There are many reasons why Bill Haley hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves. The main one, at least the one that comes to mind when you first think of the man, is that damn curl, which you can see in every picture ever taken of him. It looked like a gimmick, a symbol of the cheerful good-time music Haley made, songs such as “Rock Around the Clock,” “See You Later, Alligator,” and “Crazy Man Crazy.” This wasn’t the sex-crazed, dangerous music made by those other guys. Elvis was all about sex. Bill was the pudgy guy with the curl. Wearing the plaid dinner jacket.
Yes, Haley was a bit of a square. And I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw American Graffiti, in 1973, when I was fifteen. “Rock Around the Clock,” the first song in the movie’s first scene, jumped out of the theater speakers: an exuberant 128 seconds of driving guitar and sax riffs, an amazing guitar solo, and Haley’s breathless vocal. It made me feel good; it made me want to move. And if it did that to me, imagine what it did to teens in 1955. Kids—to say nothing of grown-ups—had never heard anything like it before. There’s a before “Rock Around the Clock” and an after “Rock Around the Clock.” The before is Glenn Miller, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby. The after is Elvis, the Beatles, and Lady Gaga.
Like so many people, I wondered, How did Haley go from The Ed Sullivan Show to Sambo’s, from the top of the world to the bottom of Texas, where he would suffer a lonely death in February 1981? No one seems to know much about his last twenty years. Five books have been written about Haley, and the best one, by his son Jack, treats that period in a fourteen-page epilogue. And those last desperate months—what happened?