sitting at the Bridge table as we all watched the TV news, read by a plummy-voiced gentleman in a dinner jacket and black bow tie.
Afterwards I went to my room and played the Bill Haley L.P. Ever lovely rolling track, every number steaming into one continuous railroad rhythm. Why, you couldn’t tell one track from the next!
The Teds, creatures of the outside and clubless, were about to discover their lodestone: the inside of a picture palace.
“The Blackboard Jungle” had but one Haley number. “Rock Around The Clock” exploded with Haley and thus the flames lit the Teds and their rapidly swelling band of followers, the rockers. The new movie came to Britain in 1956 and, oddly enough, played without incident in three hundred cinemas without any trouble.
But when it came to South London, home of the Teds, the signal went out that her was the mecca to make for, here was where the true purpose of rock ‘n’ roll could be expressed.
Bill was up on the screen smiling and swaying and selling his homemade brew, but in the auditorium no-one was paying any attention. The lads, having slashed their seats, got up to jive in the aisles with each other, watched by their birds. Tuxedoed managers remonstrated only to be doused by Ted-held fire extinguishers. Pigeons were let loose and rockets set off, chewing gum was ground into the carpet by winklepickers, but what was worse: Bill's face, up on the screen, was pelted with ice cream and other refreshments. Rock youth had found its clubroom.
After the movie they spewed out into the streets. The papers reported traffic held up on Tower Bridge by dancing
youths, and the kicking of policemen, cups and saucers thrown about, a mob in Lewisham chanting “Nine Little Policemen Hanging On The Wall”. Afterwards some one pound fines were handed down. The King of the Teddy Boys was jailed for “insulting behavior”. The “Evening News” critic was baffled by the film and went in search of a double brandy. The “Daily Worker”, a communist paper, found the film direct and refreshing:
“The music isn't obscene but the relentless commercialism is”.
The Queen, in the swim of things as usual, had a print of “Clock” sent up to her Scottish retreat by fast train. Her verdict was not recorded but a little later society columns reported her and her husband, The Duke of Edinburgh, rocking and rolling till 2 am at the Duke Of Kent’s 21st birthday party.
In the December 22, 1956, edition of “The Record Mirror”, one of several British pop inkies, Haley was acknowledged as the King, as he who started the rock ‘n’ roll “craze”: “The first outfit to shatter Britain, their discs are still selling by the million..... Recordwise, Haley and the boys crowd our Top Twenty... Rumours are strong that they will soon be visiting us. Let’s hope so --bands like this need to catch the wave as soon as possible in this crazy business. Who knows? The next craze could be the Mambo!”
Over in Pennsylvania, USA, the King was relaxing at his stately home, “Melody Manor”. Custom-built with no expense spared -- all the latest mod cons -- the estate also held the past in remembrance and reverence: Bill’s childhood house lay in the grounds next to the schoolhouse where he had studied and yodeled; fronting the long brick Manor itself -- and the first object that hit guests after they passed through the gates -- was a shack boasting a flurry of very live chickens.
The house had been built for his British-born mother, but she had died before it was ready. There swiftly followed the deaths of his father, sister, and his baby child. 1956 had been a great financial success but otherwise it was horrid. Bill was determined to protect and cherish his remaining family, his new
wife, Cuppy, and the rest of their children.
The Manor, thus, became a sanctuary -- and also a pleasure palace: Bill not only loved his family but also he loved being surrounded by like-minded folks. Call them a retinue, an entourage. Call them a gang of hangers-on. Call them friends -- indeed, some of them probably were friends. The main men went back to the days of struggle -- Jolly Joyce, the booking agent; Lord Jim Ferguson, the personal manager -- and the others just accumulated as happens when you hit the jackpot suddenly. Bill liked to reward them with Cadillacs.
To satisfy his needs and his new following Bill threw parties to rival Gatsby’s. At these events one might find Lord Jim holding forth in the den, his legendary belly pressing against the bar, scotch in one hand and cigar in the other, as behind him Jolly Joyce taught the band boys how to play pool. Meanwhile in the kitchen Cuppy struggled to put together Bill’s favorite dish, Lancashire Hot Pot, from one of his mother’s treasured recipes. The children were somewhere safe -- probably chasing around the maze of paths that Bill had had landscaped throughout his many wooded acres.
