Bill Black

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Bill Black
Bill Black live, 1956
Bill Black live, 1956
Background information
Birth nameWilliam Patton Black Jr.
Born(1926-09-17)September 17, 1926
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
DiedOctober 21, 1965(1965-10-21) (aged 39)
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
Occupation(s)Bassist, bandleader
Years active1954–1965
LabelsSun, RCA Victor (Presley); Hi, UK: Felsted, London (Combo)
Formerly of

William Patton Black Jr. (September 17, 1926 – October 21, 1965)[1] was an American musician and bandleader who is noted as one of the pioneers of rock and roll. He played in Elvis Presley's early trio, The Blue Moon Boys. Black later formed Bill Black's Combo.

Early life and career[edit]

William Patton Black Jr. was born on September 17, 1926, in Memphis, Tennessee, to a motorman for the Memphis Street Railway Co. He was the oldest of nine children.[2][3] His father played popular songs on the banjo and fiddle to entertain the family. Black learned to play music at the age of 14 on an instrument made by his father—a cigar box with a board nailed to it and strings attached.[3] At the age of sixteen, Black was performing "honky-tonk" music on acoustic guitar in local bars.[3]

During World War II, Black was stationed with the U.S. Army at Fort Lee in Virginia. While in the Army, he met Evelyn, who played guitar as a member of a musical family. They married in 1946 and returned to Memphis. Black worked at the Firestone plant.[3]

He began playing the upright double bass, modeling his "slap bass" technique after one of his idols, Fred Maddox, of Maddox Brothers and Rose.[3] Black also developed a "stage clown" persona in the same way that Maddox entertained audiences. Black performed as an exaggerated hillbilly with blacked-out teeth, straw hat and overalls. According to his son, Black said his goal was always to give his audience "a few moments of entertainment and maybe a little bit of humor that'll tickle 'em for a while."[3]

In 1952, Black began playing in clubs and on radio shows with the guitarist Scotty Moore. Along with two other guitarists and a fiddler, they performed country music tunes by Hank Williams and Red Foley in Doug Poindexter's band, the Starlight Wranglers.[4] Black and Moore also played in a band with Paul Burlison, Johnny Burnette, Dorsey Burnette on steel guitar, and a drummer.[5]

The Blue Moon Boys[edit]

In July 1954, Sam Phillips, of Sun Records, asked Black and Moore to play backup for the as-yet-unknown Elvis Presley.[6] Black slap played the double bass with Moore on lead guitar, while Presley played rhythm guitar and sang lead.[7] Neither musician was overly impressed with Presley, but they agreed a studio session would be useful to explore his potential.[8]

On July 5, 1954, the trio met at Sun studios to rehearse and record a handful of songs. According to Moore, the first song they recorded was "I Love You Because", but after a few country music songs that weren't impressive they decided to take a break.[9] During the break, Presley began "acting the fool" with Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right (Mama)," a blues song.[10] When the other two musicians joined in, Phillips taped the song. The upbeat sound was original.[11] Black remarked, "Damn. Get that on the radio and they'll run us out of town."[12]

The next day, the group recorded four more songs, including “Blue Moon of Kentucky," by the bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, which he had written and recorded as a slow waltz. Sources credit Black with initiating the song, with Presley and Moore joining in. Moore said, "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 ..."[3] They ended up with a fast version of the song in 4/4 time. After an early take, Phillips can be heard on tape saying, "Fine, man. Hell, that’s different—that's a pop song now, nearly ʼbout."[13]

Phillips took several acetates of the session to DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation) of Memphis radio station WHBQ's Red, Hot and Blue show. From August 18 through December 8, "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was consistently higher on the charts, and then both sides began to chart across the South.[14]

Black and Moore became Presley's backup group and were paid 25% of his earnings.[15] Moore and Black left the Starlite Wranglers after the success of "That's All Right," jealousy within the group forcing them to split.[16] Their recordings at Sun were released with the credits as "Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill." The group was later billed as "Elvis Presley and the Blue Moon Boys."

