Marshall Lytle, whose spirited, percussive bass work was heard on one of rock 'n' roll's seminal recordings, "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and His Comets, died Saturday at his home in New Port Richey, Fla. He was 79.
The cause was lung cancer, said Cathy Smith, his partner since 2001.
Lytle was a guitar player working at a radio station in Chester, Pa., in the early 1950s when Bill Haley, who worked at a different station, hired him to replace the stand-up bass player in his band. It was an odd choice; Lytle, who was still a teenager, didn't play bass. But as he explained in many interviews, Haley gave him a 30-minute lesson, showing him the slap-bass technique, in which the strings are smacked against the fingerboard. Such playing was a feature of country music, which is what Haley's band, then known as Bill Haley and His Saddlemen, specialized in.
"He got this old bass fiddle out, started sl apping it, with a shuffle beat, and showed me the basic three notes you need on a little bass run to get started with, and I gave it a try and I said, 'Hell, I can do that,'" Lytle recalled in a 2011 radio interview.
With the Comets - the name of the band changed in 1952 - Lytle played on the hits "Crazy, Man, Crazy" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll," but their biggest success was "Rock Around the Clock." Released in 1954 on the flip side of a song called "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)," it appeared in the film "Blackboard Jungle" the next year and quickly became a rock 'n' roll standard.
Marshall Edward Lytle was born Sept. 1, 1933, in Old Fort, N.C., where his father, John, was a hog butcher before he moved the family to Pennsylvania. He began playing guitar in his teens and never finished high school.
Lytle grew into something of a showman, lifting his bass over his shoulder onstage, tossing it in the air, even seeming to ride it like a horse. Afte r a salary dispute, Lytle and two other Comets split from Haley in 1955 and formed their own group, the Jodimars, which became a popular lounge act in Las Vegas.
He was married and divorced three times. In the 1960s, a booking agent convinced him that the name Marshall Lytle was too connected to his Bill Haley days, so he changed it to Tommy Page. In addition to Smith, he is survived by nine children and numerous grandchildren.
Haley died in 1981. Lytle reunited with other Comets in 1987 and performed off and on until 2009. With the other Comets, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
By BRUCE WEBER
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Published in St. Augustine Record on May 29, 2013.