Fran Beecher (guitar; born September 29, 1921), Danny Cedrone (guitar; born June 20, 1920, died June 17, 1954), Joey D’Ambrosio (Joey Ambrose) (saxophone; born March 23, 1934), Johnny Grande (piano; born January 14, 1930, died June 3, 2006), Ralph Jones (drums; born February 25, 1921, died June 1, 2000), Marshall Lytle (bass; born September 1, 1933), Rudy Pompilli (saxophone; born April 16, 1924, died February 5, 1976), Al Rex (bass; born July 13, 1928), Dick Richards (drums; born February 12, 1924), Billy Williamson (steel guitar; born February 9, 1925, died March 22, 1996)
Bill Haley and His Comets ignited the rock and roll revolution in 1955 with “Rock Around the Clock.” With its irresistible beat and compelling musicianship, the topped charts for eight weeks and sold an estimated 16 million copies. The Comets included steel guitarist Billy Williamson, tenor saxophonist Joey D’Ambrosio (a.k.a. Joey Ambrose), pianist Johnny Grande, bassist Marshall Lytle and drummer Dick Richards. All but Richards played on “Rock Around the Clock,” as producer Milt Gabler elected to use studio drummer Billy Guesak. Another studio musician and friend of Haley’s, Danny Cedrone, played the remarkable guitar solo.
Some music historians believe that Haley and the Comets recorded the first rock and roll song in 1953 with “Crazy Man, Crazy,” a union of rhythm & blues and country & western set to a rocking beat. “Crazy Man Crazy” reached Number 12. A year later, their cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” made Number Seven.
Haley has been called “the father of rock and roll” and “rock ‘n’ roll’s first star.”“We premiered it,” he told Rolling Stone in 1967. “We put country & western together with rhythm & blues, and that was rock. The first three years were ours, all ours, till [Elvis] Presley came along.”Haley even argued that he helped give rock and roll its name. Haley penned a song called “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie” – whose chorus went “Rock, rock, rock everybody/Roll, roll, roll everybody." His song was recorded by the Treniers in 1953 – two years before Haley and the Comets themselves cut the song – and adopted by disc jockey Alan Freed as a theme song on his Cleveland-based Moondog radio show, which is where the term “rock and roll” was first applied to the beat-driven new music.
Starting in the mid-Forties, Haley broke into rock and roll via country and western music. He was a member of the Downhomers and leader of the Four Aces of Western Swing. In 1949, he formed the Saddlemen, which had a regular radio show on a Chester, Pennsylvania, radio station. Besides Haley, the members of the Saddlemen were bassist Al Rex, keyboardist Johnny Grande and steel guitarist Billy Williamson. Haley brought different sounds into their repertoire in an attempt to blend "country and western, Dixieland and the old-style rhythm & blues."
In 1951, Haley cut a version of Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88”– arguably the first rock and roll record - which would make Haley’s cover “the first rock and roll recording by a white artist,” according to The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. In 1952, Haley and the Saddlemen released "Rock the Joint," a rocked-up R&B song, on the Essex label. Decades later, writer Nick Tosches would single it out as “one of the first instances of a white boy really getting down to the art of hep.” By 1953, the group had changed its name to Bill Haley and His Comets and recorded "Crazy Man Crazy," a bona fide rock and roll hit whose title derived from the teenage slang Haley picked up from performing at high schools. After their contract with Essex expired, Haley and His Comets signed to Decca Records. By this time, bassist Rex had quit and been replaced by Marshall Lytle, and tenor saxophonist Joey Ambrose and drummer Dick Richards were in the group. At their historic first session for Decca in 1954, they cut "Rock Around the Clock," which had originally been recorded in 1952 by Sunny Dae and His Knights. It was recorded quickly at the end of a session for another song, “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town),” the intended A side.
On its initial release, “Rock Around the Clock” was indeed relegated to the flip side of “Thirteen Women,” which failed to make an impact when released in May 1954. “Rock Around the Clock” finally entered the charts in May 1955, gaining exposure from its use in the film Blackboard Jungle, a film about juvenile delinquency starring Glenn Ford. The song became an anthem for the rock and roll revolution and, it has been argued, the first rock and roll song to top the charts. Sadly, guitarist Danny Cedrone died after breaking his neck in a fall just six weeks after recording the phenomenal solo for “Rock Around the Clock” and therefore didn’t live to see it become a Number One hit in 1955.
Three of the Comets – Ambrose, Richards and Lytle – left the group in September 1955 and formed the Jodimars, who had a minor hit (“Well Now Dig This”) before breaking up in the late Fifties. They were replaced by tenor saxophonist Rudy Pompilli, drummer bassist Al Rex and drummer Ralph Jones. Guitarist Fran Beecher was added to the lineup as well. This configuration recorded a number of other hits with Haley, including “See You Later, Alligator,” “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie” and “R-O-C-K.” Tenor saxophonist Pompilli was an especially noteworthy addition. He was allowed to shine on his signature song, “Rudy’s Rock,” and played with Haley until 1975. His 19-year tenure with Haley made him the longest-lived of all the Comets.
In 1956, at the peak of their fame, Bill Haley and His Comets starred in Rock Around the Clock, which featured performances of nine songs. The hits began to decline in 1958, however, and Bill Haley and His Comets made Billboard’s Top 40 for the last time that year (not counting a 1974 reissue of “Rock Around the Clock”).
The year 1962 saw the breakup of the Comets. Yet Bill Haley and His Comets found steady work again when Sixties rock fans began discovering the music’s roots via rock and roll revival shows. In 1974, “Rock Around the Clock” appeared on the soundtrack for American Graffiti and was reissued as a single, becoming a Top 40 hit nearly 20 years after it first brought rock and roll music into the mainstream.
Members of Haley’s Comets regrouped in the Nineties, touring and recording as the Original Band, the Original Comets and Bill Haley’s Original Comets.