Bill Haley, the WLBR DJ who helped Buddy Holly get his break

2 min read300 views and 53 shares Posted February 3, 2019

Today marks 60 years since the day the music died. Did you know that a former WLBR DJ helped Buddy Holly get his big break?

Bill Haley (Bradford Timeline/Flickr CC)
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Bill Haley started at WLBR in 1947 and worked about a year for the station. His program, The Range Drifters, combined Haley’s singing and guitar skills with a fiddler and mandolin player (Wayne Wright) and a bass player (Barney Barnard).

WLBR’s first news director, Chet Hagen, helped promote the group and even had an opportunity to manage the band, which he turned down because he didn’t like the music, according to a 1996 column by Henry Homan, a legendary disc jockey for WLBR. As Homan noted in another article, Haley had arrived at the station as an out-of-work gospel singer, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Hagen did not see the fortune to be made.

At WLBR, Haley was one of the first white DJ’s to play rhythm & blues, according to Otto Fuchs’ biography of the man, but it wasn’t long before the station managers protested. So Haley took his R&B instincts elsehwere.

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Haley made his first recording with the Comets in 1953, the year that he recorded Rock Around the Clock. The next year saw his version of Shake, Rattle and Roll. The former Lebanon DJ was now famous.

Holly’s big break came in October 1955 when he was opening for Haley’s band and spotted by a Nashville talent scout. By December, Buddy had signed an exclusive management contract with the agent, who soon landed him a contract with Decca. Although the Decca period was a creative and commercial failure, and Buddy almost quit music, he instead moved to Brunswick, where Holly’s Crickets would record a rock-and-roll version of “That’ll Be The Day” that would go on to spend 22 weeks on Billboard’s Top 100 pop chart.

Alas, Buddy’s career was cut short on February 3, 1959, when a plane he had chartered to take him and some other musicians to North Dakota crashed in an Iowa cornfield.

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Buddy Holly would have been 82 were he still alive.

Haley’s story unfortunately does not have a happy ending either. Although he sold tens of millions of records worldwide, according to Homan’s article, Haley never got the respect he thought he deserved, being overshadowed by Elvis. Haley died in 1981, a recluse, at 55.

Bill Haley (left) and Elvis Presley (right). (Ninian Reid/Flickr CC)
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Even after Haley’s death, the Comets maintained a connection with Lebanon through WLBR radio personalities Homan and Micky Santora, and came back a couple of times for concerts/fundraisers.

Special thanks to Pat Rhen, who clued us into this connection.

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