Bill Black's Combo

Bill Black's Combo had a number of instrumental hits in the early 60's, following Black's years as a stand-up bass player for Elvis Presley in Memphis.

William Patton Black was born in Memphis in 1926, the eldest of nine children. He played with some country-western bands in the 40's and 50's before teaming up with his neighbor, guitar player Scotty Moore. Black and Moore formed a group called the Starlight Wranglers, with Black on stand-up bass. They also played in a group that included, among others, Paul Burlison, Johnny Burnette, and Dorsey Burnette. Later, Black and Moore got together with local Memphis singer Elvis Presley. The three toured the South together and recorded together at Sun Records. All three are present on Elvis' 1954 recordings of That's All Right (Mama) and Blue Moon Of Kentucky. They hit the road together and initially split the money they made 50-25-25. The group performed as regulars on the Louisiana Hayride. Later they were joined by drummer D.J. Fontana. When Presley started gaining notice and his contract was sold to RCA, Black, Moore and Fontana went to RCA with Presley. Their music was then supplemented by other session musicians as well as vocalists The Jordanaires. Other well-known Presley recordings on which Black and Moore played include Good Rockin' Tonight, Heartbreak Hotel, Mystery Train, Hound Dog, and Jailhouse Rock. Touring became strenuous as Presley gained more and more attention -- and money, although Black, Moore and Fontana remained low paid. In 1957 Black and Moore left Presley and returned to Memphis. They deserved more credit, and better pay.

In 1959 Bill Black formed his own group, Bill Black's Combo (known also as The Bill Black Combo). By this time Bill was playing an electric bass. Other members of the original group: Martin Wills on sax, Joe Lewis Hall on piano, Reggie Young on lead guitar, and drummer Jerry Arnold. Recording on the Memphis based Hi Record label, by the end of the year they had a top twenty hit nationally with Smokie - Part 2. It was the first of eight top forty records they would record, all of them on the Hi label, and all of them instrumentals. Their music blended some of the country-and-western sounds popular before the beginning of rock-and-roll with Southern soul music, heavy on the bass, associated with the Mar-Keys and later, Booker T & the MG's. It worked. The early Sixties sound of Bill Black's Combo was later acknowledged as a strong influence by rock-and-roll superstars that included Chuck Berry and the Beatles.

The next hit for Bill Black's Combo was White Silver Sands, and it would prove to be their biggest and only one to reach the top ten, early in 1960. As the year moved along others went top forty: Josephine, Don't Be Cruel (on which Bill Black had played on Presley's original), and Blue Tango (which had been a #1 hit in 1952 for Leroy Anderson). More of the same, with additional top forty instrumental hits on the Hi Records label in 1961: Hearts Of Stone, and Ole Buttermilk Sky, written by Hoagy Carmichael in 1946. The Bill Black Combo appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and in the 1961 motion picture Teenage Millionaire. They were designated by Billboard as the number one instrumental group of 1961. Black was tiring of the disruptions necessitated by touring and in ill health, and the group issued its final hit Twist-Her with Black early in 1962. Bill Black opened a recording studio on Chelsea street in Memphis later that year, naming it Lyn Lou Studio for his children.

The group carried on for several years, with replacements as it evolved. Bob Tucker replaced Bill Black, Carl McAvoy and Bobby Emmons joined on piano, Chips Moman played with the group for a while, and Ace Cannon joined on sax. There were others. In 1964, at the request of none other than the Beatles, the revised Bill Black Combo became the opening act for that group on its 13-city tour. The revised group backed local Memphis performer Jumpin' Gene Simmons on his 1964 hit Haunted House, once again on Hi Records.

Bill Black's health continued to deteriorate and it was discovered that he was suffering from a brain tumor. He died in late 1965 at age 39 and was buried in Memphis. Black's widow gave naming rights for the Bill Black Combo to some remaining members of the band. They stayed together for a number of years, becoming more oriented to country music, and in 1976 Bill Black's Combo was named Billboard's Country Instrumental Group of the Year.

Paul McCartney currently is the owner of Bill Black's stand-up bass. Black took his place in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. His group, Bill Black's Combo, is probably best remembered for their performance of their 1960 hit White Silver Sands.

Most Recent Update: June 1, 2015

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