Marshall Lytle, whose snappy bass work anchored Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” died Saturday at his home in New Port Richie, Florida. He was 79. According to The New York Times, Lytle died of lung cancer.
Lytle was a teenage guitar player working at a Chester, Pennsylvania, radio station when Haley, who worked at another station, recruited him to play bass. Lytle notably didn’t play the instrument, but Haley taught him the rudiments of slap-bass in a 30-minute session. The technique was key for country music, which was the focus of Haley’s band – then known as Bill Haley and His 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,” Lytle said in a 2011 radio interview. “I gave it a try and I said, ‘Hell, I can do that.'”
Haley’s band changed their name to Bill Haley and the Comets in 1952, and Lytle played on memorable tracks including “Crazy, Man, Crazy” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” The bassist developed a lively stage presence, throwing his bass into the air, lifting it over his shoulder and riding it like a horse. The group landed their biggest hit in 1955 after a version of their classic recording of “Rock Around the Clock” appeared in the opening credits of the movie Blackboard Jungle.
Lytle and two other band members left Bill Haley and the Comets in 1955 after a salary dispute, branching off into their own group, the Jodimars. The band would become a popular Las Vegas lounge act. Lytle changed his name to Tommy Page in the 1960s at the suggestion of a booking agent, who said his name was too closely connected to his stint with Bill Haley and the Comets.
Though Haley died in 1981, Lytle and other Comets reunited in 1987 and performed off and on until 2009. Lytle, along with other Comets, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.
Lytle was born on September 1st, 1933, in Old Fort, North Carolina, before his father moved the family to Pennsylvania. The bassist was married and divorced three times, and is survived by Cathy Smith, his partner since 2001, along with nine children and numerous grandchildren.