Gary James' Interview With Marshall Lytle of
Bill Haley's Comets
It can be safely said that "Rock Around The Clock" was the song by the group Bill Haley And His Comets that started the Rock 'n Roll movement. Bill Haley And His Comets conjured up Beatlemania like reactions long before The Beatles were ever thought of.
Marshall Lytle was the original bassist for The Comets. Still performing today, he spoke about those early days of Rock 'n Roll and his appreciation for what it meant to him.
Q - Were you with Bill Haley when visited England in February 1957?
A - No. I had already left Bill at that time. That was the later Comets that came after Joe, Dick, and myself left. If you're familiar with the early history of Bill Haley's Comets, his band broke up...well, it didn't break up, three of us left because of financial reasons. They replaced us with three other musicians. Actually, they replaced the three of us with four other musicians.
Q - When did you leave Bill Haley?
A - I left Bill at the height of "Rock Around The Clock"'s popularity, in 1955. It was number one in the country, soon to become number one in the world. Blackboard Jungle had just come out. The kids were dancing in the aisles in the theatres. I knew it was a hit. I was still with Bill at the time. We were traveling on the New York Thruway from Buffalo to Boston to do a television show. I turned the radio on and "Rock Around The Clock" was playing. This was a new Cadillac that Bill had just bought. It had one of those Selectrix dials where you just push the bar and it goes to the next station. I pushed the bar and it was playing again on another radio station. I pushed the bar again and it was playing again. At one given moment, it was playing five times on the dial. Within five minutes, I must've heard it a dozen times. I said 'this is a monster hit'. When you hear a song that many times on that many different radio stations, you know damn well that it was a monster hit.
Q - How many takes did it require to record "Rock Around The Clock"?
A - Well, we recorded that particular song in 35 minutes.
Q - So, it wasn't like ten takes?
A - No. We had already rehearsed the song in Bill's basement in Pennsylvania before we went to the record session. The recording of "Rock Around The Clock" was the "B" side of our first recording session for Decca Records. The "A" side was a thing called "Thirteen Women And Only One Man In Town". We sold millions, but, "Rock Around The Clock" was the one that they bought. They promoted the wrong song. When the song was put in the motion picture Blackboard Jungle, that's when the kids all started going crazy over it. That's when it became a hit.
Q - Who replaced you and the other members of The Comets, Bill or his manager?
A - Bill and his partners. There were four partners in the group. There was supposed to have been five, but, I got cheated out of mine. When we started Bill Haley And His Comets, we were a cowboy band. We were called Bill Haley And The Saddlemen. We played country 'n western swing music. We just played around the Delaware Valley near Philadelphia. The town was called Chester, Pa. We recorded for Essex Records in Philadelphia. We looked for songs that the kids would buy because we knew who the record buyers were...and they still are. We would do interviews, we would do high school assemblies in the local high schools to promote local recordings that we had. I went with Bill in 1951. There was just four of us. We wore the cowboy clothes and played in the local bars. I just turned 18 years old. In 1952, we recorded a song called "We're Gonna Rock This Joint Tonight". We were promoting the song in different cities through Essex Records. They sent us to Cleveland, Ohio. A disc jockey show with a young up and coming DJ called
Q - I think he coined the term "rock and roll".
A - I was there the night I think rock 'n roll was named. We were promoting "Rock This Joint" and Alan Freed was playing it. We were all sitting around a round table. There was a big boom microphone hanging out in the middle of the table and Alan Freed had a switch on the wall that he could turn it on and off. While "Rock This Joint" was playing, he was pounding on the table, yelling "rock and roll everybody, rock and roll". People started calling up and saying 'play that rock and roll song again.' So, he said, 'We're gonna play that rock and roll song one more time! Rock This Joint!' He must've played it ten or twelve times that night. I truly and honestly believe that was the night rock and roll was named. Before that, it was rhythm 'n blues. Alan Freed was known as The King Of The Moondogs, but after that, he played rock 'n roll music.
Q - What does the term "moondog" mean?
A - I don't know. Some kind of an expression he was tagged with when he was doing his DJ work in Cleveland. That was what he was known as, "The King Of The Moondogs".
Q - How much money were you making with Bill Haley?
