Early life and career
Haley was born William John Clifton Haley (some sources append "Junior" to his name, but his eldest son states that this is erroneous) in Highland Park, Michigan and raised in Pennsylvania. Many sources (almost universally predating his death in 1981) state that Haley was born in 1927, which is due to Haley knocking two years off his age for publicity purposes in the 1950s. A few recent sources erroneously give a birth year of 1924.
Haley was blinded in his left eye as a child due to a botched operation. According to biographer John Swenson, Haley later adopted his distinctive spit-curl hairstyle to distract attention from his blind eye. The spit-curl caught on as a 50's style signature, although Haley and others had worn the hairstyle much earlier.
In 1946, Haley joined his first professional group, a Pennsylvania-based western swing band called The Down Homers run by Kenny Roberts. It has often been reported in musical reference works that Haley's first professional recordings were made with the Down Homers on a pair of singles released in 1946 by Vogue Records. This was later debunked by Roberts and others, stating Haley had already left the group by the time the singles were made. In the early 2000s, however, a set of 1946 radio recordings by the Down Homers were discovered and Haley is definitely present as he is identified by name and sings a solo number "She Taught Me to Yodel"; these recordings were commercially released for the first time in 2006.
After gaining experience with the Down Homers, Haley set out on his own, forming several groups such as the Range Drifters and the Four Aces of Western Swing. With the Four Aces, he made a number of regionally successful country music singles in the late 1940s for Cowboy Records while working as a touring musician and later a radio DJ at WPWA. (Many of Haley's early recordings from this period would not be released until after his death.) After disbanding the Four Aces and briefly trying a solo career using the names Jack Haley and Johnny Clifton (as chronicled in the biography Sound and Glory), Haley formed a new group called The Saddlemen in either 1949 or 1950 (sources vary as to the exact year); this new group recorded for several labels, including one single for Atlantic Records, Haley's first exposure to a major national record company. In 1951, Haley was signed to Dave Miller's Philadelphia-based Holiday Records and began to change musical styles, recording cover versions of "Rocket "88"" (previously recorded by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats), and in, 1952, "Rock the Joint", previously recorded by several bands including Jimmy Preston and His Prestonians. (By the time of "Rock the Joint", Haley had graduated from Holiday Records to Miller's larger Essex label.) The relative success of these recordings (both sold in the 75,000-100,000 copy range in the Pennsylvania-New England region) convinced Haley that his new and as-yet officially unnamed hybrid of country and rhythm and blues could be a commercial success.