Bill Haley Jr. was ready to revisit a painful past.
The musician, who is the son of rock ’n’ roll pioneer Bill Haley, co-wrote a memoir earlier this year titled “Crazy Man, Crazy,” which chronicled how the singer became an overnight sensation with his 1954 recording “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock,” only to endure a turbulent life that ended with his death in 1981 at age 55 of natural causes.
Haley Jr. spoke to Fox News about why he chose to tell all, what his last conversation with the star was like, and why he’s now determined to keep his father's musical legacy alive.
Fox News: What compelled you to write this book now?
Bill Haley Jr.: My father left our family -- I mean, that’s the point of what the book’s about. But also, I had a lot of unanswered questions about my father growing up. As a college student, I was a journalism major and for a term paper, I decided to write a paper about my father. I started conducting research and it just took off from there.
I also felt my father was greatly overlooked. He played a crucial role in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. So from that standpoint, I thought this was a great story that needed to be told. But on a personal level, it was a way of dealing with my feelings about my father. It pushed me to learn as much as I could about him. I interviewed people who my father worked with and family members. I just tried to understand the person he was so I could come to terms with the fact that he abandoned our family and his first family. I continued my research over the years and one thing led to another.
In 2010, I started a band performing my father’s music. Previously, I had pretty much avoided any association with my father for many years. But then in the 1980s, the original Comets got together and started touring. I escorted my mother a few times to see them. They invited me to come up and sing with them. Then I was being asked about my father, so I picked up the research once more… But I believe this book finally tells the whole story, the one I had been attempting to tell for so long.
Fox News: You were incredibly candid in your book. Why was it important for you to be so honest?
Haley Jr.: It was difficult, honestly. On one hand, I’m very proud of what my father has accomplished musically. I feel there’s a bit of an injustice that he isn’t as recognized and appreciated as he should be. But on the other hand, it’s complicated. I guess you need a psychologist to figure that out. But when you’re the offspring of a famous person who feels rejected, you spend your life wondering, “What’s wrong with me?”
In order to really understand who my father was, you really have to talk about the things that aren’t so flattering, like his personality defects and alcoholism… If I wasn’t willing to explore the darker side of my father’s personality, there really wouldn’t be a point in writing this book. Even though it was difficult and painful for me to be that candid… I needed to work through my complicated feelings about my father. The only way to do that was to deal with the truth.
Fox News: According to your book, your father left the family in 1962.
Haley Jr.: Yes. I was six and a half… He was always traveling when I was young. We interacted the most during the summers when he would perform closer to home… But even though he left for good when I was almost seven, I didn’t fully comprehend it at the time because he wasn’t there all the time, to begin with. I was just used to him not being there.
It was a confusing time for us as children. A very challenging time. Over the next four years, after he left, we really bounced around. My mother had a very hard time keeping us together. But it all worked out and we got through. I didn’t have an opportunity to get back in touch with him until much later. The last year and a half of his life, we got back in touch.
Fox News: What was it like reconnecting with your father decades later?
Haley Jr.: Very, very difficult. My younger brother Scott was playing football for Temple University. It was televised and he got a few passes, which led to some stories in the Philadelphia press. That’s what prompted my father to get back in touch with us after all those years. The news was passed on to him. And that led to some late-night phone calls over the next year and a half. Usually very late at night -- two, three in the morning. And… my father was very intoxicated. It was very, very difficult to communicate because the conversations were largely one-sided.
Fox News: How difficult were those phone calls?
Haley Jr.: Well, my father was not very rational a lot of the time. But even so, I really wanted to connect with him. So it was frustrating -- very frustrating. But it was also very exciting because all of my life, I really wanted to have a relationship with my father. I was optimistic.
Fox News: It’s no secret your father drank. What do you think your father was trying to escape from?
Haley Jr.: I wrestled with that question my whole life. His parents were very supportive of him growing up. His mother always encouraged him and said he would be successful. I suspect he must have felt some type of guilt or shame… He was on the rise and highly regarded. But then his popularity started to wane. I felt that was difficult for him to deal with… and my father didn’t seem to have the ability to just drink a little bit.
When he drank, he drank excessively. It caused a personality change. I never recalled my father being a violent person. And I don’t think he was. But when he drank, he did violent things, like throw ashtrays. There’s one incident where he pulled a kitchen knife and held it up to my mother’s throat, not really knowing who she was. That was not a characteristic of him, but that’s just an indication of how his personality would change as he drank… It’s really hard to answer, except to speculate, but I think it had something to do with his own feelings of inadequacy. Maybe guilt over his personal failures.