A - I made $60 a week. Bill Haley made $90 a week 'cause he was the leader. When we started having hit records, a manager got involved and I was so young and naive, they saw a way of pushing me out and making it a four way partnership, making me a junior partner.
Q - So, does that mean you were put on a salary?
A - No. They called it a salary, but it wasn't an every week type of thing. We started hiring other musicians. We added a drum to the band because we added saxophone to some of our recordings, well, we had to have a saxophone player so that we could sound like our recordings. All of the originals from the 1953 to 1955, Bill Haley success years, we are the ones that are still performing together.
Q - What were you doing before you joined forces with Bill Haley?
A - I was a single. I played guitar and sang. I had my own local radio show on another radio station in Chester Pa. Bill was a friend of my family. And...it's a long story.
Q - You could almost write a book about it.
A - Well, really, I could. I've got a book in me.
Q - Bill Haley was performing right up until the end of his life, wasn't he?
A - Up until about two years before he died, he had pretty much wrapped it up. He played all the way up to 1979. I think that was one of his last touring times. He died in 1981. He toured England in 1979. I think that was his last tour of the UK. I don't know of any other gigs he played after 1979. I know he became very incoherent. He was losing his faculties. I was told he had a brain tumour that was inoperable and had three years to live. He pretty much drank himself to death. He told me when I saw him in 1975 that he was drinking, oh, about a fifth of tequila every day. That stuff is not that good for you.
Q - At the height of Bill Haley's popularity, what type of venues were you playing?
A - We played the Chicago Theatre, which was the number one theatre for recording artists. We played a lot of the ballrooms. We played a lot of the arenas, places that would have skating rinks. But, we played a lot of ballrooms in the 50s, 'cause that would hold a lot of people.
Q - You and the other Comets have been performing without Bill since the mid-50s?
A - Yes. We had about 30 years where we didn't perform at all. In the early 60s, everybody went in their own direction... went into other business and created other careers. I was a real estate broker in California. Our saxophone player went into the gaming business in Las Vegas. He was a pit boss at Caesar's Palace for a number of years. He just retired a few years ago. Our drummer went into acting. He did a lot of motion pictures. He was in 35 films and a lot of TV series like HBO stuff. Our guitar player went into a factory. He worked his way up to where he was a supervisor in a factory that made Halloween costumes. He played on weekends to keep his fingers limber. He is 82 years young now and he still plays like a young man. He gets standing ovations no matter where we played. He's just an awesome player. Before he went with Bill Haley in 1954, he was with Benny Goodman's Orchestra in the late '40s... '48, '49. So, he's got some musical credentials. He played with all the greats. He was with Gene Krupa.
Q - Did he play with Tommy Dorsey?
A - I'm sure he didn't play with the Dorsey Band. We did the Dorsey television show back in 1954. That was the same show that Elvis did. A lot of people don't realize that the first television show Elvis was on, was the Dorsey Show. He was introduced by a disc jockey from Cleveland by the name of Bill Randall. The first time Elvis was on TV, we had just left Bill and we had created a group called The Jodimars. That's a combination of three names...Joe, Dick and Marshall. We put the first syllable of each of our names together. When we left Bill, we started playing with that group. Our first job was at the Place Theatre in New York. We had Judy Garland's dressing room. Her name was still on the door. One of our jobs shortly after that was with Pat Boone. We co-starred with Pat Boone at the State Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut. We were anxious to see Elvis on TV because we had heard so much about him through the grapevine... the show business grapevine. Pat Boone and I became friends. I had three children and he had three children. His were all girls, mine were all boys. We were backstage and we wanted to see Elvis. We found an old, black and white TV set back in one the dressing rooms. We couldn't get a picture on it because of the steel girders in the theatre. So, we got a whole bunch of extension cords and pieced them together, carried that black and white TV out in the alley behind the Hartford State Theatre and watched Elvis Presley's first television performance! (laughs) There were snowflakes falling and there was snow on the screen too!
Q - Did you ever meet Elvis?
A - Oh, yes. I spent several hours with "the Army". He was in Las Vegas, backstage at the Sahara Hotel, hanging out with other entertainers. Myself and another one of my associates was backstage with him. He actually asked me to hold his wrist watch while he was giving the rest of us a performance or demonstration on Karate. I read the back of his wrist watch and it said 'Congratulations to Elvis Presley on the sale of your 79th million record. RCA Victor.
