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?
He picked up the phone again.
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?
The person who knows is his widow, Martha. But after his death, she closed the curtain. For thirty years, she refused to be interviewed about her husband or to allow his image or name to be used in videos, TV shows, or even public memorials. She had her reasons, but her silence had an unintended effect: Haley’s life and music were soon relegated to a footnote. He became a one-hit wonder. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its first class in 1986, Presley, Berry, Lewis, and Little Richard made the cut. But not Haley. He had to wait until the following year.
I tried to get Martha to talk about Haley’s lost years back in 2005, on the fiftieth anniversary of the explosion of “Rock Around the Clock,” but got nowhere. Her son, Pedro, who lives outside Dallas, told me how devastated she was about her husband’s death—still. She would not talk about him.
Six years passed, and I tried again as we approached the thirtieth anniversary of Haley’s death. Again I called Pedro. He huddled with his sister Martha Maria, and they sat down and talked to their mom. “We want Daddy to be remembered and given proper credit,” they told her, “and your behavior has been damaging to his legacy.” Martha knew that that was true, she told them, but she wanted people to remember him the way they already did—smiling, happy, the way he’d been when she first met him. She didn’t want anyone to know that he had had demons. “Mom, look at Elvis,” Pedro told her. “He had problems with drugs and he died terribly. But he’s still considered the King.”
This time, Martha said yes.
Bill Haley was a shy boy who dreamed of cowboys, especially singing ones. He was born in Michigan on July 6, 1925, to a Kentucky father who played mandolin and banjo and an English mother who played classical piano and sang. When he was four, doctors botched an operation on his ear and accidentally severed the optic nerve of his left eye. For the rest of his life, that eye would look off in a slightly different direction from his nearsighted right one. Other kids made fun of him, and he became something of a loner. He found comfort in music, and after the family moved to Booth’s Corner, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, he played guitar all the time, especially Gene Autry songs. He was a big, good-looking kid, six feet one and 175 pounds, and at eighteen he formed his first band, the Texas Range Riders. His real talent wasn’t his voice, which was high and thin, but his ear: He could hear a song on the radio and remember the words and the melody. He taught himself to yodel and performed as the Rambling Yodeler. Even in those early days he learned to comb the hair from his cowlick into a big curl over the right side of his forehead. It was distinctive. And it drew attention away from his crippled eye.
Haley began touring with a new band. They went all over the northeast and the Midwest and even down into Texas. After he returned to Pennsylvania, he got an on-air job at a radio station (where he sometimes played “race music”—a rarity for a white DJ in 1947) and married Dorothy Crowe, who gave birth to a daughter, Sharyn Ann, and later a son, Jack. The Haleys moved to Chester, along the Delaware River, where Haley took a job running the radio station WPWA. He had a western swing show, but he also launched an R&B show, whose theme song was “(We’re Gonna) Rock This Joint,” a wild tune by Chester native Jimmy Preston. When Haley started a “cowboy jive” band, the Saddlemen, who sounded a bit like Bob Wills, they played “Rock This Joint,” which the hillbillies loved to dance to. Haley was ambitious, but he spread the fame around—everyone got his turn in front of the mike, because of both Haley’s generosity and his shyness. After shows, his band members had to drag him out of the dressing room to talk to fans.
In 1951 the band recorded a version of a driving R&B song called “Rocket 88.” Haley abandoned his usual careful vocal style; his stand-up bass player created an R&B feel with a loud slapback sound; and the electric guitar dueled with the pedal steel. Was it white music or black, western swing or R&B? You couldn’t really tell. Some historians think the original version of the song, performed by Ike Turner’s group, is the very first rock and roll record, while others think Haley’s is. “A lot of people have said in interviews, ‘You did this deliberately, you were brilliant,’ ” Haley later said. “But I didn’t do it deliberately. I did it out of stupidity. I just didn’t realize what I was doing.”
The next year, he divorced Dorothy and married his pregnant girlfriend, Cuppy. Amid all that domestic turmoil, he recorded “Rock This Joint.” It was another canny mix of white ’billy and black blues, and Haley had his first hit. Soon the band members traded in their cowboy hats for dinner jackets and ties and got a new name too: Bill Haley and His Comets.
