ROCKABILLY HALL OF FAME® PRESENTS
Bill Haley's COMETS
JOEY AMBROSE, Saxophone
FRANNY BEECHER. Guitar
JOHNNY GRANDE, Piano
MARSHALL LYTLE, Bass
DICK RICHARDS, Drums
Interview from Las Vegas Sun by David Renzi, April, 15, 1994.
THE STORY BEHIND THE RECORDING OF "ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK," Bill Haley and the Comets' signature song, qualifies as one of those believe-it-or not anecdotes. Marshall Lytle, an original Comet and current Las Vegas resident (Marshall has since moved to Florida), remembers walking into the studio in New York City 40 years ago this week and having three hours to cut two sides. "We spent 2-1/2 hours on the A side and 30 minutes on the B side," Lytle says, "and in 30 minutes and two takes we came up with what is now the anthem of rock 'n' roll."The A song, "13 Women (And Not a Man in Town)," was supposed to be the big seller, "but it didn't turn out that way," says Joey D'Ambrosio, another original Comet who (still) lives in Las Vegas. "Let me give you some statistics," says Lytle, flipping through his Bill Haley fact book:The Timeless "ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK" Story
"Rock Around the Clock" has sold more than 200 million copies - more than any other song. Rock Around the Clock has out-sold all songs execpt Bing Crosby's White Christmas. It has been recorded by 500 artists and in 32 languages. It has been in 36 movies. At any given moment, it is playing somewhere in the world.
But to Lytle and D'Ambrosio, the number that stands out is $47.50 - what each Comet made for the session. "We got the shaft," Lytle says. "All the royalties go to (Haley's) estate - Haley died on February 9, 1981, at age 55 - and songwriter Jimmy Myers.
Money ultimately fractured the Comets, with bassist Lytle, saxophonist D'Ambrosio and drummer Dick Richards leaving in 1956, at the height of their popularity, when Haley refused their request for a $50 a week raise on top of their $225 weekly salaries. (The two other Comets, guitarist Franny Beecher and pianist Johnny Grande, stayed until Haley disbanded the group in 1962.) "He said he couldn't afford it. We (the group) were making $40,000 or $50,000 a week," says D'Ambrosio, who went by the stage name Joey Ambrose.
The three formed The JODIMARS - a title that joined bits of their first names - and cut 12 sides in three years for Capitol Records before disbanding. If D'Ambrosio has any regrets about leaving Haley, it's that he left a year too soon. "After we left they started to make movies," he says. "They went on a trip to Europe and played for the Queen of England. All those things happened to the guys who replace us. They got the glory end of it." And $75 more a week.
FATHERS OF ROCK
Despite their disappointment in Haley, it is tempered by their place in history and a belief that they fathered what became known as rock'n'roll.
We get a little irritated when people lay claim to being the creators of rock'n'roll," says Lytle, recounting a Little Richard interview on "The Today Show" in which he said there wasn't rock'n'roll before he started in 1956. Lytle disputes the claim, offering as proof the Comets' "Rock the Joint," which became a hit in the band's native Philadelphia in 1952, and 1953's "Crazy, Man, Crazy," which Lytle says was the first rock song on the Billboard charts.
"I was there when (disc jockey) Alan Freed coined the phrase 'rock'n'roll,'" he says. It was 1952 and the Comets were in Cleveland to promote "Rock the Joint" on Freed's show. The seminal verse went:
We're gonna tear down the mailbox, rip up the floors / Smash out the windows and knock down the doors / We're gonna rock, rock this joint / We're gonna rock, rock this joint / We're gonna rock, rock this joint / We're gonna rock this joint tonight.
Lytle says Freed, who had left the studio make open during the song, began pounding on the table and screaming "rock'n'roll, rock'n'roll" for all his radio listeners to hear. After it ended, he adds, "the people kept calling up and saying, 'Will you play that rock'n'roll song again?' He played it 12 times. That's the night rock'n'roll was invented."
HITS AROUND THE CLOCK
Lytle says a high school student was the inspiration behind "Crazy, Man, Crazy." "We were promoting 'Rock the Joint' at a high school assembly near Philadelphia. On our way out, we asked one of the kids how he liked our music and he said, 'Crazy, man, crazy,'" Lytle remembers. "Bill and I went to his apartment while his wife was fixing lunch and we wrote 'Crazy, Man, Crazy.'"
After that, one hit followed another: "Shake, Rattle & Roll," No. 1 in America in 1954; "Rock Around the Clock," No. 1 in the world in 1955; and "See You Later Alligator" - recorded after Lytle, D'Ambrosio and Richards had departed - No. 1 in American in 1956. Lytle says "Rock Around the Clock" became a hit a year after it was recorded. "It kind of laid there until (the 1955 movie) 'Blackboard Jungle' came out," he says. "The producer was looking for a song for the beginning of the film, and his daughter was playing it in her bedroom. He heard her playing that and said, 'Who is that?' She said, 'Don't you know? That's Bill Haley and the Comets.'"
It was the first use of rock music in a mainstream feature film and "started the song on its way to worldwide recognition," says Lytle, who joined Haley in 1951, when he was still playing country music. Lytle got to know Haley through guitarist Tex king, a friend of the family and member of Haley's Four Aces of Western Swing. King's guitar playing also influenced Lytle. "He used to room at our house and would practice around the house," he says. "I'd listen to him, get the family guitar out and try to play what I'd heard. Bill became friends of our family" through King.
When Haley needed a bass player, he offered Lytle the job. "Bill, I don't know how to play the bass," he told Haley. "I'll teach you," Haley told Lytle. And he did. "He taught me the fundamentals in 30 minutes," Lytle says. "So I went out and bought a bass that afternoon and went to work for him that night. All I knew was three notes.
He was a wonderful guy to work with," Lytle says of Haley. "But like most artists, when you become a big star you get to believing your press clippings. He got the big head. When we were a nobody country band, we were very close friends. He used to come to my house and my mother would fix him breakfast all the time.
"But he became kind of standoffish when he became a big star. You had to knock before you went into his dresssing room."
D'Ambrosio was leading his own band when he learned Haley, who had used a saxophone on "Farewell, So Long, Goodbye," was looking for a saxophone player. Joey says he contacted Haley's manager, who told him to come to the club where Haley was working. "I got the job that night," he says. "Prior to me joining the band (in 1953), he had added a drummer. With the addition of a drummer and saxophone to the band, it really turned it around to a recognizable sound. We turned the whole band around. It became more of an R&B band." Before that, the lineup consisted of bass, guitar, steel guitar, rhythm guitar and piano.
The three ex-Comets went their own ways after the Jodimars broke up in 1 959. Lytle stayed in music until the mid-'60s and then decided he "wanted to make some money." He did by selling real estate in California and made enough to retire to Florida. D'Ambrosio moved to Las Vegas and worked in hotel house bands and lounges until 1974, when he took a job dealing at Caesars Palace. He's now a floorman there. Richards became an actor and has had bit parts in TV and movies, mostly as a bad guy.
Flash back to 1987, the year they ceased being former Comets and became Comets again. Richards, who had kept in contact with Lytle, D'Ambrosio and the other original Comets, had talked to a man who was producing an awards show to benefit the Philadelphia Music Foundation scholarship program. "Dick asked if we'd like to get together to do one or two songs," Lytle says. "We thought it would be a good reason to get together and see how we sounded."
The foundation flew in Richards and Lytle from California, D'Ambrosio from Las Vegas and Grande from Tennessee, and they met Beecher, who drove in from Norristown, PA. "We rehearsed for three days," Lytle says, "but after just a couple of hours it all came back to us. Our sound was even better than it was in the '50s. Unbeknownst to them, a devout Bill Haley and the Comets fan - a New York attorney with music-industry connections - was in the audience. After the show, Lytle says, "he asked if we'd be interested in doing a show in Europe. He said we're extremely popular over there. We didn't believe him.
