Born Rudolph Clement Pompilii, 16 April 1924, Chester, Pennsylvania
Rudy Pompilli was one of the greatest saxophone players in the history of rock and roll music. He was the longest-serving musician of Bill Haley’s Comets, having started to work with Haley in September 1955 and he was still a member of the Comets at the time of his death in 1976.
Music dominated Rudy’s life from an early age. In high school he learned to play the clarinet and flute ; the sax came later. After serving as an infantryman in the Second World War, he played in various jazz bands prior to joining the Ralph Marterie orchestra in 1953. That outfit scored a # 13 pop hit in mid-1953 with a cover of Bill Haley’s “Crazy Man Crazy”, but Pompilli did not play on that record.
When Pompilli was invited to join Haley’s Comets (as a replacement for Joey Ambrose, who had left to form The Jodimars), he was originally hesitant. Haley later recalled “When we first started, Rudy was high class. I was a hillbilly singer and he wouldn’t even talk to the hillbilly at that time!” That was in the early 1950s. In the end, the “high class” Pompilli became the “hillbilly’s” right hand man for the next 20 years. He even allowed Haley to change the spelling of his name from Pompilii (with two i’s) to Pompilli when it was felt the original spelling looked too much like a typographical error. Rudy was only absent from a scant few studio and live dates between 1955 and 1975. These exceptions include a brief period in 1957 when Pompilli was sidelined by illness and had to be replaced for a time by Frankie Scott. In 1960 Rudy briefly quit the Comets along with guitarist Franny Beecher and drummer Ralph Jones to form the Merri-Men, a short-lived spinoff, during which time Al Dean attempted to fill Rudy’s shoes. The Merri-Men recorded one single (for Apt Records) before rejoining the Comets in early 1961.
The first Comets session in which Pompilli participated took place on September 22, 1955. Two songs were recorded, “R-O-C-K” and “Rock-A Beatin’ Boogie”. The latter featured a powerful sax intro by Rudy. Bill Haley and the Comets were at the peak of their popularity in 1956, scoring hit after hit both at home and abroad. Their performance in the 1956 film “Rock Around the Clock” included “Rudy’s Rock”, a sax-heavy instrumental that would become Rudy’s trademark song. Co-written by Pompilli and Bill Haley, it gave Rudy the chance to show off his acrobatics on stage, including a part where he lay flat on his back while playing the sax. In 1957 he re-worked the idea, with less success, for the second Columbia picture, “Don’t Knock the Rock”, miming to “Calling All Comets”.
The winning formula soon deserted Haley and the band managed only a series of minor hits through 1957 and 1958. In September 1958, Al Rex’s departure gave Rudy the opportunity to bring in his cousin, Al Pompilii, on the double bass. During that same month, the Comets (without Haley) scored a # 35 hit with the instrumental “Weekend”, co-written by Rudy Pompilli, Franny Beecher and Billy Williamson (the same trio also wrote the B-side, “Better Believe It”). Credited to The Kingsmen, the single came out on the East-West label, an Atlantic subsidiary. A second Kingsmen single, “The Cat Walk”, was just as good, but failed to chart.
Haley’s last chart entries in the USA were instrumentals, heavily featuring Rudy’s sax playing - “Joey’s Song” (# 46, 1959) and “Skokiaan” (# 70, 1960, a # 3 hit for Ralph Marterie in 1954). A move from Decca to Warner Bros did not result in any hits for Haley, who gradually shifted the focus of his activity to Mexico. The 1960s were a fairly lean period for Haley and the Comets and the band began to fall apart. But amidst all the personnel changes, Pompilli was loyal to Haley until the end. Being the senior member, he became bandleader in 1964, hiring and firing musicians as necessary. He was the one that kept the show on the road, more than Haley himself. Rudy also became an important vocal component in the show, with invigorating versions of “Kansas City” and “New Orleans”.
Renewed interest in 1950s rock n roll gave the band a new boost in 1972-74 and “Rock Around the Clock” even re-entered the charts (peaking at # 39) in 1974, after it had been used in the hit movie “American Graffiti” and the TV series “Happy Days”. At the end of a successful European tour in 1974, Pompilli was diagnosed with lung cancer. But he continued to tour with Haley throughout 1975 and also recorded his first solo album in that year (“The Sax That Changed the World”, on the Sonet label, not reissued on CD).
Rudy Pompilli died on February 5, 1976, at the age of 51. It’s sad that he did not survive to see the Original Comets reunite in the late 1980s. In 2012 Pompilli was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Comets.
More info : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudy_Pompilli
Further reading : Chris Gardner, The sax that rocked the world. In : Now Dig This, issue 275 (February 2006), page 18-23.
Acknowledgements : Chris Gardner, Alex Frazer-Harrison, Wikipedia.
Dik, April 2015
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