From: Fall 2000 Issue
by Phil Arnold
Bill Black’s split with Elvis has been widely chronicled. Most sources lament that it was a shame Scotty and Bill were so reluctant to stand up for decent compensation; that it was a too bad Elvis wasn’t more aware of what was going on; that it was unfair the way Colonel was such a power-hungry skinflint with Elvis’ money.
However, at least in Bill Black’s case, the split opened up the door for a very successful personal career. Black last recorded with Elvis in February 1958. On March 24 Elvis reported for two years of Army duty, and the Blue Moon Boys were simply let go.
Black quickly found work outside the music business, but started spending time at the studios of the newly formed Memphis label, Hi Records. He did occasional session work there, usually with an up-and-coming guitarist named Reggie Young.
When Elvis finished basic training in June, 1958, he was rushed to a recording session in Nashville, and RCA used local musicians for the guitar and base parts. It was obvious to Bill Black and Scotty Moore that it was over.
Bill Black found solace in the Hi Records session band he had organized with Reggie Young. A record executive suggested they form a full-fledged recording and touring band, and that was all the encouragement they needed. They recruited a piano player, a drummer, and a saxman to go with their own bass and guitar, and the Bill Black Combo was born.
It was co-owned equally by Black and Young, but they decided to name it after Black because of his name recognition from working with Elvis. However, both men took a back seat to the others when they started recording their first songs. Lead instrumental parts were shared by the sax and piano players, while Black and Young filled in the rhythm.
In late December, 1959, the Bill Black Combo released an instrumental, Smokie (Part 2), and it quickly shot up the charts. Just as it peaked at #17, Reggie Young received his draft notice. Before he left for two years of service, the group recorded their second hit, White Silver Sands. It was on this song that the famous sound of the Bill Black Combo was born.
If you’re familiar with the band’s music, you can recognize this sound immediately. It has been described variously as a gritty, hypnotic groove, a shuffle, and a marvelous display of rhythmic mastery. Here is how it was achieved. According to Young, “I turned my guitar down a few steps, where it was real low, and I played rhythm with a pencil as a pick,” But the real secret was to have Young’s guitar, Black’s base and the drum strike each beat in perfect unison. This took a lot of work to perfect, but it gave the band a trademark sound not duplicated by any other group of note.
White Silver Sands peaked at # 9 on the charts, making it the biggest hit the band would enjoy. In addition to the new beat, the lead instruments changed to saxophone and organ. However, they switched back to piano and sax for the band’s third release later in 1960. It was a remake of the old Fats Domino hit, Hello Josephine, and it made it into the Top Twenty.
Before the year ended, the group hit gold with another remake. It was a somewhat surprising choice: the old Elvis hit, “Don’t Be Cruel.” Three more top twenty hits followed in 1961, and the band even cashed in on the twist craze in 1962 with “Twist-Her.”
Of course, there were LP albums released during these times as well. The first, in late 1959 Was Smokie, named for their first hit. It contained almost all original compositions, many written by Bill Black himself. However, when “White Silver Sands went big three month later, Hi Records dropped two song selections, replaced them with ‘Sands’ and its flip side, and reissued the album under the name “Saxy Jazz.”
This was followed by “Solid and Raunchy,’ which contained nothing but cover versions of previous hits by a dozen stars of the 50’s. The band seemed to like themes for their albums, and in 1961 they did a collection of up-tempo gospel songs in “That Wonderful feeling.”
It was back to remakes of old hits again in 1962 with “Movin’,” and “Record Hop.” The latter contained “Twist-Her, and in early 1963 the album was rereleased withthe new title “Let’s Twist Her” to take advantage of the huge fad the twist was causing.
Subsequent albums covered themes like country music, western music, the blues, Chuck Berry hits, and big band music.
© 2000 Philip R Arnold