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December 13, 2018

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Marshall Lytle, bass player for Comets and Jodimars, dies at 79

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In this 1950s publicity photo of the Jodimars, bass player Marshall Lytle is the first musician on the left. The longtime Las Vegas performer died Saturday, May 25, 2013.

When rock ’n’ roll pioneer Bill Haley refused to give three members of his Comets band $50-a-week raises in 1955, he opened the door for those talented musicians to walk out and create what became a Las Vegas lounge act legend — the Jodimars.

Marshall Lytle, Haley’s stand-up bass player, would go on to work nearly every major Las Vegas venue as a member of that Capitol Records recording group and perform for 20 years in Comets reunion bands. In 1950s films, Lytle can be seen tossing his huge instrument into the air and riding it around the stage like a horse.

Lytle’s death Saturday from cancer at age 79 leaves just saxophonist and longtime Caesars Palace pit boss Joey D'Ambrosio (stage name Joey Ambrose) as the only surviving member of Bill Haley and His Comets to have performed on the classic recording of “Rock Around the Clock” — the song that gave birth to rock ’n’ roll.

“We go back 60 years and none of us at that time knew this (rock ‘n’ roll) would become as big as it got,” Ambrose said. “But Marshall really believed in the music. He believed in the potential of something special for this new sound.”

For "Rock Around the Clock," Lytle played a late-1940s model Epiphone B5 upright double bass that had been purchased for $275 in 1951 by the group that was at the time known as the Saddlemen but three years later became the Comets.

"We spent 2 1/2 hours (in the studio working) on the A side (‘13 Women — And Not a Man in Town’) and 30 minutes on the B side (‘Rock Around the Clock’),” Lytle told the Sun for a story published April 15, 1994, for the 40th anniversary of the seminal recording that sold more than 200 million copies worldwide.

“In (just) 30 minutes and two takes, we came up with what is now the anthem of rock ’n’ roll.”

The handwriting was on the wall even then that money issues would play a big role in breaking up the group. Comets members each earned just $47.50 for that historic Decca Records recording session, and they were bitter about it for decades.

“We got the shaft," Lytle said in the Sun interview. "All the royalties go to (Haley's) estate and songwriter Jimmy Myers.”

Haley died Feb. 9, 1981, at age 55 of a brain tumor and complications of alcohol abuse.

Lytle, who co-wrote with Haley the hit “Crazy Man Crazy” but did not get credit for that song until 2002, was an early proponent of the “clicking slap bass” method of bass playing, which involved slapping the strings to make a percussion sound that became one of the trademarks of rockabilly music.

Lytle’s bass playing also can be heard on the Haley hit recordings of “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “See You Later, Alligator.”

As the Comets were in the process of skyrocketing from obscurity to worldwide fame, Lytle, Ambrose and drummer Dick Richards got upset when Haley, after some early success in 1955, purchased three Cadillacs to transport the six-member band and their instruments.

The problem was that despite money pouring in from the group’s success, Haley was paying his band members just $200 a week. When they asked for the raises, Haley refused and the three quit and formed the Jodimars — a name comprising the first letters in each of their first names.

They also brought in Chuck Hess (guitar), Jim Buffington (piano) and Max Daffner (drums; drummer Richards became a vocalist) to complete the new band.

The Jodimars started out on the East Coast, performing in Allen Freed’s legendary rock ’n’ roll shows at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre in 1956 with such superstar groups as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters and the Flamingos.

During that period, the Jodimars recorded about a half-dozen singles for Capitol Records, including “Rattle Shakin’ Daddy” and “Eat Your Heart Out, Annie,” which Lytle wrote, and "Let's All Rock Together," which Lytle co-wrote with the group’s manager, Frank Pingatore.

The Jodimars then explored uncharted waters by heading to Las Vegas and becoming in 1956 what Internet sources say was the first rock ’n’ roll band to be hired as a regular Strip lounge act.

The Jodimars played the Sands with Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole and the Riviera with Shecky Greene. They also were popular in the lounge rooms of the Golden Nugget, Fremont, Hacienda and other hotels of that period.

In spring 1957, the Jodimars signed to do a four-week engagement at the Harold's Club in Reno. The act was so popular it was held over through October, breaking the resort’s showroom attendance records.

In popular culture, the Jodimars’ music inspired a number of 1960s rock groups, among them the Beatles, who in 1963 recorded their version of the Jodimars’ song “Clarabella” for the "Pop Go the Beatles" program on BBC Radio.

But with the Jodimars’ records failing to sell well — only “Well, Now Dig This” was a regional hit — their contract with Capitol not being renewed and rockabilly music fading in popularity, the group broke up in 1958.

Lytle left show business and went into real estate sales. Richards went into teaching and acting. Ambrose became a card dealer at Caesars Palace for seven years and was a pit boss there for another 18 years.

After Haley’s death there was a revival of the old rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly sounds. Original members of the Comets, including Lytle and Ambrose, got back together in 1987 for the first time in 29 years to do tribute concerts.

The last time Lytle performed as a member of the Comets in Las Vegas was at a 2007 concert at the Cannery in North Las Vegas.

Lytle was born Sept. 1, 1933, in Pennsylvania. At age 14, he was taught the guitar by country music performer Tex King, a member of Bill Haley's Four Aces of Western Swing.

Lytle’s family was longtime friends with Haley’s family, and Lytle joined Haley’s Saddlemen in 1951. Just 18 at the time, Lytle grew a mustache to appear to be old enough to play in nightclubs that served alcohol.

In October 1987, Lytle was invited to perform in Philadelphia as part of the reformed Comets in a tribute to American Bandstand host Dick Clark. Lytle took the lead on “Rock Around the Clock” and, although he sang some of the verses in the incorrect order, the group was once again a sensation.

For the next 20 years, the Comets toured Europe and the United States, including Branson, Mo., and popular Southern California night spots, and recorded albums.

Lytle retired in 2009, the year he published his memoir “Still Rockin’ Around The Clock” and, because of medical problems, had part of one of his legs amputated.

Last year, Lytle and the rest of the Comets were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Bill Haley had been inducted into the shrine in 1987 as a solo artist, but in those days backup groups were not enshrined with their stars and subsequently had to be voted in, often many years later.

The Comets were inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in the 1990s.

Ed Koch is a retired Las Vegas Sun reporter.

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected by identifying a 2007 concert at the Cannery as the last time a member of the Comets played here. Also, the story was updated to reflect remarks by Joey Ambrose. | (May 28, 2013)

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