copyright 2000, Ken Burke and Original Cool Magazine - Posted April 9, 2000

By Ken Burke
Reprinted with permission from Original Cool magazine #40, APRIL/MAY '00

KB: When did you get started in this crazy old music business?
ML:
I got started back in 1949 around Chester, Pennsylvania, that's where Bill Haley had his early bands. Bill's guitar-player Tex King was a border; he rented a room from us. He used to sit around playing his guitar and singing songs. I was just a teenager, fourteen, fifteen years old and I'd say, "Oh, I think I can do that." My brother had an old family guitar and I'd go off in the bedroom and try to practice what I'd see him do. One thing led to the next and pretty soon I was singing to the girls.

KB: When did you start slappin' the bass?
ML:
I started slappin' the bass in 1951. I was a guitar player and singer on a local radio station in Chester, which was in direct competition to the station Bill Haley was on. Bill Haley and the Four Aces of Western Swing, which is what they were called at that particular time, were doing a radio broadcast every day. I had a fifteen-minute morning program and because the guitar player lived at our house and I was in the same kind of business as Bill Haley, he became a family friend. One day his bass player up and quit him, so he came to me and said, "How'd you like to be my bass player?" I said, "Hell, I don't know how to play the bass, I'm a guitar player and singer." He said, "I'll teach you." So, I thought that situation over and said, "OK." I think I was just pushing eighteen years old at that time. I had made a little bit of noise around the area, winning some talent shows and appearing wherever I could just to get experience. Bill saw that I had some talent, I guess, and wanted me as part of his organization. In thirty minutes, Bill taught me how to slap the bass, and where the notes were. After Bill gave me that lesson, I went down that afternoon and bought an old Epiphone plywood bass. I went to work for him that night in Gloucester, New Jersey at a place called the Twin Bars. We did five sets a night. Forty-five minutes on and fifteen minutes off.

KB: Do you remember some of the songs you guys did?
ML:
Oh yeah! We were a country band in those days. We played country music, Western swing, and a lot of people don't know that Bill was quite a yodeler. Yodelin' Bill Haley. On one of Bill's CDs of his early music called Hillbilly Haley, he does some trick yodeling that will just knock your socks off. He learned yodeling from a guy named Kenny Roberts back in the 40s, he was the Indiana State champion. But some of our idols back in those days were Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys. We would do all the top country songs and do a one hour broadcast from the radio station there in Chester, PA.

KB: How did you ever fill the time?
ML:
We just said, "Hey, key of G!" That's how we rehearsed. We had guys in the band with good ears and they could hear a song one time and pretty well know what to do to fill in and make it sound good. Billy Williamson was the steel guitar player with the band; he had a wonderful ear. He has since passed on. Johnny Grande played accordion and he had a good ear for music, I slapped the bass, and Bill was the guitar player. But when I sang, I played guitar and Bill slapped the bass. A lot of people don't know that Bill was quite a bass player.

KB: You don't speak with a Southern accent and Pennsylvania isn't exactly the hub of country music, where does this love of Western music come from?
ML:
I've been away from North Carolina since I was eight years old, we moved from there to Chester, PA during the second world war. During the 40s, WSM's G rand Ole Opry was very popular there. People from the Grand Ole Opry would always tour through the Northeast. Pennsylvania was just full of places for them to come and entertain. People like Hank Snow, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, and all the big stars would come and sing at what would be called an amusement park. There'd be a stage and places for people to sit where they'd picnic and just spend the day, usually on a Sunday. Country music became such a popular mode of entertainment that we thought we could make a good living at it. It was a simplified down-to-earth sound that we could perform relatively well.

KB: When did you guys start adding r&b to your sound?
ML:
Along about 1952, we discovered that rhythm and blues music and Western swing was very, very compatible. At the radio station where we performed, there was a white disc jockey that played rhythm and blues music. His name was "Shorty the Bailiff," and he came to Bill one day and said, "I've got a song here that people are going nuts over. They're going nuts over this 'Rock The Joint'." So, Bill got the record and learned it. We started doing it at the Twins Bars over in Gloucester, New Jersey and a bunch of sailors were in there and they just loved it. The whole audience loved it. We didn't have a set of drums in those days and I didn't have any amplification on my bass. I'll tell ya boy, I had blood blisters that would break all over the side of the bass because Bill would yell, "Play it loud!" He demanded that I play loud because along with his guitar, I was basically the rhythm section. That's how we beat out that rhythm that people liked to dance to. On our first recording of "Rock The Joint" on Essex Records in 1952, we didn't have a set of drums, but there's a pretty damned good beat going on there. And it was just purely from the bass and guitar.

KB: What can you tell us about the old Essex label?
ML:
Well Dave Miller, the owner of Essex Records, I give him credit for actually discovering the Bill Haley sound that caused America to want to dance. Dave Miller was a very innovative A&R man who had a sound in his mind that he wanted to capture. He wanted to capture that bass fiddle slap and he got it and put it on recordings. I think he was even a little bit ahead of Sam Phillips -- I think Sam Phillips copied a bit of Dave Miller's style in order to capture all the people he recorded on Sun. We used to record at the radio station in Chester, PA -- that's where we did "Rock The Joint," "Sundown Boogie," and a few others. We were known as the Saddlemen at that time.

