Marshall Lytle shows off his gold record for "Shake, Rattle and Roll," the group's first hit. Lytle, 69, still plays the upright bass in his pioneering, energetic style during performances around the world. Tampa Tribune photo by Amdy Jones
Comet Still Rocks
New Port Richey Man Played In Bill Haley's Band
Courtesy: Tampa Tribune, June 3, 2003 - by Geoff Fox
NEW PORT RICHEY, FL - Although he'll turn 70 this year, Marshall Lytle can still raise an upright bass over his left shoulder and pluck the strings with his right hand.
He can still play the instrument, which is about 6-feet tall, while standing on it as if it were a pogo stick.
He can still play it while on his back or riding it like a hobby horse, employing the slap-back style he pioneered 50 years ago.
You might never have heard Lytle's name. But his sound? That's another matter. The doomba-doomba-doomba of his instrument is featured on "Rock Around the Clock," "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "See You Later Alligator."
A bassist for Bill Haley and his Comets from 1951 to 1955, Lytle played on records that have sold tens of millions of copies. He has the gold records and memorabilia, but not the royalties, to prove it.
Lytle lives comfortably in a double-wide mobile home near Main Street about six months of the year. He spends the rest of his time in hotel suites and aboard cruise ships, touring as one of Haley's "Original Comets."
If he's bitter about the falling out with Haley that caused him and two other members to leave the band as its popularity soared, he doesn't show it.
He has been around the world, performed before screen legends, and shared a stage with Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
"We've got the greatest retirement of any human being that ever retired," Lytle said. "We get to travel and see the World, and they pay us for it."
The five-man "Original Comets" - Lytle, guitarist Franny Beecher, 81, saxophone player Joey D'Ambrosio (also known as Joey Ambrose), 69, pianist Johnny Grande, 73, and drummer Dick Richards, 79 - began a month long tour in Paris today.
The tour includes dates in Germany, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary.
"We try to stay active, do about 60 to 80 concerts a year," Lytle said. "Most of them are in Europe. We do Canada a lot and do some dates here in the States."
In his kitchen hangs a plaque commemorating "Rock Around the Clock," bestowed in 1981 by The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. To the right, hangs a gold record for "Shake, Rattle and Roll," the group's first hit.
Nearby is a framed gold 78 record for "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock." It's highlighted by an aged Decca Records advertisement touting the band as "ATOMIC!"
Roots as Blue Collar As The Music
Lytle was born in Old Fort, N.C., near Asheville, on Sept. 1, 1933, the last of John and bessie Lytle's five children. When work dried up for John, the family moved to Chester, Pa., where he and Bessie worked at the Sun Ship Building and Dry Dock Co.
Marshall thought the only way he would see the world would be to fight in a war like his brother Cliff, who brought an acoustic guitar home from World War II.
Cliff befriended Tex King, who played guitar in a local band led by Haley. King lived with the Lytle for a while, and the teenage Marshall listened to him strum and sing every evening.
After lessons from King, Lytle began performing at school assemblies and talent contests. He eventually quit school to work in a factory by day and play Atlantic City, N.J., clubs by night.
By 1951, he was performing full time and hosting a show on Chester radio station WP. Haley had become a family friend. When Haley's bassist quit, the bandleader came to Lytle.
"I said, 'I'm a guitar player, I don't play bass,'" Lytle said. "He said, "Well, I'll teach you. I'll only take 30 minutes or so.'"
A quick lesson in the WP parking lot, and Lytle was on stage that night with Billy Haley and the Saddlemen, known for their cowboy boots and white stetsons. The band played country until Haley heard "Rock The Joint," a rhythm-and-blues number by Jackie Bronston.
The band recorded it. "Rock'n'roll became our life," Lytle said.
'A Crazy, Wild Bass Player'
Until 1953, when Haley added D'Ambrosio and Richards, the band (by then known as Bill Haley and his Comets) had no drummer. Lytle, with constant performing, had refined a back-slap or shuffle-slap style that became an early rock 'n' roll trademark.
"He was one of the first to bring it out," said Alex Frazer-Harrison, a Canadian freelance journalist who has written extensively about Bill Haley and his Comets. "People hearing [Haley's] first records, they heard him in the background, creating percussion. All the percussion was from Marshall, that clickety-click in the back-ground.
"To learn how to make the bass speak this way opened up a lot of doors for people," he said. "You listen to the music back then, and it had such a unique sound."
Lytle also began honing stage antics. Sometimes, during a sax solo, D'Ambrosio would sit in the bass's groove and Lytle would pull the instrument around stage like a little red wagon.
