by By GEOFF FOX email@example.com (Tampa Tribune)
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 like it's 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 may never have heard Lytle's name before now. 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 hiscq Comets from 1951-1955, 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 monthlong tour in Paris on Friday.
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 BLUR 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 Lytles 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 WPWA.
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. It'll only take 30 minutes or so.' " A quick lesson in the WPWA parking lot and Lytle was on stage that night with Bill 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 background.
"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" 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.
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."
THREE COMETS TAKE FLIGHT
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 first 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, Nev.
In Vegas, the band played with Ella Fitzgerald at The Sands hotel for an audience sparkling with Hollywood stars like 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 stage 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, Calif. "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 of treated me better. He got the big head, but he never realized it."
"I'LL ROCK 'TIL 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 soundalike Jacko Buddin, has been in demand since.
Two other groups have been touring as "Bill Haley's Comets." Each includes a former member of Haley's lineup, though neither played on the major hits. Lytle calls the other bands phonies.
Frazer-Harrison, the Canadian journalist, said Lytle's group puts on an amazing show. "I saw them about four months ago and people's jaws were dropping," he said. "They play better than they did in the "50s."
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 - not with a European tour looming.
"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 'til I drop, so to speak." (Reporter Geoff Fox can be reached at (813) 948-4217.)
AN ARTICLE ON MARSHALL - posted here on July 10, 1999
MARSHALL LYTLE:By Rod Glaze
Granddaddy of the Doghouse
You have undoubtedly heard of the legendary rock 'n' roll band Bill Haley and the Comets. Likewise, if you follow rockin' music, have most likely been witness to some upright bass player displaying some show stopping stunts that lie somewhere between circus sideshow performer and graceful ballerina. Well did you ever wonder who did those tricks first? Meet Marshall Lytle.
The year was 1951 and Marshall had just been approached by Bill Haley, a long time family friend, to play bass for his band, The Saddlemen. Marshall, up to this point, was a guitar player and singer who had never even tried to play bass. "Our Rhythm section was basically a rhythm guitar and a bass and Bill wanted it played loud. I had no amplification so I had to physically play loud. I was an old guitar player before playing bass, so in about thirty minutes he taught me the basics of the bass neck and the tuning and how it works and some basic little riffs. And he said 'I want you to go to work with me tonight.' So after about a half hour lesson I bought a bass fiddle and went to work with him that night."
Over the next year or so, Bill put Marshall through the paces, "Bill said, 'I want you to play loud, man!' And he kept on me. At the time we were doing five hours a night, from nine till two am, 45 minutes on, 15 minutes off. I had no callouses, man, and I had blood blisters all over my fingers. Man, I tell you I suffered."
Marshall continued on with Bill and then it all happened. "We started creating rock'n'roll through a disk jockey on a radio station called WPWA who had a rhythm 'n' blues show at the time. His show was called "Shorty The Bailiff" and he just played purely black music. He came to us one day and he said 'Hey man I got this song and everybody is just crazy about it. Bill you oughta learn it.' And it was called "Rock This Joint." Well Bill learned it and we started doing it in the Twin Bar over in Gloster, New Jersey. A bunch of sailors and folks would come out to see us and they just loved it! We were just beatin' the hell outta the bass fiddle and havin' a good time and so we decided to record it. Well next thing we know we were in Cleveland, Ohio and we did the Alan Freed Show. We were doing an interview with him around a big round table that had a boom mic hanging out over the center of the thing and he had a switch on the wall that he could turn the mic on and off with. Well he played "Rock This Joint" and when the song says 'rock, rock, rock everybody. Roll, roll, roll everybody' Alan turned the mic on and started yelling 'ROCK AND ROLL EVERYBODY,' and everyone started calling up and saying 'Play that rock 'n' roll song again!" Building on the regional success of "Rock This Joint," the chart success of "Crazy Man Crazy" and the national success of "Rock Around The Clock," Bill Haley And The Comets hit the road even harder than before. One of the many road stops was Wildwood, New Jersey.
