“Rock Around the Clock” Bassist Dies at Age 79

Jon Wiederhorn
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

by Jon Wiederhorn

Marshall Lytle, the bassist who played on the Bill Haley and & His Comets rock and roll staple "Rock Around the Clock," died at 3:30 a.m. on May 25 at his home in New Port Richey, Florida. He was 79.

Lytle died after a battle with lung cancer, reported Cathy Smith, who had been in a relationship with him since 2001.

"It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to a dear friend, Mr. Marshall Lytle," said rock revivalists The Continentals on their Facebook page. "He was a sweet man and fantastic musician and we will miss him dearly!"

Lytle met Haley in the early '50s when he was working at a radio station in Chester, Pennsylvania and Haley was employed at a different station. When Haley decided to replace the stand-up bass player in his band, he contacted Lytle. It was a strange move since Lytle, a teenager at the time, didn't even play bass. Haley gave Lytle a 30-minute lesson in slap bass, a technique where the player slaps the strings against the instrument's fingerboard. The style was common in country music at the time, which was the specialty of Haley’s band Bill Haley and The Saddlemen.

"He got this old bass fiddle out, started slapping it with a shuffle beat, and showed me the basic three notes you need on a little bass run to get started with, and I gave it a try and I said, 'Hell, I can do that,'" Lytle said in a 2011 radio interview.

The band changed its name to Bill Haley & His Comets in 1952, and Lytle played on the hits "Crazy Man, Crazy" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll." But by far, the band's biggest song was the galvanic "Rock Around the Clock," which became a huge hit and was used as the theme song for the sitcom "Happy Days" from 1974 to 1984.

The original recording of "Rock Around the Clock" came out in 1954 on Decca Records as the b side of a "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)." The song was used in the movie "Blackboard Jungle" in 1955 and soon became a classic.

"'Blackboard Jungle' had just come out," Lytle once told classicbands.com. "The kids were dancing in the aisles in the theaters. I knew it was a hit. I was still with Bill at the time. We were traveling on the New York Thruway from Buffalo to Boston to do a television show. I turned the radio on and 'Rock Around the Clock' was playing. This was a new Cadillac that Bill had just bought. It had one of those Selectrix dials where you just push the bar and it goes to the next station. I pushed the bar and it was playing again on another radio station. I pushed the bar again and it was playing again. At one given moment, it was playing five times on the dial. Within five minutes, I must've heard it a dozen times. I said, 'This is a monster hit.' When you hear a song that many times on that many different radio stations, you know damn well that it was a monster hit."

Many consider "Rock Around the Clock" as the birth of rock and roll. Regardless, its influence can’t be overestimated. "The first time I really ever felt a tingle up my spine was when I saw Bill Haley and The Comets on the 'telly.' Then I went to see them live," Paul McCartney once said. "The ticket was 24 shillings and I was the only one of my mates who could go as no one else had been able to save up that amount - but I was single-minded about it, having got that tingle up my spine. I knew there was something going on here."

"I loved it," John Lennon said of the song. "It just grabbed me like mentally. That afternoon I borrowed a few 'bob' and bought the record. That was when I knew I wanted to go into pop music. Soon after my aunt bought me a guitar."

"The birth of rock 'n' roll for me? Seeing Bill Haley and His Comets in 'Rock Around the Clock' with my best friend at the time," recalled Pete Townshend. "God, that band swung! We were eleven years old."

Marshall Edward Lytle was born on September 1, 1933, in Old Fort, North Carolina. His father, a hog butcher, moved the family to Pennsylvania. Lytle picked up the guitar as a teenager and quit high school to work at the radio station and play with Haley.

Over time, the bassist developed a dramatic performance style, raising his instrument over his shoulder in concert, throwing it in the air and mounting it like a broomstick. Lytle played with the Comets until 1955 when he left due to a financial dispute.

"I made $60 a week. Bill Haley made $90 a week 'cause he was the leader," Lytle told classicbands.com. "When we started having hit records, a manager got involved and I was so young and naive, they saw a way of pushing me out and making it a four way partnership, making me a junior partner. They called it a salary, but it wasn't an every week type of thing."

Unable to renegotiate their salaries, Lytle and two other Comets left the band and formed The Jodimars, which worked as a regular lounge act in Las Vegas.

"Haley played all the way up to 1979," Lytle told classicbands.com. "I think that was one of his last touring times. He died in 1981. He toured England in 1979. I think that was his last tour of the UK. I don't know of any other gigs he played after 1979. I know he became very incoherent. He was losing his faculties. I was told he had a brain tumor that was inoperable and had three years to live. He pretty much drank himself to death. He told me when I saw him in 1975 that he was drinking, oh, about a fifth of tequila every day. That stuff is not that good for you."

Lytle reunited with other Comets in 1987 and performed sporadic tours through 2009. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

Lytle is survived by nine children and numerous grandchildren.