By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
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At first "Rock" achieved only modest sales by comparison with "Shake." Then it was resurrected as the opening theme of 1955's Blackboard Jungle, a movie in which Glenn Ford played a teacher trying to deal with ruffians at a New York high school. The thematic association of rock and roll with juvenile delinquency promptly led many adults to declare this new musical form a dangerous threat to all that was good about America, but the flick's view of a world in which hep-cat teens were locked in combat with oppressive parents and an unjust school system hit home with the younger crowd. "Oh, yeah, the kids ate that up," D'Ambrosio says. "At that time, kids wanted to have more of a voice--they wanted to be heard and recognized. Clothing was changin', and girls were startin' to get, uh, looser, and some people started wearin' the leathers. We wore plaid jackets--we were nice guys. But parents didn't know about our wholesome image. They heard our music and just took it for granted that we were a bunch of raunchy guys. Sure, we had wild music, but without all that other stuff."
Indeed, the surviving Comets are a straitlaced bunch, and D'Ambrosio feels this characteristic has everything to do with why they're still alive and kicking. "The guys in the band are clean guys. They don't drink, they don't smoke, they don't party. I mean, we party, but not excessively. We never did, even with the Comets. So by doin' that, I guess after all these years we're still in good shape and able to do what we do."
D'Ambrosio, Lytle and Richards left Haley's employ shortly after "Rock" shot to the top of the charts, mainly because they felt that they weren't being treated fairly; days after the bandleader bought three Cadillacs so the musicians could travel in style, he turned down their request for a raise of fifty dollars a week. The threesome went on to form the Jodimars, a group that recorded for the Capitol imprint during the Fifties, and when that outfit ran its course, they went on with their lives, figuring that there wasn't much money in being a former Comet. But they were wrong. "For a long time the Comets had been forgotten, especially after Elvis came out," D'Ambrosio allows. "Then you had the Sixties and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and nobody wanted to hear about us. But then all of a sudden we started gettin' recognized again."
The band returned to the limelight in 1987, when the Philadelphia Academy of Music put together a tribute to local-boy-made-good Dick Clark. A long list of Philadelphia music heavies were invited to contribute, including Frankie Avalon, Buddy Greco, Patti LaBelle and, yes, the Comets. The show's producers tracked down D'Ambrosio in Las Vegas, where he was working as a casino card dealer and appearing regularly with area jazz bands. (He continues the latter practice to this day when in Vegas, where he serves as a pit boss at Caesars Palace.) When the Comets took the stage on the big night, their performance was heavenly.
"We killed 'em!" D'Ambrosio declares. "The people were elated. It seemed like we were the stars of the show, and we got more recognition than anybody." After the performance, the players met a booking agent who told them of their continuing popularity in Europe. In D'Ambrosio's words, "We didn't know any of that. The guy says, 'Would you like to play in Europe?' and we said, 'Geez, that'd be great.'"
The reunited Comets' first European appearance, at an outdoor festival in England, convinced the musicians that they were on to something. "The people went wild--big-time," D'Ambrosio divulges. "It was so exciting that we thought we ought to do this more often." Since then, the Comets have toured the Old Country for up to two months a year, playing to sold-out crowds in England, Germany, France and many other countries.
What's made the Comets so popular overseas? "As far as music goes over there, you have to be the real thing, and that's what we are," D'Ambrosio explains. "We created this music, and that's why we're so popular--because we are so authentic. And they're really into the nostalgia part of it, and they appreciate what we do, much more than American audiences."
Even so, the Comets haven't given up on their homeland; they've just embarked on their first U.S. tour since the Philly date a decade ago. Unfortunately, Haley is not around to share the applause. He died in Harlingen, Texas, in 1981, a raving, drunken recluse distraught over the demise of his career and the deaths of loved ones such as Rudy Pompilli, D'Ambrosio's replacement. "He was a sad figure," D'Ambrosio affirms. "And when Rudy died, it really messed him up. Rudy was his band guy.
"It's a strange thing, but Bill Haley really didn't want to be a rock-and-roll star. It just happened that way," he goes on. "He was a country singer, a cowboy yodeler, and that's what he wanted to be. I mean, it wasn't a burden to him, but it wasn't him. I think he would have been happier to have been another Gene Autry."