BILL Haley and the Comets were on their way to New York. It
was April 12, 1954, an anxious day of reckoning for Haley, who had signed
with the big league - Decca Records.
Haley, Billy Williamson (steel guitar), Johnny Grande (piano) Joey Ambrose
(sax) and Marshall Lytle (bass), had to travel by ferry and by drive to
Manhattan for an important three-hour recording session at Pythian Temple.
``Then we had a mishap on the Delaware River,'' Lytle, 70, tells Weekend,
chuckling. ``The ferry got stuck on a sandbar.''
Haley took the delay in his stride. He knew Milt Gabler, who had signed him
to Decca Records, would understand.
``So what if we're a little late?'' Haley told Lytle. ``Don't worry about
it. They'll get us off this sandbar and we'll be in the studio before you
A barge eventually freed the stranded boat. Bill Haley and the Comets got to
Pythian Temple an hour late.
``There was a lot of tension,'' Lytle recalls. ``This was our first
recording session for Decca. And Sammy Davis Jr was scheduled to record
after we were through, so we couldn't go over time.''
Gabler gave them three hours as Davis waited in the wings.
They spent 2 1/2hours arranging and recording 13 Women (And Only 1 Man in
Town), a song which Gabler pegged as an A-side and a hit.
``When that song was finished, Milt Gabler said: `OK, do that rock 'n' roll
thing you keep talking about'.
``That's the extent of what they knew about rock 'n' roll. Decca didn't know
what they had,'' Lytle laughs.
Gabler ran the tape. Bill Haley and the Comets played Rock Around the Clock,
a tune written for Haley by Max Freedman and James Myers.
``I thank God we rehearsed the song in Bill's basement in Pennsylvania
before we did the recording session,'' Lytle says.
GUITARIST Danny Cedrone and drummer Billy Gussak joined the Comets for the
April 12 session.
Both were session musicians who had played with Haley on earlier recordings.
That fact helped Lytle devise Cedrone's guitar solo on Rock Around the
Gussak played around Lytle's signature ``doomba-doomba-doomba'' slap-bass on
Haley's 1953 song, Crazy Man Crazy.
``I suppose Billy and I created our sound with that song. Bill Haley also
thought Billy Gussak was a lucky charm,'' Lytle says.
``I was allowed to play how I normally played and Billy would fill in the
gaps with a shuffle beat. That sound gelled immediately. It was the sound we
took to Rock Around the Clock. It was the signature rhythm that everybody
liked dancing to.''
To Cedrone, Rock Around the Clock was alien. He had never heard it. He had
not rehearsed it with the Comets and had no guitar solo in mind.
Lytle then recalled Cedrone's guitar solo on a 1952 Comets track, Rock This
Joint. He suggested Cedrone transplant it to Rock Around the Clock.
``It fits perfectly,'' Lytle says, ``and it became one of the greatest
guitar solos ever.''
Haley paid Cedrone $47.50 for the session. Months later, Cedrone died after
Bill Haley and the Comets spent 35 minutes recording two takes of Rock
Around the Clock.
``I thought it was a good song, but it was not something we had great
enthusiasm about,'' Lytle says.
``We always had hopes for a hit record, but we never realised Rock Around
the Clock would be world famous. You couldn't sense it.''
The song was released in May, 1954, as a B-side to 13 Women.
THE label described Rock Around The Clock as a ``foxtrot''. It sold 150,000
copies and sank.
A year later, Rock Around the Clock got new life when film director Richard
Brooks used it in Blackboard Jungle.
Brooks heard the track at the home of actor Glenn Ford. Ford's son, Peter,
was blasting the song in his bedroom.
Blackboard Jungle hit screens in March, 1955. On July 5, Rock Around the
Clock became the No. 1 song in the US. It stayed at the top for eight weeks.
Lytle realised the song's impact in one of Haley's many luxury cars.
