Bill Haley Jr. carries more than his father’s name – he keeps his cool-rocking daddy’s music alive.
Haley’s son rocked around the clock Sunday with the current version of the Comets at the Orange Blossom Opry. Bill Haley, who died in 1981, was a rock and roll originator in the pre-Elvis days. Haley scored hits like “Shake Rattle and Roll,” “See You Later Alligator,” “Crazy Man Crazy,” “Rip It Up,” and – of course – “Rock Around the Clock.”
It was vintage rock and roll straight out of “Blackboard Jungle” and Junior – backed by a wicked and acrobatic four-piece band – played the one-time revolutionary music with zeal and authenticity.
“This is the real deal, what rock and roll is all about,” said Villager John McNaughton.
“The first time I heard that music, Bill Haley Sr. was playing and it made you want to get up and dance,” added Villager Barbara Fryer. “It still makes you want to dance.”
Kids did more than dance when Bill Haley and the Comets dominated the charts in the mid-1950s. “Rock Around the Clock” not only sold millions of records, it nearly caused riots in theaters around the country. It was the opening song in the 1955 film, “Blackboard Jungle.”
The film told the story of teenage delinquency at an inner-city high school.
Glenn Ford played the teacher who saved the day but the teens in the audience really got off on the opening credits, when “Rock Around the Clock” blared on the big-screen while the tough-looking students made their way to school.
The kids in the audience went a little crazy.
“We were the wild kids listening to Billy Haley’s music,” McNaughton said.
“Now we’re the wild adults,” added Villager Gene Armani, who attended the show with Suzanne Meredith.
Bill Haley Jr. played most of his father’s hits and also lesser-known numbers from early in the singer’s career. Junior would tell a story about each song, as pictures of Bill Haley were shown on two large screens on each side of the stage. Suzanne Morgan and the Opry Band opened the show with a sparkling set of rock oldies.
Bill Haley Jr. started his set with one of his father’s early standards, “Razzle Dazzle.” Then Junior explained how his father started out with a country band called the Saddlemen. They were playing in a bar in New Jersey when Haley played some R&B songs, then called “race music.”
Haley and the Comets covered an R&B number, “Rocket 88,” and it was a hit. Junior played that song, along with another Haley roots-rocker written by Jimmy Preston, “Rock the Joint.”
The band members were dressed in red-checkered sports coats and gave the music a jolt of early rock and roll energy. Christopher Davis Shannon, on stand-up bass, was prancing about the stage throughout the concert. He would lift the big bass high over his head. During other songs, Shannon put the bass on the floor and jumped on it, as if swimming on it. Now that’s cool!
Also cool were the rest of the tight band: Kaj Hansen on sax; Mike Denaro, electric guitar; and Rich Flamini, who played the drums as if inhabited by the ghost of Gene Krupa.
Put them all together, with Bill Haley Jr. – sporting a Marty Robbins’ white sports coat and toting a huge, red Gibson guitar – and you have the essence of rock and roll’s genesis.
“My Dad was writing different tunes and hearing different sounds,” Junior said. “The main thing he wanted was for the kids to get up and dance.”
After one gig in 1953, Haley asked a teen dancer what he thought of the music.
“Crazy, man, crazy,” came the reply, and that became the title of a big hit. Haley also covered Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll” and turned it into a smash.
Another top-10 record was “Rock-a-Beatin’ Boogie,” followed by “Mambo Rock” and “Rudy’s Rock.” Saxman Hansen had the Opry fans jumping with his soaring solo on “Rudy’s Rock.”
Haley was so popular that he appeared in a string of low-budget rock movies.
“For two years (1954-56), my father dominated the record charts,” Junior said. “Then Elvis came along.”
Bill Haley and Elvis became close friends, Junior said. He added that Colonel Tom Parker asked Haley’s manager if the then widely-unknown Presley could appear on Haley’s tour. Haley said it was fine and even gave Elvis some encouragement.
“Elvis told my father than when he drove a truck he would listen to music, and ‘Crazy Man Crazy’ was one of Elvis’ favorite songs,” Junior said.
By 1958, Bill Haley’s popularity plummeted as Elvis and a new group of young rockers came along.
“But Elvis was always kind to my Dad,” Junior said. “When my father was playing in Germany and not as popular as he once was, Elvis was stationed there in the Army. Elvis came backstage to see my father and told him again how much my father’s music meant to him.”
On April 23, Bill Haley Jr. will release the book, “Crazy Man Crazy: The Bill Haley Story.” It will detail the life and times of a remarkable rock and roll pioneer who sold more than 60 million records.
Bill Haley Jr. did the same thing on Sunday, only instead of words, he told his father’s story in music.
And it still rocks.