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William Patton "Bill" Black, Jr. (September 17, 1926October 21, 1965) was an Americanmarker musician. He is noted for being Elvis Presley's bassist.


Born in Memphismarker, Tennesseemarker, and one of nine children, Black played bass ('slapped/rockabilly' upright double) with guitarist Scotty Moore, while Elvis Presley played rhythm guitar and sang "That's All Right" in a Sun Studios session in Memphis that is considered a seminal event in the history of rock and roll.

As the oldest of the nine children in the not well-to-do household (his father was a motorman for the Memphis Street Railway), Black first played music on a cigar box with a board nailed to it and with strings attached made by his father. The Black family entertained itself and Bill's father would play the banjo and fiddle, "A hoedown, 'Old Joe Clark', Sally Good'n, whatever was popular then."

By the age of sixteen Black was playing in local bars and clubs which were beyond the notice of polite middle class society. Live music was a big attraction at these working class establishments. Bill played acoustic guitar in a mixture of sounds that he described as "honky-tonk music": danceable pop, country standards, and jump blues.

In the early 1950s, the Black family lived in Lauderdale Courts housing complex in Memphis. Several of the Black children attended Humes High School at the same time as Presley although Bill Black had already left home for the U.S. Army by this time. Ken R. Black, the youngest of the Black children, associated with Presley, who was a year behind him at Hume.

According to rockabilly singer Glen Glenn, "Bill Black just idolized Fred Maddox. He said he learned everything, how to play the bass and to be a good showman, because of Fred." Maddox's widow, Kitty, confirmed Glenn's recollection and recalled Black's open admiration of her husband. Black's early stage persona was that of the jokester country bumpkin, and when he began playing with Scotty Moore, he blacked out his teeth, wore a straw hat and coveralls, needled the band leader, and played a malaprop-spouting hick for laughs.

In 1954 Black played with Scotty Moore, Johnny Burnette, Dorsey Burlison, and a drummer. A big fight broke out while they played at a club twenty miles east of Memphis, the Chatelone in Oakland, TN. Dorsey was stabbed.

The Blue Moon Boys

In early July 1954, Sam Phillips of Sun Records, who was experiencing a lull in business, set up a green young man named Elvis Presley with guitarist Scotty Moore, who had called Black to help out backing the young man. They first met at Moore's house. A lover of crooner ballads, Elvis sang "Because of You", "I Love You Because" and "Just Because". As soon as Elvis left, Black remarked that, "He sure didn't impress me much!"

The trio rehearsed dozens of songs, from traditional country, to "Harbor Lights", a hit for crooner Bing Crosby to gospel.

The search for another song to release along with "That's All Right" at Sun Records in July 1954 led to "Blue Moon of Kentucky" via Bill Black. "We all of us knew we needed something," according to Scotty Moore, and things seemed hopeless after a while. "Bill is the one who came up with "Blue Moon of Kentucky."...We're taking a little break and he starts beating on the bass and singing "Blue Moon of Kentucky," mocking Bill Monroe, singing the high falsetto voice. Elvis joins in with him, starts playing and singing along with him," as did Moore himself. Elvis Presley Scotty and Bill, with the encouragement of Sam Phillips, transformed Monroe's slow waltz (3/4 time) into an upbeat, blues flavored tune in 4/4 time.

After an early rendition of the song, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips exclaimed, "BOY, that's fine, that's fine. That's a POP song now!." Presley responded, "That sounds like Carl Perkins!" As with all of the Presley records issued by Sun, the artists were listed as "ELVIS PRESLEY, SCOTTY and BILL".

With Presley's version of Monroe's song consistently rated higher,both sides began to chart across the South.

While "That's All Right"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky" combination was being played on the radio in Memphis, "the Blue Moon Boys", as they would be labeled, played at local clubs such as the Bon Aire Club and the Eagle's Nest, trying to build up an act. "..We worked up stuff where he [Black] and Elvis would do a lot of little jokes and stuff. Not dirty stuff, but kinda on the risque side. Clean stuff if you compare it to stuff today", says Scotty Moore.

Black went to RCA along with Elvis and Scotty when Presley's contract was sold to that company. Except for the RCA reissue of "Mystery Train" and "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" (with Scotty and Bill), they were no longer credited on record labels.

Black went on to play double bass on early Presley recordings including "Good Rockin' Tonight", "Heartbreak Hotel", "Baby Let's Play House", "Mystery Train", "That's All Right", "Hound Dog"; and eventually became one of the first bass players to use the Fender Precision Bass (bass guitar) in popular music, on "Jailhouse Rock" in the late 1950s.

