Original bassist of Bill Haley & the Comets talks to FBPO about “Rock Around the Clock” and the good old days of early rock & roll!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 7, 2009
Marshall Lytle was the bass player with Bill Haley & the Comets from 1951-1955. One of the pioneers of the rockabilly slap bass style, Lytle played on all the band’s recordings during that period, including the mega-classic, “Rock Around the Clock.” He continues to tour with Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards, two other members of the original Comets band. Marshall’s brand new book, “Still Rockin’ Around the Clock,” was released on September 1st.
FBPO: Talk a little about your upbringing. What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how did you become a bass player?
ML: I was born to very poor parents in Old Fort, NC, Sept 1,1933 and moved north to Chester, PA, in 1942. I used to listen to the Grand Ole Oprey on station WSM in Nashville, TN. I loved country music! I started singing and playing guitar as a young teenager.
Bill Haley asked me to come play bass for his band, originally called Bill Haley & the Saddlemen, when his bass player quit. He knew that I was only a guitar player and singer, but he said he could teach me the basics of slapping the bass in about 30 minutes, figuring that with my knowledge of the guitar neck I could learn on the job. I bought a new Epiphone B5 bass that afternoon and went to work with him that night. Bill Haley was a good slap bass player. In the nightclubs, he would play bass whenever I sang. I played the rest of the time.
FBPO: What was it like to learn the rockabilly slap bass technique on the upright bass? Were there a lot of people doing it at the time?
ML: In that generation of country music, there were very few bands with drums, so the bass player had a big job keeping the beat, along with the guitar. There were very few amplified bass fiddles in the early fifties and not too many players were willing to play hard enough – and bleed enough! – to get the calluses necessary to avoid being in constant pain while they played.
FBPO: “Rock Around the Clock” has become such a big part of our culture, almost single-handedly defining an entire era of rock & roll. Did you have any idea that the music you were playing would become such a big part of history?
ML: On April 12,1954, we drove from Chester, PA, to NYC to record our first session for Decca Records. We were a little late in arriving and only had three-and-a-half hours to record two songs. The first one was called “13 Women.” We had never heard that song before we got to the studio and it took us three hours to get to it finished. That left us only thirty minutes to record “Rock Around the Clock.” Fortunately, we had an arrangement. We recorded it with just two takes. In those days, everything was recorded together at the same time, without mistakes. “Rock Around the Clock” just came together like magic. It sounds as good today as it did over 55 years ago.
FBPO: Being a member of that band must have jump-started your career immeasurably. How long were you with Bill Haley? What other groups did you play with?
ML: I was with Bill from 1951-1955. When “RATC” became a worldwide hit record in July 1955, Joey Ambrose, the sax player, Dick Richards, the drummer, and I were considered sidemen and wanted a $50 per week raise from the $175 we were getting. Bill and his three partners refused to give us the raise. The next day, they all went out in Chicago and bought four brand new Cadillacs! Joey, Dick and I left the Comets in September and started our own group, called the Jodimars. We recorded for Capitol Records.
FBPO: How long did you hang on in the music business before venturing into real estate and interior design?
ML: I hung in until 1967, when I needed to make some money for a new family that I had started with my second wife. Real estate was good to me.
FBPO: Where did the name “Tommy Page” come from and why did you use it?
ML: In 1960, after The Jodimars broke up, I was creating new groups around Los Angeles to play the Nevada casino circuit. My agent said that I had worn out the name Marshall Lytle and I needed a new image. He suggested Tommy Page & the Pageboys, which sounded fine to me, so I said okay. I am legally Tommy Page today, but I went back to my given name, Marshall Lytle, in 1987, when we had a reunion of all the old original Comets. I did that because that’s who I was when I was with Bill Haley & the Comets.
FBPO: I think it’s great how you keep the tradition alive with some of the other original members of Bill Haley & the Comets. What kinds of things do the three of you do together?
ML: We are now back to just Joe Ambrose, Dick Richards and me, plus we have two of the greatest sidemen as our new Comets. David Byrd plays the keyboard like he has been with us forever and Jackson Haney plays great guitar and sings really well, too. Our crowds love him. We are still doing over 200 shows a year.
FBPO: What do you think of today’s music? Do you like any of the current stuff on the radio?
ML: My radio is usually on the oldies station. I still love good western swing, too.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days? What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically-oriented?
ML: I Have a three-wheeler motorcycle I love to ride around Branson, MO. The Ozarks are beautiful! We’ve all bought homes here. I’m a member of two beautiful golf courses. I try to play at least one round a week.
FBPO: What lies ahead for Marshall Lytle?
ML: We close this year on October 24, and we are just doing a few gigs here and there until the new year. I am wintering in Florida in November and December. I am doing a featured role in a new movie being filmed in Tarpon Springs, FL, called “Through the Eye,” which is being produced by Caya Largo Productions. It is a story about drug dealers bringing drugs into Tarpon Springs in the 1970s. Bertie Higgins of “Key Largo” fame is the producer and this will be his third film. His most recent effort is called “Poker Run,” and it is achieving success all over the world. It will be running on Showtime, starting in December. Give it a look.
In the meantime, if you ever see this old rocker playing with the Comets in your area, stop in and give me a hug. Please don’t be confused with those phonies that are out there saying that they are Bill Haley’s Comets.
I’m also particularly excited about my new book, “Still Rockin’ Around the Clock,” just released on September 1st – my birthday! I love you all!