Before Elvis, there was Bill Haley.
Bill Haley and the Comets were quite probably the first rock 'n' roll band, great or otherwise. It's easy to forget nowadays that the Comets' signature song, "Rock Around the Clock," was recorded for Decca Records in April 1954, a full three months before Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studio to record "That's Alright, Mama."
Now, the five surviving original members of the Comets are back with their first American album, "Still Rockin' Around the Clock," released last November on the Las Vegas-based Rollin' Rock label.
Under Haley's leadership the group was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the early rock 'n' roll era, including "Rock Around the Clock," "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," "See You Later, Alligator" and others.
Ironically, the original Comets have been playing together far longer without Haley than they originally did with him. In June 1955, bassist Marshall Lytle, drummer Dick Richards, and saxophonist Joey Ambrose left the most successful rock 'n' roll band in the world over a salary dispute, forming the Jodimars, who recorded for Capitol until 1957.
"We were working for peanuts, and they were making the big bucks," says Lytle. "The four partners in the group bought four brand new 1955 Cadillacs (on the same day), and we said, 'Hell, we don't see a future in here for us.'"
Today Lytle regrets having left the band when he did, having missed out on the group's first now-legendary European tours and their numerous film and TV appearances. "Oh, definitely. We all have talked about it. We just left a year too soon."
The other three original members of the group - steel guitarist Billy Williamson, lead guitarist Franny Beecher and keyboardist Johnny Grande - continued with the Comets, enjoying the group's peak years of popularity; 1955-57.By 1958, though, the band was in trouble. Haley's notorious tax problems had begun and though the group was still a top live draw both in the U.S., and overseas, the hits had dried up. Williamson quit the Comets in 1961 (he passed away in 1996), and Beecher and Grande both gave their notice in 1962.
Haley's final years were sad ones, largely spent in seclusion at his home in Harlingen, Texas; punctuated only by occasional live performances and increasingly erratic behavior when in public. Having given his final concerts in South Africa the previous year, Haley was found dead at home Feb. 9, 1981, the victim of an apparent heart attack at 55.
In 1986, the original members of the Comets started talking about getting together for old time's sake, but it quickly turned into the first live appearance by the original group in more than 30 years.
Richards says he "was talking with a fellow who worked with Bill back in '74, and he mentioned that the Philadelphia Music Society was having a concert. They brought us all in, put us up, we rehearsed, and did two songs, 'Rock Around the Clock' and 'Shake, Rattle, and Roll.'"
Another two years passed before the band again regrouped, this time for a festival performance in the U.K. Recruiting British vocalist/guitarist Jacko Buddin to sing Haley's vocal parts, the performance was a success. It is this lineup that has continued to perform for the past 11 years, recording two studio albums and a live album for the European market.
Still, no new Haley/Comets-related music had been released in the U.S. since Haley's final album in 1979, a situation the group wanted to rectify.
The answer, as it turned out, was provided by a naturalized Italian emigre named Ronny Weiser, who had operated a small rockabilly record label called Rollin' Rock in the '70's before mothballing the label in 1983 in order to devote his resources to his new family.
Weiser, however, resurrected the label two years ago and the possibility of working with the Comets was the realization of a childhood dream come true.
"For my birthday around 1957 or '58, my mother gave me two 78s of Bill Haley and the Comets," says Weiser in a telephone interview from his home in Las Vegas. "I played them on the record player, and it was just incredible! 'Rock Around the Clock' was really my first real rock 'n' roll record that I had owned and had probably even heard."
"Now I wake up and think, 'Did I dream all this, or did it actually happen?'"
Richards says, "The first time we met Ronny was a couple of years ago at a festival in Denver. We (had already done) a couple of CDs overseas, and they didn't capture our sound. Last year we called him up and he said, 'Let's take a shot at it.'"
"Still Rockin' Around the Clock," does a fine job of capturing the Comets' sound, with Buddin turning in an excellent job of tackling Haley's vocal style, coming across as how Haley might have sounded had he lived longer. If one criticism can be aimed at the new album, it's that about two-thirds of it consists of re-recordings of the group's Essex and Decca hits.
Both Richards and Lytle say the next record will likely feature a few more new numbers, including Lytle's "Somewhere There's a Woman" and "Viagra Rock," which has become a popular number in the group's live shows.
The only dark cloud for the group is that it's difficult for them to use the name "The Original Comets" in the U.S. since the trademark is controlled by Al Rappa, the Comets' fourth bass player, who played with Haley between 1959 and 1969, and now leads another group that uses the Comets name and in which Rappa is the only actual Haley-era Comet present.
Although the original band members have recorded and performed as the Comets overseas, the new album has been released as "The Original Band" due to the legal situation. Both Richards and Lytle are defiant and hope that the situation can be rectified in the near future.
"Intimidation is what lawyers live on," says Lytle. "I say, 'Let's go to court.' We are who we are, and truth is on our side," adding that the courts are welcome to examine the Decca session logs for "Rock Around the Clock" if they want proof of who the Comets are.
How long will the Comets keep going? For as long as they can. The group recently wrapped up work on a second album for Rollin' Rock, and the offers to perform keep rolling in.
Says Richards, "We're setting an example that you're not through until you go. People can't get over the ages of the band members; from 66 to 78. Yogi Berra was right. 'It ain't over 'til it's over.'"
"It's like having a bunch of teenagers running around," says Weiser. "Slapping each other on the back and making jokes and laughing. That's why these guys sound like that. They sound the way they are. They sound like crazy teenagers!"