May 24, 2011


Falling Comet: In 1955 "Rock Around the Clock" went to the top of the charts and turned Bill Haley into the king of rock and roll. Twenty-five years later, he was holed up in a pool house in Harlingen, drunk, lonely, paranoid, and dying. After three decades of silence, his widow and his children tell the story of his years in Texas and his sad final days. (Michael Hall, June 2011, Texas Monthly)

In the last desperate months of his life, he would come into the restaurant at all hours of the day and take a seat, sometimes at the counter and other times in one of the back booths. He was always alone. He wore a scruffy ball cap, and behind his large, square glasses there was something odd about his eyes. They didn’t always move together. Barbara Billnitzer, one of the waitresses, would bring him a menu and ask how he was doing. “Just fine,” he’d say, and they would chat about the traffic and the weather, which was always warm in South Texas, even in January. He’d order coffee—black—and sometimes a sandwich, maybe turkey with mayo. Then he’d light up a Pall Mall and look out the window or stare off into space. Soon he was lost in thought, looking like any other 55-year-old man passing the time in a Sambo’s on Tyler Street in downtown Harlingen. He had moved there with his family five years before, in 1976. It was a perfect place for a guy who wanted to get away from it all. And he had a lot to get away from. Twenty-five years before, just about everyone in the Western world had known his face. In fact, for a period of time in the mid-fifties, he had been the most popular entertainer on the planet. He had sold tens of millions of rec­ords. He had caused riots. He had headlined shows with a young opening act named Elvis Presley and had inspired John Lennon to pick up the guitar. He had changed the world.

After ten minutes or so Billnitzer would bring him his food. But usually he was thinking about something, so he ignored it. After a while, though, he’d start to shift in his seat and look around. And then he’d start to hum. Billnitzer, refilling his coffee cup, knew the tune—everybody knew that tune. It was “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock,” the best-selling rock song of all time. She smiled, because she knew what he was doing. He was giving people around him clues. He wanted people to hear him and say, “You’re Bill Haley, aren’t you?”

But they rarely did. His ball cap covered his famous spit curl, and his glasses covered much of his face. So eventually he would turn to the person next to him or even rise and walk over to a nearby table. The patrons would look up at the tall stranger looming over them. “You know who I am?” he’d ask. “I’m Bill Haley.” Then he’d take off the cap and they’d see the curl, and he’d pull out his driver’s license and they’d see his name. Sure enough, there it was: William John Clifton Haley.

He wouldn’t say much beyond that. Some of the customers tried to get to know him, asking simple coffee shop questions such as “How are you doing?” But Haley didn’t seem to be listening. He’d respond in a rambling fashion. Maybe he’d talk about a show he’d done in London back in the sixties or about Rudy Pompilli, his longtime sax player and best friend, who’d died in 1976. He missed Rudy.

Haley appreciated the company in Sambo’s—one time he left a $100 tip for a quiet waitress who could barely speak English. But usually he slipped out without saying a word of goodbye. And though he was mostly a genial customer, he could be volatile. “Once,” remembers Billnitzer, “our busboy Woody said something to him like, ‘Hey, Mr. Haley, how are you?’ and Bill got real upset, threw down his money, and stomped out.”

Haley would get in his Lincoln Continental and drive off. Sometimes he went to the Hop Shop, a bar on South Seventh Street, or Richard’s, a restaurant and bar on south Highway 77, to drink. He liked Scotch—Johnnie Walker Red was his brand. Sometimes he’d drink too much and get back in his car. Occasionally the police, who knew him well, would stop him and take him to jail. If he made it home, he’d stumble to the little pool house out back while his wife and three children slept in the main house. He’d pick up the phone and start calling people he knew from long ago: ex-wives, sons, producers, promoters, band members. He’d tell stories. He’d cry. He’d ramble. Then he’d hang up and call someone else. He felt so isolated out in that room, millions of miles from his past.

He had once been the King of Rock and Roll. He’d written more than a hundred songs and recorded more than five hundred. He’d had nine Top 20 singles, including the biggest one of all. He’d made millions and he’d spent millions. He had performed some 10,000 times, in front of more people than anyone in his era. In England the crowds had yelled, “We want Haley!” and in France, “Vive Haley!”

Not anymore. Nobody was screaming for him now. No one even seemed to remember him. All they talked about was Elvis being the guy who started it all, Elvis being the King. Well, Bill Haley was making rock and roll records when Elvis was still in high school. For that matter, he was playing rock and roll when Chuck Berry was working in a beauty parlor, Jerry Lee Lewis was studying at the Southwestern Bible Institute, and Little Richard was washing dishes in a bus station. He was the father of rock and roll. Why didn’t anybody seem to remember?

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Posted by at May 24, 2011 5:51 AM

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