KB: Tell us something about the group's early name changes.
ML:
Bill changed the name from the Four Aces Of Western Swing to the Saddlemen because of the Four Aces pop group -- who were also from Chester! Bill said, "This is a conflict of interest. I don't want people to think we're them. So, we'll just change the name to the Saddlemen." Then, Bob Johnson, the program director at the radio station where we worked, came to Bill one day and said," Bill, you've heard of this Haley's Comet that goes across the sky every 76 years or so? Because of your name, you ought to call your band Bill Haley's Comets." Bill asked us about it and we said, "Hell yeah, man. That's a good name, let's do that." We took our cowboy clothes off and put suits on but performed with the same instrumentation and same songs. There are some old pictures out of us when we first started; we didn't even have four matching bow ties! (Laughs.) So we became the Comets and we were in the crossover threshold at that particular moment to becoming the world's first rock'n'roll band.

KB: Do you suppose that living in a state like Pennsylvania allowed you to do music from both the country and r&b fields, whereas a state further North might not've tolerated it?
ML:
That's a good possibility. Our sound came from the Philadelphia area, right along the Delaware River in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and our roots are in Western swing. We just happen to be lucky enough to discover rhythm and blues and we performed it in front of audiences before we ever recorded it. But that sound is just a pure combination of country, Western swing, and rhythm and blues.

KB: It was a natural evolution that just had to happen, wasn't it?
ML:
Oh yes, most definitely. And Dave Miller was responsible for capturing it on tape. He was looking for a white guy that could sound a little bit on the black side and get the teenaged record buyers to like 'em.

KB: Was the post-war teenage revolution going strong that early in the 50s?
ML:
It was! To promote our records, we did all high school assemblies. We wanted to be where the heartbeat of the record buyers were and find out what they were thinking. In fact, that's where one of our top recordings came from. Right after one of our high school assemblies in Chester, Bill and I were loading the instruments into the car. Well, some kids gathered around so we asked, "Hey, what do you think of our music?" And the kid says, "That's crazy man, crazy." Bill wrote that down on the palm of his hand and we went back to his apartment, which was about five miles away. While his wife was fixing us a sandwich for lunch, Bill grabbed his guitar and he and I wrote "Crazy Man, Crazy" in about thirty minutes. Then we started finding out other little sayings that the kids liked and we would write songs about that. We wrote one called "Well Now Dig This," which we did with the Jodimars after we left Bill Haley in 1955. We wrote some nursery rhymes in the early Essex days. "Pat-A-Cake," Bill and I wrote that in our hotel room in Wildwood, New Jersey.

KB: You guys were obviously making rock'n'roll music before it had an official name, but when was the first time you heard it called "rock'n'roll?"
ML:
Well, let me tell you about one of our experiences in 1952, when we recorded "Rock The Joint." We went to Cleveland, Ohio because we had heard that Alan Freed was the top DJ in the world as far as our type of music was concerned. It wasn't called rock'n'roll; he was the King of the Moondogs then, rhythm and blues. We heard the phrase "rock'n'roll" at about two o'clock in the morning when he was playing our recording of "Rock The Joint." It was during an interview, sitting around a large circular table with a big boom mike right over it. Freed sat next to the wall where he had a wall-switch that turned the microphone on and off. While "Rock The Joint" was playing he turned the microphone on and started yelling, "Rock'n'roll everybody!" Then pretty soon people were calling in saying, "Play that rock'n'roll song again." Then he'd say, "Well, I'm going to play that rock'n'roll song one more time!" I think he played it about twelve times that night. That was the first time I heard the words "rock'n'roll" other than in the song itself. To me, "Rock The Joint" was the song that gave rock'n'roll its name, and Alan Freed is the one that coined the phrase.

KB: We actually know so little about Freed these days. All we have are these old movies where he looks kind of stiff.
ML:
Well, I guess he was a little, but he was such a believer! That's why Alan Freed made it because he knew that rock'n'roll music was something that the kids wanted, and he was going to give it to him.

KB: How did those early crowds respond to this new sound?
ML:
The kids loved it! Of course, in the school auditoriums where we played, they couldn't get up and dance, they had to be a little bit reserved. But the applause was tremendous, they liked what we did, and then we started doing it for the young nightclub crowds. The eighteen to twenty-two year olds at the Jersey seashore. That's where we first made our first success in nightclubs - Wildwood, Summer's Point, Atlantic City, and all that. Then the kids would start coming and really get enthusiastic when we performed. Some of the clubs would even open up just for Coca Colas and afternoon matinees so the kids could come in. We'd just tear 'em up!

KB: There were no facilities for rock'n'roll shows at that time, were there?
ML:
That's right, they didn't have an outlet other than the record hops or the Friday night dance. In Philadelphia, Bob Horn did these record hops on Friday nights and would bring in the recording acts to promote their records, and we were one of them. Bob Horn had this very successful local television show in the afternoons that the kids could go to after they got out of school called American Bandstand! He eventually got into trouble with a teenaged girl, so Bob Horn was actually blackballed in the industry and was never heard of again. They brought in this fresh, young looking face that's still pretty young looking, Dick Clark, whose personality worked magic with that show, and turned it into the biggest thing that ever happened in the recording industry.

