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Creative Loafing

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Local promoter shoots down Comets' concert


courtesy Rik Hull
Al Rappa (far left) with Bill Haley & the Comets in the mid '60s
No promoter ever wants to cancel a scheduled event, particularly a show that would have featured one of the most legendary names in rock 'n' roll history. Cancellations cost money and, worse, they undermine the trust that clubs work to establish with their regular customers. But when Cole Skinner, whose company Radiogram books the Echo Lounge, decided to cancel a performance by Bill Haley's Comets at the club, he did it to preserve that trust.

"I had some reservations after finding out the true pedigree of the band," Skinner says, "so I canceled the show, losing myself a cool $750 deposit, which I have to take out of my own pay."

Skinner's revelation about the Comets coincided with Creative Loafing's attempt to arrange an interview with the band's original bassist, Marshall Lytle, who played on the 1954 mega-hit "Rock Around the Clock" and is well-known and active in modern rockabilly circles. As recently as September 1999, Lytle performed in England with "the Original Comets," a group of senior musicians who had all worked with Bill Haley during the '50s. The ensemble drew rave notices for its expert and loving re-creation of the vintage sound.

However, the bassist in "Bill Haley's Comets" -- the group Skinner originally booked at the Echo Lounge -- turned out to be Al Rappa, who had acquired the rights to the Comets' name after Haley's death in '81. Although Rappa, who plays 10 different instruments, says he sat in with Haley intermittently as early as '52 ("because one guy kept getting drunk all the time") and became a full member in '55 (his agent gives the date as '56), his name does not officially appear on a Comets record until the group's final Decca album, a set of instrumentals released in 1960. Further, Rappa is the only veteran Haley sideman in the current lineup of "Bill Haley's Comets."

"Al Rappa was the fourth or fifth bass player after me," Marshall Lytle says from his home in Florida. "He started with the Comets in 1958, after all the hits were made. My Comets are all the originals. Johnny Grande was with Bill from 1949 through 1962. I was with him from 1951 through 1955, Joey Ambrose and Dick Richards were there from 1953 through 1955, and Franny Beecher was in the group from 1954 through 1962. The only ones missing are Billy Williamson and Bill Haley himself, who are both in rock 'n' roll heaven."

For his part, Rappa points to the short tenure of Lytle, Richards and Ambrose, who all left Haley's lineup in late '55 to form the Jodimars. "They're guys that quit Bill's band years ago -- because their wives wouldn't let them travel and everything," Rappa says. "A lot of guys work with a band a year or so and they think they're a Comet, and they're not. It's not fair, you know. I've been with the band 44 years, and all of sudden they think they're the Comets. I'm keepin' it the way Bill did -- well-dressed and the way it should be. I sing the Haley tunes, and everybody I hired is a performer -- they all sing -- I don't hire no dead wood. We're the Comets! We're not just a pickup band."

Lytle, though, says, "I have seen the Al Rappa group two different times, and they don't sound anything like the Comets, because they are a pickup band. They are a real embarrassment to the real Comets. They have been telling people that we are all dead. It is a real problem for us."

Caught in the middle of this hailstorm of Comets, promoter Skinner decided to cancel the Rappa band's Atlanta show. "When a band is called 'Bill Haley's Comets,'" says Gayle Thrower, Skinner's partner at Radiogram Booking, "you do naturally expect that band to be comprised of Comets -- not just one former member who joined after all of the seminal material was recorded. We decided we could not in good faith go forward with that billing for two good reasons: First, we know our audience is not on a cruise ship and aren't going to pay to see an oldies nostalgia show. The intown Atlanta audience is informed and knowledgeable about their rock forebears and they would know the difference. And, most importantly, we felt like we would be party to fraud. Mr. Lytle seems like a great guy who played an important part in rock history; and we couldn't ally ourselves with someone who's trying to rob the other Comets of their due."

The story may yet have a happy ending, however. "The real Comets -- the original band," Skinner says proudly, "said they're going to try to make it down sometime this summer to play for us."

The Echo Lounge's show featuring Bill Haley's Comets, scheduled for Wed. March 8, 2000 has been canceled.

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