The hits got bigger. “Crazy Man Crazy” made it to the Top 20 of the pop charts, the first rock and roll song to do so. Haley got his first Cadillac and a boat—he loved to go fishing on the nearby Jersey shore. He recorded “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” a song by his idol Big Joe Turner, and cleaned up the suggestive lyrics. It sold a million copies. By the summer of 1954 Haley was the boss of this new music called rock and roll. He went on a tour of the Midwest, and a young Elvis opened. Elvis told Haley what a fan he was; Haley advised the kid to stay away from too many ballads.
That’s one thing the Comets didn’t have to worry about. They were lively; onstage they jumped around, just like the R&B bands did. They were loud and tight. The Max C. Freedman and James E. Meyers song “Rock Around the Clock,” which the band began playing in 1953, was a trite pop tune (“Put your glad rags on, join me, hon!”), but the Comets played a raucous live version and, after working up a punchy arrangement, recorded it in a rushed New York City session. When it was used over the opening credits of the teen rebel movie The Blackboard Jungle, the whole world changed. Kids literally danced in the aisles. They tore up seats. They had an anthem. By Haley’s thirtieth birthday it was the number one song in the country, and it stayed there for eight weeks. Haley bought everybody in the band Cadillacs. Before, rock and roll had been a catchphrase; now it was an industry.
In 1957 Haley went to England and caused the kinds of riots the Beatles would start in America seven years later. In Australia he played in front of 300,000 people in three weeks. Banners proclaimed, “The King Is Here!” Onstage, Haley wore a constant smile, but offstage he reverted to being the insecure kid with one good eye; he was increasingly uncomfortable with the adulation, withdrawing to his hotel room after shows and drinking cups of coffee and chain-smoking. His guitarist, Franny Beecher, later said that Haley was afraid of the fans: “He couldn’t handle his popularity.” Haley had always felt as if he was hiding something. Now his curl, his very disguise, had become his trademark.
Haley had opened the door for rock and roll, and younger, sexier, more audacious singers stepped in after him. By the time he returned home, there was a new king. Elvis had nine number one hits by the end of 1957, and Haley, after doing everything right for six years, started doing everything wrong. He stopped giving interviews to radio stations and the press. He decided to record only songs in which his publishing company had an interest, but those songs weren’t very good. He did an album of rocked-up international folk melodies that he put words to, tunes like “Rockin’ Rollin’ Schnitzelbank.” Not surprisingly, it didn’t sell. Neither did a country album he recorded for Warner Bros.
His manager did a terrible job of handling the finances, and soon Haley was hounded by the IRS. He had to sell his office building and close his publishing business. To make money to pay his band, he began touring in other countries, which had the added benefit of his not having to worry about the tax man. He especially liked the new frontier of Mexico, where the band became so popular that they were featured in a movie, Besito a Papa. He liked the weather, the culture, the slow pace. Back in Chester, Haley’s marriage to Cuppy, who by then had borne him four children (one of whom died as an infant), was fraying, and he was sleeping on Rudy Pompilli’s couch. South of the border, he could relax. For a man intent on withdrawing from his fans and even his family, Mexico was a great place to hide.
He embarked on a two-week Mexican tour in early February 1961. On the ninth he flew to Monterrey, where he took a bus to Reynosa to perform with the Caravan Corona Extra, a vaudevillian troupe that went from town to town in Mexico in two double-decker buses. The promoter wanted Haley to perform with a female singer. He objected—he’d never shared the stage with a woman. But the promoter insisted, and Haley gave in. She was a good singer, the man said, and very pretty.
Sitting at a table in a sunny kitchen in McKinney, north of Dallas, Martha Haley explained what happened next. “We were in Monterrey waiting on the bus for Mr. Haley to come. Well, where is he? It was hot, and we were waiting and waiting. Finally, three hours later, he shows up. He had on his fedora, dark glasses, a raincoat. I had rollers in my hair, no makeup, pedal pushers. I’m having a ball, talking and laughing with everybody. He comes up the three steps of the bus, goes and sits down with Rudy. After he sat down, he got up and was getting something in his luggage. I looked at him, and it was love at first sight. I don’t know what it was. He was nothing to write home to your mother about.”
Her children Pedro and Martha Maria, who were also sitting at the table, smiled. They had rarely heard their mother talk about their father this way. Martha continued. “He was in a very bad mood. He was hungover, you know? The bus finally started, and later Rudy told me, ‘He was mad at you, all your laughing and talking.’ He asked Rudy, ‘How do you say in Spanish, Shut up, broad?’ ”
Martha laughed hard—and so did her kids. Pedro is 40 and has his father’s eyes. Martha Maria, who is 48, shares her mother’s elegant good looks.
