A look back at the 70s resurrection of 50s rock 'n' roll by a guitarist who worked alongside one of the great legends there at the very beginning. Plus, thoughts on Chuck Berry, meaningful advice for aspiring musicians, and a whole lot more.
When I was growing up sometime in the early 90s, I remember that one of the very first cassette tapes I ever owned, if not the first one, was a collection of original 50s recordings by Bill Haley and His Comets. I think it came from the local Best Buy store near Southridge Mall, if I remember correctly. See, growing up, my tastes in music were heavily influenced by my parents, other relatives, and all of their friends, via the local oldies and classic rock stations here in the Milwaukee area. By the time I owned this tape, Haley had been deceased for at least a decade, having passed away in 1981, and the music itself was somewhere between 35-40 years old, I'm guessing. But for me, none of that mattered. Good music is good music. It knows no time.
With all of that being said, it was a real pleasure for me to have this opportunity to interview Bill Turner, who served as Haley's lead guitarist from July of 1974 until the end of 1976. Bill and I ended up connecting on Facebook not long ago, and so we've had some back-and-forth correspondence in recent months.
Asked how he got the chance to join Bill Haley and His Comets, Bill indicated he worked his way in by getting to know some of the other members over time. But it all started out as being a fan of Haley's as a boy.
"I was always a huge Bill Haley fan," Bill recalled in our approximately hour-long phone conversation on March 30 from his home in New Jersey. "I first heard of him in a newsreel on the TV in the spring of 1958," he said, going on, "I was seven years old at the time. The newsreel was showing a riot that broke out at a concert. The band was Bill Haley and His Comets."
Over the years, friendships formed. "I became friends with some of The Comets. They traveled through New York a lot. I always noticed he [Haley] had a new lead guitarist every time they passed through New York," Bill explained, continuing on, "I got to know Rudy Pompilli [Haley's long-time sax player] well, and I practiced in front of him. I learned all the original guitar solos by listening to the original records late at night with my headphones. I listened to the solos at half the speed."
I was always interested in the 70s revival of 50s rock ‘n’ roll and how that all came to be. I guess I always just assumed that the hit 1973 movie, American Graffiti, was the start of it all. But not so. "Well, American Graffiti definitely played its role, yes, but it can really be traced back to Richard Nader’s Rock and Roll Revival concert," Bill explained. The first of Nader's shows was held at New York’s Madison Square Garden in October 1969, and a tour followed, introducing original rock 'n' roll songs and performers to a new generation of fans.
Bill described to me during our phone conversation and in e-mail correspondence since then, some of the nightly fees that 50s rock 'n' roll artists and groups were getting before the revival:
Bill Haley - $1,000
Chuck Berry - $400
Bo Diddley - $300
Doo-wop groups - $250-500
"Chuck Berry was booked at a college homecoming down south before cancelling his appearance to go on Richard Nader’s tour. Bo Diddley had his car in the shop in Florida and couldn’t afford to get it out," Bill told me.
In a follow-up e-mail April 8, Bill explained, "To me, the biggest irony is how Chuck Berry, at that time, was working for only $400 per night, and yet he, in my opinion, is the most imitated rock 'n' roll guitarist, ever. Well, I guess today it would be Jimmy Page, according to what all the younger guitarists I meet tell me."
We stayed on the subject of Chuck Berry for a bit. I was curious to know if Bill had ever met or worked with him, and what his thoughts were, if any, on Chuck's extreme bitterness over the years, whether real or perceived. See, along with Bill Haley, Chuck Berry is one of the other legends I grew up listening to quite a bit.
"Well, Chuck was bitter, yes. And the reason for a lot of it was because his early recordings listed Alan Freed as a co-writer, which wasn't true," Bill told me, continuing, "I had lunch with Chuck once. It was at a restaurant he owned. I had just come out with a new album. Still remember what we both had. I had flapjacks and a hot chocolate. Chuck had hominy grits and black coffee."
