- Elvis, on stage, 1954.
William P. Black, "Blackie", was born in
As was common at the time Bill was growing up, people entertained themselves by playing an instrument. At the start of Bill's musical career, his choice was known as a "dog house" bass. The reason being that the acoustic instrument was big enough to house the family hound dog!
Prior to the link up with the Wranglers, Scotty Moore and Bill Black once backed up local boy Dorsey Burnette at a club.
Johnny Black can be seen in Alan Freed's rock exploitation movie, "Rock, Rock, Rock", made in
The Starlight Wranglers were a Sam Phillips group. Scotty met Sam in 1952, after the guitarist had come out of the
While the Wranglers went through various changes, the best known members would seem to be these:
Millard Yeow (Firestone) - fiddle.
Tommy Seals - steel guitar.
Scotty Moore - guitar.
Bill Black (Firestone) - bass.
Doug Poindexter (banker) - vocals.
Clyde Rush (Firestone) - guitar
Note: In some places the spelling of names is different.
Scotty and Bill's friendship seems to have grown fast and strong. Scotty had in fact moved home to be closer to Bill and Evelyn on Belz Blvd. Bill kept his bass at the
Following Elvis' early sessions, solo visits to the Memphis Recording Service, to cut two personal acetates, Sam had Scotty arrange for the young singer to come over to his home for a try-out session. Scotty also had Bill come by later in the session, which is said to have taken place on Sunday afternoon,
Despite any misgivings Bill might have held after that first short meeting, the two began to work with Elvis in the tiny studio at
After various attempts at songs, the group "stumbled upon" the sound which gave them "That's All Right (Mama)", on
With things going so well, the three quit their day jobs, also around October '54. At the start of the "Hayride" contract, Elvis got 18 dollars and Scotty and Bill 12 each. As well as the "Hayride", which they would perform on at least fifty times, well into 1956, there were countless one-night stands which also made them tight as a unit and helped establish them. It was the beginning.
Scotty commented, in
Even Sam Phillips has been quoted as saying that, "Bill was one of the worst bass players in the world, technically, but man, could he slap that thing!"
With all the touring, it almost seemed that the large bass had a permanent bunk on the roof of the car back then. In 1954 it fast became a battered looking object, resembling, according to author Peter Guralnick, something, "held together with baling wire."
While the thousands of miles might have been destroying the bass, the recording sessions, radio work, and concerts, had seen the friendship between the three men grow in leaps and bounds, confidence building with each new experience.
It was during one of these hectic tours, during 1954, that Bill is credited with totalling Elvis' 1951 Lincoln Continental. This was after it had done some 20,000 miles. He ran it under a truck while playing a date in
In May of 1955, Elvis gave both Scotty and Bill due credit. This was while talking with Mae B. Axton, "I really am lucky to have those two boys, 'cause they really are good. Each one of them have an individual style of their own." Mae would later receive co-writer credit, with Tommy Durden and Elvis, for "Heartbreak Hotel". Her singer/songwriter/actor son, Hoyt, would compose another track known to Elvis fans, "Never Been To Spain", covered in the '70's.
Returning to Bill Black's character. Author Robert Gordon put it well when he said that, "Bill Black was an extremely affable, warm-hearted, and humorous guy who loved and appreciated the craziness in rock and roll." Speaking at the British Fan Club "Party", at Mablethorpe, on
Another comment from Scotty Moore tells how well Bill got on with everyone; "He never met a stranger." With his natural gifts of humour, warmth, and chat, Bill also had the job of hawking early Elvis photographs at those mid-SO's shows. You can hear him doing this during the unedited version of the Bob Neal, "Texarkana Interview", recorded for the radio in
During 1955, for a short time, the boys went under the united name of the "Blue Moon Boys". But that wasn't destined to be the way history would remember them.
By late 1955, the three had added drummer D.J. Fontana to their ranks. They'd met and become friends at the "Hayride", where Dominic Joseph was the staff drummer. By then Colonel Thomas Parker was also in charge and making various deals. It seems to have been an idea of his that the band go on a fixed salery. Scotty and Bill paying D.J. out of their 100 dollars a week. This caused a lot of bitterness at the time, including threats to quit. At one point the Colonel is claimed to have wanted to drop Scotty and Bill, and bring in Hank Snow's backing group for Elvis. Bob Neal, still the manager at the time, had enough power to nix that idea.
Bill, like others involved with Elvis, thought little of the Colonel, and had no time for him. With Elvis receiving 50% of the fees, and Scotty and Bill splitting the other 50%, paying D.J. and expenses, there was not much left. Colonel Tom also told Bill to cut back on the clowning around on stage. It was Elvis' show. The people had come to see, "Ma boy", and the rest of them were just the support. It appears that the spirited act from Bill during "Blue Suede Shoes" on Berle's national tv show was the final straw for Parker. He called a halt to such things. No one would steal Elvis' thunder again, "Blackie's" routines were history. The line was being drawn.
Fun and games still continued away from the spotlight. An example of off-stage fooling around was described by D.J. in October '93, when talking about a mid-SO's trip to
Between the 23rd April and
Further friction developed within the camp when the group weren't allowed to back other artists, or appear in their own right without Elvis. Rumours of instrumental releases came and went. As can be imagined, this caused quite a bit of hardship cashwise when there were families to feed.
