New England Music Scrapbook
Bill Haley:
Long Before the Comets



Our story starts at the old North Swanzey [New Hampshire] Rec one day in the early 1940s, when a 16-year-old yodeler from Massachusetts, Kenny Roberts, was performing with a western band called the Red River Rangers. Also on the bill that day was an established group called the Down Homers. And the Down Homers so liked what they heard that they hired Kenny Roberts as their lead singer. For a time, the group lived in Keene, performing several times a week on WKNE.1 In those days, many radio stations offered regular programs of live music, and around here that usually meant western music.

In any event, bigger radio stations eventually offered the Down Homers steady work, in Indiana and Iowa. So the group headed west, with the exception of one member, Yodelin' Slim Clark. He stayed on for a decade at WKNE. Yodelin' Slim is still something of a household name among Keene natives of a certain age.

By the time the Down Homers left town, the United States had entered World War II, and young Roberts signed up with the Navy. So the Down Homers advertised for a new lead singer. Pennsylvania native Bill Haley answered the ad. "I taught him how to yodel," Roberts told us the other day.2 Then he headed off to war.

When Roberts returned to the Down Homers a little more than a year later, Haley was naturally out of a job. So he formed his own group, the Range Drifters, with Bob Mason on guitar and Lloyd Cornell on bass. Haley had heard a lot of good things about Keene from the Down Homers, so he eventually brought the band to Keene and WKNE.3

Accounts differ as to exactly when that was, but it was probably in 1947 or 1948. Keene native Leo Howland was just a kid at the time, but he remembers Haley as a friendly sort who used to let his young fans hang out with the band members at the Washingtonian boardinghouse, at 173 Washington Street, where they lived. Over the years, Howland says he has told a lot of people that he knew Bill Haley, and that Bill Haley used to live in Keene. But he says most of them said, "Sure you did, Leo."

According to Roberts, the Range Drifters left Keene in the late 1940s, attracted by a bigger paycheck at a radio station in Syracuse, New York. There they split up. Haley went home to Philadelphia, where he formed a group called the Saddlemen.4 But musical tastes were changing rapidly, and the Saddlemen soon added a saxophone player and a drummer and became Bill Haley and His Comets.5 After a few regional hits--"Rock the Joint" and "Crazy, Man, Crazy"6--they exploded into the big time with "Rock Around the Clock." It was recorded in 1954 and became a monster hit when it was featured as the theme song of the 1955 film "Blackboard Jungle." According to the Guinness Book of World Records, "Rock Around the Clock" remains the most successful rock 'n' roll record to this day, having sold some 25 million copies worldwide.

And little did the teenagers of Keene know, as they were dancing in the aisles at the Latchis Theater in 1955, that Bill Haley used to live just up the street.


Source: Editorial, The Keene (NH) Sentinel, September 23, 1995. I imagine this piece was written by then-editor Guy MacMillin. It would have been right up his line.

I have a second piece from the Keene Sentinel that was published around the same time, though I'm having some trouble finding it. Like Clark Kent and Superman, those two clippings seem unable to be in the same place at the same time. Anyway, the other one is accompanied by a photo of Bill Haley standing in front of a WKNE radio microphone. -- Alan Lewis, December 1, 2001 and revised, in part, on April 19, 2002


BILL HALEY


1. WKNE WAS QUITE THE COUNTRY MUSIC STATION back in the 1940s and the 1950s. And I recall that bluegrass singer/mandolinist Joe Val performed on that station for a while in the early 1960s.

This editorial is a bit vague about the origins of the Down Homers, and it's too bad. To the best of my knowledge, this was a Brattleboro, Vermont, Keene, New Hampshire, and Greenfield, Massachusetts, band. All the members were from this area as far as I know. My friend, the late John McLay (an amazing country guitarist), knew them and used to wax eloquent on their local origins.

We have nothing remotely close to a definitive roster of members of the Down Homers. On one of their releases--Kenny Roberts' first recording, we believe--the members included Guy Campbell, Shorty Cook, Lloyd Cornell, Bob Mason, and Kenny Roberts.

When it comes to Kenny Roberts' records, we favor two. We think Roberts' best album may very well be his Tribute to Elton Britt (LP, Palomino, n.d.). (We took the title from a photo of the cover. Our own is a pre-release copy with a solid-white cover and no details on the label.) The other is the "Then" side of Then and Now (LP, Longhorn, 1981).

2. At various times, Haley performed solo as the Ramblin' Yodeler.

3. Bill Haley said in interviews that he patterned the Saddlemen (which, with a shuffled lineup, ultimately became the Comets) after the Down Homers. Before drifting into rock and roll, Haley's style might best be called Eastern Swing, an East Coast variant of Western Swing.

Bill Haley was with the Down Homers evidently for only part of 1946, though some sources report that he served in the group from 1944 to 1946. (If true that Haley was with the Down Homers for going on two years--which seems unlikely--he would have been in and out of the band, a possibility we can't totally rule out. On the other hand, Kenny Roberts would have been serving in the United States Navy around age 15, which we really doubt.) During Haley's tenure with the Down Homers, the group broadcast over stations WOWO at Fort Wayne, Indiana, and WTIC out of Hartford, Connecticut; and it was heard over the New England Regional Network.

In October 1946, Haley signed on as a disk jockey at country-music radio station WKNE in Keene, New Hampshire. It seems to have been at about the same time that he revived one of his old bands, the Range Drifters. On Wednesday, December 11, 1946, Bill Haley married Dorothy "Dottie" Crowe in Brattleboro, Vermont (which happens to be right where we are). They had two children and divorced in 1951.

According to available evidence, Bill Haley and the Range Drifters left Keene in 1947. Going entirely on memory, it seems to me that WKNE ceased to be a country-music outlet sometime in the 1960s, though we understand that the great bluegrass singer-mandolinist, Joe Val, broadcast over the station around 1962.

Our main source of information regarding the timing of Bill Haley's residence in New England was "Chris Gardner's Bill Haley Gallery: The Early Years 1945-1950," http://freespace.virgin.net/c.gardner/haley/early.htm. It's a very interesting page and well worth checking out.

4. "Cowboy, Jive, Popular, Hillbilly: The Most Versatile Band in the Land"--That's how the group, the Saddlemen, was billed. It seems to me Haley's band just before the Saddlemen was called the Four Aces of Western Swing.

5. Dave Miller, who owned Philadelphia's Essex Records, is said to have convinced Haley to record his first rock number, a cover of Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88." And manager "Lord Jim" Ferguson is sometimes credited as a major force behind Haley's switch to rock and roll, though I've seen no evidence that much of anyone gave him particularly high marks for his actual management skills.

6. Though Haley, himself, was quite Caucasian, Mercury Records released a "white cover" of "Crazy Man Crazy" by Ralph Marterie, and other record labels did the same. Only in America could R&B artists be ripped off without regard to race.

Crazy, man, crazy!


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