Cuppy really didn't much care for the crowds in her home but she was there to do Bill’s bidding. And Lord Jim had earned his high position since he'd elevated her husband from dumb western garb and into smart tuxedos, and scotch plaid ones at that. Jolly, too, had done his bit: through his friendship with Sam Katzman he'd made Bill into a movie star. She had her doubts, though, about some of the business ventures that the henchmen were getting her husband involved in: art galleries and a steel mill specializing in some kind of urinal.
Christmas 1956 was the best one they'd ever had--the new extended family was taking the place of the recently-deceased blood relatives -- what with Cadillacs glistening in the snow, contented hens cackling in the coop, and Lord Jim swiveling his pelvis in imitation of Elvis Presley, upstart pretender to the rock ‘n’ roll crown.
The outside world was forbidden entry into Melody Manor.
Even an invite from the Dinah Shore show was declined. Actually, as Cuppy knew, Bill was a very private person, very shy, very fearful of strangers. He hated performing, hated traveling, especially by air, and hated having his photograph taken when he wasn't looking. The main reason for the hate and the fear was that he was blind in one eye and this made him paranoid around the public. Which side were they coming from? They were always sneaking up on him, it seemed, catching him off guard.
Now, issuing statements to the press was no trouble at all. This he could do from the safety of the Manor. Recently he'd been reassuring parents and guardians of public morals that he was not dangerous: “When the kids are out listening to our music
you know they're not getting into trouble”. And: “A lot depends on the entertainer and how he controls the crowd”. Was Bill playing the Good Guy too hard? Some fans were already complaining about his being stand-offish.
On January 4 there was an important announcement. Lew and Leslie Grade, bigwigs in British show biz, with experience dating back to the Charleston contests of the 1920s, were pleased to announce, in conjunction with the rank Organization chain of cinemas, a three week tour by Bill Haley & His Comets commencing on February 7 at the Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, London. Two shows a night plus a fully supporting program of selected acts.
Tickets sold out almost immediately. Bill issued another statement: “While the United States of America is my native land, England is my mother’s land. She was born in Ulverston, in North Lancashire. I owe America a loyal citizen's allegiance. I owe England a deep affection”. What he didn't know was that somebody in his entourage had done a deal with “The Daily Mirror”, Britain's best selling tabloid, for a series of columns written by Bill but in fact ghosted by staffer, Noel Whitcomb (No relation). The journalist, an older man known for his natty Trilby and tips on horse racing, had Bill soft-soaping with lines like: “I'm sorry about that commotion (referring to the “Rock Around The Clock” movie riots). I'm sorry about the disturbances and any
trouble that followed”. How did that go down among the Teds and Rockers?
Never before had an American rock ‘n roller played Britain and so, for a while, Bill’s (I mean Whitcomb’s) mollification was let by. “We can show the youngsters that fun can be clean.....Rock ‘n’ Roll has a respectable musical background”......... And so on. Meanwhile the real Bill had been persuaded to test his touring mettle, prior to the British dates, with a visit to Australia. Whoever organized the shows knew his stuff: Bill was the star of a genuine rock ‘n roll package -- the supporting acts included Freddie Bell & The Bell Boys and The Platters (his co-stars in “Rock Around The Clock”), and the old Boss of the Blues himself, Big Joe Turner, whose original recording of “Shake Rattle & Roll” had been covered by Bill and become the latter’s first real hit.
The tour was a financial triumph but Bill wasn't fond of the attention. While Freddie Bell was thrilling the girls by showing off in his swimsuit, Bill was locked in his hotel room drinking coffee and other beverages. And making laconic entries in his diary: “Visited aboriginal village. Met champion boomerang thrower”.