Black, Scotty Moore and drummer D. J. Fontana toured extensively during Presley's early career. Black was an extrovert and often clowned, and he and Presley had a couple of routines together that they would slip into the live show from time to time. Black's on-stage personality was a sharp contrast to the introverted stage presence of Moore. This balance seemed to be the perfect fit for the Presley performances.
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Black was often described as the "boisterous clown" of the group."According to Black's son Louis, Scotty Moore said, "Elvis used to just stand up there and not move, and Bill would jump around on the bass. Your daddy would come down through there and get everybody to laughing and loosen them up." Although both the crowd and the singer (Elvis can clearly be seen laughing) loved the clowning, Colonel Parker declared that there be no more showing up Elvis. Gordon Stoker told Black, "Hey, man, you've got to cut this out. You're not the star. Elvis is the star."

Drummer D.J. Fontana, who joined the group after they appeared on the Louisiana Hayride, remembered that Black was the mainstay of the band in those days. ""He was a comedian who could warm up a crowd. That was necessary for us because we played for a lot of country crowds that weren't used to people jumping up and down on stage."

During April 1957 sessions recording songs for "Jailhouse Rock", released in September of 1957, Black played a Fender Electric bass.

Both Black and Moore left Presley on September 21, 1957, and informed the Memphis press that the split was a matter of money, with Black quoted as saying, "Scotty and I don't have fifty dollars between us."

Black continued to work with Presley until 1958, leaving his band in large part due to disputes over financial terms. He and guitarist Moore had taken one quarter of the royalties at the outset of Presley's career, but even after Presley had rocketed to stardom with RCA starting in 1956, Colonel Tom Parker had them on a $200-per-week wage.

The Bill Black Combo

As early as 1957 Black considered starting a band with rockabilly singer Glen Glenn. Glen would do vocals and the band would be called the Continentals. However, Glen was drafted, making this impossible."

After severing his ties with RCA and Presley, Black had a definite vision for a simple, danceable instrumental sound. Joe Lee remembers Black saying, "You know those honky tonk days, man? Well, that's the sound I want. I want some honky-tonk music, man."Billboard wrote that his "combo was noted for its "untouchable sound" which featured a deep, driving beat. His records had "bottom" which consisted of electric bass, drum and guitar."
In one review Billboard referred to "Black's professionally expert raunchy sound" which "had made him one of the nation's most popular instrumental groups."

Although Moore would eventually work with Presley again, Black never did, and in 1959 he joined a Memphis group that evolved into Bill Black's Combo (as they were normally styled). Hi Records released their instrumental "Smokie," (HL 12001) in December of the year. "Smokie, Part 2" was a number-seventeen pop hit, and hit number one on the "black" music charts. The song made the Top 20 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

A subsequent release, "White Silver Sands" (Hi 2021) was a Top 10 hit (# 9) and, like its predecessor, topped the R&B charts for four weeks.

Bill Black's Combo stuck to the formula of "Smokie" for many of their subsequent singles: a basic shuffle beat, simple bluesy R&B riffs with Martin Willis' smoky saxophone lines on top. Eighteen-year-old Bobby Emmons used a Chord-a-Vox piano attachment that provided a "roller-rink organ" sound that was especially prominent on their recording of "Don't Be Cruel". They placed eight singles in the Top 40 between 1959 and 1962, including "White Silver Sands" (U.S. #9), "Josephine" (U.S. #18), "Don't Be Cruel" (U.S. #11), "Blue Tango" (U.S. #16), and "Hearts of Stone" (U.S. #20).Another accomplishment is the fact that their single "Saxy Jazz" spent a record year in the top 100.

The Combo appeared in the 1961 film The Teenage Millionaire and on The Ed Sullivan Show, where they performed a medley of "Don't Be Cruel," "Cherry Pink," and "Hearts of Stone", and were voted Billboard's number one instrumental group of 1961.

The Combo's music has been described as "danceable shuffles", "a mix of pop, country, blues, and rock", and were popular with jukebox operators. Joe Cuoghi, owner of Hi Records referred to a sound that "feels funky and black".

Albums with themes included "Bill Black's Combo Plays Tunes by Chuck Berry", "Bill Black's Combo Goes Big Band", "Bill Black's Combo Goes West", and "Bill Black's Combo Plays the Blues". All of their albums charted "reasonably well". The Combo's sound "came around at a time when striptease clubs were big all over the country. You could not go into a strip joint in America without a chick taking her clothes off to a Bill Black record." One of the unique characteristics of the Combo was Reggie Young thwacking on the guitar with a pencil.

