Book Review

Bill Haley: When is a Biography Not a Biography?

Title: The Bill Haley Story, Crazy Man Crazy

Publisher: Omnibus

Price: £20

Bill Haley was a weak man and serial absent father who constantly and consistently shirked his responsibilities and ran away from his obligations. His judgement was not only imperfect, it could be labelled as incompetent as he not only consistently made poor decisions in his choice of career advisors but took disastrous business decisions in which he lost large amounts of money over and over again. Lessons were never learned. He was a shallow man who seemed more enamoured by fame than the music he played yet he had an ear for new trends when he chose to apply it. He was an alcoholic which triggered increasing physical and mental issues as he grew older. He could be abusive. He suffered violent blackouts. The man was a flailing, out of control mess who was lucky to escape the clutches of the IRS, the clutches of the mob and the clutches of his two ex-wives. He was also insecure and lonely, which may have been the source for much of the above.

That’s the conclusion of Haley I have after reading this book. 

It’s a hell of a story.

And this is the wrong book to tell it.

Why? Because this book is not about Bill Haley at all. Haley is in it, yes. His life is documented sure but Haley is almost used to introduce and provide a plot frame for the real star of the story. This book is really about his second wife, Joan Barbara ‘Cuppy’ Cupchak and her family. She is the primary focus of this book. She is the only person is this book who comes out of this story with any credit at all. She is the only personality who is sufficiently mined and examined in deep psychological terms. She is the only person we get to really know in this tome. She is the real tragic heroine on this book. And if she isn’t there in person, she often is in spirit in the shape of one of her children, sired by Bill Haley himself. Failing either of those, ‘Cuppy’ is reflected within Haley himself, as Haley commits yet another grievous injustice upon his second wife.

In short, Bill Haley’s personality is so retarded in this tome, he ends up as a co-star in his own biography.

Of course, Bill Haley stands as an iconic pioneering figure in rock’n’roll history. Selling 75 million records, with four Top 40 hits to his credit, Haley is seen by many as the man who lit the blue touch paper to a musical revolution. 

Arguably, his standing is/was higher in the UK and Europe than it is/was in the USA, the country of his birth. When he and his Comets couldn’t get arrested in the USA, during 1968, Haley was feted during a UK rock’n’roll revival concert on 28 April with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Cat Sevens in the audience. Haley and his Comets were so popular that night, they sparked a mini riot and then received a fan letter from another attendee, John Lennon who wrote, “To Bill, you started it all.” 

This book, his book supposedly, is patchy to say the least. Frustrating even. Mainly because every new episode leaves you with a list of questions. Every chapter introduces new characters new events and new problems and every single time, you are left with questions, questions, questions.  

For example, who really was the promotor Alex Valdez, who introduced Haley to his third wife, Martha? What actually was Valdez’s relationship to Martha and why was there an arrest warrant waiting for Valdez in Africa? Why exactly did Haley not call his first son Bill Jr, as his own mother wished? Bill Haley’s father exhibited mental issues when Haley was still a young man, was there any actual genetic connection between these paternal problems and Haley’s own mental issues later in life? The loss of Haley’s eye in childhood and the bullying he received at school, what psychological ripples did these issues have in later life, if any and how did they manifest themselves, if at all? 

I can guess or infer information to all of the above but the book remains wanting. A biography should surely provide clear and concrete answers. Failing that, even a measure of speculation would have been welcome. Who better to provide an intelligent guess than his son? Anything is better than nothing.

Although author, Peter Benjaminson, supposedly had his hand on the tiller of the content of this book it is Billy Haley Sr’s son, Bill Haley Jr who forms the core of the book and the source of the research. 

Maybe that’s why the text reads like a Jekyl & Hyde production. One moment, the text jumps and flies around your head like a typewriter on a big spring, the next it flows in a coherent and sensible manner. Is that possibly because the book consists of Haley Jr’s haphazard research connected by Benjaminson’s own text fills? I don’t know, but I do know that the book itself is disjointed.

The book’s introduction lists, at some length, the people interviewed by Haley Jr, including his mother ‘Cuppy’ plus others in the Haley Sr entourage but the finished book still, after all of that, reads like a family memoir, one that almost looks at Haley Sr from afar. 

Other than that, the book packs in a list of facts which are rushed through and ticked off like a list. Many of these facts are interesting, alarming, amazing and fascinating. Trouble is, you often want to pull the author back and ask him to stop, explain and elaborate. But no. He fails to look at an issue from all sides. Instead, he races off to the next suite of facts before you can catch your breath. This book needed an independent author/historian/researcher to do the subject justice. More people should have been interviewed, more research was needed and more context and clarifications where required. The core story runs to 279 pages and, at that length, it feels unfinished. This book should have spanned at least 700 pages, in order to fully examine all angles.  

And that’s the crux of this review. If this book was simply labelled as a family memoir – and a selective memoir at that – then it would have made more sense. You’d make the relevant mental adjustments, change your expectations and enjoy the ride. As it is, this book is labelled as a Haley biography so I wanted lots of insight from the band members but I didn’t get it, I wanted to know more about Haley’s third wife but she is a distant figure in this book and on and on. Even in the finally chapter, Bill Haley Jr enters hospital with a mystery illness and we are never told what it was! If you don’t want the public to know, then don’t mention it. If it’s in the book, the reader deserves full disclosure. 

And why are we interested in Haley’s Jr’s medical problems anyway? This is supposed to be a Haley Sr biography isn’t it? Haley’s Jr’s medical history should have been kept to his personal website, not plastered all over his father’s biography. His family memoir – yes. His dad’s biography – no. You see? More confusion. 

This fault is repeated throughout the book. It declares itself as Haley Sr’s “first complete biography” but it is not. It beggars accusations of misrepresentation.  

As is it, this Bill Haley Sr biography is an unsatisfying, frantic, choppy, haphazard highlights package.

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