Now Spinning: Bill Black’s Combo – Plays Tunes by Chuck Berry

What an absolute blast this one is to listen to, which somehow serves as a pinnacle, last gasp and tribute to early rock ‘n’ roll all at once. Bill Black, of course, is legendary for teaming with Scotty Moore to back Elvis on his first sessions at Sun Studios. Black would remain with Elvis until the end of the decade, driving the train on those immortal classics with his revolutionary slapback bass, before forming his own group, Bill Black’s Combo, in 1959. Whether overshadowed by his work with Elvis, because their performances were instrumental covers of popular fare, or due to the fact that Black died at such a young age shortly after this album, the contributions of Bill Black’s Combo to popular music have been unfortunately overlooked. But at the time, they were massively popular, playing Ed Sullivan even before The Beatles, and being hand-selected by The Beatles to open their very first U.S. tour.

So let’s go back to that time, to 1964 as The Beatles, having taken over the world, were ready to greet the crowds in the U.S. Put simply, there’s no way to overexaggerate the phenomenon of Beatlemania. Perhaps the most telling example of its power is that today, nearly 60 years later, my Grammarly spellcheck app recognizes ‘Beatlemania’ as a word. At that very moment, no other music seemed to matter and the history of rock ‘n’ roll was in a little bit of jeopardy. Elvis had lost his ironclad grip, Buddy Holly was dead, Johnny Cash had found pills, Little Richard had found Jesus, Roy Orbison wised up enough to start ‘Running Scared’ away from the rock ‘n’ roll circus, Carl Perkins was drunk and uninspired, Jerry Lee Lewis was drunk and hiding in scorn. Chuck Berry, the poet laureate who started it all less than a decade earlier, was freshly out of prison after serving several years for sex with a fourteen year-old (racism may or may not have played a role in the jury decision). Hardly the most esteemed, respectable group at the time, and with The Beatles’ dominating popularity, some of these declining building blocks of the genre could have been written out of its history altogether. While Berry was stained by his prison sentence, dropped by his label and facing the risk of irrelevancy, the swinging groove of Bill Black’s combo still had a strong audience. The respect that this popular, relevant, American, and, in all honestly and perhaps most importantly, white, band showed with this tribute to Berry helped validate the canonical nature of his songs as core to the history of American popular music. This album, combined with the simultaneous boost Berry would receive from the British invasion bands also covering his work, helped initiate that process.

“Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennesee”

Chuck Berry, ‘Memphis, Tennesee’
The whole gang, minus Bill Black himself

Unfortunately, Bill Black is absent from the above photo as he was forced to abstain from The Beatles’ tour, battling the severe brain cancer that would soon rob his life. Despite his extreme illness and inability to tour, he did join the band in the studio for these album performances. The LP opens with a familiar, Chuck Berry-style flurry of guitar notes before Bill’s familiar thumping bass snaps the band into rhythm and they settles into ‘School Days’. His touch sets the tempo as saxophone, organ and guitar trade off on the vocal melody, with some dizzying guitar bends quickly grabbing attention. And it just so happens that that’s none other than Reggie Young on guitar, one of the most accomplished Memphis and Nashville session musicians, famed member of the ‘Memphis Boys’ session group, and a personal favorite of mine. Reggie Young plays on the Herbie Mann album I recently wrote about, as well as on this James Talley LP that I wrote about a bit longer ago. Reggie would support many of my favorites over the years, but this countrified, rhythm and blues instrumental dance band came first, and it’s a groundbreaking treat to hear a young Reggie Young’s startingly impressive early efforts.

By virtue of playing in an instrumental group, Young is allowed to get a little creative with his playing, rather than simply recycling the same notes and solos, beloved as they are, that Chuck Berry originally played. While it’s Bill Black’s Combo, it’s Reggie Young who is the dazzling star. The band attempts no major changes to song structures, but Young’s responsibility to take the lead with interpreting the vocal melody, or dancing around it, trading accents with saxophone and piano, results in a surprisingly lively and refreshing, yet comfortably familiar, approach to the catalog. ‘Johnny B Goode’ features a slightly slowed down pace and exaggerated thumping deep swing, foreshadowing the approach the Grateful Dead would take to the song a decade later. ‘School Days’, ‘Maybellene’ and ‘Nadine’ feature funky organ swells taking over for rollicking keyboard, as the guitar and organ trading barbs over a deep rhythm mirrored Memphis’ other fast-rising instrumental superstars, Booker T & The MGs.

