Tuesday, December 12, 2017
News Roundup

Marshall Lytle of Bill Haley and His Comets made rock 'n' roll history

NEW PORT RICHEY — With its jump-through-your-skin enthusiasm and an aggressive beat not common in an era of Mitch Miller and Doris Day, Rock Around the Clock grabbed a golden moment in music history.

It set records as the first rock 'n' roll song to reach No. 1 and outsold all singles for decades except White Christmas.

But chances are, the only name you remember from Bill Haley and His Comets, who recorded it, is Bill Haley.

That is natural, but incomplete. Haley formed the group and pioneered a sound that took bits of jazz and rhythm and blues that was daring for its time.

He also taught an 18-year-old Marshall Lytle, who played the guitar, how to play the bass fiddle. Mr. Lytle would drive the percussive "slap beat" of a $275 late-1940s model B5 Epiphone into rock 'n' roll history. He anchored other hits including Shake, Rattle and Roll; Crazy, Man, Crazy; and See You Later, Alligator while taking chances onstage.

He plucked his bass while cradling it in his arms or lying on his back, or charged the crowd as if astride a hobby horse.

Mr. Lytle would leave Bill Haley and His Comets at the peak of the group's fame in a dispute over money, taking two other members with him. He would relish his role near the center of a musical shift predating Elvis and the Beatles, and enjoy an extended reunion with other original Comets in later years.

Mr. Lytle, who won gold records for his work but not riches, died Saturday at his home in New Port Richey, of lung cancer. He was 79.

"When that song went to No. 1, that changed everything," said Billboard Magazine columnist Fred Bronson. "Music historians actually count that day — July 9, 1955 — as the starting point for the rock era."

Bill Turner, who played lead guitar with Haley in the 1970s, compared Rock Around the Clock to the big bang theory.

"As soon as that record starts with the rim shot and the '1 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock rock' — it hits you right between the eyes like a punch."

Mr. Lytle, then 21, was driving from Buffalo to Boston with band members when he realized the song was playing on several radio stations at once.

"At one given moment, it was playing five times on the dial," he recalled years later. "I said, 'This is a monster hit.' "

His take amounted to $41.25 for a three-hour recording session, he told the Times in 1997.

Marshall Lytle was born in Old Fort, N.C., in 1933. The family moved to Chester, Pa., where his parents worked for a ship building company.

His parents rented a room to Tex King, who played guitar in a local band, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. King taught Mr. Lytle to play the guitar. When the group's bass player left, Haley talked Mr. Lytle into joining the group as a bass player.

The group ditched the cowboy duds and changed its name. Bill Haley and His Comets played gigs for up to five hours at a time.

In 1954 the group recorded Rock Around the Clock, the B side of the 45 single meant to complement Thirteen Women, in a hasty half-hour session. The song was used in the opening credits and first scene of Blackboard Jungle, a 1955 movie about juvenile delinquency. The exposure helped propel the song to No. 1.

Haley did not share the wealth, and refused to grant band members a requested $50-a-week raise. Mr. Lytle left, along with sax player Joey D'Ambrosio (also known as Joey Ambrose) and drummer Dick Richards.

The defectors formed the Jodimars, who played venues in Las Vegas with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others. The group split in 1959.

Mr. Lytle changed his name to Tommy Page and performed on the West Coast. He sold real estate and was married and divorced three times.

In 1987 he rejoined D'Ambrosio, Richards and other original Comets for the first annual Philadelphia Music Awards. Other versions of the Comets had played, before and after Haley's death in 1981.

Mr. Lytle's reconstituted group lasted more than 20 years, including scores of cruise ship engagements and a standing run in Branson, Mo. In the 1990s he also owned a shop in Largo, Southwest & Tropical Decor.

In 2009 he lost part of his leg to amputation due to a blood clot, but was back on stage two weeks later. He retired from the group in 2009 but continued to perform solo engagements, said Cathy Smith, his girlfriend since 2001. In 2012 Bill Haley and His Comets were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

He was diagnosed with cancer several months ago and died under hospice care. Of the original members who played on Rock Around the Clock, only D'Ambrosio, 79, survives.

Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

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