Las Vegan Joey D'Ambrosio, Comet

Mar. 04, 2007 - by Mike Weatherford, courtesy: Las Vegas Review-Journal

Joe D'Ambrosio, 72, thought he had put the music business behind him when he became a casino dealer in the 1970s.

For years, Caesars Palace co-workers didn't grasp the full meaning of Joe D'Ambrosio's monthlong European vacations.

If anyone asked, "I would say, 'I'm going to Europe to play with this band,' '' he recalls.

Those who pressed learned the band was the Comets, sometimes billed as Bill Haley's Original Comets, the band that helped define rock 'n' roll in the '50s. And D'Ambrosio, the Caesars floor boss who retired in 1999 after 25 years, was the saxophonist on pioneering rock records such as "Rock Around the Clock" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll."

Haley died in 1981 but the Comets reunited for a Dick Clark tribute in 1987. Twenty years into their comeback, they're busier than ever. A European tour starting later this month is followed by a sit-down engagement in Branson, Mo. It's the second year of a successful afternoon show at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater that has made D'Ambrosio a part-year resident of Las Vegas, a place he has called home since 1964.

"I'm very lucky because I never reached that plateau (of fame) but I'm still having a good time," says the 72-year-old. "Everywhere we go, they know our music. They don't know me."

For most of the '70s and '80s, before the band reunited, his musical past never came up. "I never talked about it and nobody asked."

But rockabilly enthusiasts -- a more rabid breed in Europe than in the United States -- preserve the band's legacy and shed light on Las Vegas as an intersection in the early history of rock. "The Comets are considered the ultimate," says "Rockin' Ronny" Weiser, who runs the niche label Rollin' Rock Records from his Las Vegas home. "It's not a nostalgia act. It's forever."

Weiser recorded two Comets albums in 1999 and 2002, capturing the full quintet before the death of pianist Johnny Grande last year and the retirement of guitarist Franny Beecher. He first found them at a rockabilly convention in Denver, and only later discovered he and D'Ambrosio are fellow Las Vegans.

"Everybody assumed it was a nice nostalgia-type deal," Weiser recalls. "Instead, they were the hardest-rocking bands people had seen in decades. Everybody was looking at each other; hard-core rockabilly guys, psychobilly guys: 'Is this for real?' "

Philadelphia native D'Ambrosio joined Haley's band when he was 19; he already had been playing his saxophone in strip joints for three years. Haley's group had just turned the corner from being mainly a country swing outfit. When drummer Dick Richards and D'Ambrosio joined in 1953, "we really turned it around," he says. "We came in with our own ideas of how to play this music. Bill wasn't too hip on that stuff. Bill was a hillbilly. But he had an ear."

In Wildwood, N.J., Haley already had crossed paths with the Treniers, the R&B group that would become a Las Vegas lounge fixture. An advertisement for the Treniers proclaimed: "They rock! They roll! They swing!" -- and the group developed a friendly rivalry with Haley's band.

"They were the swingin'est rock band anywhere at that time. They were the best," D'Ambrosio says. But while the Treniers were content to focus on their live act, "Bill was always more conscious of recording. He knew the power of recording and he had an ear for songs."

In March 1955, Haley and the Comets were booked in the Pirate's Den lounge at the El Cortez. They had recorded "Rock Around the Clock" a year earlier, but the song was two months away from being their biggest hit, with its use in the movie "Blackboard Jungle."

After the Comets would finish their last 2 a.m. set, they would head to the Sahara for breakfast and the last set by Louis Prima, who was himself still new to town as a Las Vegas lounge act. "It was the best band I ever heard. It was a wonderful band," D'Ambrosio recalls. Saxophonist Sam Butera "has been my hero all those years," and Prima's sound influenced the future work of the Comets.

Haley's band was at its peak when, according to D'Ambrosio, he, Richards and bassist Marshall Lytle asked for a raise of $50 a week; they were making about $200 per week at the time. "Bill turned us down. So we quit."

They went on to form the Jodimars, a combination of their first names. The group had a Capitol Records deal and a song, "Clara-bella," covered live by the Beatles. But the group found -- as did Haley -- that by the late 1950s, "it was all about Elvis Presley."

D'Ambrosio and his wife, Marian, have been married since 1954. Their daughters, Susan Dunning and Joanne Cobos, also are in town. He remained a working musician until the early '70s, when diminishing work in the lounges motivated him to sign up for dealers school.

The Comets reunion came well after the death of Haley, but the group has not played its last dance. Though Richards is 83 and Lytle 73, "there's a lot of energy up there," D'Ambrosio says.

Showmanship too. That experience in the golden age of Las Vegas lounges continues to pay off. "We're a show band, not just getting up there and blowin'," he says. "In those days you had to do everything. Now rock 'n' roll bands just play -- and jump up and down."

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