The musicians onstage at the House of Blues aren't the kind that usually play the Sunset Strip rock club. With their snow-white hair and generous waistlines, wearing matching red plaid jackets and black bow ties, they look like a Senate subcommittee on their way to a polka party.
But the crowd of young, hard-core rockabilly cultists and older folks cheer wildly as the curtain opens, and in an instant the dance floor is churning to the driving jump blues of "Shake, Rattle and Roll," the Big Joe Turner R&B tune that these players turned into a rock 'n' roll building block more than 40 years ago when they were Bill Haley's Comets.
Four members of the current group--bassist Marshall Lytle, 63, keyboardist John Grandy, 68, drummer Dick Richards, 73, and saxophonist Joey Ambrose, 63--were the musicians who backed Haley in the Chester, Pa., area as he adapted R&B and rockabilly strains in such early '50s hits as "Crazy, Man, Crazy." It culminated in the epochal "Rock Around the Clock," the No. 1 record that ushered in the rock 'n' roll era in 1955.
If the Comets sounded a little insistent as they repeatedly told the audience that they were the genuine article, it's understandable. Their names are hard to find in the pop music reference books, which generally mention only the musicians who succeeded them in the Comets.
"You know, we've had this problem over the years, with people always saying, 'Are you guys the real group?' " saxophonist Ambrose said before Wednesday's show. "We get a little sick and tired of always being questioned about it. . . ."
Of course they might not have that problem if Ambrose, Richards and Lytle hadn't quit Haley's band in late 1955 after the singer (who died in 1981) refused their request for a $50-a-week raise. The three musicians formed a group called the Jodimars that recorded for Capitol, but they called it quits in 1960 and left the music business.
In 1988, they reunited for a salute to Dick Clark at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. That led to some contacts in Europe, where the flame of vintage rock 'n' roll still burns brightly, and soon they were playing London, Paris, Barcelona and Amsterdam. The lineup was supplemented by guitarist Frannie Beecher, who had joined Haley after the personnel change, and singer Jacko Buddin, a Londoner who's the youngster of the group at 60.
They now play for fun, working two or three months a year, says Ambrose, who's also a pit boss at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
"The guys aren't young kids anymore," says the sax player, whose real name is Joe D'Ambrosio. "We're a bunch of old guys, you know. But we still have the energy that it takes to play this kind of music. And we do. We kick ass."
Later, things were still jumping in the showroom as the Comets ripped through the Haley catalog. Singer Buddin looks a little like Art Carney and sounds a lot like Bill Haley, so the sound was full and authentic, and if the momentum waned at times, they drove the crowd wild when Lytle climbed atop his upright bass, and again when they finally counted off "Rock Around the Clock"--a rock 'n' roll sacred text from the hand that wrote it.
In the club's third-floor dressing room after the show, drummer Richards sat in a chair, breathing heavily.
Was it a hard show?
"It was harder walking up all those stairs than playing the show," he answered, flashing a Jack Palance grin.
Crazy, man, crazy.