The Rolling Stones aren't ready for rocking chairs yet, and neither is a pioneering group from Chester, Pa., that makes the British legends look boyish.
The original Comets--Bill Haley's backing band for such singles as "Crazy, Man, Crazy," "See You Later, Alligator," Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and the signature tune of '50s rock, "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock"--proudly claims 63-year-old tenor saxophonist Joey Ambrose as its youngest member.
Like the Stones, the Comets are still up and rockin', but on a far different circuit. The group will play at the Foothill in Signal Hill on Friday and Saturday nights as part of a small-nightclub tour.
"We'd all been away from the music scene for 30 years," Ambrose said in a phone interview from his Las Vegas home. "But then my best friend, [drummer] Dick Richards, and I spent some time at my cabin up in the Utah mountains. His wife had just passed away, and we were feeling kind of nostalgic. So we decided to put the original group back together."
That was in 1987, and their charity reunion show in Philadelphia went so well, he said, that they just kept the gigs coming.
"There's an attitude, particularly with the European crowd, that goes along with what we do. Lots of women wear the old-fashioned, long dresses and ponytails, and guys pull up to the shows driving these classic wheels. It's quite a scene, daddy-o."
Ambrose, whose real name is Joe D'Ambrosio, is joined by Richards, 73, and two other original members: pianist Johnny Grande, 66, and bassist Marshall Lytle, 64. Lead guitarist Franny Beecher, 76, who replaced original guitar player Danny Cedrone when he died two weeks after "Rock Around the Clock" was released in 1954, and singer Jacko Buddin, 60, round out the current lineup.
Controversy has surrounded the Comets' membership. Though Ambrose, Lytle and Richards played on Bill Haley & the Comets' biggest hit records, their tenure was short-lived because of monetary disagreements.
When Haley refused the three musicians' request for a $50-a-week raise, they left the group in late '55 to form the Jodimars, a group that mustered little interest and disbanded in 1960. In the meantime, Haley recruited new players who enjoyed some of the Comets' biggest commercial success while touring in the United States and Europe.
But Ambrose sees no problem in carrying on as the Comets without Haley, who died in 1981.
"We are the Comets," he said. "We're not saying we've got Bill Haley with us. He picked the material and sang the songs, but we made the music. You know, he came from a country-and-western background, so he left the arrangements for us to work out. No one's ever come up to us and complained that we were ripping Bill off."
Ambrose was less than thrilled with Haley's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist.
"As members of the Comets, we really felt slighted when he was elected without us," Ambrose said. "I mean, we played on those hit records and were the first band to get any kind of recognition in the rock 'n' roll world. We came before anybody, even Elvis. When we asked the hall of fame [officials] about it, they just said they didn't have time for us."
(Susan Evans, executive director of the Cleveland institution, said: "Only a finite number of artists actually get inducted each year. It is a subjective process . . . one based on which performers have made the most significant contributions to rock 'n' roll's legacy. In this particular case, I stand by the nominating committee's recommendation.")
Though they have yet to secure U.S. distribution for a forthcoming album, "Let's Rock This Place" (import-only Rocket Records), the Comets can smile about the enduring quality of the music that ushered in rock 'n' roll more than 40 years ago. For many fans, it seems like old times.
"Bill was kinda shy, and he certainly wasn't a sex symbol like Elvis [Presley] or Jerry Lee [Lewis]," Ambrose said. "But we created a very identifiable sound that was a unique combination of country and rockabilly with the beat of R&B. Bill's voice and the music of the band together. . . . We just clicked."
"I think [the reason] why we're still cookin' these days is that people want to recapture that spirit of the '50s. It was an innocent time filled with wonder and excitement--like the dawning of television and the birth of rock 'n' roll. There was a warmth to what we were doing, and maybe folks want to feel that glow again."
* The Comets and Danny Dean & the Homewreckers perform Friday and Saturday at the Foothill, 1922 Cherry Ave., Signal Hill. 18 and over. 9 p.m. $13. (562) 494-5196.