"We told him, 'Oh, sure, we'll go to Europe. You set it up,' not thinking he would. We finally believed him when we were on the ground in England." "And we've been going back ever since," D'Ambrosio says. Happy days are here again.
ANOTHER IMPORTANT COMET TAILWith the bands recording of Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" released on Holiday Records, the Group was heading into uncharted territory. Haley was now being strongly influenced by Rhythm and Blues artists. Haley was clearly seeking a new sound but what and how was to turn into a convuluted course. Changing the alcohol laced lyrics of the original song into a fun cruise with a girl, Haley provided a song that had no connotation of evil. While the recording failed to gain any notice, brilliant guitar solos by Danny Cedrone and Billy Williamson gave the world it's first taste of "rock guitar."
The Haley recordings on Essex records began with the bands theme, "Rock This Joint" backed with "Icy Heart." "Icy Heart" was a hack, totally country and western ballad featuring Billy Williamson on steel guitar playing a straight country series of riffs. "Rock This Joint" sounded the tone of the future. Cedrone first played the landmark "Rock Around The Clock" guitar solo on this recording and subsequent releases on the label brought a growth not only of the bands style, but of Cedrones shaping of the sound of rock. Progressively getting closer and closer to what would become Rock and Roll, the group made frequent attemps at country flavored songs, but it was obvious that Cedrones driving leads were leading the direction they were headed. Cedrone, like Haley, was determined to become a star and had his own groups. Members of the Comets, including Haley, worked gigs with Cedrones band and at one point, appear to be one group with two styles and two names. While never listed as a member of the Comets on albums or publicity blurbs, Danny Cedrone was the main strength of the group. After providing landmark solos on the first five Decca Haley releases, Cedrone died after suffering a massive heart attack. It is a tribute to Cedrones talent that none of the many guitarists that replaced him were ever able to match the fire and dynamics he provided. -A. Cassel
THE COMETS' TALE
THE WORLD'S OLDEST ROCK & ROLL BAND IS STILL ROLLING
by Marty Jones / Backbeat: Rock
Joey D'Ambrosio makes no bones about his band's place in music history. "We were the first rock-n-roll band to ever be signed to a major label, and the first rock-n-roll band to ever have a hit," he says. "We were also the first to have a song in a feature film and the first to be on a major television show like Ed Sullivan. We were the first--nobody was before us. There was nobody."
These are not idle boasts. As the saxophone player for the original lineup of Bill Haley and His Comets, whose hit versions of "Shake, Rattle & Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock" predated the earliest smashes by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and other trailblazers, D'Ambrosio rightly belongs on page one of the History of Rock and Roll. And today he has yet another claim to fame. According to him, "We are the oldest and the most original rock band in the world."
Note that this last testimonial is in present tense. More than forty years after they first combined forces, D'Ambrosio, an effervescent 63-year-old, and his fellow Comets (guitarist Franny Beecher, 75, bassist Marshall Lytle, 63, drummer Dick Richards, 73, and pianist Johnny Grande, 68) are still playing the music they helped invent in the mid-Fifties. "And the interestin' thing about it," adds D'Ambrosio, whose tough-guy voice bears the imprint of his Philadelphia upbringing, "is that I was just a kid when I was doin' all this stuff with Bill Haley. To still be playing this kind of music and gettin' so much out of it now is pretty amazin'." Just as impressive, the passing years haven't dimmed the Comets' fire. "When you see us play, it's really excitin', because we have so much energy--more so than forty years ago. We really get it on. We play."
In D'Ambrosio's firsthand account, the Comet's version of rock and roll was created by the melding of the homespun country music Haley made with the Saddlemen, a hillbilly act he led in the early Fifties, and the burlesque-friendly rhythm and blues in which D'Ambrosio excelled. "I got my experience playing rhythm and blues for strippers," he says. "When I was sixteen, I played the strip joints, playin' fifty choruses of 'Night Train' every night. It was the only place you could play that kind of music-- with somebody bumpin' and grindin'.
