Rock and Roll Royalty

Gina Haley has a great idea: the fresh faced, delicately freckled singer/songwriter suggests we meet at the Hard Rock Cafe on Kirby Drive. It will make for a terrific photo opportunity, she says. The high concept hamburger joint has some memorabilia from her father, the man who first introduced mainstream America to rock and roll, on display. But when we rendezvous at the Rock, we're told the Haley display has been shipped to another restaurant in the Hard Rock chain. You can practically taste the disappointment and frustration in the air.

The scene is a metaphor of sorts for Haley. Just when her father, the legendary performer of "Rock Around the Clock," is about to lend a helping hand from the grave, he becomes mysteriously elusive. Gina is left struggling, once again, for answers to a disappearing parent.

The Gina Haley story is complicated. Her father bestowed upon her his famous surname as well as a genetic gift for music, but he also left her with a head full of questions. Bill Haley died in February 1981 at the age of 55; Gina was only five at the time. Now, as the 20-year-old Gina begins to find her niche in the pop music marketplace -- the multi-instrumentalist says she would love to become a female Elton John or Billy Joel, crafting piano-based pop tunes for the masses -- she finds herself in an odd position: living in the shadow of a man she knows mostly through the eyes of others.

Following the Hard Rock mishap, we take our interview session over to the Avalon Diner on Westheimer. Its malt-shop ambiance feels altogether appropriate. It is here that Gina Haley begins piecing together her life's story. It's not an easy story for her to tell. It's filled with secrets, manipulations, pain and some unresolved questions. But she seems at peace with it. She never hesitates in providing details. It's hard to tell if she's honest or naive. Maybe she hasn't been burned yet.

Gina was born on April 23, 1975, in Veracruz, Mexico, the youngest child of Haley and his third wife, Martha Velasco, who now lives in Houston. In the late '50s, when she met Bill Haley, Martha was a nightclub performer in Mexico City. The rock pioneer was already on the down side of his career, having scored a series of hits, including the rockabilly rave-up "Rock Around the Clock" and the raucous, white-boy reading of Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Martha and Bill married in 1960 and had three children together, including Gina and her 24-year-old brother, Pete, who is a classical guitar major at the University of North Texas.

The Haley family moved to Harlingen a year after Gina was born. The move was her father's decision; he wanted a peaceful place to retire to. He found that peace in the Rio Grande Valley, just north of the Mexican border. Bill Haley would spend nearly five years there before dying from an alcohol-related heart attack.

Gina has only a handful of memories of those early years. But there's one she savors: her sitting on her father's desk while he spoke into a tape recorder. She recalls him reading from a yellow notepad, on which he had scribbled pages of notes. She figures he was working on his autobiography.

"That was a real special moment," she says. "I was there while he was actually recording his life story on tape. It means a lot to me now."

When Gina's father died, the Haley household underwent a strange transformation. Martha decided to remain mum about her late husband, making the topic of Bill Haley off-limits in her home. When Gina was old enough to ask questions about her famous father, her mother usually deflected them. Yet Martha couldn't resist exploring Gina's musical potential. She bought her daughter a piano on her seventh birthday and promptly announced, "You start lessons on Monday."

They were classical piano lessons, however. Gina feels sure her mother purposely steered her away from pop music. Gina would eventually take voice, acoustic guitar and oboe lessons -- all of which were a million miles from the shadowy, high-energy world of rock and roll.

"She would say, 'It's a hard life. It's drugs. It's drinking. It's stabbing people in the back. I don't want that for you,"' Gina recalls about her mother. "I came to realize as I got older that really much of what she was talking about happened to [Bill Haley]."

Gina's curiosity about her father led her to begin combing through books, documentaries and music, trying to shed some light on him. Through intuition, partial memories and sibling information, an adolescent Gina had already created a mental rough sketch of Bill Haley. But when she began seriously researching him, she discovered the final portrait of dad was not always an easy one to look at. He had two previous marriages, a son from a previous marriage and a numbing battle with alcoholism.

But Gina also unearthed some pleasant surprises. She learned her dad was an expert yodeler. In fact, the young Bill Haley was known as the Ramblin' Yodeler when he was a disc jockey for WPWA in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1949. Gina eventually asked her mother if she had any records of dad yodeling. She did.

"It made me respect him more," she says. "It made me realize how talented he was because it's extremely difficult to yodel. As a vocalist, I know how difficult it is."

Gina's research has helped her come to grips with her father. It has given her insight into, and compassion for, his successes and excesses. She has even penned a song that delves into her family history. It's titled "Early Days." One of its most poignant lines resonates with childlike confusion and adult forgiveness: "Hey, brother will you tell me about dad / I never really knew that he had it quite so bad."

Gina's music sounds nothing like her father's. Where Bill Haley liked to rock the beat (to the tune of more than 60 million records sold), Gina prefers a more lyrical approach. Her original material is fairly derivative at this point -- it's heavily influenced by Elton John's piano chording and Kate Bush's melodic lines. Gina readily acknowledges influences ranging from Billy Joel to Joni Mitchell to Christopher Cross.

Another primary influence is her husband of two years, Art Mendoza. Gina met Mendoza in 1992 through a mutual friend from the community theater in Harlingen where Gina was acting and singing. Mendoza saw her perform several times and was impressed enough to ask her to sing in his band, which was no minor offer. Mendoza had a reputation in the Rio Grande Valley for putting together quality groups. He was a singer in two late '70s bands -- Toby Beau and Full Moon -- that were on the verge of mainstream success before they broke up. Since their first meeting, the 43-year-old Mendoza has become a mentor, a producer, a career guidance counselor and finally a husband to Gina. He has even introduced his wife to his powerful Los Angeles attorney, David A. Braun, the co-founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who represents such artists as Bob Dylan and George Harrison. Braun has now agreed to represent Gina Haley.

The couple had been living in Austin and later Wimberley before they landed in Houston early this year. Their Bayou City stay, however, is only temporary. Gina and Mendoza are moving to Los Angeles next month. It's a practical matter; it's easier to get "discovered" in the City of Angels. Gina already has some gigs lined up and she's trying to secure investors who believe in her potential. A couple of labels have expressed interest, but they want to hear more from her, specifically in a live context.

If anything scares Gina Haley about "making it," it has to be the financial aspect. She knows her father made lots of money, and she knows he "lost almost everything." She's protecting herself from such circumstances by surrounding herself with trusted counsel. But the fear is still there, another dark gift passed down from dad.

Gina's mixed heritage -- she has dual citizenship in Mexico and the United States -- is a constant reminder that she's not just the daughter of Bill Haley. If you ask her whom she most resembles -- mother or father -- she pauses. It's a tricky question. She barely knew her father, and she's just now getting back on speaking terms with her mother after a two-year estrangement.

"I always clashed with my mother, maybe because I'm a lot like her," she says. "But there's something in me that I clearly don't see in my mother. It's the will. It's the risk-taking quality. My father had that."

Gina Haley hopes her will, along her formally trained talents, land her a spot on the pop music landscape. She doesn't want to acquire her chunk by cashing in on her father's name. It would be meaningless to her.

"If (labels) were interested in me just because of my father, I would be signed by now," she says. "But that's not the case."

The Gina Haley Ensemble plays at 8:30 p.m. Monday, May 22 at Ovations, 2536-B Times Boulevard in the Village. Tickets are $6. Call 522-9801 for info.

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Tim Carman