A disc jockey and Western Swing bandleader in Chester, Pa., Bill Haley was perhaps an unlikely purveyor of the first smash hit of the Rock and Roll era. But that's exactly what he became, when his song "Rock Around the Clock" was featured over the opening scene of the juvenile-delinquent drama "Blackboard Jungle," and became a worldwide hit, by some estimates making Haley the first Rock and Roll star.
A working guitarist by the age of 15, Haley was rooted in Country and Western Swing (the Saddlemen was his group's initial name), but added elements of Rhythm and Blues — as he told Rolling Stone years later: "We put Country and Western together with Rhythm and Blues, and that was Rock." The group scored chart success with "Crazy Man, Crazy" in 1953; the next year their recording of Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" proved a bigger hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Recorded that same year, "Rock Around the Clock" was issued as a B-side, and largely overlooked until "Blackboard Jungle" brought it to prominence. It went on to sell over 20 million copies, and in 1957 Haley became the first American Rock and Roll musician to tour Europe. (Among those in attendance: future Beatle Paul McCartney.)
Haley performed and toured with various incarnations of the Comets until his death in 1981, at age 55, from a heart attack. Bill Haley and His Comets were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.