Fox News: Do you think fame had anything to do with his drinking?
Haley Jr.: Maybe it was another factor… For a period of about three years, from mid-1954 to mid-1956, my father was one of the most famous musicians in America, if not the world. “Rock Around the Clock” was his biggest record and then rock ‘n’ roll became really popular… But my father was put in a position to defend his music because some felt it contributed to juvenile delinquency… I think that all contributed to his decision to pick up the bottle as a means to escape.
Fox News: He initially pursued country music. How did he feel about rock ‘n’ roll?
Haley Jr.: Back when he was growing up, country music was known as “hillbilly” or “Western.” But that was his first love. He grew up with that music. But he was also exposed to rhythm and blues. And he was influenced by that. Really early on, he had a strong desire to come up with something that would make him famous. He wanted to create music that would get kids dancing again… So he combined rhythm and blues with his other influences. He was then pulled in that direction when he became famous. But he never lost his love of country music for the rest of his life. He always tried to get back to that.
He was aware rock ‘n’ roll is what made him famous. So he felt obligated to continue playing it. But I think there was always this unsettled feeling when it came to his own comfort level with the music. I’m sure he would have loved being a country star. Playing the Grand Ole Opry would have been his dream. So I think he lived that double life until the day he died.
Fox News: What was your last conversation like with your father?
Haley Jr.: The last conversation was pretty frustrating and ultimately tragic for me. I guess my father apparently had some marital issues with his wife Martha. He would usually call and, I’m guessing he must have been drinking, but he would be rambling about his troubles… The last time I talked to him was the day before he died. He was very distraught about his relationship with his wife. He said she wouldn’t talk to him… She wouldn’t take his calls or respond to him… He was very distraught so he kept pressing me to call her on his behalf. I’m not sure what he wanted me to say, other than to get her to talk to him. And of course, I was reluctant to do that.
I didn’t feel it was my position to be a spokesman for him or her. This was in my early 20s and frankly, I still had some resentment toward my father, not only for the way he abandoned our family and left us penniless but how he apparently abandoned us emotionally. He frankly said some pretty nasty, hurtful things to me in our conversation.
Fox News: What did you do?
Haley Jr.: Well, I wasn’t really sympathetic so basically, out of frustration, I told my father I wasn’t going to call Martha. He kept pleading and calling back. He also called my brothers. I just hung up the phone. Then the next day, I heard my father’s music on the radio -- you didn’t hear ‘50s music on a contemporary rock station. So I knew something had happened. Then I heard the announcement -- Bill Haley had died that morning.
Fox News: What was going through your mind when you heard that announcement?
Haley Jr.: I was disappointed, to be honest with you. Whatever opportunity I thought I might have had to someday build a relationship with this man was now lost. I loved my father, but in some ways, I was relieved. I know that’s a selfish thing for me to say, but it’s what I felt at the time. I thought I could finally move on from that pain of feeling rejected. But I still wanted to get to know my father. That’s why my search continued… And in time, I learned much later what his life must have been like being on the road and how difficult it must have been to maintain his relationships. I gained some empathy much later on and some understanding. But when my father died, I just wasn’t there yet. And our last conversation was a difficult one.
Fox News: You ultimately began performing your father’s music. Why?
Haley Jr.: ... As I mentioned earlier, the opportunity arose in the late ‘80s to sing those same songs with the original Comets on stage. I did it for fun while I pursued my own original music... I put together a band and it gave me an opportunity to revisit my father’s history, learn his story. And that feedback was tremendous. I overcame all that initial reluctance to perform my father’s music. I soon realized there are people who still want to hear my father’s songs and experience that certain time in music again.
Fox News: Are you worried about living in your father’s shadow while performing these songs?
Haley Jr.: I do realize there are people who will see this as exploiting my father’s music… But I’m doing this because I enjoy it. I enjoy telling my story. I am proud of my father and I do want to share his story with others. I would like to see him be recognized more for the role he played as a pioneer in rock ’n’ roll, opening the door for the musicians who came after him.
I didn’t anticipate how satisfying it would be playing these songs and getting that special reaction from audiences. We always meet them after our shows and, without fail, people always tell me how much they loved my father’s music and how our performances brought back so many wonderful memories. It’s a wonderful feeling to know I have some kind of role in making others happy… I accept the criticism. But… when I’m out there, I feel fortunate I’m able to bring some joy and keep my father’s musical legacy alive.