"When I joined Bill Haley, I brought that along with me," he remarks. "He had a cowboy band, and when you put a saxophone with a country band, you're gonna get a different thing--its gonna change. So they influenced me, and I influenced them. See, when you put rhythm and blues and country together, that's when you have rock and roll. And that's what we did. It just happened to be somethin' that the people wanted. And we didn't even know it. It wasn't nothin' planned or anythin' like that. It wasn't some corporate thing."
This fresh combination of sounds transformed the music industry. haley's "Shake, Rattle & roll," which boasted a novel arrangement and slightly less risque lyrics than the Big Joe Turner original, eventually sold more than a million copies and is regarded by many music historians as the first true rock-and-roll hit. its success sent Haley and the Comets on the trip of a lifetime.
"It was crazy," D'Ambrosio confirms. "Everywhere we went there were a lot of girls and teenagers all over us, tearing out clothes off. it was scary, because the people loved us so much they went beyond--ya know what I mean? And movie stars, they'd come to see us. Jayne Mansfield was comin' around, and when we were in Hollywood, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. They wanted to party with us, 'cause we were the group."
Likewise, D'Ambrosio was the sax player of the newborn genre, thanks to some of the most recognizable horn parts ever to grace a rock song. The "bah-dap-bah, bah-bah-dah-dah" riff that opens "Shake" is extraordinarily rousing, which is exactly what D'Ambrosio intended: "We wanted an ensemble thing to get the song started--to get people's attention right away. And that's what happened," he says with a laugh. "It worked." As for "Rock Around the Clock," which boomers may remember best as the theme from the sitcom Happy Days, it's built around a staccato bridge that conjures up the entire era in only a few seconds and a couple of dozen honking notes. D'Ambrosio points out that the ditty was cut in April 1954, several months before the Comets laid down "Shake"--but he admits that had it been up to the majority of the band's members, it might never have been recorded at all.
"When we first heard the demonstration record of that song, we were in Bill Haley's basement, rehearsin' for the recordin' session and figurin' out the arrangements," he says. "We thought it was a corny-ass song, ya know? We were like, 'What the hell is this?' We didn't think much of it. But Bill was the boss, and we did what he told us to do--we didn't question it. You gotta give Bill credit, 'cause he heard somethin' in it that we didn't hear." he adds that the instrumentalists almost missed the studio date during which the song and its intended A-side, "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)," were captured on tape when a ferry on which they were riding got stuck in the Delaware River. "Who knows?" he muses. "That might have changed everything."
The Comets on stage in 1953. Left to right: Marshall Lytle, Johnny Grande, Joey Ambrose, Bill Haley, Dick Richards and Billy Williamson.
At first "Rock" achieved only modest sales by comparison with "Shake." Then it was resurrected as the opening theme of 1955's Blackboard Jungle, a movie in which Glenn Ford played a teacher trying to deal with ruffians at a New York high school. The thematic association of rock and roll with juvenile delinquency promptly led many adults to declare this new musical form a dangerous threat to all that was good about America, but the flick's view of a world in which hep-cat teens were locked in combat with oppressive parents and an unjust school system hit home with the younger crowd. "Oh, yeah, the kids ate that up," D'Ambrosio says. "At that time, kids wanted to have more of a voice--they wanted to be heard and recognized. Clothing was changin', and girls were startin' to get, uh, looser, and some people started wearin' the leathers. We wore plaid jackets--we were nice guys. But parents didn't know about our wholesome image. They heard our music and just took it for granted that we were a bunch of raunchy guys. Sure, we had wild music, but without all that other stuff."
Indeed, the surviving comets are a straitlaced bunch, and D'Ambrosio feels this characteristic bunch, and D'Ambrosio feels this characteristic has everything to do with why they're still alive and kicking. "The guys in the band are clean guys. they don't drink, they don't smoke, they don't party. I mean, we party, but not excessively. We never did, even with the Comets. So by doin' that, I guess after all these years we're still in good shape and able to do what we do."
