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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention