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D4Haley International


John Grande

(1930 - 2006)

The quiet (but not silent) Comet 

    Copyright 2006 by Denise M. Gregoire.

 

Knowledge and photos are meant to be shared, but please have the courtesy of asking first and giving proper acknowledgement to photos, as some were given to me from John's personal collection.

This biography isn't going to re-hash what you've read in books and magazines about the history of the famous Bill Haley & His Comets, so you will find I gloss over or ignore some of those main points. The purpose of this mini bio is to give you some insight on  John Grande, who was the last surviving partner in the Bill Haley corporations who really didn't talk about himself very much. I'd finally gotten him to talk about his adventures on the road, but it was only weeks before he got very ill, so obviously, while I was able to get notes, they are nowhere near as complete as I'd like for them to have been. 

Hopefully, this bio will bring answers to some questions, shatter a few printed myths and just make for plain good reading. It just proves you don't have to be flashy to be a vital part of an organization.

One point to remember is that Johnny was on all the Keystone, Center, Holiday, Essex, Decca, and Warner Brothers recordings with Bill Haley.  That means for the casual reader, he recorded all their hits from "Crazy Man Crazy" in 1953, "Shake Rattle and Roll", and of course the legendary "Rock Around The Clock".

Sometimes, when you're over to the side on stage, people will look only to center stage. Even during the 1950s, when he usually carried an accordion, John Grande would stand to the back side of the stage. It didn't matter to him. The music and the partnership/corporation he had with Bill Haley came first. "Bill was the leader, and he had the spotlight. That was okay, because I was still a partner, and I always liked Bill, we got along well, and it worked".

Born January 14th, 1930 in south Philadelphia PA, John A. Grande came from a musical family. On his father's side, a great Uncle once played for John Philip Sousa when he came to town. Various other relatives were musically inclined and in bands as well.  The idea of taking up an instrument, the accordion, came from his parents originally. Something to keep the boy entertained. But it was never something his father expected him to take up professionally. There was more than a little argument when the teenage John decided to pursue music more than working for the same company as his father.

John took his music lessons (classical) for over seven years. He learned to read and write music, eventually learning to play "La Traviata" on the accordion. Young John picked up on music quickly, and it became his profession while he was still a high school student. "My mother told me to get a high school diploma, I got it" and that was his education.

While John was taking his lessons, a friend of his, Monte Rosci, would ask him to fill in for him at some live shows he couldn't make. The shows were western shows held at Sleepy Hollow Ranch in Quakertown Pennsylvania. Sleepy Hollow Ranch was an open air park with a regular band, the Sleepy Hollow Ranch Gang, that included Rosci. John was about sixteen years old when he would work these shows, and he ended up working for people like Texas Jim Roberson, Jesse Rodgers, Mac McGuire, and Tex Ritter. John became quite proficient at playing western music ("It was popular, I made money at it"). The time here provided John with great experience backing both regional and national performers, of which there were many.

It was during this time period John met some of the other bands and became acquainted with them. One of the groups he met was Bill Haley & The Four Aces of Western Swing. John had already known Al Constantine from his accordion class ("Al was really a great accordion player. He never got much credit for it"), and he became friendly with Barney Barnard and Bill Haley during this time. At times, Al Constantine could not make some of their shows either, and John would fill in for him (historians note this, too bad we don't have any photos!). So in reality, John is the only performer other than Bill Haley who played with the Four Aces of Western Swing, The Saddlemen, and The Comets.

                                        Copyright D. Gregoire

The local western community was somewhat tight knit, and everyone seemed to converge on Sleepy Hollow Ranch for performances. So it was through these natural turn of events John, a steel guitar player friend of his, Billy Williamson, and Bill Haley eventually got together to form a new partnership and a new band, the Saddlemen in late 1949. John always told me, it was a business partnership because the three of them enjoyed playing music and figured they could make money at it. Besides, there was no way John could stand the thought of ever driving a coal dump truck to make home deliveries ever again (and he never did).

                                 

After the Saddlemen concept stopped and they started dressing in suits instead of Stetsons, the new band, the Comets, went to have their photos taken. You'll find the photo in several books and on the sheet music for "Stop Beating Around The Mulberry Bush". All the new Comets, Bill Haley, John, Billy Williamson, and Marshall Lytle...had different bow ties on. None of them matched. "I hated those pictures" John told me. That's a major reason it's so hard to find his individual picture from that session. He probably threw his copies out years ago.

                           

The band did a lot of experimenting, and John was a vital part of the organization not just as a partner, but as their musical arranger, since he was the only one who could read music.

