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Las Vegan helped Bill Haley & His Comets make rock history

The thing has serious weight, both in heft and history.

Joey D’Ambrosio eyes the statue on the mantel of his Henderson home, a dark, featureless figure with arms outstretched, holding a gold record above its head.

“It’s pretty heavy,” he says.

In the most basic sense, it must come in at a good 6 pounds.

But what it symbolizes is much heavier: D’Ambrosio’s role in the popularization of rock ’n’ roll.

The saxophonist received the token of his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Bill Haley & His Comets in 2012.

He played on all of the bands hits, “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “See You Later Alligator,” “Rocket 88,” to name but a few.

But one song in particular changed everything: “Rock Around the Clock.”

It wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll record.

It wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll hit, even.

But it was the song that took the music to the mainstream in unprecedented fashion, topping the charts for eight weeks, becoming a worldwide smash, giving a new generation an equally new musical voice.

“People were looking for something new,” D’Ambrosio explains. “They wanted their own music. When they heard ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ there was something about that record that turned them on.”

It all began for D’Ambrosio when he was 19.

That’s when he joined Bill Haley & His Comets in his native Philadelphia.

“I heard he was going to hire a saxophone player,” D’Ambrosio recalls from his living room, frequently flashing a smile as bright as the gleaming gold records mounted on the wall. “He never used saxophone before on his records. I called him up, I made the audition, and they hired me.

“I was a Dizzy Gillespie guy,” he continues. “So when I listened to music, I heard it in a different way. When I went to rehearsal with the band, he was working on the first song he was going to record with Decca, ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ We worked up an arrangement, and that’s where I came in, thinking musically differently than Bill Haley was. He was a country guy. I said, ‘It’ll go better this way than you have it.’ ”

The next day, they’d hit the studio and make history.

Eventually.

D’Ambrosio would leave the Comets in 1955, start his own band, The Jodimars, and relocate to Las Vegas in 1964. He played with his brother-in-law in The Satellites, performing in showrooms across town, from the Sands to the Stardust and more.

He’d eventually leave the music business to focus on his family life, working at Caesars Palace for 27 years, first as a dealer before graduating to pit boss. In the late ’80s, D’Ambrosio started touring with The Comets again, gigging around the world, from South Africa to Spain.

Now, at 85, he’s the last living member of the classic Comets lineup. He still practices almost every day.

“Right now, I’m looking for a gig,” D’Ambrosio says. “I like to play, you know?”

On a recent weekday afternoon, D’Ambrosio took some time to tell the story behind one of the most significant rock ’n’ roll songs ever.

Review-Journal: Legend has it that the band almost missed the recording session for “Rock Around the Clock” because the ferry from Philadelphia to New York City hit a sandbar.

Joey D’Ambrosio: That’s right. On the Delaware River. We were late for the session, couple hours. But we made it. When we got there, “OK, here’s the song we’re going to do, ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ ” We had never heard it before. They didn’t even have a demonstration record of it.

We had a two-hour session, that’s all it was. By the time they heard the band and got the sound, the engineers balanced everything up, we only had about an hour to do the session. So we did it one time. We said, “No, not too good. Let’s do it again.” We did it twice. The second time we got it down perfect. We played it like we rehearsed it. It came over the system and they said, “This is great.”

Initially you didn’t love the song, right? You thought “Thirteen Women,” the other song you recorded that day, was going to be the hit.

That’s what we thought. That’s what they told us. That was going to be the A-side. So we did that first and they said, “OK, do that ‘Rock’ thing.”

So you only did two takes of a song that ended up altering rock ’n’ roll history, really?

It really did. The thing was, it wasn’t a hit at first.

You recorded it in ’54, but it wasn’t until ’55 that it became a hit.

What happened was, we recorded it and we thought, “Nothing is happening.” Then they asked us to do the music for a movie called “Blackboard Jungle.” It so happens that the son of the producer of the movie was up in his bedroom, playing his recordings. And he happened to have “Rock Around the Clock.” His father heard him playing it, and he said, “What’s that song? That’s the song I want to use for this movie. It will go perfect for that.” So he put that on there. We didn’t know anything about it. We weren’t even told they were going to do it.

A year later, the movie came out with that song. It opened up the movie. Well, the movie became a hit. At that time, the kids, teenagers, they didn’t have their own music yet. They were still listening to Harry James and the big bands. But when this movie came out, they started to get up in the aisles in the movie theater and dance.

When did you realize the song was a hit?

It just snuck up on us. We’re listening to these disc jockeys, and they’re all starting to play “Rock Around the Clock.” They’re getting more requests. It really caught on. It became No. 1 in the world, not just here in the United States. They all picked up on this record. It was swinging music — just swinging. And that’s what they needed. It became a big, big hit.

I only made $43 for that record. That’s all he ever paid me — me and the guys who arranged it. The other Comets were Bill Haley’s partners, see. They got the money. The royalties started coming in pretty good, you know? You can imagine it was a lot of money coming in. But we didn’t get any of the royalty money. Nothing. All we got was $43.

You didn’t get the money, but you helped popularize rock ’n’ roll for generations to come. When did you realize the impact of that song?

I really started to realize it when you went to amusement parks and you heard it playing it on the loudspeaker. And the slot machines started using it. There were slot machines called “Rock Around the Clock.” The football games started using it. They used to open every football game on Sunday afternoon with “Rock Around the Clock.” That’s when we started to really realize what we had.

And then years later you get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Oh, yeah. I never expected it. It was exciting being inducted. It’s been 60 years now since we recorded that. … I’m the only one alive now (of the original band). I’m the last of the Mohicans.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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