Martha Velasco was a beautiful young chorus girl with a great sense of humor and a sharp look in her eye. She danced in the Caravan Corona Extra, and now she was going to sing with an American rock star. “I was not a rock and roll fan—it didn’t mean anything to me,” she told us. “But I knew his songs. I used to have a routine to ‘ABC Boogie.’ ”
Pedro’s eyes widened. “Wait—you used to do a routine to one of Daddy’s songs?”
His mother smiled and nodded. “Oh, yeah. I also danced to ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ ” She looked at me. “This is the first time I told them this.”
Martha was stylishly dressed, with diamonds on her left ring finger and half-dollar-size sun-shaped earrings. She speaks English with a gentle Mexican lilt and is chatty about all subjects but one. “I never talked about their father to them, because every time I tried, I’d start to cry,” she explained. “When he died, half of myself went with him. It took years to accept the fact that he was gone. I saw that after he died nothing happened in terms of him getting respect. Nobody lifted a finger. But my kids finally convinced me. Nothing will happen if we don’t start talking. To give him his rightful place in music. They told me, ‘You can’t hold on to this forever.’ ”
Pedro had brought over some old photos. In one, Martha, impossibly young and pretty and wearing a sparkling leotard, stands in front of a microphone. Behind her is Bill Haley y Sus Cometas, in suits. Pompilli—Haley’s closest friend as well as his business partner and right-hand man—was in charge of rehearsing the musicians. Before the Reynosa show he spent time with Martha going over the songs she would sing with the Comets. As they prepared to go on, Martha walked slowly past Haley in her shining leotard. “Who’s that?” he asked Pompilli. They had dinner that night and fell in love. The tour was mind-boggling: They played in front of 80,000 in Veracruz and 100,000 in Julapa. Afterward, Haley went back home. But he kept calling Martha and looking for excuses to return. Finally in 1962 he moved to Mexico City, leaving behind his life in Pennsylvania, including his five children. “Here I am,” he said when he showed up at Martha’s door, “with my guitar, my suitcase, and my ass.”
He and Martha got an apartment together, and she began accompanying him on the road. She would sing him Mexican songs, which delighted him. And being a show business veteran, it didn’t bother her when women threw their panties at him. She knew what life on the road was like. “I knew he drank in a big way,” she said. “It was either swim or die. I chose to swim.”
They married in 1963; by then Haley had signed with the Mexican label Orfeon. Inspired by Chubby Checker’s success with “The Twist,” he started doing his own versions and became the King of the Twist south of the border. He began singing in Spanish, coached by Martha, who sometimes stood next to him at the mike. He taped TV shows and made movies—mostly he and the Comets in nightclub scenes. He rerecorded his hits—in English and Spanish—for his Mexican label and various U.S. ones. Soon he was one of the biggest-selling recording artists in Mexican history. He was happy—and happier still when Martha delivered their first child, Martha Maria.
Haley had his first comeback in 1964, when he toured Europe, playing to 30,000 in Berlin. In the UK he was called the Father of Rock and Roll, and “Rock Around the Clock” reentered the UK Top 10. Even so, he still doubted himself. “I can’t understand why I made it,” he’d say. “I know guys who are ten times better than me.” His sets didn’t vary much, with Haley singing four or five songs and the band singing the rest. As long as he did his money song, he could do anything else. Backstage, Haley would croon country classics like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and his guitar player Johnny Kay would encourage him to do them in the show, but Haley would shake his head. “I came from country,” he’d say, “but people don’t know me as a country singer. I’m rock and roll.”
For the next few years, the Haleys moved around a lot—to Del Rio, Houston, the Gulf Coast of Florida, then back to Houston, and finally to Juárez. “Why did you move so much?” I asked.
“He couldn’t find the perfect place,” Martha replied.
Amid the chaos of moving and touring, Haley followed his heart and did something he had never done—in 1967 he recorded a country song without his rock and roll band. The session was in Phoenix, and the song was the old country ballad “Jealous Heart.” Martha had the idea to record it with a Mexican bolero trio backing him up, and the couple drove around town until they found one. The result is gorgeous, with rising and falling Spanish guitar riffs, pedal steel, and Haley’s yearning voice straining at the high end of the melody. Most of Haley’s songs were frenzied odes to teen cool or nonstop dancing. “Jealous Heart” sounds downright personal, and it’s one of his best.