Two days after he'd returned from Australia to Melody Manor
he was off to England. But not alone, of course, and not by airplane. Boarding the “Queen Elizabeth”, a luxury liner, on January 31, 1957, were no less than 17 members of the Haley party. First there were The Comets; Franny Beecher (guitar), Rudy Pompilli (saxophone), Billy Williamson (steel guitar), Johnny Grande (accordion and piano), Al Rex (double bass) and RaL.P.h Jones (drums). They were terrific players but only Willamson and Grande had played on the recording of “Rock Around The Clock”. The rest of the family included a reluctant Cuppy, accompanied by Jolly Joyce, “Catfish” Vince, the roadie, Lord Jim Ferguson and his 77 year old mother. Also on board was Bill’s ghost writer, Noel Whitcomb, with his Trilby and cigarette holder, already installed in a huge stateroom where he entertained the likes of Victor Mature and British actress Brenda de Banzie, while taking time off to send Haley statements back to “Daily Mirror” readers: “We're rockin’ through the ocean and rollin’ through the waves keeping
our telescopes at the ready to dig that crazy train at Southampton”.
In fact Bill had a dreadful voyage. They hit stormy weather, including a hurricane. “Gotta get off this boat”, he wrote in his diary. “Gotta get off this whole rocking train, this biz”. They got off the boat at Southampton on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 5. Bill was shaken silly by the sound of the ship’s horn.
Only it wasn't the horn -- it was the regimented cry of a host of fans on the dock: “HALEY!!!”
Many had traveled down from London's Waterloo station on “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Special”, organized by “The Daily Mirror”. Bill had no idea he was to travel back with this rabble, but he smiled while trying to assess the situation with his good eye. All hell, it seemed, had been let loose. A hell of sloshed mud and pelting rain, watched by indignant residents from the windows of Edwardian hotels where palm court music still held sway. Five thousand fans, counted the newspapermen. What a story! Noel Whitcomb, fully sated, snuck off and into a waiting taxi. He had a date at the race course, back in the normality of the press club and a pint of Guinness.
Meanwhile Bill and Cuppy were imprisoned in the car that was supposed to convey them to the railway station. Fans had surrounded the vehicle and too many were on top dancing about and beating out a rhythm, foreign and unpleasant. “There's a time and a place for that beat”, said Bill to the “Melody Maker” reporter who had insinuated himself into the car. “But it isn't here!”
Next moment he wasn't there either. Somehow lost in the melee between the car and the train Bill was soon minus his suede gloves, his overnight bag, and several buttons from his overcoat. Eventually he was rescued by policemen who carried him aloft to the waiting train. But where was Cuppy? Still stuck in the car, now crying and holding a stuffed bear close to her heart. Coppers found her and conveyed her down a side track to a secluded part of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Special.
She joined Bill in a swaying compartment, part of eight
rocking coaches, smiling bravely as he pretended to join in the local group serenading them. Bill was perplexed, even a little angry: why were they singing at him stuff he'd never recorded? Rival hits like “Hound Dog”, and these curious quasi folk ditties like “Don't You Rock Me Daddy-0”. Rory Blackwell, leader of the local group, tried to make himself heard above the din of singing, chanting, beer guzzling (by the gaggle of reporters), and the frequent massed cry of “HALEY!!” as the train passed a station or even farm hands working their tractors in muddy fields.
“You see, Mr. Haley”, he shouted into the star's ear, “We can't afford a big band like yours with its electric and steel guitars. We love you, you're magic, but we have to scuffle up instruments to make our music. We call it skiffle. You must meet Lonnie Donegan, you'd like him....” Again, that loathsome whistle, or was it the Haley chant? Whatever, at Waterloo there was more craziness, thousands of them, and disrupting rush hour. Bowlers and brollies were sent spinning. A fleet of Rolls Royces conveyed Bill and his retinue by pushing a path through at the mob eventually reaching their destination, the posh Savoy Hotel in the heart of London. Cuppy cried all the way. Bill was thinking about a beverage. “The Daily Mirror” boys were rubbing their hands in glee. Next morning their front pager headline shouted: FANTABULOUS!!
