Johnny Grande

Original member of Bill Haley and His Comets


John A. Grande, keyboard player: born Philadelphia 14 January 1930; married; died Clarkesville, Tennessee 2 June 2006.

Johnny Grande was a founder member of Bill Haley and His Comets and he played piano on what is arguably the most famous of all records, "Rock Around the Clock" (1954). The record spearheaded a musical revolution, but it was anything but an overnight success story as the band had spent many years in the business.

Born into an Italian family in South Philadelphia, Johnny Grande (pronounced "Gran-dee") learnt the piano as a child and developed a good knowledge of the classics. On leaving school, he had a clerical job for a detective agency and also delivered coal, but he loved the accordion and would sit in with country and polka bands including Tex Ritter's at the Sleepy Hollow Ranch in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. One of those bands was Bill Haley and the Four Aces of Western Swing. Grande told me,

I met him on and off before I joined him. I used to fill in for his accordion player, Al Constantine, from time to time. Bill Haley was a very good entertainer and a very good yodeller but when he started rock'n'roll, he stopped yodelling. I knew I wanted to do this full-time as I hated driving coal wagons.

Haley was impressed by Grande and his friend the steel guitarist and fiddle player Billy Williamson, and discussed forming a new band with them. He admired Grande's musical knowledge and the fact that he could read music and write arrangements. They rehearsed together, trying out different combinatons. Grande said: "We would take a standard like "Ida (Sweet as Apple Cider)" and play it every way we could think of - fast, slow, soft, hillbilly, waltz and Dixie." Playing the double-bass, Haley developed the backbeat that became rock'n'roll.

The three men formed Bill Haley and His Saddlemen, with Haley as leader, but they would be equal partners. They had a residency for over a year at the Twin Bar in Gloucester, New Jersey. They described their new music as " cowboy jive", and they acquired a manager, the sports commentator " Lord Jim" Ferguson, who became the fourth partner. He told them to ditch their Stetsons and wear jackets and ties. He also encouraged them to do some benefit shows for schools so that they could acquire a youth following.

In 1951 the group recorded a cover version of Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" for the white market and they followed it with "Rock the Joint" (1952). As their name sounded wrong for teenage music, they became Bill Haley and His Comets and cut "Crazy, Man, Crazy" (1953). On these records, Grande played piano rather than accordion, again to shake off the country image.

In April 1954 at the Pythian Temple in New York, Bill Haley and His Comets recorded a novelty song about a nuclear disaster (if there can be such a thing), "Thirteen Women", with "Rock Around the Clock" for the B-side. Grande added a mambo touch to "Thirteen Women" but his piano playing is secondary to the session musician Danny Cedrone's guitar on "Rock Around the Clock". The disc-jockeys spotted the potential of "Rock Around the Clock" and it became a transatlantic No 1, selling millions of copies.

This caused great dissent amongst the Comets. Haley, Williamson, Grande and Ferguson took their share of the profits, but only paid the other Comets (Marshall Lytle, Joey D'Ambrosio and Dick Richards) a weekly wage. They received miserly $40 session fees for playing on "Rock Around the Clock", "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Razzle Dazzle". Haley refused to budge and the complainants formed a rival group, the Jodimars. Haley, Williamson and Grande established a new line-up, albeit with the excellent Franny Beecher on lead guitar and Rudy Pompilli on tenor saxophone.

Bill Haley and His Comets continued to have hit singles with "See You Later, Alligator" and "Rockin' Through the Rye" and they appeared in the films Rock Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Rock (both 1956). The films, as well as touring appearances, effectively dealt Haley a knockout blow. Although the music was dynamic, the group members looked even older than they were, and Haley himself was a portly man in his thirties. Although their UK tour of 1957 led to riots and full houses, audiences realised that there was nothing youthful about them. Elvis Presley's sexual swagger put paid to Haley's stardom.

Grande stayed with Haley throughout his hit-making years and arranged his albums including Rockin' Around the World (1958), Bill Haley's Chicks (1959) and Strictly Instrumental (1960), which he regarded as his best work. He wrote some of their repertoire, including "Birth of the Boogie", "Lean Jean" and "Goofin' Around".

By 1962 they were writing twist material to keep up with the trends and the relentless touring in run-of-the-mill places was getting Grande down. He decided that enough was enough and left the business. He taught music, formed a hotel band, the Grandes, and then ran a restaurant in Florida.

In 1987 the Comets were overlooked when Bill Haley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it prompted them to reform. The five Comets added a new vocalist, Jacko Buddin from England, and they became the world's oldest rock'n'roll band. When they appeared at the Cavern in 2002, their lead guitarist, Franny Beecher, was 81 years old. They performed a 90-minute set in stifling heat, with Marshall Lytle throwing his upright bass over his shoulder. At his keyboards Grande was more sedate, but he was clearly enjoying himself.

Spencer Leigh

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