And then it was back to work. After Haley’s relentless touring, “Rock Around the Clock” returned to the UK Top 20 once again. Rock and roll was old enough to have its first revival tour, and Haley headlined it. He signed with Sweden’s Sonet Records and immediately cut a double live album and then a studio album filled with his old hits, including, of course, two more versions of “Rock Around the Clock.” Sonet also put him in the studio with veteran producer Sam Charters. Haley had the chance to make another country album, but he was scared to jettison his rock and roll formula entirely. So he mixed together old rock songs like “Bony Maronie” with sentimental country ballads like “A Little Piece at a Time” and contemporary rootsy tunes like “Me and Bobby McGee.” Rock Around the Country didn’t sell much at all.
Haley was ecstatic when Martha gave birth to Pedro, in 1971, but deeply unhappy with his career. After the revival tour he was back to playing one-nighters in crappy motels, and with the exception of Pompilli, he was frustrated with his band, who were hired guns. His drinking got worse. He told Martha he needed a change and in 1974 persuaded her to move to Veracruz. “He kept talking about fishing—he wanted to be near the ocean. He kept saying, ‘Come on, baby, let’s go to Veracruz.’ I didn’t want to—it was hot, humid, and ugly. Finally I said okay. He found a half-built hotel and bought it and started working on it. He wanted to go into the hotel business.” He bought a boat, a 21-footer, which he named Martita, and found three local men who taught him how to fish by hand. The four of them would head out into the Gulf at five in the morning and return at seven at night.
Haley made two more albums with Charters, but his heart wasn’t in the music business anymore. He was miserable. He drank constantly. Charters remembers when country star Donna Fargo visited the studio to watch him sing. “She idolized Bill,” said Charters, “but he was so drunk I had to help him reach out and touch the microphone so he’d know which direction to sing in. I was watching Donna and I could see the light go out of her eyes.” When they finished recording, Haley went on a rampage back at the motel, roaming the halls, raving and shouting. The motel manager told Charters, “If this weren’t Bill Haley, we’d have the police in and have him arrested.” Haley was increasingly bitter that all the credit for rock and roll had gone to Elvis. “He talked and talked about how Elvis got so famous,” says Charters. “He couldn’t get over it.”
“Rock Around the Clock” put Haley back on the charts again when it was used in both American Graffiti and the TV show Happy Days. But Haley’s mojo was gone. The last straw came when Pompilli died of cancer, in February 1976. Haley was fed up: the road, the one-nighters, the same set every night. He didn’t want to play music anymore.
Martha, on the other hand,was fed up with Veracruz. She had just had their third child, Georgina, and she put her foot down. It was time to go back to the U.S. Yes, they could live near the ocean, but it had to be north of the border. Haley agreed. They settled on a house in Harlingen, a giant two-story structure on a huge lot at the back end of a quiet neighborhood. It had a nice backyard and a pool with a diving board.
Not long after arriving, Haley visited the police station and introduced himself to everyone, from police officers to secretaries. He befriended detective Buddy Larimore. He stopped in to visit attorney Lee Wiley, just in case he might ever need his services. Wiley was amazed at how quiet Haley was. “I couldn’t place him with a guitar, onstage singing ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ ” he said. “You almost wonder how he was that person.”
Sometimes Haley would just get in his car and drive. He loved to motor along the border, blasting Hank Williams or early Willie Nelson from the tape deck of his Continental. He felt at home in Texas, under the wide-open skies romanticized in those cowboy songs he’d sung when he was a Yankee teenager. But now that Haley was retired, he needed something to do. One day he was cruising down Highway 83 just west of Donna when he saw that the Val Verde Trailer Park was for sale. Val Verde wasn’t just any trailer park. In the Depression it had been a luxury country club, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a three-story tower, and a dozen cottages. Movie stars like Bette Davis and, reportedly, gangsters like Al Capone had hidden out there. Now the pool had no water, but the cottages and RV spaces would fill every October with winter Texans. Haley was excited about his new venture. He oversaw chores like collecting rent, cleaning toilets, and mowing the grass.
The Haleys were homebodies and invited few people over, usually friends of their kids, who would swim in the backyard pool. Haley refused interview requests with local reporters, and Martha insisted that the kids keep quiet about their dad’s identity.
“We had a routine,” says Martha Maria. “He’d take us to school then drive to Port Isabel and spend the day there.”
“Doing what, I don’t know,” said Martha.
“Then he’d come pick us up. Dinner was at five. He loved Walter Cronkite, who was on at five-thirty, so dinner had to be done by then.” Monday was hamburger night and Wednesday Italian. Haley loved for Martha to make him soup and sandwiches, especially liverwurst, tomato, and mayo. And chocolate cake with milk.
He was an old-school guy and didn’t talk much about his feelings, but he doted on his kids, donning his ball cap and going to their school plays and ball games. He’d even go to Pedro’s baseball and football practices, park the car by the field, light a Pall Mall, and watch. He took his son to the yearly Commemorative Air Force show at the airport. He made special trips to Houston to buy his kids Christmas toys. When Martha Maria was a senior, he bought her a burgundy Trans Am. In the summer he’d pile the family into his Continental and they’d head west for a long vacation.
He loved his Continentals, and since there wasn’t a dealer in Harlingen, he would make special trips to a Houston dealership, where he befriended Russell Doty, from whom he bought three. Sometimes Haley would get there early and wait for Doty to come to the office, then spend half the day with him. “He’d talk and talk,” says Doty. “He was a good story-teller and a nice guy. He never talked about himself. He’d talk about famous people he’d known. After Elvis died, in 1977, Bill told me, ‘If I could’ve gotten in to see Elvis, I could’ve helped straighten him out.’ You had to sympathize with the poor guy—he just seemed a little bit lost.”
Haley had turned his back on stardom, but now he was lonely. He’d visit Wiley and talk, mostly about Mexico. “He talked about what it was like fishing in the morning, how the sun looked coming up over the ocean,” says Wiley. Haley would stop for coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts or the Koffee Klatch and go to Richard’s for some Scotch and companionship. Then he’d get in his Continental and drive home drunk. He’d been thoughtful enough to introduce himself to the police, and now they got to know him even better. Haley was arrested four times between 1976 and 1981 for DWI and drunkenness. On the evenings that he avoided the law, he’d sit in his house and talk to old friends on the phone for hours. He had left them so long ago, and it was good to hear their voices.
At some point in 1978 he began to think about another comeback, maybe because Elvis had recently died and everyone was saying he was the guy who had started rock and roll. Maybe Haley just missed the cheers. In 1979 he sold the trailer park and drove to the legendary Muscle Shoals studio, in Alabama, to make Everyone Can Rock and Roll, another album with a mix of classic rock and country. Martha kept him sober and focused the whole time; “I couldn’t get through any day without Martha,” Haley told Rod Buckle, who ran Sonet’s London office. Haley’s manager set up a couple of European tours, and about a week before each one, Bill retreated to the pool house with his guitar to practice.
In March he arrived in London carrying a briefcase and wearing a tan raincoat, a white shirt, and a tie. He looked as if he was there to talk to the British about actuarial tables. In November he played one of the biggest shows of his life, the Royal Variety Performance, in front of the queen. Haley wore a gold tux, and his curl was longer and thicker than ever. He looked thicker too. But “Rock Around the Clock” sounded like it used to, and afterward, Haley shook hands with the queen, who smiled and made small talk with him. It was one of the highlights of his life.
Haley returned to Harlingen and began working on his autobiography. He was also working on a screenplay for a movie to be called The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll.
Of course, no one invented rock and roll: not Elvis, not Chuck Berry, not Jerry Lee Lewis, not Little Richard, and not Bill Haley. They were all pioneers, all fathers of rock and roll. Haley at least had the modesty to admit that his paternity was an accident, and he had the pride to know that if anyone was prepared to stumble onto something so historic, it was him—a boy who’d heard his dad sing Kentucky mountain music, a teen who’d sung cowboy ballads, a young man who’d played western swing, a DJ who’d spun R&B records. He didn’t know what he was doing back in 1951—none of those guys did. They were just musicians playing songs they liked.