Now to the proof of the pudding: the music, the act, the show. The tour, exclusively playing cinemas, started in London, went up north even as far as Scotland and then returned via Wales and even the Republic of Ireland. When the band played the punters were well rewarded -- the sound was as rattle-rocking as the records, from the opening “Razzle Dazzle” to the inevitable big finish of “Rock Around The Clock”. Sax and bass obliged with their famous vaudeville routine, straddling, lying on the stage, removing jackets to reveal suspenders. The guitarist did a funny high-pitched version of “You Made Me Love You”. Bill presided over the proceedings like a ringmaster. Oh, it was a great show alright but the audience had had to wait a hell of a long time for it. And they felt short-changed at a mere thirty
In their old-fashioned wisdom the Grades had preceded the star attraction with a bill tedious to big beat fans and especially to teds and rockers. There was a comedy duo, a penny whistler, and almost an hour of the Vic Lewis Orchestra, a well-oiled jazz
organization. The men in Dobell’s shop would have been in heaven, but the teds were outraged. "We Want The Comets!”, they chanted over the strings of slick flattened fifths.
With the Comets here and gone in a flash there was a rebellion of slow clapping and “We Want Bill”. No dice. Management played their ace -- "God Save The Queen” and the theatre emptied. There was still a modicum of authority left in Britain. Afterwards, in the dressing room, Bill was up to his old trick of reassuring the press that he was no threat to the status quo. He apologized for the stage antics, explaining that this was only a way of making a living. Were the press aware that his guitarist used to be in the Benny Goodman orchestra? That their drummer had done a stint with Glenn Miller?
But climbing up the charts, like wild animals, were American authentics who could really deliver the goods, give the teds their fix: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, and, of course, Elvis. All of them rocked because they need to vent an inner anger, and, more tellingly, they reeked of eroticism. Haley remained the one-eyed cat, peeping, bewildered, longing to be home.
Towards the end of the tour he told his diary: ”4,0000 people. They scare me”. And:” Really tired now, wish it was all over”.
Nobody bothered to see off Bill and the boys when they left Southampton one dark March day. The trains now appeared forlorn and harmless. The hotels had their curtains pulled shut.
Lots of money had been made on the British tour but lots of pumping hearts and excited loins had been lost. Bill Haley & The Comets were not what they'd appeared to be. Said the London “Observer”: “Mr. Haley turns out to be a nice kid, just like us, who drinks milk and wants to make young people happy”. That was a
problem if you wanted rock longevity with an ending worthy of Valhalla.
That Bill Haley & The Comets were no longer hot was clear from the charts. Like a comet they had made spectacular dust and gas but now they were streaming away somewhere beyond the pop orbit. Their records slipped off the charts as the new boys moved up. “Rock Around The Clock”, much revived, was to be Bill's signature tune, his only tune.
Back at school I closed my file on Bill, sorry to say. Elvis gripped me. Skiffle enabled me to buy a cheap guitar and flay and wail. No band, no scotch plaid tux, no vaudeville. Do it yourself and on the cheap. The end of show biz, the beginning of the British Invasion. And I was to roll in on that wave.
During the 1970s, when I’d started living in Hollywood, I found myself one night at a music venue called The Red Velvet.
Dick Clark, of “American Bandstand”, was there and we said hello since Dick knew me from my days as an Invader. Many times had I guested on his show with my one big hit, You Turn Me On”. Being a gentleman and knowing of my interest in old-time rock ‘n’ roll he introduced me to a chubby-faced man hovering behind him. "Say hello to Bill Haley”. I certainly did and later we retired to a corner where we chatted. Haley seemed kindly but watchful. He wasn't easy on the drinks but then I’d always been fond of Jack Daniels, too. He treated me like a brother act and I remember him saying: “I guess, like you tell me, I was the first conductor on that rocking train. But I lost control somewhere along the way.
We both just got caught up in it. We happened to be there at the time, the place, and the beat. We made our mark, didn't we, didn't we?”
I told Bill that “Rock Around The Clock” is a lode-star. A masterpiece that stands alone, indefatigable, unrepeatable. He looked at me a little oddly but he smiled and shook my hand.
A little later I read reports about his living in a garage in Harlingen, Texas, making desultory appearances at the local “Sambas” family restaurant. “I'm the guy who wrote ‘Rock Around The Clock”, he tell whoever cared to listen, displaying his driving
He was found dead on February 9, 1981. He'd been dead for six hours.
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
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