"In 1953 the band would do a matinee in the afternoon. We'd go down there and just kinda have a jam session from about one to three in the afternoon and the place would be jammed with people. So one day Joey (D'Ambrossio) was doing a sax solo and I said well hell let's see if I can stand up on this damned thing. So I put the bass down and I stood up on it and the crowd went nuts, they went crazy, they had never seen anyone do that before. So I said hell, they liked that so much let's see what else I can do, so I kinda threw it up over my head and pretended I was playing it like a guitar, just silly stuff, and everything I would do they would go nuts. Then I'd lay down on my back and throw it up on my feet, then I would lay down on top of it and Joey would sit on my back. Then Joey would sit on the bass and I'd drag him across the floor and he'd honk at people. Then we'd go out into the audience and start honkin' at the audience and that's how the stage antics I used to do got started." Nowadays Marshall plays in The Comets. It's the band that made Bill Haley a national success and a household name.
They still tour and put on what has been called "The best rock 'n' roll show on earth". They have outrocked the rockin'-est bands in the world and they will no doubt be rockin ' near you some time soon. Without even knowing it, Marshall Lytle changed the way an entire world looked at the upright bass. No longer was it a support instrument that went virtually unnoticed. It became, and remains, an instrument that has the ability to steal the show, as long as it's in the hands of the right player. Thanks to Marshall Lytle those of us who have answered the calling of the doghouse have a yard stick by which to be measured. We have the standard and thanks be to God we still have Marshall to show us how it's done. "I didn't invent the slap bass but I sure popularized the hell out of it." (End).
Several months after recording "Rocket 88," Bill Haley's rebellious bass player, Al Rex, left Bill's band to his own group. Bill hired a talented young musician, Marshall Lytle, whom he has known for years. Marshall's older brother Cliff had played with Bill in the Four Western Aces, along with Tex King, who roomed at the Lytle home. Bill was a frequent guest for dinner as the young musician fell under the persuasive charm and enthusiasm of Haley's dreams.
Marshall had his own show on WVCH, a Chester, PA radio station, where he sang and played rhythm guitar. Bill taught the seventeen-year-old lad how to slap back the bull fiddle and reproduced Bill's unique clicking sound.
Marshall recalls, "Bill asked me to come and play the bass for him. I said that I didn't know how to play a bass. He said 'I'll teach you.' So he spent one hour and taught me the basic chords plus how to slap back and get a shuffle beat. The day I joined The Saddlemen, I bought a bass. That night I joined them at the Twin Bar as the youngest member of the band. Bill had to pencil in a mustache on my face to make me look older. I was under age at the time."
Marshall also recalls his fingers were so sore and bloody, he had to wrap tape around them to pound the strings of his bass fiddle. Later, when thick callouses formed on his hands, the band-aids were no longer necessary.
Marshall's Famous Photo Collection
1955: Rare copy of a show poster.
1960: Jimmy Bryant, Marshall Lytle,
Speedy West, Tom Wooford
1955: The Comets on stage at Chicago Theatre.
1954: The Comets in a Las Vegas dressing room.
1949: Marshall and Dick Thomas. Dick wrote Sue City Sue.
"That's the wrong photo, baby."
Marshall: At age 15 - In 1950 - In 1995
1989-91: The Jodimars.
Marshall & the Shooting Stars
The Comets and The Crickets
1997: The Comets at Denver.
1997: At The House of Blues, L.A.
Dick Richards on drums and The Comets with Glen Glenn.
MARSHALL LYTLE AND THE SHOOTING STARS, "Air Mail Special" CD JRCD9, recorded in London 1994.
This "excellent" CD, highly recommended by the Rockabilly HOF,
can obtained from
Gabby at Hepcat Records
AUDIO TAPES AVAILABLE FROM MARSHALL LYTLE
MARSHALL SANG FOR YOU THEN: Rock Around the Clock / Eat Your Heart Out Annie / Rattle Shakin' Daddy / Clara Bella / Midnight / ShooeSue / Story Tellin' Baby / My Bayou Baby / Lotsa Love / Just Pretend / Don't Be Cruel / Click-Clackin' Heels. MARSHALL SINGS COUNTRY FAVORITES: Help Me Make it Through the Night / Jambalaya / Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain / Tennessee Waltz, San Antonio Rose / Lucille / Always on My Mind / Will the Circle Be Unbroken / Make the World Go Away / Are You Lonesome Tonight / Only You / Peace in the Valley. MARSHALL SINGS COUNTRY CLASSICS: Ace in the Hole / Hey Good Lookin' / Born to Lose / Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room Tonight / Anytime / King of the Road / Room Full of Roses / All My Ex's / Sunday Morning Comin' Down / I'm Moving On / Just a Closer Walk with Thee. E-MAIL: MARSHALL LYTLE of the COMETS firstname.lastname@example.org