Concert Review: Bill Haley’s Original Comets, Branson MO

My “people” (as they say) are from New York City. So trips to Center of the Known Universe were a highlight of my youth. I recall one particular trip during which my uncle (one of New York’s Finest, thankyouverymuch) took us out for a slice of pizza. A mere lad of thirteen or so, I was more than a little amused to hear the story of Ray’s vs. Original Ray’s vs. Genuine Ray’s etc. When it came to getting a New York slice, many people staked a claim to the real deal.


Over the years, similar situations have arisen with regard to bands. Perhaps most famously, a certain evil promoter (I dare not speak his name, but fans of the group will know of whom I speak) wheeled out a touring ersatz Moby Grape featuring no original members. And the real group was still around! In the days before they became a boring, flaccid FM radio sensation, Fleetwood Mac was subjected to the same sort of indignity. For a few years in the early 80s, Sam Moore toured with a different guy named Dave.

When the music’s good, everybody (or most everybody) wins. When it’s not, fans can’t help feeling a bit as if they’ve been cheated. And in both situations, the lawyers usually make out pretty well. Point of all this is that the issue of who owns a band name is often a sticky issue. Roger Waters famously took his former Pink Floyd bandmates to court over such matters. And as I mentioned in a recent review, guitarist Kurt Winter — a name probably unfamiliar to most of my readers — owns a quite famous band name: The Guess Who. As such, neither lead vocalist and composer Burton Cummings or guitarist Randy Bachman is allowed to use the name.

Luckily, sometimes it gets sorted out. And some of those times, the resulting act is not only something approaching the real deal, but they have something to offer musically. So it is with the band currently billed as Bill Haley’s Original Comets. Featuring two guys who really were there — and who really did play on the hit records — the group plays more than a hundred dates a year, more than half of them at the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre in Branson Missouri.

Joey Ambrose is 72 years old. Possessing an onstage demeanor reminiscent of Louis Prima (a similarity he mines to good effect), Ambrose is an expressive sax player who doesn’t ever seem to get winded. Ambrose fronts the band, doing most of the stage patter and corny jokes (this is Branson, after all). He also takes ample opportunity to solo on his horn, proving that he hasn’t lost it in the years since he and bandmate Dick Richards left Haley’s employ to form their own group, the Jodimars. (That would have been 1955, by the way).

Richards is the drummer. Did I mention he’s 82 years old? To look at him leaves little doubt that this is so: he’s of slight frame, thin, and quite honestly pretty damn old-looking. But watching him onstage, you’d never know it. The swinging Richards pounds the skins expressively, keeping time with military precision. And believe it or not, toward the latter part of the Comets’ 40-minute set, Richards takes a drum solo that lasts some four minutes. The crowd responds with slack-jawedness and thunderous applause.

The group peppers its nearly-all-hits repertoire with some crowd interaction, and at one point Ambrose and guitarist Jackson Haney (a fine axeman with looks favoring Gerry Marsden and a voice that’s nearly a dead-ringer for the long-departed Haley) heads into the crowd, thanks to the wonders of wireless technology.

Ambrose does a fine job of placing the songs in their context for the crowd, and even when they do an original (a ballad called “Lost in the 50s Tonight” or something like that) it works within the sonic parameters. On that song and others the backing band engage in convincing Jordanaires-type backing vocal arrangements. And perhaps surprisingly for a revue of this type, the band does not shy away from extended instrumental solos. That is a quality that I find especially refreshing; these guys really, really do rock.

Thankfully, the group doesn’t make prominent use of modern technology for their sound. In addition to Ambrose, Richards and Haney, the band includes keyboardist David Byrd, an unassuming fellow who probably adds more to the sound than is readily apparent. And on upright bass the band features Lou Colbe, whose introduction includes the fun fact that he used to play with Sammy Davis Jr. I’m not sure that helps his rock’n’roll cred much, but he plays well.

All involved seem to be having a good time playing the same set they do night after night (this was the final night of a month-long Branson residency), though Colbe may ever-so-slightly be tipping his hand that he is bored, on autopilot, phoning it in. During one of Ambrose’s longer banter sessions, if you look closely you can see Colbe’s lips mimicking Ambrose’s every well-rehearsed word in perfect synchronization. One could look upon this with cynicism or disappointment; I just find it funny. It doesn’t seem to be done with anything but a bit of mischievious humor.

Overall, the band performs in a way that barely moves the kitsch-o-meter needle off the zero mark; they truly are the real deal, rocking more than youngsters half their age.

After rocking two-thirds the way around the clock, the band members make themselves available post-show for handshakes, autographs and photos. A day or two earlier I had been cratedigging at Goner Records (chronicled in this book) in Memphis’ Cooper-Young neighborhood, and scored an early 70s reissue LP called Bill Haley’s Golden Hits. I present it to both Ambrose and Richards in hopes of getting their autographs, and both oblige. Ambrose, surprised to see an LP sleeve in 2010, says to me, “Hmm…let me see if I’m on any of these…” He flips the sleeve over and reads down the track list. “Yep,” he concludes, “I’m on all of ’em!” And so is Richards. Lucky me!

The group clears out to give time for the stagehands to set up things for the headliner, Paul Revere and the Raiders, my primary reason for coming to Branson. I’ll report on that show soon. Stay tuned.

Bill Haley's Original Comets. Photo (c) Bill Kopp.

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