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New Port Richey musician enters Rock Hall with Comets

NEW PORT RICHEY Musician Marshall Lytle's life changed forever in the flick of a radio dial. While driving his friend Bill's giant Cadillac on the New York State Thruway in 1954, Lytle tuned in a local AM station during the ride to Boston from Buffalo. The first radio station he found was playing his band's brand new song. He tuned to another station. It was playing there, too. And on three other stations they heard. "I thought, 'Wow, this is an awesome, awesome hit,'" Lytle remembered this week. The song was "Rock Around the Clock." The friend was Bill Haley. Lytle played upright double bass in Haley's backing band, The Comets, on the song Dick Clark once called "the national anthem of rock 'n' roll."
On Saturday night, Lytle, 78, who settled in New Port Richey in 1986, will be inducted with the Comets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Haley was inducted posthumously in 1987, without the band. The hall also will recognize other historically significant backing performers, including James Brown's singers, The Famous Flames; Buddy Holly's band, The Crickets; Hank Ballard's group, The Midnighters; Gene Vincent's The Blue Caps; and The Miracles, who performed with Motown Records legend Smokey Robinson. Other headliners voted into the hall this year: Guns N' Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Donovan, Laura Nyro, The Small Faces/Faces and the Beastie Boys. Honoring the support musicians is an effort to rectify what many music fans saw as a slight to those who had as much influence in creating indelible music as their more prominent frontmen. Rock Hall President and CEO "Terry Stewart told me that he was trying to correct a mistake made by the hall 25 years ago when Bill Haley was inducted and the band was not," Lytle said. For Lytle, the honor seems all the more improbable given that his inclusion in the band was a fluke. He grew up in Chester, Pa., southwest of Philadelphia on the Delaware River. His older brother had musical aspirations and hung around with bands at local bars. One night in 1947, Lytle's brother brought home a friend, Bill Haley, a country music yodeler who was in town playing with The Four Aces of Western Swing. Haley became a friend of the Lytle family, which would picnic at an entertainment park Haley operated that featured big-name attractions from the Grand Ole Opry. Those performances by stars such as Tex Ritter inspired the 14-year-old Marshall Lytle to sing and learn to play guitar. "I got hooked on entertainment very early on," he said. A few years later, Al Rex, a bass player in Haley's country band, quit. The frontman with the iconic spit-curl hair invited Lytle to replace Rex in the group. When Lytle said he only knew how to play guitar, not the bass, he says Haley told him, "Hell, I can teach you how to play that thing in 30 minutes." Haley showed him a slapping technique for plucking and strumming the strings that provided rhythm for their songs — they had no drummer at the time. To that, Lytle added a flamboyant style of playing that saw him throwing the instrument around and playing it while climbing on top and hoisting it in midair. It became a signature style for rockabilly bass players throughout the early days of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. In September 1952, the band changed its name to Bill Haley and His Comets. The group charted several hits through the middle of the 1950s, including "Mambo Rock," "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Birth of the Boogie." But it was in April 1954 that the band recorded their biggest and most important song, "Rock Around the Clock." Lytle remembers that it almost wasn't recorded. Signed to make a two-song single for Decca Records, the band was booked for a four-hour session at the Pythian Temple in New York City. To do that, they had to cross the Delaware River, which required putting their car on the Chester-Bridgeport Ferry. The ferry ran aground on a sandbar. They arrived one hour late at the studio and were told to record a song they had never played called "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)." With only 30 minutes left before crooner Sammy Davis Jr. was scheduled to use the studio, the band made two attempts at the B-side song, "Rock Around the Clock." The engineer spliced versions of both takes together to make the final version. The song was popular but didn't take off until July 1955, when it became the first rock recording to top Billboard's Pop Charts, where it stayed for two months. The song has since sold 25 million copies. In September 1955, Lytle, along with drummer Dick Richards and saxophonist Joey Ambrose, left the group after Haley refused to boost their $175 weekly paycheck by $50 each. The trio formed The Jodimars and produced several popular recordings before Lytle went into the real estate seminar industry in the 1960s. In 1987, Lytle and the original Comets reunited for a tribute show to Haley and began touring again around the world. A father of eight children, who has several grandchildren, he continues to perform across the country and will do so again next week when he plays Hartford, Conn., on the bill with Ronnie Spector. He won't get to make a speech at Saturday's induction ceremony — there are too many honorees and time won't permit. What would he say if he could? He would thank the Hall of Fame for selecting the Comets. And he would "thank Bill Haley for giving the Comets an opportunity to play those great songs. "I think Bill would look down upon us with great pride and say, 'Good job and well done, guys.' "

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