KB: When did you guys start adding horns to the original line-up?
ML:
Right after "Crazy Man, Crazy" in 1953. Dave Miller was responsible for that because he would bring in a couple of horn players on a couple of the early Essex Records that we did. (Sings.) "Farewell, so long, goodbye. BOMP!" You know, big old baritone sax. After we added the drums, which gave us quite a good rhythm section, we had a local kid from Philadelphia come down and audition and we hired him right on the spot. Bill asked us what we thought and we said, "Hell yes, he'd be quite an addition." That was Joey D'Ambrosio - at that time known as Joey Ambrose. He's still with us today and still blows a very mean saxophone. One of the things I'm real proud of with our current line-up of original Comets is; All of us who are in the band with the exception of Jacko our singer, are all the original band that played with Bill in the early 50s when all this was created.

KB: Tell us about some of the other musicians on the early recordings.
ML:
Once in a while Dave Miller would augment our band by adding a guitar player or a saxophone, because in the early days we only had four pieces. So, he'd bring in one of the great jazz guitarists, a guy named Artie Ryerson played on some of our earlier songs. But we always tried to use a guy named Danny Cedrone, who was from Philadelphia and had a group called the Esquire Boys. He recorded on his own and did a wonderful instrumental called "Caravan." Ralph Marterie's orchestra covered it, stole Danny's arrangement note-for-note, put it out, and had a big hit with it. Danny was really upset over that first thievery of one of his creations, but you can't copyright an arrangement, so he had no legal stand whatsoever. Danny Cedrone played that wonderful guitar solo on "Rock This Joint" and later to be done on "Rock Around The Clock."

KB: Who chose the songs at Essex? Did the band have any input there?
ML:
At Essex, Bill Haley chose most of the material and if Dave Miller had a suggestion, it was just a suggestion. He never said do this or do that. But he would come up with some songs. "Rocket 88" was one that Dave Miller came up with. But Bill chose "Rock The Joint" and all the others with our help. We were kind of a close-knit group until Bill got the big head.

KB: Tell us about what you guys did onstage and what you can still do.
ML:
I still do all the crazy stuff I created with the bass fiddle. Our guitar player Franny Beecher is seventy-eight. Dick Richards, our drummer is seventy-six. Johnny Grande, our keyboard player is seventy. Joey Ambrose, and myself we're sixty-six years young! Joey and I created those crazy bass fiddle antics and situations in Wildwood, New Jersey in 1953. When the kids would come in for an afternoon jam session, Bill liked to fill the time with instrumentals. That's when we created an instrumental where Joey would start honking at the kids with the saxophone, going out and standing on tables, and I said, "Oh man! Let me try something. Let me stand on this damn bass fiddle." So, I laid the bass fiddle over on its side, stood on it and pretended I was playing it and the kids just went crazy! Then I jumped off of it and said, "Wow! If they like that, let me see what else I can do." So, I threw it up over my head and they went nuts again! And then I said, "Man, we got something here. Let's see what ELSE I can do." I laid it down on the stage and laid down on top of it." They went nuts again. Then, I pointed to Joey to sit on it! So, he sat down on it and I slid him over across the stage, all the while he's honking his horn, and they're going crazy! I said, "Oh man, I think we've found something good here." Then I laid down on the floor and put the bass on top of my feet, then I played it like a guitar, and all that kind of stuff. It became a standard part of our act, and we really couldn't follow it with anything except "Rock Around The Clock."

KB: All the bass-slappers in today's neo-rockabilly groups still try and perform some of those same stunts.
ML:
I got the greatest compliment of my life, which brought tears to my eyes in Paris, France last year. We had done a show in Paris in 1998. We have a very big following over there. After our show we always have an autograph signing table and people come by and we sign pictures and CDs, whatever. This guy came over last year and says, "I want to show you something." He put his arm down on the table, and there was a picture of me tattooed on his arm! Right underneath that picture was my actual signature tattooed on his arm. I said, "Listen, I know how you got the picture - with a camera. But how did you get my signature on your arm?" (Laughing.) He said, "The first time you were here, I came through this autograph line, stuck my arm down and had you sign it. Then I went over and had your signature tattooed. Then I took a picture of you standing on the bass fiddle and had that put on there too." I said, "WHY would you do something like that? Why?" (Laughs.) He said, "You don't understand, do you? You are the most copied bass player in the world." I had never thought much about it until that very moment. Then I started thinking, "By God, he's right." Because all these bass players that come to see us, they do all the stuff with their bass that I did and still do. It's such a compliment; I get choked up every time I talk about it.

KB: I used to see Bill Haley on the Richard Nader Rock'n'Roll Revivals and they were all doing the same stuff. Rudy the sax player would be leaning way back, almost level with the floor, the bass player would be standing on the bass. Bill sounded great, but the band itself was the real show.
ML:
Oh yeah, it was that way right from the 50s.

KB: What do you remember about recording the immortal anthem "Rock Around The Clock?"
ML:
When we recorded "Rock Around The Clock" in April of 1954, we only had a three hour session allotted to us by Decca, because Sammy Davis Jr. was coming in right behind us. So, we had to be out of that studio at a certain time. We were a little bit late getting to the session because the ferryboat got grounded in the middle of the Delaware River. We spent the first two and a half-hours on a song we did not have an arrangement on, "Thirteen Women And Only One Man In Town." We finally got that song completed but only had thirty minutes left. "Rock Around The Clock" was the b-side anyway, so the A&R man said, "OK, let's do that rock'n'roll song or whatever it is." Decca Records didn't even know what rock'n'roll was at that time. In fact, on the label of "Rock Around The Clock" it said, "foxtrot - Bill Haley vocals." (Laughs.) We only had thirty minutes left to record it and Danny Cedrone was not with us when we rehearsed the song in Bill's basement. The rest of us had an arrangement, but not Danny and Bill always wanted a guitar solo on the songs. So Danny was kind of fishing for what he was going to play. I said, "Hey Danny, why don't you just play that great solo you did on 'Rock The Joint'?" Not too many people knew that record anyway. He said, "Oh OK!" Then he played that fantastic guitar solo that the world is so in love with and we did it in two takes! We always played all together because we didn't have the overdubbing technologies then that we do now. So, we did two takes and they did some engineering, and came up with the masterpiece that has become one of the top-selling records that has ever been recorded. It sounds just as good today as it did forty-five years ago.