Q - What kind of watch was it?
A - It was a gold watch, but it wasn't a Rolex. It was a beautiful, beautiful watch.
Q - Did you like Elvis?
A - I liked him a lot. I used to sing all his songs. Elvis was the most gentle person and had the nicest manners of any perfomer I've ever worked with. Everything was 'Yes Sir' and 'No Maam'. That was the way he was brought up. He was a Southern gentleman and he lived that right through to the end of his life.
Q - Who sings Bill's vocals in the Comets these days?
A - I'm doing the vocals. It doesn't matter if I sound like Bill or not. The band is who we're selling. The band sounds exactly like we did in 1955 when we had all the hit records. The saxophone player also sings. Naturally, I sing "Rock Around The Clock" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll". In Europe for a number of years, we had a Bill Haley sound-a-like that is from England. His name is Jacko Buddim. We still use Jacko when we play the UK 'cause he's been with us over there for the last thirteen years. We started performing in the US without Jacko and we found out it isn't necessary to have him because the people are coming to see the original Comets. It works with him. It works without him.
Q - Does he look like Bill Haley?
A - No. He doesn't look anything like Bill Haley.
Q - Why did you pick up the bass?
A - Bill Haley's bass player quit in 1951. I was doing my own local radio show in Chester, Pa. As I said, we were all friends. Bill was a friend of our family. One day, he walked into the radio station where I was and said 'Hey Marshall, my bass player just quit. I'm looking for a bass player. Do you want to play bass for me? I said 'I don't play bass, Bill.' He said 'Well hell, I can teach you that in about 30 minutes.' I said 'Well, let's try it.' So, we went out to his radio station where there was an old bass fiddle. He showed me the basic runs on the bass neck and how to slap it, how to play a shuffle beat the way he wanted it played. I said 'Hell, I can do that.' I went and bought a bass fiddle that afternoon. I went to work for him that night. I learned on the job.
Q - You never did play electric bass did you? You played the stand-up bass?
A - I had no amplification what-so-ever. Bill wanted it played loud. He kept yelling 'Play loud Marshall' I splattered blood blisters all over the side of the bass. Finally, I got my calluses where it didn't matter and I could play as loud as I needed to.
Q - Do you still play that stand-up bass?
A - I still play that stand-up bass. That's what people want to see. That's what I played in the 50s and that's what they want me to play now.
Q - How many gigs a year do you play?
A - Right now, we're doing somewhere between 60 and 80 jobs a year. We did a 28 day tour of Europe. We went to Spain, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France.
Q - And playing in the band is all you do these days?
A - I'm retired. We all are. We're all Senior Citizens. You know, our ages range from 70 to 82 years young. Our drummer had his 80th birthday while we were on a cruise through the Caribbean. Our guitar player is 82. Our piano player is 74. I'm 70. Joey, our saxophone player is 70. Thank God we're able to do this. I'll tell you, we've got the greatest retirement plan in the world. We're living our Golden Years to the fullest. We love what we do and we do what we love, and that is the best of the whole world.
Q - Did you ever in your wildest dreams think you'd still be in a band at this stage of your life?
A - Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be doing what I'm doing today. None of the other Comets thought so either. We're almost like in a dream, because things are so much better for us now than they were then. In those days, we had to do what we did. We had to play. But now, we're playing because we want to play...and there's a difference.
Q - And the reaction you must get from the audience...
A - It's unbelievable. We did a cruise and we were the first act on. Every night there was a different act that had to go and perform for those people who had paid a lot of money to go on the cruise with us. We set the standards very high for them to follow. It was pretty tough for them (to follow). They called us 'The Darlings Of The Ship' (laughs)
Q - Do you still wear those matching outfits?
A - Yes we do, just like we did back in the 50s. We wear red tuxedo jackets and tuxedo pants and patent leather shoes and bow ties. We play the role.
Bill Haley and His Comets placed five songs in the US Top 20 in 1954 and 1955.
After Marshall Lytle left, Haley added ten more Top 40 hits between 1955 and 1958
After the TV show Happy Days appeared in the US, "Rock Around The Clock" re-entered the charts, climbing to number 39 in 1974