D'Ambrosio, Lytle and Richards left Haley's employ shortly after "Rock" shot to the top of the charts, mainly because they felt that they weren't being treated fairly; days after the band leader bought three cadillacs so the musicians could travel in style, he turned down their request for a raise of fifty dollars a week. The threesome went on to form the Jodimars, a group that recorded for the Capitol imprint during the Fifties, and when that outfit ran its course, they went on with their lives, figuring that there wasn't much money in being a former Comet. But they were wrong. "For a long time the Comets had been forgotten, especially after Elvis came out," D'Ambrosio allows. "Then you had the Sixties and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and nobody wanted to hear about us. But then all of a sudden we started gettin' recognized again."
The band returned to the limelight in 1987, when the Philadelphia Academy of Music put together a tribute to local-boy-made-good Dick Clark. A long list of Philadelphia music heavies were invited to contribute, including Frankie Avalon, Buddy Greco, Patti LaBelle and, yes, the Comets. The show's producers tracked down D'Ambrosio in Las Vegas, where he was working as a casino card dealer and appearing regularly with area jazz bands. (He continues the latter practice to this day when in Vegas, where he serves as a pit boss at Caesars Palace.) When the Comets took the stage on the big night, their performance was heavenly.
"We killed 'em!" D'Ambrosio declares. "The people were elated., It seemed like we were the stars of the show, and we got more recognition than anybody." After the performance, the players met a booking agent who told them of their continuing popularity in Europe. In D'Ambrosio's words, "We didn't know any of that. The guy says, 'Would you like to play in Europe?' and we said, 'Geez, that'd be great.'"
The reunited Comets' first European appearance, at an outdoor festival in England, convinced the musicians that they were on to something. "The people went wild--big-time," D'Ambrosio divulges. "it was so exciting that we thought we ought to do this more often." Since then, the Comets have toured the Old Country for up to two months a year, playing to sold-out crowds in England, Germany, France and many other countries.
The Comets at the London Astoria, June 10, 1990.
What's made the Comets so popular overseas? "As far as music goes over there, you have to be the real thing, and that's what we are," D'Ambrosio explains. "We created this music, and that's why we're so popular--because we are so authentic. And they're really into the nostalgia part of it, and they appreciate what we do, much more than American audiences."
Even so, the Comets haven't given up on their homeland; they've just embarked on their first U.S. tour since the Philly date a decade ago. Unfortunately, Haley is not around to share the applause. He died in Harlingen, Texas, in 1981, a raving, drunken recluse distraught over the demise of his career and the deaths of loved ones such as Rudy Pompilli, D'Ambrosio's replacement. "He was a sad figure," D'Ambrosio affirms. "And when Rudy died, it really messed him up. Rudy was his band guy.
"It's a strange thing, but Bill Haley really didn't want to be a rock-and-roll star. It just happened that way," he goes on. "He was a country singer, a cowboy yodeler, and that's what he wanted to be. I mean, it wasn't a burden to him, but it wasn't him. I think he would have been happier to have been another Gene Autry."
But for D'Ambrosio and the Comets (now fronted by sixty-year-old Londoner Jacko Buddin in the Bill Haley role), there are no regrets--not even about never again reaching the peaks they scaled with their one-time boss. "Naah, we don't have any problem with that," he insists. "We just kind of took it. This is what happened, and we were lucky. Our music just happened to be there, and the people were ready for it. They were lookin' for a change; they were tired of Patty Page singin' 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?' and Perry Como singin' 'Mambo Loves Jambo.' They wanted their own voice--somethin' that they could relate to. Every decade has a voice, and for the Fifties, it was us. After all these years, look what the music's done. You look back at the last forty years, with Vietnam and the Kennedy thing and it's still here. The music lives on. And music is the voice of the people."
It's also the best way D'Ambrosio knows to temper the ravages of time. "Music like this keeps you young--it really does. I mean, most guys that are our age are sittin' in their rockin' chairs.But not us. We're better than ever."
"You're Never Too Old To Rock" CD - Hydra Records BCK 27103 1994
Also available: "We're Gonna Party" CD - Hydra Records BCK 27100 1993
ROCK IT CONCERTS
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