If you really wanted to irritate John, one of the things you could have said was to refer to the Comets as a band who got lucky by becoming an overnight success. "Overnight success???" he'd raise his voice "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...and I invested a lot of time and money into that band for years." (To dispel another myth perpetuated by the late Jimmy Myers, Johnny said he NEVER had to go bail them out of the club as  a bunch of drunks. They NEVER behaved, as a band, in such a manner).


copyright D. Gregoire/John Grande 2004.

As the band's success grew, so did everyone's fortunes and their travel itineraries. There were many good times on the road. When they were in Brazil in the '50s, their plane was not operational. Since the band needed to leave, the people at the airport pulled a plane out of "mothballs"/storage. It was a world war II  vintage aircraft complete with bullet holes! Johnny always said Ralph Jones HATED to fly, and when he saw that plane, he promptly proceeded to the bar to get drunk.

There were the movies, of course, and John was fortunate enough to meet many people along the way to Hollywood like Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis,  Zsa Zsa Gabor, Harry James, and Betty Grable. Harry James in particular, he said, had a photographic memory.

Family photo, from left to right, Nick Arnuchi (brother in law), John B. Grande (father), Dino Grande (brother) and John. Courtesy Dino Grande.

  John and Billy Williamson had looked at some fashionable homes for their families a few years earlier. They were shown some expensive homes, but John opted for a nicer but smaller home. Billy Williamson invested heavily in a new home. In later years, when the band's fortunes weren't that great anymore, John said Billy lost the house. It was a blow he would never recover from, and it was the first step in several giving him mental reason to disassociate from the band in later years.

As the band's fortunes continued to dwindle in the late '50s, they went on to record the album that was to remain John's all time favorite, "Strictly Instrumental". In 1960, when they moved to Warner Brothers, his favorite single release was "Tamiami", and we had both agreed the best album cut was "Cold Cold Heart" (I used to tease him that great minds thought alike).

In the early '60s, John maintained an apartment in Mexico. "It was great at the time. I paid something like $12 a month, and it was a nice place, it even came with a full time maid. Musicians would come over and jam. We had fun. When I was getting ready to come back home, I'd leave the maid $100, which was just a fortune then, and she'd keep the place up until I came back again".

But as sure as anything else, that came to an end when the pressures of running the corporations and the band got to John. He made sure all the debts were paid up and the books were straight with their final tax audits before he left. When he left at the ripe age of 32, he left with three stomach ulcers and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He ended up back home at his mother's house until he was nursed back to health.

As he recovered and sought out a new life, he worked odd jobs such as a music instructor to kids in a music shop, and then at Walber's club with a group named the Grandees (the owner thought of it, and you didn't argue with the owner). They had a good run of 9 years, but another offer came from the Media Motor Lodge, and John knew it was time for a change. He moved over to the Lodge and formed a new group with Joseph "Buddy" Charles, also a well known local performer. They called it the "Buddy Charles Trio".


copyright 2006 D. Gregoire/John Grande.

It was during this time John almost had a meeting with Bill Haley. Rudy Pompilii called him, told him Bill was in town and would like to see him. John told me he was really looking forward to seeing Bill, because there had never been any animosity in their parting. But it was not meant to be, Bill Haley left town under cover of night. John and Bill would never cross paths again.

In the 1980s, suddenly Florida looked promising for John. His parents had moved down there, and he decided it was time for a change. He moved to Lake Placid where he would take over running of some restaurants. It was also during this time he had his first heart attack. He told me the technicians and the doctors in that Emergency room did everything just right, they saved his life. He was flown to Orlando for further treatment, and went on his way after that.

1987 was the fateful year when Dick Richards and Bill Turner  rounded up and reunited the "Original Comets" for a Dick Clark show. "We passed each other in the hall" John said "We didn't even recognize each other!".  Two years after that, they were back in England and Europe with manager Dave Hirschberg. To make a long, well known story short, as they say, the rest is history. 


copyright 2005 D. Gregoire

It was always said, if you want the true story about Bill Haley and the birth of rock and roll, ask John Grande. He'll tell you. So I did. The immediate response was "What the hell do I look like? A walking encyclopedia? Sure, I'll tell you what happened, but at least give me a hint where to start. I was in on over 400 recording sessions with Bill, and there have been a lot of years since then" And bless you Johnny, you did tell it the way it was, because you were there. I consider myself a very lucky fan to have known you so well.

Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions, I'll be glad to hear them. Contact me here.

 

Denise

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Copyright 2006 D4Haley International