"I think most people think of [Lytle] as the prototype of a crazy, wild bass player in the rock 'n' roll mode," said Terry Stewart, chief executive officer of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. "There were African-Americans doing similar things, but in terms of crossover appeal, he was at the forefront of making the bass an important part of the music, not just something in the background."
In 1954, the band struck gold with "Shake, Rattle and Roll," which sold more than 1 million copies. The next year, "Rock Around the Clock" became so popular that Lytle once heard it playing simultaneously on three stations.
Bill Haley and his Comets were soaring like rockets. The band had gone from Philadelphia's tiny Essex Records label to industry giant Decca.
Before anyone heard of Elvis, the Comets were performing before wildly enthusiastic crowds and on television.
3 Comets Take Flight
One night in Chicago, Lytle, D'Ambrosio and Richards, who were making about $175 a week, asked Haley for a raise: $50 a week. They had families and road expenses.
They also had seen a $35,000 Decca royalty check in Haley's dressing room. Haley said no.
"He said he was in too much debt," Lytle said. "The next thing we know, he's out buying four Cadillacs for the band to ride in. That was the straw that broke our back."
Lytle, D'Ambrosio and Richards had a three-year deal with Capitol Records signed soon after informing Haley they were leaving. They used letters from their names (Joey, Dick and Marshall) to come up with the Jodimars.
We had a helluva group, a great group, better than Bill Haley's," D'Ambrosio said. "Our first gig was at the Palace Theater in New York City."
"Well Now Dig This" became a moderate U.S. hit and a major hit in Europe, and the group began playing casinos and nightclubs in Las Vegas and was house band at Harold's Club in Reno, Nevada.
In Vegas, the band played with Ella Fitzgerald at The Sands Hotel for an audience sparkling with Hollywood stars including Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Gary Cooper.
But by 1959 the Jodimars were squabbling. Musicians were added, but Lytle and D'Ambrosio say no one took charge. The group disbanded, and Lytle pursued a solo career. Divorced from his first wife, with whom he had three children, he began touring with his new wife, with whom he would have five children.
An agent persuaded Lytle to change his name to Tommy Page, and he performed on the West Coast for about five years. In 1967, he quit the music industry to sell real estate in California.
For 14 years, he made more than he ever had playing. But in 1981, rising interest rates drove him to yet another profession: motivational speaker.
That same year, Lytle was watching television when a newscaster said Haley was dead of a heart attack in Texas. Lytle had last spoken to Haley in 1975, when he saw his former mentor perform at a nightclub in Hayword, California.
"He introduced me from the stage as his original bass player on "Rock Around the Clock.' gave me a nice introduction and had me take a bow," Lytle said.
His memories of Haley, inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, mostly are good. "I know Bill had his reasons for doing what he did," Lytle said. "If he had to do it over again I think he'd have treated me better. He got the big head, but he never realized it."
'I'll Rock Till I Drop'
In 1987, Richards called Lytle to say there was an opportunity for the original Comets to reunite for a concert in Philadelphia. Lytle leapt.
"I hadn't seen Johnny Grande or Franny Beecher since 1955," he said. "We walked past each other in the hotel lobby and didn't recognize each other.
"They put us in a rehearsal hall, and it all came back. I said, 'We can still ride this bicycle.'" After the show, the group was approached about performing in England. The band, which sometimes includes British singer and Haley sound-alike Jacko Buddin, has been in demand since.
Last year, Lytle was divorced from his third wife, with whom he moved to New Port Richey in 1986. He moved into the double-wide a few months ago. He has a girlfriend and doesn't plan to move again.
"I just need a place I can lock up for three or four months at a time and come back to," Lytle said. "I'm gonna rock till I drop, so to speak."
sounds like a Stephen King novel.
You can never have too much "stuff."
Run, Bullwinkle, run!!
This town is trying to reduce its
Make your choice and start your engines.
Thanks, but I think I'll just keep driving.
Do you reckon they ran out of Canola oil?
Hmmmm. I'll just keep
shopping at my regular supermarket.
Maybe the sign should have read
"Pass With Care - Right Side Up"
Younger painters need not apply!
Perfect road for a getaway.
Besides, they aren't in season right now!
Sure hope everyone brought along an
empty coffee can or a mason jar.
They actually have to put a sign up
to keep people from doing this?
Oh, there has got to be some
circumstance when it's allowed.
I wonder how long they'd remain your
Who says you can't be in two places at once?
Fast elderly people must cross elsewhere.
Now, as you drive down the highways and
byways, enjoying these funny signs,
if you ever come across ... a two-story
outhouse - use the upper one.