Over the next 15 months, the trio released five singles, toured across the South, and appeared regularly on the Louisiana Hayride. They had auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry in October 1954, but they failed to impress the people in charge, or the audience, and were not invited back.[17]

In 1955, Black went to RCA Victor along with Presley and Moore 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.[18][19]

Black played on early Presley recordings including "Good Rockin' Tonight", "Heartbreak Hotel", "Baby Let's Play House", "Mystery Train", "That's All Right", and "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.[citation needed]

Black, Moore and the drummer D. J. Fontana toured extensively during Presley's early career. Black continued his onstage "clown" persona and developed comedy routines with Presley. Black's onstage personality was a sharp contrast to the introverted stage presence of Moore. The balance fit the group's performances.

Black hams it up on the deck of the USS Hancock during the first appearance on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater

According to Black's son Louis, 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."[3] Fontana called Black the mainstay of the band in the early 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."[20]

Bill Black's Combo[edit]

In 1959, Black joined a group of musicians which became Bill Black's Combo. The lineup was Black (bass), Joe Lewis Hall (piano), Reggie Young (guitar), Martin Willis (saxophone), and Jerry Arnold (drums). There were several personnel changes. While Young was in the army, his position was filled by Hank Hankins, Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill. On sax, Ace Cannon took over touring duties from Willis who remained in Memphis for the studio work and movie appearances.[21] Carl McVoy replaced Hall in the studio, while Bobby Emmons replaced him on tour.

The band released blues instrumental "Smokie" for Hi Records (Hi 2018) in December 1959.[22] "Smokie, Part 2" became a No. 17 U.S. pop hit, and made number one on the "black" music charts.[3] It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.[23] A follow-up release, "White Silver Sands" (Hi 2021), was a Top 10 hit (#9) and, like its predecessor, topped the R&B charts for four weeks.[3][22]

Eight of the recordings by Bill Black's Combo placed in the Top 40 between 1959 and 1962.

Teenage Millionaire- Bill Black Combo "Yogi"

The Combo appeared in the 1961 film Teenage Millionaire[24] 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.[3]

Bill Black Combo Flyer (1962)

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. The Combo's sound of danceable blues became a popular accompaniment for striptease dancers. Another characteristic of the Combo was Reggie Young thwacking on the guitar with a pencil.[3]

Lyn-Lou Studios[edit]

In 1962, Bill Black opened a recording studio called "Lyn-Lou Studios" (a shortened nickname "Linda-Lou" he had for his daughter Nancy), and a record label named "Louis" after his son,[25] on Chelsea 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.[citation needed]

Bob Tucker and Larry Rogers purchased Lyn-Lou Studios after Bill Black's death in 1965.[26] The studio recorded many Bill Black Combo albums (with billings such as "The Best Honky Tonk Band in America" and "The band who opened for the Beatles")[citation needed] and produced number-one country hits for Charly McClain, T.G. Shepard, Billy Swan and others. The house band for these sessions was 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.[3]

Illness and death[edit]

In 1963, Bob Tucker joined Bill Black's Combo as a road manager and guitar/bass player.

Black himself had been ill for the past year and a half and unable to travel. Nonetheless, he insisted that the band continue without him. Bill Black's Combo created musical history in 1964 when they became the opening act for the Beatles (at their request) on their historic 13-city tour of America after their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Black himself was not well enough to make the tour.[3][27]

After two surgeries and lengthy hospital stays, Black died of a brain tumor on October 21, 1965, at age 39. His death occurred during his third operation that doctors had hoped would eradicate the tumor permanently. Black's body was buried, next to his father, William Patton Black Sr., at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee.[3][28] Presley was criticized for not attending the funeral, but he believed that his presence would turn it 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."[3]

Black's widow sold Bob Tucker and Larry Rogers the rights to use the name Bill Black's Combo. The band changed to country music when it joined Columbia Records, and won Billboard's Country Instrumental Group of the Year award in 1976.[3]


Bill Black's Combo cut more than 20 albums, 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 while leading the combo.

