Marshall Lytle: Bassist at the forefront of the rock'n'roll explosion with Bill Haley and His Comets

 

Marshall Lytle, the upright bass player for Bill Haley and His Comets, was the most enthusiastic musician that anyone could possibly meet. He lived for his music and, up until he retired through ill health in 2009, he was recreating his "slap bass" sound and indulging in comic showmanship. He gave the impression that he had made his last hit record yesterday; in his mind, it was always 1955.

Lytle was born in Old Fort, North Carolina in 1933. As a teenager, he played guitar and sang country songs around Upland, Pennsylvania, coming second in the nationally televised Paul Whiteman Talent Show. He met Bill Haley when he was broadcasting in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1951, and he was invited to replace Al Rex as the double bass player in Haley's Saddlemen.

Ostensibly a country band, the group covered a black R&B song, "Rocket 88", in 1951. "Bill was always looking to progress into other types of music and that is how rock'n'roll was created," Lytle told me. "We were coupling rhythm and blues with our country and western sound. We were trying to see how it would work. We had to get people to accept what we were doing: we were a white band playing black music – and there was no such thing as rock'n'roll."

But there soon was. "The phrase rock'n'roll came from 'Rock the Joint', which we recorded in 1952," continued Lytle. "The lyrics say, 'We're gonna rock, we're gonna roll'. We were promoting it in Cleveland, Ohio with the DJ Alan Freed, who actually coined the phrase, 'rock'n'roll'. One night he yelled over the airwaves, 'Rock'n'roll everybody!' and the phones started ringing. People were saying, 'Play that rock'n'roll song again'; they meant 'Play 'Rock the Joint'."

Lytle co- wrote one of the rock'n'roll classics. "Bill and I wrote 'Crazy, Man, Crazy' together in 1953, right after one of our high-school engagements. We were doing assemblies to promote our songs, and one of the children said that our music was 'crazy, man, crazy'. The phrase stood out in our minds so Bill and I went to his apartment, which was five miles away. His wife was making lunch and Bill and I wrote 'Crazy, Man, Crazy' that very day. It became our first national hit, and it was the first rock'n'roll song to hit the charts."

On 12 April 1954, Haley and his Comets gathered at the Pythian Temple recording studios in New York. The Comets were Danny Cedrone (lead guitar), Billy Williamson (steel guitar), Joey D'Ambrosia (tenor sax), Johnny Grande (piano), Lytle (double bass) and Billy Guesak (drums).

"We had a three-hour session at Decca Records," Lytle recalled, "and we had two songs to record. We spent two-and-a-half hours recording 'Thirteen Women': that was considered to be the A-side. It was a good song, but we only had 30 minutes left to record 'Rock Around the Clock'. We did two takes and that is what came out."

""Rock Around the Clock" was featured in a drama about juvenile delinquency, Blackboard Jungle, starring Glenn Ford, and soon teenagers were dancing in the aisles and sometimes destroying cinema seats. The song became an international hit, and rock'n'roll a global phenomenon. Haley was a static performer, but the Comets, in plaid jackets, danced around him. Lytle would ride his double bass like a horse or lie on his back and play it above his body. But there was nothing remotely sexy about the group – and Elvis Presley was just around the corner.

Lytle reflected, "What I do is a backslap shuffle-beat and it is very strenuous. It is not just pulling a string with your finger and that's it. It's pulling the string out real hard and letting it slap back against the backboard, creating a clicking shuffle-beat – and when coupled with that sound on the drums, you have the rhythm section that the world has danced to ever since. Bass players all over the world have tried to copy my sound, but because they would not physically exert themselves, they couldn't do it."

However, the Comets' very success was the seed of their undoing. The original members took a share of the profits, while the other Comets, including Lytle, received a weekly wage of $50. Haley refused to budge, and in 1955, the complainants formed a rival group, The Jodimars. Later, Lytle took legal action to establish his authorship of "Crazy, Man, Crazy".

The Jodimars were one of the first rock'n'roll groups to establish themselves in Las Vegas and although they had a fleeting success with "Well Now Dig This", their impact was minimal. The Beatles were to record one of their songs, "Clarabella", at the BBC. In the 1960s, Lytle sold real estate and later set up an interior design business.

In 1987, six years after the death of Haley, the Comets met up and five of them reformed as the The Original Comets, calling themselves 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 and they performed a 90-minute set in stifling heat. Their album, Aged to Perfection, included "We Ain't Dead Yet" and Lytle's "Viagra Rock". Lytle also made a solo album in the UK, Air Mail Special.

In 2009, after performing in Branson, Missouri, Lytle developed an aneurysm which led to his left leg being amputated. He entertained other patients and committed himself to rehab as he was determined to continue with the Comets, performing at first from a wheelchair. At the end of the year, common sense prevailed and he announced that he would only play selected shows. He wrote his autobiography, Still Rockin' Around the Clock, and in 2012, the Comets were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, as previously it had been only Haley himself.

Spencer Leigh

Marshall Edward Lytle, musician: born Old Fort, North Carolina 1 September 1933; married three times (nine children); died Port Richey, Florida 25 May 2013.

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