If only Haley had kept doing that, playing the songs he genuinely liked—the country songs he’d adored since he was a boy—and then recording them the way he heard them in his head, not the way he thought his aging audience wanted them. If only he hadn’t been trapped by that one song that had made him immortal—128 seconds that made people so happy. Maybe he would have been a happier man at the turn of the decade. But Haley was not. As Martha, Pedro, Martha Maria, and I looked through several scrapbooks of old photos, we came upon pictures taken of Bill and Martha at their wedding anniversary, on January 14, 1980. Martha’s face is calm and happy; Bill’s smile looks pained and his whole body seems stiff. “That’s the photo of a broken spirit,” said Pedro, “someone who’s given up.”
But something else was happening too. In May Haley went to South Africa for three weeks of shows that proved to be his last. Martha went with him, so he wasn’t drinking much. But she says he started acting strangely onstage. “One night,” she remembers, “he spent most of the set just talking to the audience, rambling on about things. They were all looking around, embarrassed, like, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
They got back to Harlingen, and Haley got worse. “It was like sometimes he was drunk even when he wasn’t drinking,” says Martha Maria. “But he wasn’t drinking, at least not like before.” He’d take off in his Continental and not come home until late. Martha started hiding his car keys—and he’d go out walking. Sometimes the police found him wandering on a road, confused about where he was. Martha asked him to go to the doctor, but he refused. She was worried about the children—Pedro was nine and Georgina four, and they were scared of their father’s irrational behavior. “He was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” said Martha Maria, who was seventeen at the time. “When he was sober he could be sweet, but when he was drunk he was awful.”
Bill and Martha fought all the time, and finally she gave him an ultimatum: Stop drinking or move out. “He decided to move out,” she says, her voice slow, “to our room by the pool. He took a radio and a TV. But I kept taking care of him. He’d come in and eat, though he ate very little.”
“There were days we never saw him,” said Martha Maria.
Haley would sit in his room and make calls. He had recently reconnected with his first son, Jack, who lived in New Jersey and whom he hadn’t seen since 1973. Haley apologized for not being a good father, for putting his career ahead of his family. Jack was grateful to be talking with his father again, but he was concerned: His dad acted strange on the phone, screaming at him and at mysterious phantoms down in Harlingen. “He’d act like someone was knocking at the door; he’d say, ‘Wait a minute,’ and I’d hear him yelling at someone,” Jack said. “But I wouldn’t hear anyone yelling back. Then he’d get back on the phone and start screaming at me again.”
That fall, the police picked Haley up and put him in a cell, and Martha had to go to a justice of the peace to get him out. “I asked the judge to put him in a hospital, and he agreed,” Martha said. “Bill was seen by a psychiatrist here in Harlingen. He said Bill’s brain was overproducing a chemical, like adrenaline. He prescribed something to stop the overproduction, but he said Bill had to stay away from alcohol. I said, ‘This is pointless.’ ” She took him home, gave him his first dose, and fed him. “As soon as he felt better,” Martha said, “he went back to the room.” Martha chose her words carefully. She was shaking. Pedro sat in silence, stunned; he’d never heard any of this before.
Since mental health records are confidential, there’s no way to know for sure what the doctor said. I spoke with James Maynard, an Austin psychiatrist who deals with alcoholism, and gave him a précis of Haley’s symptoms to see what he thought the Harlingen doctor might have said. “Bill Haley may have had an underlying anxiety disorder,” Maynard theorized, “a form of social anxiety, and was self-medicating with alcohol to relieve it. That psychiatrist probably said Haley had too much serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine in his brain from the anxiety disorder and prescribed Valium.” The paranoia and hallucinations, he said, may have been withdrawal symptoms or “alcoholic hallucinosis,” which can come on within a day or two of a serious alcoholic’s last drink.
Haley was supposed to do an October tour of Europe, but ticket sales were slow and he didn’t want to go anyway. An October issue of a German magazine quoted his manager saying that Haley had an inoperable brain tumor, a story that was reprinted in newspapers and later in all of his biographies. Martha insists he never had a tumor. An old friend of his, Hugh McCallum, who was in constant contact with the Haleys, never heard either say anything about a tumor. “It’s my unproven gut feeling that that was said to curtail talks about the tour and play the sympathy card,” McCallum said. “Though Bill might have said that because he may have thought he had one.”