``Bill had bought a new Cadillac with a selectric radio dial where you push
a button and it changes stations automatically,'' Lytle says.
``It was 10 in the morning and I heard Rock Around the Clock.
``I pushed a button and it was playing at the same time on another station,
and then another, and another.
``I pushed that button five times and it was playing on every station at the
same time across the dial. I only knew then it was an absolute smash.''
But Haley's success, and money, changed everything. Lytle had known Haley
``Bill was my hero,'' Lytle says. ``He was seven years older than me, a very
talented man, a great singer and musician.''
In one afternoon session, Haley taught Lytle to play bass.
``It took 30 minutes!'' Lytle says.
``I learned the basic three-chord, three-note runs on a bass and then how to
slap the bass.''
That night Lytle performed on stage with Haley.
``We were working our butts off, making a living to support our families,''
Lytle says. ``We were hoping that, maybe, we could get a hit record and make
some money from it.''
But the money trail stopped at Haley.
Lytle was paid $47.50 for his contribution to Rock Around the Clock.
``It was a union scale pay cheque,'' Lytle says, glumly. ``That was what I
earned for my part on one of the world's most famous recordings.''
Haley's career peaked in 1955. His other hits included Shake Rattle and Roll
and See Ya Later Alligator.
Lytle says Haley was earning about $30,000 a week, yet Haley kept the Comets
on a $175.00 weekly wage.
Lytle, Ambrose and drummer Dick Richards quit the Comets after Haley refused
a $50 pay rise.
``Bill really changed after he had success. He became big-headed. He started
believing his own press and excluded me from a friendship.
``Hell, he used to come to my home, my mother would make breakfast for him
-- he would eat dinner with us.
``Then it got to be not so friendly.''
Lytle agrees, to a point, with academics citing Rock Around the Clock as the
song that gave birth to rock 'n' roll.
It deserves that honour, Lytle says, because it was the first universally
recognised rock 'n' roll song.
``Rock Around the Clock broke down barriers, especially the colour barrier,
that prevented mainstream America from enjoying rock and roll,'' says Alex
Fraser-Harrison, a writer for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Nashville.
``What upsets me is how revisionists have tried to downplay the song's
importance in recent years.''
He disagrees with theories that Elvis Presley's July 1954 hit, That's All
Right Mama, started rock 'n' roll.
``Part of the problem is Elvis has a much better public relations machine
behind him,'' Fraser-Harrison says.
``For me, Rock Around the Clock was the single most important recording of
the second half of the 20th century. Literally nothing sounded the same
LYTLE: ``I feel rock 'n' roll was born before Rock Around the Clock. But
they were merely stepping stones to what Rock Around the Clock achieved.''
Rock This Joint, the 1952 Bill Haley and the Comets track, saw influential
DJ Allen Freed coin the phrase ``rock and roll''.
Lytle was sitting in on Freed's radio program in Cleveland, Ohio, the moment
the term was invented.
``He played Rock This Joint, and while the record was playing, he left the
microphone on and yelled: `Rock and roll, everybody, rock and roll!' To me, that was the night rock 'n' roll was born, because I was there, I
heard it and experienced it.''
Bill Haley had little success after 1956. He replaced the Lytle-Ambrose
rhythm section, but couldn't nail their signature sound.
``This is what really happened to Bill: Elvis Presley came and took his
thunder. I don't think Bill ever got over it because he kept trying and
trying and trying.''
Bill Haley died of a heart attack, aged 55, in 1981. His estate receives all
royalties for Rock Around the Clock.
To date, it has sold 200 million copies, featured in 36 movies and been
recorded by 500 artists in 36 languages.
Lytle is finally collecting on the track, too.
Fifteen years ago, after a call to do a television special, now in their
golden years, Lytle 70, Ambrose, 70, Dick Richards 80, Grande, 74, and guitarist Franny Beecher, 82, reformed the Original Comets.
This week they started the second leg of a sellout European tour. ▲