The Comets' Tale

The world's oldest rock-and-roll band is still rolling.

Joey D'Ambrosio makes no bones about his band's place in music history. "We were the first rock-and-roll band to ever be signed to a major label, and the first rock-and-roll band to ever have a hit," he says. "We were also the first to have a song in a feature film and the first to be on a major television show like Ed Sullivan. We were the first--nobody was before us. There was nobody."

These are not idle boasts. As the saxophone player for the original lineup of Bill Haley and His Comets, whose hit versions of "Shake, Rattle & Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock" predated the earliest smashes by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and other trailblazers, D'Ambrosio rightly belongs on page one of the History of Rock and Roll. And today he has yet another claim to fame. According to him, "We are the oldest and the most original rock band in the world."

Note that this last testimonial is in present tense. More than forty years after they first combined forces, D'Ambrosio, an effervescent 63-year-old, and his fellow Comets (guitarist Franny Beecher, 75, bassist Marshall Lytle, 63, drummer Dick Richards, 73, and pianist Johnny Grande, 68) are still playing the music they helped invent in the mid-Fifties. "And the interestin' thing about it," adds D'Ambrosio, whose tough-guy voice bears the imprint of his Philadelphia upbringing, "is that I was just a kid when I was doin' all this stuff with Bill Haley. To still be playing this kind of music and gettin' so much out if it now is pretty amazin'." Just as impressive, the passing years haven't dimmed the Comets' fire. "When you see us play, it's really excitin', because we have so much energy--more so than forty years ago. We really get it on. We play."

In D'Ambrosio's firsthand account, the Comets' version of rock and roll was created by the melding of the homespun country music Haley made with the Saddlemen, a hillbilly act he led in the early Fifties, and the burlesque-friendly rhythm and blues in which D'Ambrosio excelled. "I got my experience playing rhythm and blues for strippers," he says. "When I was sixteen, I played the strip joints, playin' fifty choruses of 'Night Train' every night. It was the only place you could play that kind of music--with somebody bumpin' and grindin'.

"When I joined Bill Haley, I brought that along with me," he remarks. "He had a cowboy band, and when you put a saxophone with a country band, you're gonna get a different thing--it's gonna change. So they influenced me, and I influenced them. See, when you put rhythm and blues and country together, that's when you have rock and roll. And that's what we did. It just happened to be somethin' that the people wanted. And we didn't even know it. It wasn't nothin' planned or anythin' like that. It wasn't some corporate thing."

This fresh combination of sounds transformed the music industry. Haley's "Shake, Rattle & Roll," which boasted a novel arrangement and slightly less risque lyrics than the Big Joe Turner original, eventually sold more than a million copies and is regarded by many music historians as the first true rock-and-roll hit. Its success sent Haley and the Comets on the trip of a lifetime.

"It was crazy," D'Ambrosio confirms. "Everywhere we went there were a lot of girls and teenagers all over us, tearing our clothes off. It was scary, because the people loved us so much they went beyond--ya know what I mean? And movie stars, they'd come to see us. Jayne Mansfield was comin' around, and when we were in Hollywood, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. They wanted to party with us, 'cause we were the group."

Likewise, D'Ambrosio was the sax player of the newborn genre, thanks to some of the most recognizable horn parts ever to grace a rock song. The "bah-dap-bah, bah-bah-dah-dah" riff that opens "Shake" is extraordinarily rousing, which is exactly what D'Ambrosio intended: "We wanted an ensemble thing to get the song started--to get people's attention right away. And that's what happened," he says with a laugh. "It worked." As for "Rock Around the Clock," which boomers may remember best as the theme from the sitcom Happy Days, it's built around a staccato bridge that conjures up the entire era in only a few seconds and a couple of dozen honking notes. D'Ambrosio points out that the ditty was cut in April 1954, several months before the Comets laid down "Shake"--but he admits that had it been up to the majority of the band's members, it might never have been recorded at all.

"When we first heard the demonstration record of that song, we were in Bill Haley's basement, rehearsin' for the recordin' session and figurin' out the arrangements," he says. "We thought it was a corny-ass song, ya know? We were like, 'What the hell is this?' We didn't think much of it. But Bill was the boss, and we did what he told us to do--we didn't question it. You gotta give Bill credit, 'cause he heard somethin' in it that we didn't hear." He adds that the instrumentalists almost missed the studio date during which the song and its intended A-side, "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)," were captured on tape when a ferry on which they were riding got stuck in the Delaware River. "Who knows?" he muses. "That might have changed everything."

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