Rock’n’Roll bass players have long held a reputation for wild onstage antics. Although there were a handful of folks early on who would put on a show, the number one person who popularized dramatic showmanship on bass was Marshall Lytle.
Always blazing his own path, Marshall presented an engaging style of playing directly to the mainstream. He was the cornerstone of one of the first rock’n’roll bands, Bill Haley & the Comets, playing on every recording they released between 1952 and 1955. Most notably, Marshall played on a tune regarded by Dick Clark as “the national anthem of rock’n’roll”, Rock Around The Clock. This song was the first #1 r’n’r song in US, selling over 80,000,000 copies. It was used in more than 50 movies and was even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best selling single by a group. The Comets were also the first r’n’r band that ever played Carnegie Hall. In 2004, for the 50th anniversary of the birth of r’n’r, the handprints of the remaining members of the band were inlayed into Hollywood’s Rockwalk. On top of that, Marshall believes that he was actually present the first time the words “rock’n’roll” were used. When Alan Freed played the Comets’ (who, at that time. were known as The Saddlemen) song, Rock This Joint, at his show in Cleveland, Ohio, he got excited and shouted “Rock’n’roll, everybody!”. The year was 1952, which predates other artists of this genre such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis by at least 3 years.
Marshall Lytle is a quintessential exponent of both rock’n’roll music and of slap bass playing. His bass sound on songs like Shake, Rattle and Roll, See You Later Alligator and others is still considered one of the best slap sounds ever captured on a record. He started playing bass in 1951 when he had just turned 18. Marshall still tours and plays about 200 shows per year with Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards, two other members of the original Comets. He also released his book, Still Rockin’ Around the Clock, on September 1st of 2009 and plans to do a promotional tour for the book in 2010 (Please keep in mind that we started interviewing Marshall in 2009 and finished in 2010, so some questions took place earlier than others). In his 77th year, this rock’n’roll pioneer seems busier than ever and doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon. In his own words, “I want to rock ’till I drop”!
I’m proud to present to you here, on the Art of Slap Bass, for the first time ever, member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and one of the first slap bass stars:
Djordje: Hi Marshall!
First I’d like to thank you for doing this interview while you’re still recovering from your surgery. I hope that you feel better soon.
Marshall: Thank you for the opportunity. My recovery has been amazing, as have my doctors. It has been only 38 days since my last surgery and I am putting my new leg on for the first time tomorrow, October 19th. Thank you all for your love and support!
Djordje: I just read your book, Still Rockin’ Around the Clock, and really enjoyed it. It was recently released, on your 76th birthday, on September 1st – congratulations! How long did it take you to write it and how would you describe it to the Art of Slap Bass readers?
Marshall: It took me about two weeks of talking into a tape recorder for about 2-3 hours a day. The rest of the work was done by my publisher and editors. A lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor. I supplied all the photos, and they chose the ones to put in the book. I did insist on the large type, and the reader comments are that they liked the large type.
Djordje: One of the great bass legends is about how Bill Haley showed you to play bass in 30 minutes, and then you played a show with his band (Bill Haley & the Saddlemen) at the Twin Bar in Gloucester, New Jersey that same night. What did he show you on that day?
Marshall: He basically showed me the 3 note run associated with each chord, and how to associate the bass neck to the 4 lower strings of the guitar neck.
Djordje: What was the difference between the music of The Saddlemen and that of The Comets, and how much did you have to adjust your playing style?
Marshall: The basic shuffle beat was pretty much the same, except with the Saddlemen, we played a lot of two-beat country Music. The Comets was almost always 4/4.
Djordje: The Comets didn’t have a drummer until 1953, so you were the main groove keeper. How did the drummer affect your playing? Did you have to change your style?
Marshall: I never changed my style, but I was able to relax a lot more because of the full sound.
Djordje: In the Saddlemen, you were singing regularly while Haley was playing bass. Before then, you had a radio station where you were singing and playing guitar. Now you’re the main singer in The Comets. Were you singing with Haley, after you changed the name to The Comets and switched genres to rock’n’roll?
Marshall: Yes, Bill always wanted his band members to sing and be part of the show. It kept him from having to sing so much himself.
Djordje: Your first bass, a blonde Epiphone B5, is now displayed at the Hard Rock Cafe in Universal City Walk in Orlando, Florida. How long did you play that particular bass?
Marshall: I played that one from 1951 through 1958 when I stopped playing upright and was playing a Fender Bassman all the time. I stored the upright in my brother’s attic for over 25 years. Then around 1992-3, I learned that Sotheby’s Auction House in NYC was interested in auctioning my old bass. So I shipped it to them and they sold it for a very handsome price. They never would tell me who the buyer was. Finally, I received a call last year that the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando had my old bass, and they wanted me to come for a signing promotion, which I did.
