For Dick Boccelli, the drummer for Bill Haley and His Comets, the group’s Memorial Day weekend stint in 1954 in Wildwood may have felt like just another gig at the time, but he helped make musical history.
A song Boccelli played for the first time live that weekend, “Rock Around The Clock,” turned into one of the most important records in popularizing rock ‘n’ roll.
“We knew what to do, just lay the beat down. That’s all. We didn’t do anything else but give the people what they want,” said Boccelli, who was known then as Dick Richards. “They (the girls) really got into it.”
Boccelli, now 95, of Ocean City, was in the band from 1953 through 1955. He was 30 when “Rock Around The Clock” was recorded and performed for the first time at the Hotel HofBrau.
There were at least 400 people inside the Hofbrau, at Oak and Atlantic avenues, when it was played for the first time, Boccelli estimates.
Two commemorations exist for “Rock Around The Clock” and Haley and the Comets in Wildwood.
A plaque was placed in 2004 where the Hofbrau once stood. And a mural of Haley and the Comets was finished in 2014 on a building at Oak and Pacific avenues.
Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano presented a proclamation and certificates of appreciation to Boccelli and Comets saxophone player Joey D’Ambrosio in 2014.
Troiano said Boccellie used to drive down to Wildwood just to say hello to him. After Haley died and the original Comets reunited in 1987, they performed a number of times in Wildwood, Troiano said.
“He is a truly, truly outstanding individual,” Troiano said. “I have the utmost respect for him. He is one of the nicest guys.”
When the lights would come on inside the Wildwoods Convention Center when Boccelli played with the Comets, he was able to play the drums as if he was in the 20s even though he was in his 90s, Troiano said.
“He played like it was yesterday,” Troiano said.
The Comets used to play seven shows a day, seven days a week when they performed at the Hofbrau in Wildwood, Troiano said Boccielli told him.
They were paid $900 a week the first year, $1,350 a week the second year and $1,600 for six days of work during the third year.
For the one year Boccelli was in the group after “Rock Around The Clock” was recorded, he remembers playing the song many times in big venues.
“The song has rhythm, good lyrics and people enjoy singing it,” Boccelli said.
His drumming can be heard on other early Haley singles, including “Crazy Man, Crazy” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
Boccelli grew up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. He started playing the drums when he was in high school, following in his older brother’s footsteps. He wanted to be a drummer because his older brother was a drummer.
“I wanted to be as good as him,” Boccelli said. “I enjoy playing them. That’s the name of the game. I’m happy as hell.”
Without the photographic evidence hanging on Boccelli’s wall, it might pass by unnoticed that he not only played drums, but he also sang. A picture shows him singing into a microphone in concert with Haley standing to his left playing guitar.
“I had a good voice,” said Boccelli, who still has a firm handshake after all those year of drumming.
Haley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, but Boccelli and the rest of the original Comets were not inducted until 2012.
“It was an honor,” Boccelli said.
During Boccelli’s downtime with the reunited original Comets, he was part of another band that just played in Atlantic and Cape May counties called the Ready Rockers that formed in 2013.
Walter “Wally” Bucks, 56, of Linwood, the bass player for the Ready Rockers, said a gig in September at the Ocean City Free Public Library was probably the last Boccelli will ever play.
“When we had practice, he would play for 90 minutes straight,” Bucks said.
Besides “Rock Around The Clock,” the Comets were known for being the first American rock ‘n’ roll band to play in Europe and for having the first million-selling rock ‘n’ roll single with their cover of the R&B tune “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Bucks said.
“Dick used to say that Elvis Presley was the king of rock ‘n’ roll, but Bill Haley and His Comets were the father of rock ‘n’ roll,” Bucks said.