KB: Alex Frazer-Harrison told us to be sure and ask about doing the Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan TV shows.
ML:
For a number of years nobody had any copies of that. I found out that there is a company in New York called Archives Music that had a copy of the old Milton Berle show that I hadn't seen since it originally aired in 1955. "Rock Around The Clock" was used as the finale for the show. Milton Berle even sang a chorus. What a performer he was, he was "Mr. Television." We loved to do the Berle show.

KB: Did Ed Sullivan treat you right?
ML:
Oh yeah, Ed made fun of Bill's kiss-curl. He said, "What are you? A faggot or something?" That was an exchange that nobody heard but us. But Ed Sullivan had a pretty big head, because he knew he had a very successful show and he could get away with just about anything.

KB: Did the group appear on any other major TV shows of that era?
ML:
Yes, we did the Dorsey Brothers Show. A lot of people don't know that was Elvis' first national television show too. I found out recently that we did the Johnny Carson Show before it was the Tonight Show. Somewhere there may be a video or an old kinescope recording of us on the old Johnny Carson Show.

KB: Was that on CBS? During the 50s Carson hosted a variety series as a substitute for Red Skelton.
ML:
I don't recall the network but that might have been it. I learn about these things from the fans. In December, we did a show with Chuck Berry and Little Richard at the Indian Casino in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. They treated us so wonderful - we just tore 'em up. One of our fans said, "Hey, I've got an audio tape of you guys on the Johnny Carson Show." I said, "Where's the video?" He said, "I don't know! I would love to have it." (Laughs.) I said, "So would I." It's kind of fun having these things crop up so you can say, "Yeah, I remember that." I've got a picture here in front of me of the Jodimars when we were with Capitol Records. We're with the president of Capitol, the A&R man, and Joe Bushkin who was a great piano player. Here we are on tour in 1956 with a bunch of other Capitol recording artists. Dick Richards, our drummer, had it up on his wall up in New Jersey.

KB: You were probably the first rockers to deal with screaming hordes of overzealous fans, were they a big problem?
ML:
It was not so much a problem as quite a compliment to us. The young girls were screaming for us like they did Elvis after that. We played these big ballrooms and had these autograph sessions for kids, wanting to be as personable as we could. They were very, very much attracted to us because we were just young kids, and they wanted to touch us, get a souvenir. They wanted to steal your hanky or a cigarette you had just smoked, all sort of things like that.

KB: During those early peak years, weren't there times when the group was playing eight to ten shows a day?
ML:
Oh yeah! When we did the Paramount Theater in New York, we'd start at eleven o'clock in the morning and end at eleven o'clock at night.

KB: How did you guys survive such a grueling pace?
ML:
We only did two or three numbers. There were so many acts on the show, Alan Freed would say, "Hey, you're going to do three songs, your going to do two, your going to do four." They showed a movie for an hour and a half or two hours and then did a live stage show for an hour and half or two hours, then repeat it over and over again. You'd have two hours off and then the next show would start.

KB: Who were some of the acts the Comets shared a bill with in those days?
ML:
The Platters, The Coasters, The Drifters, Frankie Lymon, mostly black artists because Bill was one of the very few white artists that did rock'n'roll. We'd do the shows and be the only white band on the tour. In fact, Bill kind of saved Chuck Berry from a whupping one night down in Alabama. Chuck Berry was fooling around with some white, Southern girls in one of the big cities in Alabama. These five big rednecks found out about and they were looking for him, and Chuck Berry hid on the bus, behind a seat. Bill Haley met these five guys at the door and said, "What are you guys doing here?" They said, "We're looking for this black guy, this Chuck Berry." Bill said, "Well he ain't here. Get on out of here because we're leaving." So he made the guys leave. I don't know if Chuck remembers that or not, he probably wouldn't want to.

KB: I've heard tapes of Bill Haley speaking, and like yourself he was one of the most articulate spokesmen rock'n'roll ever had.
ML:
That's from his radio experience being a disc jockey and front man with the band all those years. He was a very good speaker. On those recorded interviews he has a lot of good things to say and he says them well.

KB: Do you have Gold Records from the early Comets days?
ML:
Yes. "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" was the first one in 1954. Then "Rock Around The Clock In 1955."

KB: So each member of the band was presented with a Gold Record?
ML:
Yes. This was something that Decca decided to do.

KB: Did you appear in any of the movies with Haley?
ML:
We did one film with him called Round-Up Of Rhythms. That was done at Universal Studio in 1954. That was a musical short with the Crew Cuts and a couple of other acts. We did three songs: "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," "Crazy Man, Crazy," and a song called "Straight Jacket," which is the one where I stand on the bass and do all that crazy stuff with it.