Djordje: How many instruments did you own? What are they and what do you currently use?
Marshall: I have only owned 3 upright basses in my life.
Because of the agreement I made with The Comets and the promoters, I did not even need to own an upright bass. Our contracts always had the promoters to provide an electric upright bass, plus all the other equipment for our show. I did buy a cheap 3/4 size Bass (Made in China) for $495.00 just to have around the house. I still have it. I played it for the first year when we Opened at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theatre In Branson. I rigged it up with Weed Eaters and it was fun and easy to slap.
In 1962, I went to Rickenbacker Guitar Company, near Los Angeles, and I designed a guitar and bass combo. I was paid $1250.00 for it, and it was beautiful. It was a thin hollow body, but still pretty heavy. The guitar neck was on the top and the bass neck was on the bottom. I used it for several years with Tommy Page and The Pageboys, the group that I had created in the sixties. After getting out of show business in 1967 and going into the Real Estate Business, that instrument just sat around in my garage for many years. Around 1980, I decided that I wanted a new 12 string guitar, so I thought that trading my doubleneck was the easiest way to get a new 12 string Yamaha without paying any cash for it. I traded it evenly for the 12 string. How stupid could I be? I was told later that the double neck was worth a lot of money, that Rickenbacker had made another one, and that Paul McCartney owned it. I don’t know what happened to it over the last 30 years.
My most famous upright bass is hanging in the Hard Rock Cafe at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida and I still have my King and the black one from China.
Djordje: How do you like your new King bass, and what’s the difference between that one and other basses you’ve used before?
Marshall: I love my King bass — it is the best. I first played the King in Las Vegas in 2004 at the Viva Las Vegas Festival, and I met the staff from the King Company. I told them that they could use my name as an endorsee if they would make me a bass. They agreed, and it took them about 1.5 years to get it to me. Brad at King told me that all his employees just loved my bass and its special paint job.
Djordje: What kind of strings were you using when you started playing bass and what kind are you using now?
Marshall: I used the regular old Gut Strings on the G & D and wound gut on the A & E. I still have the strings that I played on RATC. When I sold my bass back in the nineties, I put a new set of strings on it, and I kept the old strings. My King came with Roto-sound gut.
Djordje: What are the advantages of those string types in your opinion?
Marshall: They are easy on your fingers, and produce a good slap sound.
Djordje: What came first, pizzicato or slap? How did you learn the slap technique?
Marshall: Bill Haley learned the slap technique in the mid 1940’s when he was part of a country group called the Down Homers. Bill taught me the basics and I created something that worked for me called the Country Shuffle Boogie Beat.
I was taught to play slap bass and that was all I ever played on the upright. I did play regular bass with my Fender bassman, which I also traded off without knowing its value to collectors, in 1990.
Djordje: Since slap bass technique is still not recognized as one of the official bass techniques, there is a lot of confusion about names for different slap patterns (read more about it here). What are the terms that you use, and what kind of slap patterns do you use in your playing?
Marshall: Just a plain old 4/4 Shuffle Beat.
Djordje: Who were your bass influences when you started playing, and were you aware of any other slap players?
Marshall: It was quite a while before I was aware of some of the great players, like Ray Brown and many more.
Djordje: Who were your favorite bass players who were also your contemporaries?
Marshall: I really didn’t have any, for a long time.
Djordje: Al Rex was the bass player that you replaced in Haley’s band and ironically he was the one that replaced you in 1955. What do you think about his bass playing?
Marshall: Al Rex and I were both taught by Bill Haley. When I left in 1955, Al was the only reasonable replacement.
Djordje: There are not that many songs with bass solos that Bill Haley recorded during his career (but that’s still more than most of the artists from the 1950’s). You played solos on the Saddlemen’s 1951 recording of Green Tree Boogie and Straight Jacket (recorded for the 1954 movie Round Up for Rhythm) and Al Rex played solos on The Saint Rock’n’Roll and Goofin’ Around. How often were you playing bass solos in the 1950’s, and was that common practice for live shows back then?
Marshall: The Saddlemen always used bass solos to help fill in the time on stage and the people really enjoyed it. Even on some of the early records, I played a bass solo. Al did a triple slap on that solo, but the notes that he played could have been better.
Djordje: Do you like any slap players nowadays?
Marshall: Yes, there are dozens of great players that I have met and worked with over the years. You can catch some of them on YouTube, which is where I saw you and really enjoyed your work.
Djordje: Thank you very much!
How did the song Rock Around the Clock, and the movie Blackboard Jungle affect your private life?
Marshall: Rock Around The Clock has sold over 80,000,000 records worldwide, and I made $41.25 for a 3 hour record session, but I am certainly glad that I had the opportunity to be on that historical recording.