Beyond, the quality music, this overlooked band’s historical, Forrest Gump-like significance is a wonder. In a fun remembrance of the tour with The Beatles, band director Bob Tucker recalls,

“Malcom Evans, the road manager, called me and said, ‘Look, Paul and Ringo are bored as hell. Can you go buy them some albums?’ They gave me five or six hundred dollars. So I found a record store in Key West and bought everything I thought they might like. I brought them back to the room, they got out this record player, and they’d put an album on, listen to a cut, and then just sail it across the room like a Frisbee. But when they got to the Memphis stuff — Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis — they listened to every cut.”

Bob Tucker, from Memphis Magazine

George Harrison, who was deeply impressed by his tour mate Reggie Young and enamored with the Memphis sound, sought to learn, asking, “How do you bend and stretch your strings like that?” And while Bob Dylan got The Beatles high for the first time, it was Bill Black’s Combo touring keyboardist who was their first dealer. The two groups would remain connected as Linda McCartney purchased Bill’s famed standup bass in the 1970’s as a gift for her husband, which Paul would break out for the ‘final’ Beatles recording of ‘Real Love’ in 1995. One might wonder, if it weren’t for Bill Black, would Paul McCartney have picked up a bass? For Bill, in addition to his talent, was a jubilant prankster of a showman, capable of capturing an audience’s attention and focus, even back while sharing a stage with Elvis, and only moreso fronting his own group. When Bill Black’s Combo placed 8 hits in the Top 40 from 1959-1962, how many other pop groups were fronted by the bass player? That’s something that may well have resonated with a young Paul McCartney, as he contemplated an instrument change away from the spotlight of guitar.

While Bill may have died in 1965, only one year after this album’s release, the group’s importance lived on. Just look at the credits for Elvis’ famed comeback album From Elvis in Memphis, and you’ll see Reggie Young on lead guitar, as well as Bobby Wood on piano, Bobby Emmons on organ, Tommy Cogbill/Mike Leech on bass. That’s right, the rest of the ‘Memphis Boys’ followed Reggie Young into Bill Black’s Combo, playing together as a classic lineup for the first time in that group, something they would continue to do for the next decade as they provided the musical backing for some of the era’s most memorable songs. Bill Black intended for this album to be a simple dance tribute to a current rock ‘n’ roller, but ended up supporting Berry’s founding father legacy, deeply impacting The Beatles at the height of their popularity and, although he died before seeing it ripen to fruition, built a group chemistry and dynamic that lived on in the Memphis Boys, revolutionizing popular music in the same way that he, Elvis and Chuck Berry originally had, by boldly fusing country music and rhythm & blues together.

George Harrison locking into that Memphis groove with Bob Tucker

I enjoyed my original 1964 mono pressing in an appropriate setting, through a 1959 HiFi Ensemble PT-1030 console produced by Pilot, which includes the following:
Turntable: Garrard RC 88
Cartridge/Stylus: GE VR II with 1.0 mil mono stylus manufactured by Astatic
Amplifier: Pilot AA-903 Tube Amp running off vintage of vintage 6V6GT GE power tubes
Speaker: Console Speaker produced by Oxford

I find this amplifier to be a little bit lacking in the bass department, so I utilized the tone controls to provide a small boost to find the perfect balance for this one, with Bill’s rumbling bass leading charge. The LP, which is easy to find for only a dollar or two, is nice heavy vinyl featuring a high quality recording, accentuated nicely here by the in-the-room energy of the GE VR II mono cartridge.

Chuck Berry, Elvis, The Beatles
Memphis classic rhythm & blues and country music
Booker T & The MGs, Billy Preston, The Ventures
Country funk

Ready for Side 2

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