KB: Tell us why the core members of the Comets left Bill Haley.
ML:
Bill's band broke up in 1955 because of monetary reasons. Bill had created a partnership with two of the other members of his band plus his manager. I felt a little bit taken advantage of because I was just an eighteen-year-old kid who didn't know what was going on. I was promised the moon and delivered nothing except a job. So, we were playing the Chicago Theater in 1955 and riding a high wave. "Rock Around The Clock" was number one in the nation and we asked Bill for a fifty-dollar raise for the three of us and he said, "Oh, I can't afford that. You've got to stay at one hundred and seventy-five dollars a week." We were paying our own expenses out of that. Pretty soon, the four partners were starting to get these big royalty checks from Decca Records. They went out and bought four brand new big ol' Cadillacs! That really was the straw that broke our backs because we just wanted a little better living possibilities. We were all raising families at that time, and it wouldn't have hurt them to raise our salary, but it sure would've helped us. Jim Ferguson was Bill's manager and he blew a lot of smoke at Bill, telling Bill how great he was, and changing the billing of the band. It was originally Bill Haley's Comets, then it became Bill Haley and The Comets. Then pretty soon it became just Bill Haley. The band never got the recognition they deserved. The Rolling Stones are not just one person and Bill Haley's Comets were not just Bill Haley. As history proved, without Bill Haley's Comets, Bill Haley was not very successful.

KB: Were Bill's ego and the change of billing as much a factor in your decision to leave as was the money?
ML:
It had a great deal to do with it. We were a family and after the big money started rolling in they started pushing half the family out the door.

KB: Before things changed so drastically, did you like Bill Haley?
ML:
Yeah. Bill was more of a quiet person. Hell, I used to ride to work with him when he was broke and so was I. We rode together to save gas and it was only a twenty mile ride! From Chester, PA we had to ride to Paulsboro, New Jersey where the Twin Bars was located. It cost us about seventy-five cents to get across the Chester ferry, that was before they had a bridge crossing the Delaware River. I'd park my car and ride with him or he'd park his car and ride with me. Yeah, we used to stop and get a turkey sandwich on the way home at a little hole-in-the-wall all-night truckstop. That place really served great food. We really enjoyed stopping there every night and we talked about everything. It was a good friendship until the money came in. Then it just went the other way.

KB: That's a shame.
ML:
Well, I was taken advantage of because of my age. Bill was seven years older than me. Billy Williamson was Bill's right hand and Johnny Grande was Billy Williamson's friend. Billy Williamson and Bill had a kind of partnership and that brought Johnny in automatically because he was Billy's close friend. When Jim Ferguson came in to manage the band, that's when I was pushed out. Otherwise, during the whole thing, I was making as much money as Billy and Johnny. Bill Haley was the leader and he was getting what they call "leader's pay." In 1952, when I first went with the group, Bill was making ninety dollars a week and Billy, Johnny, and I were getting sixty dollars a week. It was steady pay, but it wasn't very much.

KB: When did Rudy Pompilli join the group?
ML:
Rudy was the one who took Joey's place in 1955. They hired Al Rex again and Franny Beecher came with the group as a permanent guitarist, and Ralph Jones took Dick Richards' place on the drums. They replaced the three of us with four different people and he took them on the road with us. We gave Bill a three-week notice so he could replace us. We were on a tour and our replacements sat in the audience. Bill said, "I want you to copy everything these guys do." So, Al Rex eagle-eyed me until he got everything I did. Same with Rudy, who copied Joey, but went on to do his own style.

KB: Tell us how you guys came up with the name for your post-Haley group, The Jodimars.
ML:
We were originally going to call ourselves The Juniors because Bill Haley had always said, "You guys are junior partners." (Laughs.) Then we said, "Let's take a little bit of each of our names and come up with a name for the band." Then we started fooling around with names like the Martijos and so on, but after putting the syllables together in different combinations; The Jodimars seemed to be the most liked by everyone. We had a short time to name the group because we already had a show booked at the Palace Theater in New York.

KB: That's starting off at the top, isn't it?
ML:
That's right. Not only were we at the Palace Theater on Broadway, we had Judy Garland's dressing room. Her star was still on the door.

KB: For those first shows as the Jodimars did your billing read "Formerly Of The Comets"?
ML:
Yeah, they did play that up on a T-board that sat out front of the theater along with a story about us being with Bill Haley of "Rock Around The Clock" fame. That was the only thing we had to sell because we were an unknown entity.

KB: Having a band together for only one week, what kind of set were you able to put together?
ML:
We were a pretty well rehearsed band and we had some recordings that we had also done. From the time we gave Bill Haley notice we went to work! We were in constant rehearsals creating what we were going to do. We did a lot of Elvis' songs and whoever were the top recordings stars; we did their songs. That's what we filled out our set with, other than our own recordings and Bill's recordings.

KB: How was the audience response?
ML:
The response was awesome! We went on and had our first Capitol record released which was "Well Now Dig This" and "Let's All Rock Together." We signed with a large agency in New York, MCA. They have a lot of juice. They came in and saw us and said, "Ah, I'll put you on tour with Tony Martin." So we went on a thirty-day tour with Tony Martin, Tex Beneke's Orchestra, and about three or four other acts. Thirty days of one-nighters. What a tour that was! We had the card games going on in the back of the bus. (Laughs.) We started in Denver, Colorado and ended up in Massachusetts, playing a different city every night about five hundred miles away from the last city. That was really quite an experience.

