Still Rockin’
Fronted by the heir of rock ’n’ roll royalty, Chester County’s Bill Haley Jr. and the Comets keeps the music alive.
by Walter Ault

One night in the middle of March I stumbled into the Sunnybrook Ballroom in Pottstown, which now goes by SoulJoel’s at Sunnybrook. Some of the things I remembered from my last visit many years ago seemed the same: the huge ballroom, the ornate dance floor, the large stage.
Some other notable elements seemed to transport me back in time to the Sunnybrook’s heyday in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, when the ballroom hosted the greatest entertainers of their time, from Big Band to the early days of rock ’n’ roll. Some of the people crowding the dance floor, happily doing the jitterbug and the foxtrot, were dressed in the clothing of the era. And, to my amazement, there was Bill Haley and his fellow Comets up on stage, playing their telltale brand of up-tempo rock ’n’ roll. 
I was both astonished and puzzled, because Bill Haley died in 1981. The lead singer looked and sounded just like Bill Haley, and the band sounded just like the Comets. It was as if I was in a dream. Then I saw that the Bill Haley lookalike was playing his guitar left-handed, whereas the late Haley played his instrument right-handed. 
Well, it turned out that the left-handed guitarist was Bill Haley Jr., and the fellas sharing the stage were a modern-day rendition of the Comets. The first few songs of the show were unfamiliar to me; they sounded like the proverbial, energetic Comet hits from decades ago, but I didn’t recognize the lyrics. Haley Jr. cleared it all up during an interview after the show. 
“Those were some of the songs of Bill Haley and the Saddlemen,” he told me, referring to his father’s first band, which played country music. Haley Jr. went on to describe the Saddlemen as “a white hillbilly band from Chester County.”
To get the complete story about where Haley Jr. got his inspiration, his musical talent, and his stage presence, you have to consider the influence of his pioneering father. Bill Haley & His Comets was one of the first bands to play the radical, flamboyant, and highly energized genre of music that Cleveland DJ Alan Freed dubbed rock ’n’ roll. The group’s success started in 1953 with the song “Crazy Man, Crazy,” followed by other hits such as “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “See You Later, Alligator.” Their biggest hit was 1954’s “Rock Around the Clock,” which was No. 1 for eight weeks and has sold more than 25 million copies to date.
As I watched the show, I wondered how Haley Jr. learned to play the guitar left-handed. 
“I’m self-taught,” he told me. “I didn’t have a special guitar made, and I didn’t turn the guitar upside down. I just changed the strings around.”
Haley Jr., who grew up in Boothwyn and now lives in St. Peter’s Village, started playing music “as a hobby,” with “a little garage band.” A songwriter early in his career, he would go on to become the leader of a talented and popular replica of one of rock ’n’ roll’s true pioneering bands. Close friends such as John MacPhee of the Diving Cat Studio and Gallery in Phoenixville have played a key role in the band’s success.
“[In 2010] I had Bill come over to the gallery for a combination cocktail party [and] CD release party,” MacPhee explained. The band—Bill Haley and the Satellites—had just made a CD of Haley Jr.’s original songs called Already Here. “The band’s first set was strictly songs from the CD,” MacPhee added. “Then I asked Bill to play some of his father’s songs for the second set.”
One of the attendees filmed that second set and put it on the internet, which caught the interest of a booking agent. The agent suggested that Haley Jr. play the same kind of high-energy rock ’n’ roll as his father. Although Haley Jr. had long resisted the idea of following in his father’s footsteps, he liked what the agent had to say. The band, Bill Haley Jr. and the Comets, was born.
The venue where I saw Haley Jr. perform, Pottstown’s Sunnybrook Ballroom, has a rich history. It started out as a swim club and dance pavilion in 1926 under the ownership of Raymond Hartenstine, and added its signature ballroom five years later. It quickly became a major stop for the biggest entertainers of the era. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Frank Sinatra all graced the Sunnybrook stage.
Current owner Joel Richardson strives to keep the legendary ballroom top of mind. The venue hosts a wide variety of shows and events, everything from dance parties and bingo, to open-mike nights and comedy nights. And, of course, concerts.
“We love appearing at Sunnybrook because we know a lot of the people,” Haley Jr. said. “We’re like old friends.”
A love of music has taken Bill Haley Jr. and the Comets far from its Chester County stomping grounds. The band has played in venues as far away as New Zealand, though Haley Jr. admitted the band doesn’t play out as much as it used to: “Now we do a show and go home.” He probably wouldn’t be able to go on an extended tour anyhow, considering he has his hands full as publisher of a local business magazine, Route 422 Business Advisor.   
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, June 2024.