Johnny Grande, 76, Last of the Original Comets
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Johnny Grande, who died Friday at 76, was the piano player and last surviving original member of the Comets, Bill Haley’s band whose songs like “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll” stand at the birth of rock and roll in the early 1950s.
Originally an accordion player on the Philadelphia music scene who played backup for polka and country players like Tex Ritter, Grande partnered with Haley in the late 1940s to form Bill Haley and His Four Aces of Western Swing. Haley was a great yodeler.
They later called themselves the Saddlemen, before settling on the Comets, which was the name of the band in 1951, when it covered Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” considered by many the very first rock and roll song.
The Comets had a more urbane image: They traded in their Stetsons for suits and ties, and Grande played piano on most numbers.
The band toured constantly, and released a series of singles that have subsequently become much more popular than they were at the time, such as “Rock the Joint”(1952) and “Crazy Man Crazy”(1953),which was the band’s first charted song. In 1954, the band flopped with its latest, a novelty number called “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town).”But the B-side tune, which the band recorded almost as an afterthought in only two takes, was “Rock Around the Clock. “It became the band’s first No. 1.The follow-up, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” sold over a million copies, and “Rock Around the Clock” became an even bigger hit in 1955, when it was included in the soundtrack of the film “Blackboard Jungle.”
Bill Haley and His Comets was now an international act, and their rise had been so precipitous that many referred to them as an overnight success. Such talk irritated Grande, who recently told his friend Denise Gregoire, who compiled historical materials on the band for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, “Overnight success, hell. We worked long and hard for years, scrimping on meals, long hours at places like the Spigot club where they had chicken wire around the band.”
The Comets toured England, where Bobbies had to be enlisted to ensure their safety from fans who tore at the band members’ clothes. They toured Europe with Elvis, but the future belonged to the King; Haley, approaching 30, seemed pudgy and middle-aged and despite his on-stage histrionics, jumping on the bass and such, the band’s fortunes peaked around 1956. Grande was content to play his instrument less kinetically; he held an equal business share in the band and told Ms. Gregoire, “Bill was the leader, and he had the spotlight. That was okay, because I was still a partner.”
Grande grew up in Philadelphia in a musical family. His uncle once played in the band of John Philip Sousa, but his father wanted Grande to follow him into the coal hauling business. Grande preferred music, and learned to play the music from “La Traviata” on the accordion. As the only member who could read music, Grande became the band’s arranger.
Their descent from stardom was by no means rapid. “Rock Around the Clock” was released as an album only in 1956 and sold well. But “Rockin’ the Oldies” (1957) showed the band had lost the rebellious edge of the teenage audience, with versions of I’m Gonna Sit Right Down (And Write Myself a Letter)” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” It reached what Grande considered its musical peak in 1960 with “Strictly Instrumental.” Sales had declined, though, and even a rather lame attempt to cash in on the twist dance craze of the early 1960s failed. Grande quit in 1962, exhausted from the years on the road, and broke. He moved back in with his parents to recover from stomach ulcers.
Thereafter, his musical adventures were tamer. After working for a while as a music store accordion instructor, he played in the house band at Walber’s, a club in Philadelphia, for several years. Then it was another long gig at the Media (Pa.) Motor Lodge. Eventually, Grande moved to Lake Placid, Fla., where he managed restaurants.
In 1987, Grande teamed up with several musicians who the Comets had used as studio talent to form the “Original Comets” for a tribute to Dick Clark (Haley died in 1981.) They proved enough of a hit that they returned to the road for what proved to be more than a decade of touring.
In 2002, the band released “Aged to Perfection,” which had mainly new material, including “Viagra Rock” and “We Ain’t Dead Yet.” The Comets billed themselves as “The World’s Oldest Rock and Roll Band.” Last July, they played for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the day after its engineers had guided the satellite Deep Impact to a collision with Tempel 1, an actual comet thought to be 4.5 billion years old.
John Andrew Grande
Born January 14, 1930 in Philadelphia; died June 2 in Clarksville, Tenn.; survived by his children, John Jr. and Linda; his wife predeceased him in 1995.