Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Marshall, Dick & Joey

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When Dick Boccelli told his friends he was getting his band back together, they were naturally incredulous.

After a decades long hiatus and them being scattered all over the country, they hadn't practiced since the '60s and the fact their average age was about 70, well, it wasn't like the Blues Brothers getting the band together to save the orphanage.

Boccelli is the drummer for Bill Haley's Original Comets, the former Saddlemen from Chester, Pa., who were playing the Hofbrau nightclub in Wildwood, N.J. when their song, "Rock Around the Clock" (RATC), became the first Rock & Roll song to place Number 1 on the pop charts.

While some other cities - Memphis, Cleveland and now Glouchster, make claim as "The Birthplace of Rock & Roll," the time and the date RATC made #1 is written in stone - July, 1955, riding on the heels of the summer release of the teen rebel movie "The Blackboard Jungle," which used "Rock Around the Clock" as its opening theme song.

From the Hofbrau nightclub in Wildwood, where there is now an historical plaque on the sidewalk on the street where the club once stood - razed during the Urban Renewels of the 60s, Haley & the Comets went from the club scene to Wildwood and Ocean City Convention Halls, Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark shows and Cleveland, where a radio DJ Alan Freed coined the term "Rock & Roll" while describing the music Haley & the Comets played, a mix of country and rhythm and blues.

Haley's success however, didn't play well with the Comets, who were given a $50 a week raise while Haley and the band's managers bought themselves new Cadilacs. So three of the Comets left the band and formed the Jodimars, who became popular in Europe and earned fans in Liverpoole, where the Beatles covered one of their songs "Clarabella."

After a few years of playing casinos in Las Vegas, they broke up, one staying in Vegas, another moving to Florida and Boccelli returning to home to Ocean City, N.J. They remaine in contact with one another, and discussed a reunion, especially after Haley passed away in the 1980s.

Then they did get together and played a TV gig in honor of Dick Clark, and had such a good time they decided to stay together and play a few paying gigs and discovered that they still had a strong fan base, especially in Europe where the rock & roll fans know the original band from its sound.

"They're so used to cover bands playing our songs," says Boccelli, "and groups calling themselves Bill Haley's Comets but nobody in the band even knew Bill Haley. They know Franny's guitar style, and how we sound, and appreciate the fact we're the originals."

Altough they play major arenas to thousands of people in Europe, they couldn't find a gig in their own backyard - Wildwood and Atlanic City, so I arranged for them to play the 75th anniversary part at the Flanders Hotel on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Picking up bass player and frontman Marshall Lytle at the Philadelphia Airport, as we drove off the the Walt Whitman bridge into New Jersey, Marshall looked down at the city of Gloucester and recalled playing the Twin Bar there in the early 1950s, wondering if it was still there.

It is, and now the Original Comets will return this Saturday, June 14, 2007, for a homecoming and the mounting of a new historic plaque in frot of the Twin Bar that commemorates the site where Bill Haley & the Comets performed for years before "Rock Around the Clock" became the first Rock & Roll song to top the pop charts.

While there's no argument as to the July 1955 Wildwood birth of Rock & Roll as a popular phenom, there is quite a discussion as to where the music was conceived, the Memphis acts didn't make the pop charts until Haley & the Comets kicked open the door, the Twin Bar at least is still standing.

And it's still serving cool drinks in the old, blue colar, working class neighorhood that is now trying to parlay their histoirc connection to beginnings of Rock & Roll into a revival of their bar, neighborhood and often neglected city.

The day long gig and block party, with the Twin Bar as ground zero, will also include Charlie Grace, another early rock & roller ("Butterfly") who is also more popular in Europe, especially England, than he is in his own hometown (South Philly).

A very special session is planned as Bill Haley, Jr. is expected to stop by and sit in with the Comets as he has done in the past at the Bubba Mac Shack in Somers Point, where the Comets played for five consecutive years every August until the Shack closed last year.

Bill Haley, Jr. looks remarkably like his old man, with the same moon face, smile and lock of hair that protrudes across his forehead.

That is pretty remarkable, that over a half -century after Bill Haley and the Comets played together at the Twin Bar and the Hofbrau in Wildwood, his son is now singing with the same band.

While we know where and when Rock & Roll was born, with "Rock Around the Clock" in July, 1955, at the Hofbrau in Wildwood, it was earlier convieved in the bars and nightclubs of Wildwood, the Jersey Shore, Gloucester, Memphis and whereever rhythm and blues and country music got together.

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