Black's main stand-up bass is today owned by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, who received the instrument as a birthday present from his wife Linda in the late 1970s. The bass can be seen in the video clip to McCartney's song "Baby's Request". In the documentary film In the World Tonight, McCartney can be seen playing it and singing his version of "Heartbreak Hotel". In 1995, he played it on "Real Love", the last "new" Beatles record (one of two in which McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr overdubbed a full arrangement onto a John Lennon home recording from the late 1970s).

Actor Elliott Street portrayed Black in the TV movie Elvis, starring Kurt Russell.

Actor Blake Gibbons portrayed Black in the short-lived 1990 TV series Elvis, starring Michael St. Gerard.

In 2005, Clay Steakley portrayed Black in the 2005 CBS miniseries Elvis, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

In 2007, Black was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.

On April 4, 2009, Bill Black was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2022, Adam Dunn portrayed Black in the movie Elvis, starring Austin Butler.

Combo discography[edit]


Year Title Chart positions
US 200
1959 Saxy Jazz 37
1960 Solid and Raunchy 23
1960 Let's Twist Her 35
1962 The Untouchable Sound 47
1963 Big Black Combo Goes West 139
1964 Bill Black's Combo Goes Big Band 139
1964 Plays Tunes by Chuck Berry 143
1965 Mr. Beat 143
1965 More Solid & Raunchy 143
1967 Bill Black's Greatest Hits 195
1967 Bill Black's Beat Goes On
1969 Solid and Raunchy 3rd 168
1970 Raindrops Keep Fallin on My Head
1975 World's Greatest Honky-Tonk BandA
  • APeaked at #47 in the Billboard Country Albums chart



Year Title Chart positions Album
1959 "Smokie, Part 2"
b/w "Smokie, Part 1" (from Smokie)
17 1 Saxy Jazz
1960 "White Silver Sands"
b/w "The Wheel"
9 1
b/w "Dry Bones" (from That Wonderful Feeling)
18 Greatest Hits
"Don't Be Cruel"
b/w "Rollin'" (from Greatest Hits)
11 9 Solid and Raunchy
"Blue Tango"
b/w "Willie"
16 Greatest Hits
1961 "Hearts of Stone"
b/w "Royal Blue"
20 22
"Ole Buttermilk Sky"
b/w "Yogi"
"Honky Train" / 92 Movin'
"Movin'" 41
"Twist Her"
b/w "My Girl Josephine"
26 Let's Twist Her
1962 "Twistin' 'White Silver Sands'"
b/w "My Babe"
92 Non-album tracks
"So What"
b/w "Blues For The Red Boy" (Non-album track)
78 The Untouchable Sound of Bill Black's Combo
"Joey's Song"
b/w "Hot Taco" (Non-album track)
1963 "Do It – Rat Now"
b/w "Little Jasper" (Non-album track)
51 Greatest Hits
b/w "Long Gone"
47 47 Non-album tracks
1964 "Comin' On"
b/w "Soft Winds" (Non-album track)
67 Bill Black's Combo Plays The Blues
"Tequila" / 91 Solid and Raunchy
"Raunchy" 118
"Little Queenie"
b/w "Boo-Ray" (Non-album track)
73 Bill Black's Combo Plays Tunes By Chuck Berry
1965 "So What" (Recharted)
b/w "Blues For The Red Boy" (Non-album track)
89 The Untouchable Sound of Bill Black's Combo
"Come On Home"
b/w "He'll Have To Go"
124 More Solid and Raunchy
b/w "Crazy Feel" (Non-album track)
135 Mr. Beat
1966 "Hey Good Lookin'"
b/w "Mountain Of Love"
124 All-Timers
b/w "You Call Everybody Darling"
Black Lace
1967 "Son Of Smokie"
b/w "Peg Leg"
Non-album tracks
1968 "Turn On Your Love Light"A
b/w "Ribbon Of Darkness" (from Bill Black's Beat Goes On)
82 Turn On Your Love Light
"Bright Lights, Big City"
b/w "Red Light" (Non-album track)
1969 "But It's Alright"
b/w "Slow Action"
Black With Sugar
"California Dreamin'"
b/w "The Funky Train"
"Creepin' Around"
b/w "Son Of Hickory Holler's Tramp"
Solid and Raunchy The 3rd
  • AAlso peaked at #82 on Canadian RPM Top Tracks