KB: How well did you guys do with Tony Martin's audience?
ML:
Well, we were still plowing a lot of new ground trying to get rock'n'roll accepted. In fact, they wouldn't let us go on in Pittsburgh. They said, "We don't want no rock'n'roll. That's banned here." So Tony Martin gave us the night off. We got paid anyway.

KB: I assume Tex Beneke played all the hits he did with Glenn Miller?
ML:
Oh yeah, "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and all the others. What a neat man Tex Beneke was. Mostly they played the original Glenn Miller charts. Most of the guys in the band were from the original Miller band. He had some of the most fabulous musicians in the country.

KB: Were you in awe of them the same way modern rockers are in awe of you?
ML:
Some of them. Not myself personally, I loved Tex Beneke more than any of the other guys. Our saxophone player Joey was just in awe of all the musicians because he's a more learned musician than myself. Of course Dick Richards was in heaven because Beneke carried one of the finest drummers from that era. The other guys were more taken with the Beneke band than I was, though I was taken with Beneke because he was the front man.

KB: How long did the Jodimars stay together?
ML:
We stayed together from '55 till '59. We started having problems getting jobs. We had started putting our efforts towards something other than recordings. We should've stayed in the recording studio and kept pounding away at new records, but we didn't. We took off on an entertaining mode and created a show and started concentrating on Nevada. This started with a show we did in Reno, Nevada at Harold's Club. We went in there for four weeks and ended up staying eighteen weeks. That's being held-over. This guy who owned the club, Harold Smith, just fell in love with our group and signed us to a three-year contract, bringing us back for eighteen weeks every year. He paid us wonderful money, more money than we had ever seen before. We said, "Oh man, this is IT!" So we started playing Las Vegas and all the little towns in Nevada as Reno and Lake Tahoe, because that's basically where the money was. That was the era of Louis Prima and Keely Smith.

KB: You guys probably fit right in with that jive.
ML:
Oh yeah! We worked the lounges, because that's where they got their start at the Sahara. All the big stars today worked in that type of atmosphere.

KB: What happened to fellas after the Jodimars disbanded?
ML:
We all went into different careers. I went into real estate in the 60s. Dick Richards went into acting. Joey went into gaming in Las Vegas. Johnny Grande went into the restaurant industry. Franny Beecher went to work at a factory.

KB: When was the last time you saw Bill Haley?
ML:
I saw Bill in 1972 in Hayward, California, which is in the San Francisco Bay area. Bill introduced me from the stage as his original bass player on "Rock Around The Clock" and so forth. He invited me back to his dressing room and introduced me to his wife, Martha, which was Bill's third wife. He said, "Oh Marshall, we just had a baby!" I said, "What'd you name it, Bill?" He said, "Pedro." I had a hard time keeping a straight face because "Pedro" and "Haley" didn't exactly go together. Since then I have found out through the internet that Pedro Haley, who is thirty-five years old now, is a very accomplished classical guitarist in Dallas, Texas.

KB: Where were you when you heard Bill Haley died?
ML:
I was in Livermore, California. I was a real estate broker at that time. I got the terrible news off the television and once people found out I was with him, they began clamoring for interviews. I did an interview about my association with Bill, but it was supposed to have been aired nationally, but the Hilton hotel fire happened that same day and that took precedence over everything else. So, my interview didn't get on the national news.

KB: When did you decide to reform the group?
ML:
In 1987. Dick Richards always kept in touch with us and he said, "Let's get back together, Marshall. Let's get all the guys back together and see if we can play again." I said, "Hell, I haven't touched a bass fiddle in over twenty-five years." He said, "Well, they've got a show here in Philadelphia where we can do a couple of numbers. They'll pay all our expenses and it'll just be kind of a fun thing for us to get back together." So, they provided us with our airfare and hotel and gave us instruments to play and a rehearsal hall to rehearse in. We went into the rehearsal studio and within an hour I knew that we still had it. Because we were playing just as though we had never left. I hadn't seen Franny or Johnny since 1955 and we hardly knew each other when we saw each other. But we started doing our old tunes and I said, "We sound just like we did thirty-five years ago." We went on the show and just destroyed 'em! Fantastic! We had seven thousand people there including friends, family, and loved ones. They knew who we were and what we had done. Then, one of our fans came backstage and said, "You know, you guys are really popular over in England. If I can arrange a show for you over there, would you go?" We said, "Oh sure."

KB: Had you been overseas before?
ML:
No we hadn't. Bill had with his later band, but we hadn't been over there. A few months later this same guy calls us and says, "Hey, I got this gig and I got airfares, hotel, and good money." We said, "OK, let's go!" We went to Europe in November of 1989 for our first show. On the way over my wife asked, "Well, when are you going to learn these songs?" I said, "Hell, there won't be anybody there anyway. Who the hell is going to remember us?" Little did I know. When we got there we had three thousand people who paid fifty dollars apiece to get in! I tell ya, it was the beginning of what we do today. We're just so thankful that they're kept us alive and that we can still do what we do, and we're gonna rock till we drop! (Laughs.)

KB: Tell us a little about your singer Jack Buddin.
ML:
Jacko is one of the neatest guys and we were so lucky to find him in England. He was suggested to us on our very first tour in 1989. Somebody said, "He sounds like Bill Haley, give him a chance to sing with you." So we did. He was so good and fit in with us so well that we hired him right on the spot and said, "Whenever we work, you'll work right along with us." We think he's quite an asset for us.

