By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
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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."
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."
But for D'Ambrosio and the Comets (now fronted by sixty-year-old Londoner Jacko Buddin in the Bill Haley role), there are no regrets--not even about never again reaching the peaks they scaled with their onetime boss. "Naah, we don't have any problem with that," he insists. "We just kind of took it. This is what happened, and we were lucky. Our music just happened to be there, and the people were ready for it. They were lookin' for a change; they were tired of Patty Page singin' 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?' and Perry Como singin' 'Mambo Loves Jambo.' They wanted their own voice--somethin' that they could relate to. Every decade has a voice, and for the Fifties, it was us. After all these years, look what the music's done. You look back at the last forty years, with Vietnam and the Kennedy thing and all the things the world has gone through, and it's still here. The music lives on. And music is the voice of the people."
It's also the best way D'Ambrosio knows to temper the ravages of time. "Music like this keeps you young--it really does. I mean, most guys that are our age are sittin' in their rockin' chairs. But not us. We're better than ever."
The Denver Rock N' Rhythm-Billy Weekend, with Bill Haley's Original Comets, the Planet Rockers, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, the Rollin' Rocks, Eric "Shoutin'" Sheridan and His Uptown Rhythm Kings, Ray Condo and His Ricochets, Jump Cat Jump, the Lucky Stars, Mack Stevens, the Hillbilly Hellcats, the Sugar King Boys, Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars and the Dalhart Imperials. Friday, July 11, through Sunday, July 13, Regency Hotel, 3900 Elati Street, call 455-8408 for ticket information.