It was recorded in two takes in half an hour, languishing for over a year as the B side of "Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)." But when Blackboard Jungle, a then-edgy film about high school hoodlums, played"Rock Around the Clock over its opening credits, the song swiftly became a hit.
Bill Haley and His Comets" infectious rock anthem became the No. 1 song in the country 55 years ago today, the first rock 'n' roll song to make it to the top of the charts. Kids danced in the aisles of theaters when they heard it blaring over the speakers, and the song provoked rioting here and in Europe.
Since then, more than 500 artists have recorded the tune, from accordionist Myron Floren to the Sex Pistols. James Myers, who with Max Freedman wrote the song, once estimated that it sold 100 million copies.
"It would have been impossible to know that Haley's number one single created a dividing line between all that came before and all that followed," music historian Fred Bronson wrote in The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. "It was the beginning of the rock era."
Marshall Lytle is the sole surviving member of the original Comets. "I'm still rockin" around the clock," an exuberant Lytle told the AARP Bulletin from his home in Branson, Mo. He will be 77 in September.
Lytle and his family moved from North Carolina to Chester, Pa., in 1942, where Tex King, a guitar player in a band known as Bill Haley and the Four Aces of Western Swing, rented a room from Lytle's mother. King taught Lytle to play the guitar and introduced him to Haley, whom he idolized. In late 1951, Haley approached him about replacing his bass player, who had just quit, but Lytle protested that he was a guitar player, not a bass player.
"Go down and buy you a bass this afternoon and come on to work with me tonight," Haley persisted, adding that he could teach him to play it in half an hour. The transition to bass was easy, Lytle said, once he visualized the bass as just a big guitar missing two strings. He jumped into playing five shows a night with the band, then known as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. The Saddlemen were Billy Williamson, Johnny Grande and Lytle. In late 1952, at the suggestion of the program manager at a radio station where Haley had a show, the band changed its name.
"So we took the cowboy clothes off, put on suits and bow ties, and we became Bill Haley's Comets," Lytle recalled in Still Rocking Around the Clock, his memoir.
The band grew to include Joey Ambrose on sax and Dick Richards on drums. In 1954, after one rehearsal, they recorded Rock Around the Clock." After it became a hit the following year, Ambrose, Richards and Lytle, then earning $175 a week, asked Haley for a $50 raise.
"He refused us," Lytle recalled, "We didn't see much of a future there because they were going to take most of the money and just let us do most of the work."
The three defected, and were replaced by four new Comets, including a permanent guitar player. "We gave him plenty of notice," Lytle said. "In fact we trained our replacements. They took those fellas on tour with us. They sat in the audience and they watched every move that we made."
Over the years, dozens of Comets came and went, with the band breaking up for good in 1962. Some of the later band members trademarked the Comets name in the 1980s and continue to tour as "Bill Haley's Comets."
Ambrose, Richards and Lytle formed their own group, the Jodimars (for Joey, Dick and Marshall). After that group split up four years later, Lytle started his own band, Tommy Page and the Page Boys. By 1967, he left show business to work as a real estate agent in California.
But in 1987, Richards called the other band members out of retirement to play at a tribute to Dick Clark in Philadelphia.
"We hadn't played together in about 25 years," Lytle recalled. "We went into this rehearsal hall and about an hour later, it all started to come back. And, boy, we started sounding like Bill Haley's old original band. We went on that show and did "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock" and just knocked them out."
Two years later, with three other Comets, they began performing all over the world as the Original Comets, mixing in some of their own songs like "We Ain't Dead Yet" and "The Viagra Rock," which Lytle cowrote (and unsuccessfully tried to sell to Pfizer, the drug's manufacturer) with Warren Farren.
Lytle last saw Haley in the mid-1970s at a club in Hayward, Calif. Haley told him he was "doing a little drinking"a fifth of tequila every day. Lytle acknowledged he had mixed feelings toward Haley.
"It was the first time that I had seen him in 20 years. I felt good about it because I was having a good career in the real estate business, and his show business popularity was on a downhill slide," Lytle said with a touch of bitterness. But "I do feel that Bill made me feel like I had been an important part in his recording career. That made me feel good towards him."
Haley last performed in 1980, a year before he died of a heart attack at 55.
The reunited Original Comets played for the last time together in December before splitting up. Lytle left over internal conflicts, he said. He plans to continue performing Bill Haley songs with a new band at the Branson Central Dinner Theatre, which opened July 1. Ambrose, 76, and Richards, 86, continue to perform with Paul Revere and the Raiders at the Moon River Theatre, also in Branson.
Lytle has survived a bout of prostate cancer and a recent amputation of his left leg because of a blood clot. He has been divorced twice, and has eight children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Shortly after his second divorce in 2001, he met Cathy Smith.
"I'm in a permanent relationship with my beautiful lady," Lytle said. "We just bought a home together in New Port Richey [Fla.]. She is my rock, and I am her roll."
Kitty Bennett is a news researcher and writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.
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