Year Title Chart positions Album
US Country
1975 "Back Up and Push" 84 World's Greatest Honky-Tonk Band
"Boilin' Cabbage" 29 Bill Black Combo* Featuring Bob Tucker* – Solid & Country
1976 "Fire on the Bayou" 37 World's Greatest Honky-Tonk Band
"Jump Back Joe" 100
"Redneck Rock" 89 It's Honky Tonk Time
1978 "Cashin' In (Tribute to Luther Perkins)" 96 Award Winners

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Larkin, Colin (2011). The Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Omnibus Press. p. 2006. ISBN 9780857125958.
  2. ^ "Memphis Street Railway". December 18, 2008. Archived from the original on December 18, 2008. Retrieved October 27, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Burke, Ken; Griffin, Dan (2006). The Blue Moon Boys: The Story of Elvis Presley's Band. Chicago Review Press. pp. 20–31. ISBN 1-55652-614-8.
  4. ^ Morrison, Craig (1996). Go Cat Go!: Rockabilly Music and Its Makers. University of Illinois Press. p. 40. ISBN 0-252-02207-6.
  5. ^ Morrison, p. 104.
  6. ^ Morrison, p. 57.
  7. ^ "Official Legal Title of Crudup's (and Elvis's) "That's All Right"". Archived from the original on January 2, 2004. Retrieved August 18, 2015.
  8. ^ "Sam Phillips' Sun Records". Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  9. ^ Hopkins, Jerry (1972). Elvis: A Biography. Macmillan. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-333-13617-1.
  10. ^ Guralnick, Peter (1992). The Complete 50's Masters (CD booklet notes).
  11. ^ Jorgensen, p. 13.
  12. ^ (August 11–17, 2007). "Would He Still Be King?". Radio Times. BBC, p. 12
  13. ^ Naylor and Halliday, p. 42.
  14. ^ "Elvis Presley's Sun Recordings : SUN Studios, Memphis Tennessee : Elvis Articles : : 'For Elvis Fans Only' Official Elvis Presley Fan Club". Archived from the original on September 2, 2007. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  15. ^ Hopkins, p. 54.
  16. ^ Hopkins, p. 55.
  17. ^ Hopkins, p. 58.
  18. ^ "RCS Label Shot for RCA Victor (N.J.) 6357". July 13, 2012. Archived from the original on July 13, 2012. Retrieved October 27, 2017.
  19. ^ "RCS Label Shot for RCA Victor (N.J.) 6380". July 13, 2012. Archived from the original on July 13, 2012. Retrieved October 27, 2017.
  20. ^ McNutt, Randy (1988). We Wanna Boogie: An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement. 2nd ed. HHP Books. page 116. ISBN 0-940152-05-3.
  21. ^ Burke, Ken; Griffin, Dan. p.143.
  22. ^ a b "Joe Cuoghi". Archived from the original on June 9, 2011. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  23. ^ Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 111. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  24. ^ "Teenage Millionaire (1961)". Retrieved August 18, 2015.
  25. ^ Burke and Griffin, p.142
  26. ^ Burke and Griffin, p.150.
  27. ^ Dave Dermon III, MCSE ddiii at (June 9, 2008). "The Beatles on Tour". Archived from the original on July 9, 2011. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  28. ^ "Bill Black, of Combo Fame, Dies at 39". The Memphis Press-Scimitar. October 21, 1965. p. 33. Retrieved October 4, 2022 – via access

External links[edit]