By 1956, the friendship was already pulling apart, with Bill, Scotty and D.J. not seeing too much of Elvis off stage. "It just can't be that way", was the quote from Bill at the time. But feelings were running deeper it seems.
In December 1956, Bill said, "When we get together with Elvis and the Jordanaires we have a lot of fun. We practice a little bit. We never rehearse outside of record sessions. We have rehearsals, but we never rehearse, if you know what I mean."
The first months of 1957 were taken up by the making of Elvis' second movie, "Loving You". The band hadn't been used on 1956's "Love Me Tender". They didn't like the
Bill Black especially seemed to get more fed up during the making of the movie. More so than Scotty. It was becoming harder and harder to see Elvis, with the growing 'mafia' that now surrounded him. Possibly the restriction of access too was on the orders of the Colonel. He wanted it made clear who the star was. Bill believed, and rightly so, that he and Scotty were important and should have no problem talking with Elvis, more so than all the females and hangers-on who contributed little or nothing to the act.
With all that was building and happening behind the scenes, it's really no surprise that Scotty and Bill did eventually leave Elvis, around the middle of September '57. Again this was over money. They were receiving just 100 dollars a week while at home, and 200 when on the road. There was also a 1000 Christmas bonus. Elvis offered then another 50 dollars and, for a short time, the rift was healed. The rise to 250 dollars coincided with concerts at
For Bill Black though, the decision had been made. He and Scotty left again in 1958. Bill's final recordings with Elvis came on
For Scotty and Bill, the first show on departing from Elvis in '58, was back in
On entering the army in 1958, according to Scotty Moore, Elvis never said 'goodbye' but, "So long. See you when I get out." Scotty hung in there, doing some recording and session work with people like Jerry Lee Lewis. Bill Black looked for a future elsewhere, he went after his dream, and a more permanent career within music.
The Bill Black Combo was formed
soon after the parting with Elvis.
The line-up included:
Bill Black - bass.
Carl McVoy - piano.
Reggie "Reg" - Young - guitar.
Martin Wills - saxophone.
Jerry Arnold - drums.
Carl McVoy, an original group member, was the cousin of Sun rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, plus Mickey Gilley and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. At one time Carl too recorded as a singer for Sun, cutting the single "You Are My Sunshine"/"Tootsie" (SUN INTERNATIONAL 3526).
Later, Bobby Emmons joined the Combo on organ. He and Reggie Young would play on Elvis' classic
The Combo was driven by a strong mix of bass, sax and keyboards. They created a very fresh and lively sound which was destined to make a large impact on exposure.
In 1959, the Combo signed to Joe Cuoghi's Hi label. There then followed a long period of rehearsals before any actual recording started. This done them nothing but good and they went on to become one of the most popular instrumental groups in the States during that final year of the 50's and the early 60's. Known as "The Untouchable Sound", chart success saw them receive Billboard's "Most Played Insrumental Group" award no less than three times in those years.
Hits included "Smokie Part 2" (HI 2018), written by Bill, and "White Silver Sands" (Matthews) (HI 2021), in 1959 and '60. Bobby Vee and The Shadows had out a cover of the latter in March 1960. Their version being recorded at the Norman Petty Studio,
The Bill Black Combo also cut an instrumental version of Elvis' 1956 classic, on which Bill had played bass, "Don't Be Cruel (To A Heart That's True)".
Bill Black Combo
Chart Hits: U.S.
Smokie Pt.2 - #17 - 1959.
White Silver Sands - #9 - 1960.
Josephine - #18-1960. (These three were million sellers)
Don't Be Cruel - #11 - 1960.
Blue Tango - #16 - 1960.
Hearts Of Stone - #20 - 1961.
Ole Buttermilk Sky - #25 - 1961.
There were also a string of successful albums, like "Moving With Bill Black's Combo".
In 1961, the group even ventured onto the silver screen, appearing in the film "Teen-Age Millionaire".
The Bill Black Combo undertook regular American and European tours. Bill himself stopped road work in the early 60's, when ill health started to take its toll. Bob Tucker replaced him on dates. In 1962 Bill finally handed over leadership and took a backseat.
The Combo linked up with another musical phenomenon when, along with fellow American artists the Exciters, Jackie DeShannon, and the Righteous Brothers, they supported The Beatles on their first tour of the States during late summer 1964 (19th August - 20th September).
The following year of 1965, Bill Black was in hospital three times, at Baptist Memorial in
"Blackie" was buried in
D.J. wasn't at the funeral either. He'd left town to work around a week before Bill died. He'd known his friend was quite ill though, and thought it a matter of time until he was lost. He returned home to have his then wife tell him that Bill had passed on a few days before.
After Bill's death, there were a few more minor hits for the Combo, and they continued to tour and be a popular draw. Ace Cannon took over the group on Black's death, though the name remained the Bill Black Combo. Later outfits, like the Mar-Keys and Booker T. and The MG's would owe much to the music made by the Combo in its heyday.
Plot: Section 15, behind the mausoleum Elvis was once buried in