My Story - How it All Happened
I suppose that the time has now come to look back over my life and reflect a bit. In many ways I feel blessed to have lived in and experienced the birth of something new and exciting.
That something is Rock ‘n’ Roll, which is still with us today, grander and more varied than ever.
However, I can remember that in 1953 there was no such thing as Rock ‘n’ Roll. There was popular music, hillbilly music, and “race music” – the white folks’ name for the black blues sounds. That's what I listened to in the early 1950's. They were separate music forms and were never played on the radio waves together.
I have loved music as far back as I can remember. My father played the violin and accordion. He was “self taught” and at age 51, I thought he was very good. At that young age, I remember swinging in the backyard and singing songs. When I went to relative’s weddings, I would be seated by the band because my parents knew I would “stay put” and listen with fascination to the music (usually polkas).
Early on I had no desire to play a musical instrument. My mother sent me to have free mandolin lessons at our church – I hated it – and skipped most of them. Then they suggested accordion lessons; I hated the thought of those, too. Don’t get me wrong: I loved music, but the thought of learning to play an instrument did not excite me at all!
And so it went until one fateful day in 1954, the year I came down with acute bronchitis and was kept at home for about two weeks. Our family physician made a house call, and informed us that I was on the road to recovery, and would need more rest. On his way out of my room, he asked me if I wanted the radio on. I answered yes, he turned the knob of our tabletop radio, and then it happened – the pivotal point in my life: I heard Bill Haley & The Comets play “Crazy Man Crazy”.
“WOW! What was that sound?” I asked myself. There was a beat, a melody, and an electric guitar! I told my parents that very day: “I wanna play a guitar!”
“No, you don’t!” my mother replied. “We have already wasted too much time and effort trying to get you to play an instrument.”
“Yes, but I will learn to play like Bill Haley’s Band” I answered, as convincingly as I could. At that point, it was very important.
My parents reluctantly agreed to have me start guitar lessons at a local music store. My guitar instructor was an elderly Italian gentleman who was referred to simply as “Pop”. When he saw me he instantly decided three things about me:
1) You are too old to start lessons (I was 14 at the time).
2) Your hands are too small for the guitar.
3) You will give up – guitar is too difficult to learn (he was aware of my history)
Well, not only did I prove him wrong, in two years I had formed my own band – The Tremonts – and was playing gigs locally. The band consisted of guitar, bass, sax, drums and accordion, and our oeuvre was mostly polkas and current popular songs.
In 1956, Rock ‘n’ Roll was gaining popularity, but still considered “bad music” by many in the older generation. So needless to say, whenever we snuck in a rock song while playing, the young people went wild.
Once during a wedding reception, a man approached me to play six nights a week at his local nightclub. Well, I accepted, and we played there for a solid year under the name “The Sensational Youngsters” (there were very few kids bands in our area in 1957). Later that year we changed our name back to “The Tremonts” and played a circuit of gigs in Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
In 1959, our new manager changed the band’s name to “Johnny Kay’s Rockets”, and by then were playing strictly Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Opportunity really came a-knocking on my door one evening when I received a call from a man claiming to be Bob Hayes, manager of Bill Haley. He said that Bill had heard of me and wanted to “catch the group” as soon as possible. Frankly, I was doubtful that the voice on the phone was Bill’s manager, thinking rather that it was a prank being pulled by a friend. I told him that we would be at a nearby VFW post on Saturday, he said that Bill would be there to “catch the act”.
Bill and Mr. Hayes did in fact make it to that Saturday gig, staying for two numbers and leaving before the set was finished. I remember saying to the guys in the band “Oh well, I gave it a shot!” To my surprise, exactly one week later Bob Hayes called again and asked me to come to Bill’s office in Chester, PA for an audition. This was May of 1960 and I was only 19 years old. I was sure that it was all a dream, and that I could pinch myself and wake up.
But no – the following week I went and auditioned. When I arrived at the office, I heard the sound of a guitarist auditioning for the right to be a “Comet”. I don’t know who he was, but he was definitely a jazz man, and he played wonderfully. Then came my turn to do my stuff. Bill Haley, John Grande and Bill Williamson were ready to play. They all greeted me warmly, asking if I was nervous. They needn’t have asked that question; my knees and hands were shaking.
Bill Williamson asked me to play one of the tunes Bill Haley had heard the Saturday evening before. So I mustered all the nervous energy in me and played “Johnny B Goode” for them. After the song, there was no reaction. Then John Grande asked if I knew a Comets song, so I played and sang “Shake, Rattle and Roll” right there in front of the guys who made it a hit record! This time I got a smile, a thank you, and Bill Haley said “We will call if you are chosen”. I knew it was over – I had just blown my chance at the big time.
A couple of days later I was asked to come back to the office. Bill Williamson greeted me with “Hi Little Johnny Kay, can you learn the lead to “Rock Around the Clock” and “See Ya Later, Alligator” by next Saturday?” I said I could, and then he said we would be leaving for Milwaukee, Wisconsin that day.
And so I became a Comet.
Here I was – 20 years old – playing guitar in the very band that started me playing guitar in the first place! Imagine that!
I remained a Comet from June of 1960 until January of 1968, it was an experience that few musicians ever get, and I will always cherish the memory of that time of my life. I recorded, met many famous people and traveled the world along with a great group of guys – my friends the Comets.
After leaving the Comets, I returned to Delaware to teach guitar. I did that until 1972, when Bill asked me to return to the group for a brief tour which consisted of a Rock ‘n’ Roll show in London, England, another R&R show in Las Vegas, and a “country” recording session in New York City. So again for a brief time I was a Comet, and after that I never saw Bill Haley again. I did remain friends with Bill Williamson until his death a few years ago.
When I turned 66, I thought the time was ripe to revisit the music that changed my life. So I pulled out some early Haley & the Comets recordings and I really listened to them intently. In discussing it anew with Stan, we agreed that there is some really wonderful music in there, and perhaps it would be fun to play those “early rock” era tunes again – but just the ones that I love the best. As always, Stan was game to play again – just for fun this time – and for several months we had an absolute blast re-recording all of the Haley tunes that made me want to play rock in the first place.
When you listen to these tunes, I hope that our love of music and the fun that we had recording them shines through for you, too.
Bill Haley often told me that the original idea behind Rock ‘n’ Roll was to create music to “make you feel good inside”. So listen and “Live It Up”! Have a “Crazy Man Crazy” time!