Returning to Bill Haley, I was curious to know what he was like. “He was a true gentleman. Great guy. He had some health issues, though. He was a heavy smoker and had a bit of a problem with drinking,” Bill told me, adding, “He had other health issues that he needed to be treated for...but had a big problem trusting doctors. A doctor would give him a medication, and he would throw it away right after walking out of the doctor’s office.” And that famous kiss curl Haley wore in his hair? “He was blind in his left eye. That’s why he had the curl – it was to draw attention away from the eye, which often looked away slightly in another direction.”
But despite whatever shortcomings the man may have had, there is no doubt the role Haley played in rock history, and his place in it is secured. "Bill Haley was there in the beginning. He was playing rock ‘n’ roll before it was named. Rock ‘n’ Roll was originally called ‘Cowboy Jive’. There was no name for it at the time!," Bill said, adding, "Alan Freed coined the term from Haley’s song, ‘Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie’. Listeners would call in and ask Freed, ‘Hey, can you play that rock ‘n’ roll song?’ Because the lyrics included, ‘Rock, rock, rock, everybody...roll, roll, roll everybody...’”
Though he was with The Comets for only roughly 2.5 years, Bill has unintentionally become a go-to, authoritative source for just about all things concerning Bill Haley and his band over the decades.
"Even Dick Clark himself would regularly contact me when he planned to show a vintage video clip of Bill Haley - to identify certain members in it. The Comets had three bass players in succession who each played standup bass and were dark complexioned-Italians...and to complicate things further, each of the three was named 'Al'!" Bill said, continuing on, "There was Al Rex (Piccirilli) in the 1950s, followed by Al Pompilli in 1958, and who was in turn followed by Al Rappa from 1959 through 1969! Today, only Al Rex and Al Rappa are still living, both men in their mid-late 80s!"
In October 1987, Bill got the original Comets back together for the Philadelphia Music Awards, which was a standout feature news clip on prime time TV's Entertainment Tonight. Bill played electric bass with them for the ceremony. Perhaps the most gratifying thing, Bill explained to me, was that this band of original Comets members remained together for the next 25 years, and once again became an international touring attraction. They were performing repeatedly throughout Europe and the UK, and even in far flung places like Dubai. They also successfully held a residence in Branson, Missouri, sharing the theatre stage in a packaged show that also featured Paul Revere and The Raiders and the surviving member of the Righteous Brothers, Bill Medley. "It was a long-time gig they held up until recently, when several of the Comets members eventually passed away, each at a ripe old age, respectively," Bill said.
In the past several years, starting out as an interview subject for Otto Fuchs's book, Bill Haley: The Father of Rock 'n' Roll, published by Wagner-Verlag in Germany, Bill ended up being hired as the English language editor for the book, which was originally published in the German language. Bill had contributed rare vintage photos, as well as corrected literally thousands of errors, ranging from mere typos and grammar to major historical errors regarding dates and places, as well as false rumors and long-believed factual errors.
In addition to advice for aspiring musicians, Bill also has some meaningful words for young people in general: "Be very, very careful with using credit. Those who understand interest collect it; those who don't, pay it."
In 1996, the band scored a major breakthrough by getting hired by MTV to record the soundtrack music to a series of four, 30-second commercial spots heralding the new "M-2 Satellite Network", which starred a cast of 24 Elvis-costumed actors posing and dancing as Blue Smoke recorded 58 seconds of the famous "C.C. Rider" entrance chaser used on Elvis' live concerts.
In addition to his work with Blue Smoke, Bill is quite the bluegrass fan, and has received many opportunities to work with notable groups and artists from that genre. "Bluegrass is actually my own personal favorite music!," Bill told me. "I'd gotten to appear six times on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville with my friends, 'Uncle Steve Crockett & His Log Cabin Boys' during the 1980s."
Yet, no performances in the Milwaukee area. In fact, Bill has never been to Milwaukee, period. We'll have to work on that. The area is missing out on some exceptional talent.
For more info on Blue Smoke and to listen to some great music, check out the band's MySpace page at https://myspace.com/billturnerandbluesmokeban/music/songs .
More recent videos of Bill Turner playing bluegrass with other bands:
With the Grasslands band (on mandolin)
With the Beth Coleman Band (on dobro and fiddle)