In a December 9, 1962 interview in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Black stated that his records sold well in England, Africa, Australia, and even South America. In the same interview, he also says, "Oh, I've been playing the twist for five or six years." The Combo's 1962 "Twist Her" was a fairly lively, sax-led rocker that was released at the height of the twist craze. written by him, was released in 1958, and was based on a 12-bar blues that used a melody line he had lifted from the group's flop of the previous year, "Is Your Love For Real?", which he had in turn borrowed from Clyde McPhatter and the Drifter's 1955 hit "What 'Cha Gonna Do?" Chubby Checker's version of the twist became a hit in 1960.)

Lyn Lou Studio

In 1962, Bill Black opened a recording studio called Lyn Lou Studio (named for his son and daughter) on Chelsa Street in Memphis, Tennessee, with Larry Rogers (Studio 19, Nashville) as his Engineer and Producer. Johnny Black, Bill's brother and also upright bass player who knew Elvis at Lauderdale Courts before Bill, recalls visiting Bill at the studio and reported that Bill would be totally absorbed mixing and playing back tracks. The studio featured a 1958 Ampex 351 mono tape recorder retired from SUN Studios in 1960, basically just like the one Bill recorded on with Elvis in 1954. Sam Phillips replaced the 2 original Ampex 350's with 2 new Ampex 351's in 1958. Bob Tucker and Larry Rogers would purchase Lyn Lou Studios after Bill Black's death in 1965. The studio would record many Bill Black Combo Albums (now billed as "The Best Honky Tonk Band" in America as well as "The band who opened for the Beatles"), and produce number one country hits for Charlie McClain, T.G. Shepard, Billy Swan and others. The house band for these sessions would be the Shylo Band, featuring guitarist/songwriter Ronnie Scaife, nephew of Cecil Scaife, famed SUN Studio engineer.

Early in 1963, Black sent from two to five different versions of the Combo to different regions of the country at the same time, while staying off the road himself, wanting to concentrate on his business, family and his health.

Ill health and death

In 1963, Bob Tucker joined the Bill Black Combo as a road manager and guitar/bass player. Black was already ill and unable to travel as a result of a brain tumor that would cause his death in 1965. The Bill Black Combo created musical history in 1964 when they became the opening act for the Beatles on their historical 13-city tour of America after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Black himself was not well enough to make the tour.

After two operations and lengthy hospital stays, Black died of a brain tumor on October 21, 1965 at the age of thirty-nine, and is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. Presley received criticism for not attending his funeral; however, he believed that his presence would turn the funeral into a media frenzy. He decided instead to visit the family privately after the service to express his condolences. According to Louis Black, Presley said, "If there's anything that y'all need, you just let me know and it's yours."

Black's widow sold Bob Tucker and Larry Rogers both the right to use the name Bill Black's Combo. The band changed to country when it joined Columbia Records, and won Billboard's Country Instrumental Group of the Year award in 1976.


Bill Black's Combo cut more than 20 records, toured the United States and Europe and won awards as the best instrumental group in America in 1966 and 1967. Bob Tucker worked for the University of Memphis as Professor of Music Business as well as being leader of the Best Honky Tonk Band in America.

Black's stand-up bass is today owned by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, who received the instrument as a birthday present from his late wife Linda McCartney in the late 1970s. The bass can be seen in the video clip to McCartney's song "Baby's Request". In the documentary film, The World Tonight, McCartney can be seen playing the bass and singing his version of "Heartbreak Hotel". In 2005, Clay Steakley portrayed Black in the Elvis Presley biopic miniseries Elvis.

See also

External links


  1. Official legal title of Crudup's (and Elvis's) 'That's All Right'
  3. The Blue Moon Boys - The Story of Elvis Presley's Band. Ken Burke and Dan Griffin. 2006. Chicago Review Press. page 20. ISBN 1-55652-614-8
  4. Go Cat Go! Craig Morrison. 1996. University of Illinois Press. page 104. ISBN 0-252-02207-6
  5. The Rockabilly Legends; They Called It Rockabilly Long Before they Called It Rock and Roll; by Jerry Naylor and Steve Halliday page 33. ISBN ;: 978-I-4234-2042-2
  7. "Newsweek" August 18, 1997 "Good Rockin' page 55
  8. Elvis ‘56 DVD
  11. EPE (July 21, 2004). " Elvis Presley Sun Recordings". Retrieved on August 17, 2007.
  14. We Wanna Boogie - An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement. second edition. 1988. HHP Books. Randy McNutt. page 116. ISBN 0-940152-05-3
  16. Billboard. Oct 30, 1965. page 8.
  17. Billboard. Apr 10, 1965. page 32.'s+combo&lr=&as_pt=MAGAZINES&ei=dwsMS_W6MKe8zgSh0sjIAg#v=onepage&q=bill%20black's%20combo&f=false
  21. Nancy Black
  22. Johnny Black Interview
  23. [W & W Distributing, Ampex History]
  24. [Bob Tucker]

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