KB: When you guys are touring, is Jacko an equal partner?
ML:
No.

KB: He's a hired hand?
ML:
Yes. We take good care of Jacko financially and he is very happy with our arrangement. He also knows that even though he sings Bill Haley's hits, he is not an original Comet. His attitude is "You guys are the legends and I'm filling in as the voice of Bill Haley."

KB: Jacko really does sound a great deal like Haley, what was the reaction of the fans the first time they heard him with the group?
ML:
There was a look of total amazement. We find people in our audience now that will listen to us with their eyes closed. They'll be standing in front of the stage with their eyes closed, reminiscing about 1955. A lot of them weren't there but they've heard the record and they can just picture in their minds what it was like. Another thing we're thrilled about is that our audiences are now three generations big. They range from ten-years old to eighty-years old and all ages in between.

KB: Is that what the music is really all about, bringing people together?
ML:
Exactly. That's exactly right.

KB: Once the group got rolling again you made some recordings overseas. They're a little hard to find.
ML:
HepCat Records has them, they carry most of our stuff. Overseas we did one on Rockstar in London, and we did two records in Germany for the Hydra label.

KB: How did you end up with Ron Weiser?
ML:
Ron Weiser is a well-respected recording mogul in Las Vegas that's where Joey lives. Ron came to see us when we did the Rockabilly Weekend in Denver, Colorado. I believe it was '97. He was a real fan! We had a problem getting records distributed here in the States and when we started doing some performing in America, we wanted to have some product to sell. It was very difficult getting the Hydra and Rockstar stuff over here inexpensively. We're not signed to any recording label or anything, so I said to the guys, "I'm going to call Ron Weiser and see if he would like to record the Comets." I called him and he said, "Oh hell yes! Who wouldn't want to record the Comets?" Ron is a magnificent A&R man. He captured our sound better than anybody had done before. I look forward to every session we work with him because Ron is a super guy.

KB: You guys play harder and faster on your Rollin' Rock disc Still Rockin' Around The Clock than I really expected. Was that a one-time occurrence or are the band's chops really that good?
ML:
(Laughs.) That's our chops. That's exactly the way we do it on stage. We do one hour and twenty minutes on the stage of hard, aggressive songs just like that record. People can't believe the energy level we put out. The way Franny Beecher plays guitar at seventy-eight years of age is a pretty phenomenal feat. Most seventy-eight year old people are bent over and walking like they're crippled. Franny walks erect (laughs) and he is one of the best guitar players in the world.

KB: Have you sold many copies of the new disc?
ML:
Not yet, but a distribution program is the hardest part of the record world - getting them out there, getting somebody excited about promoting it. I'm looking for a way to get us some national television exposure. If we could find a TV personality that would like to have a real good story to tell America, I believe we are one of the best stories they could tell. Because of our ages, the fact that we don't smoke, we don't drink or at least very little, and we're not drug addicts. I guess that's why we're not too newsworthy, because we're too clean. We should be looked to as role models. The young people of today should say, "Hey! If I live a clean life, I can be standing on the bass when I'm sixty-six. I can be playing a guitar like that when I'm seventy-eight. I can still rock'n'roll instead of sitting in a damned chair rocking back and forth."

KB: You've spent a great deal of your life in rock'n'roll yet you can still hear me on the phone, how did that happen?
ML:
That happened because we didn't have the heavy amplification in those days that we have today. Some of the places we play now have these sound guys that come in with these massive speakers, six - eight foot tall speakers. The sound is almost deafening and I tell them, "Hey! We never had this" I try my darndest to NOT turn the buttons and I tell them, "When you turn the buttons, you are controlling our sound. And WE want to control our sound." When we play in Europe, that's where we have the biggest problem because some of the guys don't understand English. They turn the buttons to make us sound the way THEY want us to sound. Generally, I try to get them to take a break, "Why don't you guys just go to dinner?"

KB: Were monetary considerations part of the reason you guys decided to reform the group?
ML:
We're doing it out of love for what we do. They pay us well but we're not doing it for the money, though it's better now than in the 50s. We had to do it in the 50s, now we're doing it because we want to do it. It gives us an opportunity to get back together, keep our music alive, and make some people happy. It gives us an outlet that keeps us going. Plus we get to see parts of the world that other people only dream about.

KB: Is it better traveling now than it was back in the 50s?
ML:
Oh YEAH! In the 50s we had to drive our own cars, because Bill wouldn't fly. This was before jet air travel. Bill was forced into flying towards the latter part of his career, but during the 50s he said, "No, I ain't flying, man." So, we drove across the United States on old Route 66 half-a-dozen to a dozen times. I know Flagstaff, Arizona and I even know Winona! (Laughs.) But, who wouldn't love to get up in front of two or three thousand people that love and adore you. That's the best natural high you could ever be on. That's just the ultimate.

KB: Who is your management these days?
ML:
Well, we're kind of in-between management, we've been dealing with a company called Good Music out of Las Vegas. I recently gave a promoter out of San Diego to book us for a ten-day tour and Phoenix might fit into that schedule. He 's working on the last week of July, first week of August to bring us out to the West Coast. We'll do San Diego, L.A., and up that way.

