Born William Patton Black, Jr., 17 September 1926, near Memphis, Tennessee. Died 21 October 1965, Memphis, Tennessee.
Bill Black had two distinct phases of his career in which he made a notable mark on early rock n roll : first as the rockabilly bass player for Elvis Presley and then as a bandleader of Bill Black's Combo, which scored numerous instrumental hits in the early 1960s.
Black grew up in Ellendale, a suburb of Memphis. His father drove a streetcar for the Memphis Street Railway and he played the hoedown fiddle. Bill quickly showed that he had a talent for playing with strings. A neighbour gave him a guitar when he was about thirteen years old. In 1942 Bill quit school and went to work for a local rail shipping company. By this time, the Black family had moved to 469 Alabama St. in the Lauderdale district of Memphis, opposite Vernon and Gladys Presley and their son Elvis.
Bill was drafted in 1945, returned (as a married man) to Memphis in 1947 and eventually found work at a Firestone tyre plant. At night he played in hillbilly bands. By 1953 he played stand-up bass with Doug Poindexter & the Starlite Wranglers, a group that also included guitarist Scotty Moore. This ensemble cut one single for Sun Records in March 1954, which sold so poorly that Sam Phillips did not invite them for a second session, but when Phillips set about launching the career of Elvis Presley, he enlisted the aid of Scotty and Bill. The story of that session of July 5, 1954, has often been told. Unimpressed by the ballads that Presley sang initially, Sam was mesmerised by an impromptu performance of "That's All Right Mama" during a break in the session. Scotty and Bill's role in developing the as-yet unnamed new rockabilly style was acknowledged when they were co-billed on the record label with Presley (on all five of his Sun singles) and given a piece of the royalties.
In November 1954, when Presley received an offer of a regular guest spot on the Louisiana Hayride, Black and Moore quit Poindexter and went on the road with Elvis, barnstorming across the southern states. Bill would play the role of stand-up comedian that is associated with hillbilly bass players. But when Presley was signed to RCA in November 1955, Black and Moore were excluded from the royalty agreement. They were relegated to mere backing musicians, for a fee of $ 200 a week, excluding session fees (they play on virtually all pre- Army recordings by Elvis). In early 1958 Scotty and Bill were fired by Col. Tom Parker when they asked for more money. But the split would have come anyway when Presley entered the Army. Whilst Scotty was to find his way back to Elvis eventually, Bill never played with Presley again during his lifetime. Black and Moore went back to Memphis for a handful of gigs with Ed Bruce and Thomas Wayne, but work seemed to be scarce. Bill took a job servicing air conditioners with Able Appliances. He was still there in 1959 when he went to see his old friend Ray Harris to discuss recording for Hi, a fledgling Memphis label of which Harris was one of the co-founders. Together Black and Harris recruited personnel for Bill Black's Combo, an instrumental group. The original line-up was : Bill Black (bass), Reggie Young (guitar), Joe Louis Hall (piano), Martin Willis (sax) and Jerry Arnold (drums). These are the musicians that played on the group's first single, "Smokie, Parts 1 & 2" (Hi 2018). Part 2 turned out to be the hit side, peaking at # 17 pop in January 1960 and # 1 R&B. This success saved Hi, which was in bad financial shape, from going belly up.
Hall and Willis quit after the first single and were replaced by Carl McVoy (piano, organ) and Ace Cannon (sax). Reggie Young was drafted in 1960 and was temporarily succeeded by Hank Hankins. The second single, "White Silver Sands" (a Top 10 hit for Don Rondo in 1957), was the group's biggest-ever hit, reaching # 9 on Billboard's pop charts and again # 1 R&B. By 1963 it was a million seller. Its success is a mystery to me, as I consider it to be one of the combo's worst records, with McVoy's organ playing badly out of tune. Its flip, "The Wheel", featuring piano instead of organ, is far superior. Bill Black's Combo had hit upon a winning formula and went on to score a total of 19 chart entries (pop) in the 1960s, among them "Josephine", "Don't Be Cruel", "Movin'" and "Twist-Her". Its trademark was a unique bottom heavy sound, with bass, guitar and drums playing in perfect union.
Black soon realized that he did not need to be with the group on the road. Early in 1962 he bowed out of road work and Bob Tucker took his place, while Black started his own studio (Lyn-Lou) and his own label (Louis Records, distributed by Hi). Only eight singles were released on the Louis label, among them a version by Dennis Turner of the Billy Swan composition "Lover Please", which became a Top 10 hit for Clyde McPhatter in 1962.
Black devoted most of his energies to the studio until he became sick in the early months of 1965. He began to get bad headaches and suffered from memory loss. He underwent an operation on June 10 and another six weeks later to remove a massive brain tumour. A third operation was necessary but would have left him a vegetable. Black reconciled himself to a tragically early death. He arranged for Bob Tucker to take over the name 'Bill Black Combo' (the group continued well into the 1970s) and for Larry Rogers to take over the studio. Bill Black died on October 21, 1965, only 39 years of age.
The title of a 1963 LP by Bill sums it all up neatly, 'The Untouchable Sound Of The Bill Black Combo' - indeed a sound that went around the world.
More info :
Discography : http://www.rocky-52.net/chanteursb/black_b.htm
CD recommendations :
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Peter Guralnick, Tony Wilkinson.
Dik, September 2011
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