Djordje: In your book, you wrote that you regularly played a shift from midnight to 6 A.M. in Reno, NV. Were these normal conditions back then?
Marshall: The casino business in Nevada in the fifties wanted to keep people in the casinos all night, if they could, so they would schedule their entertainment to keep the people there as long as possible. You could see shows like Louis Prima & Keely Smith at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, and have steak and eggs for $2.50 at 5 A.M. and catch their last show of the night.
Djordje: You have always had an amazing stage presence; standing on the bass, spinning it around, riding it, throwing it up above your head, laying on top of it, sliding the saxophonist across the floor while he sits on it, playing it like guitar or holding it with your legs in the air and other bass tricks were a big part of your show since 1953. You mentioned that after performing Straightjacket with Jodimars, you were told to tone down your act because it was causing a frenzy in the audience. How and when did you develop that style?
Marshall: Most of It happened in 1953 in Wildwood, NJ on a Sunday afternoon matinee. Joey had just come with the Comets, and during one of his sax solos, I think it was Night Train, he was out in the audience honkin’ at the crowd. I thought that I would like to get in on that excitement, so I just stood up on the bass clapping my hands. The audience went nuts, and I thought about what else could I do to excite them, so I just laid down on top of the bass. Then I laid down on the floor with the bass on my feet . Then Joey came back on stage and I had him sit on the bass and I slid him across the stage. I never saw anyone do any of this stuff before I did it. I just made it up and created it as time went on.
Djordje: There’s a famous photo of Bill Haley and the Comets that is often used for any Haley related story. It was used for some of your interviews as well, but that’s different line-up, right? Who is the bass player?
Marshall: That photo is Al Rappa standing on the bass, he was with the Comets from around 1959 -1969.
Djordje: You recently announced that you plan to retire from The Comets in December. Do you plan to continue playing music after that?
Marshall: Yes, I hope to rock till I drop! I will be promoting my new book and doing a part in a new movie filmed in Tarpon Springs, Florida in December. I am planning to create a new show called “Still Rockin’ Around The Clock”, and I am hoping to play many of the rockabilly festivals around the world.
Djordje: Songwriting is a big part of your career, yet few people recognize you as the composer of several quite famous songs. You co-wrote Haley’s first national hit Crazy Man Crazy (the first r’n’r song that ever hit the Billboard), one of the most popular Jodimars’ songs, Let’s All Rock Together, and most recently, Viagra Rock (with co-writer Warren Farren), that was very popular on the radio in Florida. Did you compose other songs with Haley when you were playing in the group?
Marshall: Bill and I wrote Ten Little Indians, from the old nursery rhyme.
Djordje: It seems that you hardly ever received the proper songwriting credits for your work. (First with Haley, and later on with Jodimars’ songwriter Frank Pingatore). I read that you finally resolved the legal issues about Crazy Man Crazy and that you received the credit for writing this song. Did you ever talk with Bill Haley about these issues you had with songwriting credits, and refused raises? How much contact did you have with him after you quit the band?
Marshall: I never resolved any legal issues about Crazy Man Crazy. Bill is still the only legal writer on the song. It is just water under the bridge. Get it in writing. No, I never did talk to Bill Haley about it. I had not seen Bill for 20 years after I left in 1955. I saw him in Hayward, CA, in 1975. He was very friendly, he introduced me in the audience as his original bass player.
Djordje: What do you think that would have been different in Haley’s and your careers if he had decided to give you that $50 raise per week?
Marshall: History might have been a little different but no one knows to what degree.
Djordje: It seems that you left the band shortly after you heard Rock Around The Clock simultaneously played on five different radio stations. How was it leaving one of the most successful bands at the time of its peak?
Marshall: The decision was made before that happened, and our career as the Jodimars was about to take place.
Djordje: You continued playing with The Comets three weeks after you announced that you had planned to leave. How would you describe those last shows, especially the one at the Broadwood Hotel in Philadelphia?
Marshall: All of our replacements were in the audience watching our every move, so that they could move into our place without anyone knowing that we left. It was very clever the way they did it.
Djordje: Your slap bass sound from the 1950’s recordings with Bill Haley and the Comets is still considered one of the best. What kind of microphones were you using and where were they placed?
Marshall: We used two mics, one on the fingerboard and one on the F-hole. I don’t know which ones. Decca had the best.
Djordje: I really like your bass sound on Jodimars recordings as well and I found it very similar to the Comets sound. Were you using the same engineer or similar recording technique?
Marshall: No, we recorded for Capital Records, but I did have them place the mics the same way we did it at Decca.
Djordje: Do you think that things would be different if Jodimars were based in Hollywood and had a recording career over there instead of New York?
Marshall: Yes, because Hollywood was the heartbeat of Capital Records.