KB: Let's talk about the Comets name controversy. Have you ever been legally enjoined from billing yourself as The Comets?
ML:
No, we have not. Some of our promoters have been threatened. Al Rappa is great for calling up somebody and saying that he's got the legal right to the name and if he books us that he'll sue them. That has caused us a lot of unnecessary stress.

KB: Al Rappa actually makes the call himself?
ML:
Yes, Al actually makes the call himself. Then, John "Bam-Bam" Lane has management up in New York where he's got a lawyer that does it.

KB: I take it you know these men personally?
ML:
I have met them all. I saw John Lane's group in Las Vegas a few years ago. I really totally surprised them. I sent a photograph of me with the Comets to them onstage while they were performing. I wrote on the back of it, "Nice show guys. Marshall." I asked the waitress to give it to the guitar player. She did and you should've seen the looks on their faces. He turned to the next guy and said, "Marshall's in the audience." Then he'd turn to the next guy and say, "Marshall's in the audience." (Laughs.) It went through the whole band and was kind of comical. As far as their sound goes, they don't sound like the Comets either, although they are a rehearsed group. Whereas Al Rappa's band is just a pick-up band and Al Rappa does the singing, and he just can't really sing. He only carries the bass around for one number, he stands on it but that's about all he does with it anymore, otherwise he plays the whole show with an electric Fender bass. I guess Al Rappa's in his seventies now. I think he should've retired a long time ago.

KB: Have you've guys every tried to do a sit down with him and clear some things up?
ML:
No, we really haven't. From what I gather from the guys that know him - Johnny Grande and Franny, they both worked with him, they say he doesn't want to make deals. But there should be a deal in there for everybody: You leave us alone, we'll leave you alone. Let us tell people who we are. Heck, they tell people we're dead. Last time I heard somebody told me they said, "Those guys are all in nursing homes." It's just annoying as hell to us.

KB: What the latest legal advice you've received?
ML:
Dick Richard our drummer was in touch with our legal counsel in New York and found out that we DO have the right to call ourselves: A Tribute To Bill Haley By The Original Comets. So that's going to be our billing from now on. We shouldn't have to be a tribute band but we can always make that part small. As long as we can get the fact of who we are out there, the public will come see us and they can make their own decisions as to who's real and who isn't.

KB: Have you ever thought of challenging Rappa and Lane's groups to a play-off?
ML:
We thought of that but they'd never agree to it. They would just be put down so bad. Rappa has actually come to see us. He came to see us in Ocean City, New Jersey and he was wearing his jacket which read Original Comets on the back, just kind of spreading himself out there, letting people know that he was around.

KB: Did he come backstage and tell you what he thought of the show?
ML:
No, he's afraid of us. (Laughs.) Afraid we'll whup him.

KB: As far as the name controversy goes, where do you encounter the biggest obstacles, in the States or overseas?
ML:
Overseas they will NOT tolerate phonies and bogus bands that claim to be somebody that they're not. When we started going over there in 1989, the word spread throughout Europe that we were the real thing, and our audiences love us and come to see us. We play repeat venues over there constantly and they keep coming back for more. Here in the United States, these other guys have been going out since 1981, shortly after Bill died. Some of 'em were so bad that they've created a pretty poor reputation for the Comets. People will see them, think it's us and say, "I don't want those guys, they're terrible." That's what we've really had to try and overcome. But every place we've ever played, we just did this thing up in Michigan with Chuck Berry and Little Richard - I tell you they had one hell of a time following us. They had us go on first because they're the big stars and they had to close the show. Everybody we talked to said they had it all wrong, that they should've opened the show, and we should have closed. About 30% of the audience walked out on them.

KB: When you're on a bill with other founding fathers of rock'n'roll, do they remember you and the others from your days with Bill Haley?
ML:
They give us respect. They just treat us like who we are like, "Yeah, you were with Bill for a long, long time. You helped create those hits." Sometimes it is even difficult to get to these guys because they surround themselves with these so-called bodyguards. If you don't catch Little Richard away from the performance you can't even talk to him. He's got eight guys around him, when he comes off the stage they surround him and they push everybody aside while he walks in the middle of them and goes right back to his dressing room.

KB: Bodyguards aren't your style, are they?
ML:
Absolutely not. We don't ever have a bodyguard other than when we are in a big auditorium where we have to go through the crowd. That's when we've got to have somebody make a way for us, and they'll usually provide security to get us through the crowd to the stage. That's the only time we have security. When we're there, we want to MEET the people. We want to shake their hands and sign autographs. We want the people to get to know us so we can get to know them.

KB: Are there any significant gigs coming up for the Original Comets?
ML:
In May, we're going back to tour Austria and Germany. We'll be there for two weeks. Then, we're going to take a little week vacation and take our ladies with us and go down through Italy. Dick Bocelli, who is Dick Richards found out he's related to Andrea Bocelli, a wonderful opera singer. Dick's father was an opera singer in the Philadelphia area, he was known as "The Blind Caruso." So, there's a strong connection there. We all look forward to it.

KB: You have the final word here. What would you like to say to all the loyal fans of original rock'n'roll music?
ML:
The only thing I can say comes from the title of one of our songs, "You're Never Too Old To Rock."


  • Original Cool is a bimonthly fanzine featuring rockabilly, swing and rock ' n' roll - vintage to cutting edge - from around the world. Check out the Original Cool website at http://members.aol.com/OrigCool/ochome.html.


  • Ken Burke can be reached at: DrIguana1@aol.com