Bass Players to Know: Marshall Lytle
If you’ve been keeping tabs on the Bass Players to Know series, you may still be spinning the Brothers Johnson records and practicing your 70’s funk and disco chops.
While Louis Johnson, Larry Graham, and many others have popularized what we’ve come to know as “slap bass,” the term was coined much earlier. Dating as far back as the 1920s, low-enders began “slappin’ da bass” on early jazz and R&B recording sessions. As rock ’n’ roll began sweeping the nation with the help of catchy melodies, three-chord progressions, and television appearances, Bill Haley & his Comets kicked off the national music craze with “Rock Around the Clock.”
Marshall Lytle, the consummate showman and the one thumpin’ the big strings on the early rock ’n’ roll records, is definitely worthy of being a bass player to know.
So Who Is Marshall Lytle?
A native of North Carolina, Lytle entered the musical world as a guitar player and didn’t pick up the upright bass until 1951. Bill Haley was looking for a new bass player for The Saddlemen (the precursor to the Comets) and gave Lytle a crash course on the instrument. Lytle picked it up and fit right in, and the group later became Bill Haley & His Comets. Between 1951 and 1955, the band toured extensively, appeared on various television programs, and recorded many of the early rock ’n’ roll standards. Lytle can be heard on most of Bill Haley’s hits, including “Rock Around The Clock,” “See You Later, Alligator,” and “Crazy Man, Crazy.”
In 1955, Lytle and most of the other members left The Comets over financial disputes and formed another band, The Jodimars. While the group recorded and toured together, they never achieved the same kind of success as they had with Bill Haley. The Jodimars became one of the first bands to have a residency in Las Vegas, bringing rock ’n’ roll music to the lounges of Vegas, but decided to go separate ways in 1958. After the break up, Lytle changed his name to Tommy Page and began a career in real estate.
Years later, Lytle reunited with the original Comets to perform in Dick Clark’s honor. This inspired a rebirth for the band and after a long hiatus, they began touring Europe and the United States through the late 2000s. During his later years, Lytle focused on original musical projects and on publishing his memoir, Still Rockin’ Round The Clock. After years of dealing with health issues, Lytle passed away from cancer in 2013 at the age of 79.
Let’s Talk Style
Very much a “meat and potatoes” bass player, Lytle’s harmonic approach was fairly straightforward: he created simple walking bass lines derived from standard blues and country patterns. Always focused on keeping the groove, he helped popularize slap bass playing on an upright, both as a percussive tool and as a performance style.
The relentless rhythmic driver of the band, his consistent percussive attacks created a shuffle feel over the 4/4 groove of rock ’n’ roll. This evolved after performing without a drummer during the group’s early days and being the one solely responsible for providing a pulse. Even with the addition of a drummer, Lytle’s slap style continued to be the prominent rhythmic force, giving listeners a steady beat to dance to. Furthermore, the bassist’s choice of using gut strings for the G and D and wound strings for the E and A provided a more audible slap sound and helped set the standard for country, rock ’n’ roll, and rockabilly upright bass players.
As the band focused on the art of performance, particularly for engaging the audience during television appearances, Lytle took advantage of the sheer size of the upright bass. Developing into quite the showman, Lytle would experiment with playing the bass in any way possible, including holding it above his head, standing on its side, playing it on the floor, and spinning it around. This set a new standard for performing and, as country and blues morphed into rock ’n’ roll, which later transformed into rockabilly, many bass players took their cue from Lytle’s energetic and unconventional style.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” (Bill Haley & His Comets)
Quite possibly the most popular rock ’n’ roll tune of all time, the song is propelled by a steady diatonic bass line. Instead of following a traditional blues arpeggio pattern, Lytle simply plays up the major scale, from the root to the fifth of each chord, and then back down. Lytle’s attack on the string is the most prominent rhythmic force on the record (even more so than the drummer), as it is clearly audible and consistent. His percussive hit before each downbeat gives the track a galloping “shuffle” feel.
“Well Now Dig This” (The Jodimars: The Birth Of Rock N’ Roll)
Although members of the Jodimars never achieved the same level of fame on their own (as compared to being part of the Comets), they did put out a handful of swinging recordings. Featuring call-and-response between the horns and gang vocals, this tune is an upbeat jitterbug-able gem of the rock ’n’ roll era. Lytle’s playing drives the track as usual, with his percussive slapping and skilled harmonic navigation.
“Green Tree Boogie” (Bill Haley & The Saddlemen)
A bass solo in rock ’n’ roll? Yes, please! This tune was recorded in the early days of Lytle’s bass playing career, when he had just picked up the instrument with the encouragement from Bill Haley. While the recording quality leaves much to be desired, this tune captures the percussive nature of Lytle’s slap style and features a short solo where he plays within the confines of the chords and never looses the groove.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Marshall Lytle? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!