Djordje: It’s a little known fact that after Jodimars broke up, you were leading a band with the amazing Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West for a little bit. Are there any recordings of that band and for how long did that project last?
Marshall: No, we never did any records. Jimmy Bryant and I teamed up in 1959 and were together for about 6 months. We only hired Speedy for just a one week engagement. They were amazing players.
Djordje: You were originally a guitar player and singer. What other music projects have you been involved in, and what instruments did you play in those projects? Specifically after the Jodimars broke up in 1959?
Marshall: It’s all in my book, Still Rockin’ Around the Clock. I played just guitar and bass.
Djordje: How do you like the Beatles’ version of the Jodimars’ song that you co-wrote with Frank Pingatore, Clarabella, and did you ever receive songwriting credit for it?
Marshall: It’s really different, but I really liked it. No, I got screwed again because Frank had promised me 25% of the song and I did not have it in writing. That would have made me about $80,000. Oh well…
Djordje: After you joined Bill Haley you continued to be a professional musician for more than fifteen years. What was the reason to quit playing and to get into the real estate business?
Marshall: I had married a singer who was ready to have a family after being on the road for 5 years. I thought it best to find another profession.
Djordje: Did you play bass or other instruments at all after that period?
Marshall: Not at all.
Djordje: Was it hard to start playing bass again in 1987 after twenty years?
Marshall: It took a while but it all came back.
Djordje: Slap bass almost disappeared in rock’n’roll music in the 1960’s and 1970’s. What do you think is the reason for that?
Marshall: Transportation, techniques, and volume control (of the electric bass) were easier to manage.
Djordje: Tommy Page is the name that you were using from the early 1960’s. You legally changed your name from “Marshall Lytle” to “Tommy Page” in 1967. Still, you are better known as “Marshall Lytle”. You’re probably the only person whose birth name became his stage name and whose stage name became his real name. How does it feel being called by a name that you did not use for twenty years?
Marshall: It all came back because my family continued to call me Marshall.
Djordje: It’s very interesting to read in your book how the band from England, Stargazers, had to teach you to play your own arrangements. What was your reaction when you found out that there were many young musicians that knew all your songs from A-Z more than thirty years after you originally recorded them?
Marshall: I was thrilled when I heard the Stargazers recordings. They sounded just like us.
Djordje: I assume you liked Stargazers a lot, since you decided to do an album with them as “Marshall Lytle and the Shooting Stars” in 1991. How did that collaboration happened?
Marshall: Ricky Lee Brawn, the drummer, came to visit me in Tampa, FL in 1990. We decided to do an album of western swing music and record it in London. He put the whole thing together, and I sang the songs.
Djordje: You also released few albums where you sing Country classics. Do you play bass on those tapes?
Marshall: No, most were pre-recorded tapes.
Djordje: What songs that you recorded would you recommend to bass players who are interested in your slap technique?
Marshall: The most famous one is Rock Around the Clock.
Djordje: What are your preferences for amps and pickups?
Marshall: No preference.
Djordje: Do you use any other equipment when playing live?
Marshall: Just wireless stuff.
Djordje: What kind of amplification were you using for live shows with Bill Haley and later with Jodimars back in the 1950’s?
Marshall: Didn’t have any, that’s why I bled a lot!
Djordje: Slap bass is very intense way of playing. Do you do any wrist stretches or other type of warm ups before the show?
Djordje: What do you suggest to younger players to practice on a daily basis?
Djordje: I’m very impressed with your energy and how you are always trying something new. It seems that your new adventure is acting. You appeared in some films in the 1950’s, like “The Roundup of Rhythm” where you did your bass antics, but the role that you have in the Bertie Higgins movie “Through the Eye” is something different. What kind of role is it and when can we expect to see the movie?
Marshall: The film has been delayed until September 2010; our shooting schedule will begin on September 10th. I will be the owner of the Blue Moon Saloon and I am playing an old rough and tough bartender with an attitude, a real bad-ass drug dealer. It will be released in 2011.
Djordje: Last year you moved from Florida to Missouri. What’s keeping you busy over there?
Marshall: As of July 2010 I am in Branson Missouri and I have become part owner of a Theatre Night Club called Branson Central Dinner Theatre. We are currently running a great show called 50’s At The Hop featuring Johnny Rogers, a great singer and performer. I would say that it is one of the top 5 shows in Branson, and there are over 100 live shows every day.
Djordje: Thank you for finding time to do this interview and hope to see you Rockin’ Around the Clock sometime soon!
If you want to ask Marshall Lytle a question or just send him some words of support you can do that on our forum here
Mr. Lytle does not play on See You Later Alligator – that’s Al Rex. The name of the band is, Bill Haley and His Comets – not Bill Haley and the Comets.