In October Martha, fed up, took Pedro and Georgina to stay at her sister’s house, south of Houston (Martha Maria stayed with a friend in Harlingen). Martha didn’t tell her husband where they were going. Haley called his son Jack and begged him to visit. Jack got on the first plane to Harlingen. He and his dad had some good times that week, but Haley was clearly not in his right mind, telling his son about being a Harlingen deputy sheriff and about his days as a Marine. He was paranoid. He had spray-painted the windows of the pool house and was convinced someone was out to get him. And he was wildly unpredictable, even when not drinking. One afternoon they were sitting in the living room of the main house and Jack was talking about how much he missed his wife and daughter. All of a sudden his father started screaming at him, saying that Jack wasn’t going back to New Jersey, he was staying there with him. A frightened Jack called Detective Larimore to come pick him up. “My dad was still sitting in the living room with his head down. Buddy said, ‘He’s leaving.’ My dad didn’t care. Buddy said, ‘Bill, you gotta quit the drinking. You’re losing the people you love the most.’ I flew out the next morning.”
Martha and the kids returned before Christmas, and around the same time Haley was again picked up and thrown in jail. Again Martha asked the judge for help. This time he denied it. She remembers telling him, “Your Honor, he’ll be dead in a month.” Haley had basically stopped eating. He would get in his car and drive—to Sambo’s, where he’d drink coffee, or Richard’s, where he’d hit the harder stuff. He would return to his room and pick up the phone. His calls got weirder and more rambling. He called Rudy’s widow and cried about his dearest friend. “I’m only fifty-five,” he told Rex Zario, a musician he had known in Philadelphia. “That’s too young to die.”
During the weekend of February 7 and 8, he called Larimore repeatedly and appeared to be hallucinating. He also kept calling Buckle to talk about his next album for Sonet. On Sunday night he called Martha Maria.
“Mom, I don’t know if you know this,” Martha Maria said as she looked across the table, “but that last night, he called and asked if I’d make him some soup. I did, and took it out to him. I was scared. I didn’t know what would happen. I think he was lonely, and he wanted me to come out and see him. I got out there, and he gave me the biggest hug.” Tears welled in her eyes and she paused. She began crying. “I think he was saying goodbye. I think he knew.” Her mom reached over and held her hand. “I wanted to get out of there. It was so painful to see him in that condition. He was lonely and wanted to feel loved.”
Martha and Pedro sat in silence.
Jack Haley may have been the last person to speak to his father that night. Around 1 a.m., his phone rang in New Jersey. It was his father. “Jackson, do you know who I am? I’m Bill Haley and you are my son. Remember, you’re a Haley and that’s something to be proud of. Never forget that.” Haley hung up. The call had been so short that Jack expected his father to call back. He never did.
The next morning a friend came by to visit Haley and saw him lying motionless on his bed and called the police. He was dead. It was February 9, twenty years to the day that he had flown to Monterrey and met Martha Velasco. The cause of death was recorded as “most likely heart attack.” For 25 years Bill Haley had compared himself to his onetime acolyte Elvis Presley. Now he had died much as Elvis had—alone, isolated, and terribly confused.
About 75 people came to the funeral, where Haley lay in an open coffin, curl on his forehead. Afterward he was cremated. Martha won’t say where the ashes are. She left Harlingen in 1993 and hasn’t returned.
Her children left too, and now all of them live in the Dallas area. Martha Maria married her high school sweetheart, has two children, and works for Raytheon. Like his father, Pedro found that he has a natural ear for music and plays and teaches classical guitar. He also found that he suffers from anxiety, especially around strangers, and takes beta-blockers when he performs. Georgina too is a performer; she moved to Los Angeles in the nineties to try to make it as a singer and a songwriter. In March she went on a three-week European tour, singing with Bill Haley’s New Comets. They played Munich, home of the Bill Haley Museum, and several cities in England, where Haley is considered to be as important a musical figure as Elvis and Buddy Holly.
The United States has not been so kind to his memory. At least Harlingen put up a large mural on a downtown wall. Occasionally locals will see English, Dutch, or German tourists wandering around downtown, looking for it. When they find it, they look around and wonder: “Is this it? There’s not even a plaque?”
Here’s what such a monument might say:
Down these streets walked Bill Haley, the very first rock star, and maybe the unlikeliest. His rise was meteoric, his peak unprecedented, and his fall terrifying. He was a pioneer of American music, a father of rock and roll. And he created a work of art, the perfect pop moment, 128 seconds that changed the world in 1955 and then hit the charts again and again over the next generation. At some point he should have quit playing it—for the sake of his life, his career, his very soul.
But the clock would strike twelve, he’d cool off—then, start rocking around the clock again.