'Don't Be Cruel, Elvis -
The Bill Black Story'
By Paul F Belard
Book Review by Piers Beagley - January 2022
It is easy to forget that, in the beginning, Elvis was only one part of a trio put together by Sam Phillips, which included Bill Black on bass and Scotty Moore on lead guitar.
The unique sound that emerged from their early sessions was the result of a close collaboration of like-minded musicians and an engineer who wanted to generate something as yet unheard. Bill and Scotty were heavily involved in “constructing” a song. To a great extent, they were the creators of the Sun Elvis sound. With the move to RCA, their contribution was not diminished.
Bassman Bill Black finally gets the biography he deserves with Paul Belard's 260 page book.
Packed full of rare photos, great stories and interviews, EIN's Piers Beagley spent some quality time enjoying this very fine tribute to "Blackie" a great musician and true character ...
It is easy to forget that, in the beginning, Elvis was only one part of a trio put together by Sam Phillips, which included Bill Black on bass and Scotty Moore on lead guitar. The unique sound that emerged from their early sessions was the result of a close collaboration of like-minded musicians and an engineer who wanted to generate something as yet unheard.
Tillman Franks, bassist and Johnny Horton’s manager, praised Bill in making Elvis a success: “Bill Black, the way he hit his bass fiddle, he sounded like a band all by himself. He could hit the bass like nobody in the world.”
Bill’s contribution to Elvis’ success went beyond the bass playing. His antics on stage — twirling his bass, riding it as if it was a bronco to be tamed, trading corny jokes with Elvis — delighted the audiences. Scotty confirmed that, “If it hadn’t been for Bill, we would have bombed many times in the early days.”
Bill Black was one of the key players at the start of the rock 'n' roll explosion yet there has never been a good biography about his personal story and involvement in Elvis's incredible journey – until now.
Beautifully matching Scotty Moore's biography ‘That's All Right, Elvis’ at last we have a fascinating exploration of Paul Belard’s ‘Don't Be Cruel, Elvis - The Bill Black Story’.
Starting back in 2017 author Paul Belard has published multiple books looking back at Elvis' legacy often examining a specific time period, but never an in depth biography
Memphis Mansion’s Henrik Knudsen fortuitously befriended Bill Black's family and was entrusted with the family’s treasured scrapbook. (There’s a delightful photograph of Henrik with Bill Black’s daughter on page 14).
Using this key source of photos and newspaper clippings plus the investigative power of author Paul Belard, together with the fine design by Soren Karstensen, Elvis fans finally have a stunning biography of this all-important musician. The book is A4 and 260 pages.
Part One – ‘The Elvis Years’ - is 140 pages.
This features a fine section on all the key players, “the protagonists” being Bill Black, Scotty Moore, Sam Phillips, DJ Fontana, Elvis Presley - plus The Starlight Wranglers - all of whom are neatly encapsulated.
The Starlight Wranglers, with Scotty Moore and Bill Black
Sidenote: I never realised Starlight Wranglers’ lead-singer Doug Poindexter had quit the music business as early as 1954. I love his quote, “There was no way of knowing success was coming to Presley. Frankly, I thought the boy would starve to death”
Part Two – ‘The Bill Black Combo’, plus his recording studio and publishing. This includes 45 pages about the second part of his career plus 70 pages of tributes, a look at his legacy, lots of rare photographs plus his vinyl releases.
While I knew of the success of the 45rpm single 'Smokie, Part 2' - an R&B number 1 and Billboard #17 - it is a surprise to learn just how successful his Bill Black Combo instrumental Albums were at the time and interesting to see other future players from Elvis' legacy featuring in The Bill Black Combo such as Reggie Young, Bobby Emmons and Chips Moman.
It's all too easy to forget the importance of Bill Black in the early Elvis sound, such as the essential back-beat he supplied before the arrival of D.J. Fontana and his astounding double-bass that anchors ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.
Regarding ‘That's All Right’ Belard neatly explains…
"Listening to "That's All Right" with the speakers turned up, one can revel in the gloriously rich colors this trio creates…. Elvis’ sense of rhythm was uncanny. Confident and clear as bells, Elvis' playing is soon invigorated by Bill's bass. Then Elvis' voice comes in supported by Scotty's guitar licks, which already displays the fluidity which allowed him to move between genres, be it jazz, pop, R & B, country and ballads.. The song ends with Elvis' rhythm guitar and a waning bass, without any contribution from Scotty. It's a mind-boggling feat of simple minimalism which doesn't run counter to the creation of a pivotal work. These three men had bonded in a way Sam Phillips could only have dreamed of. This song feels just as fresh today as it was close to seventy years ago.”
It is also essential to realise that the all-important flip-side ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ might not have happened without Bill Black’s input..
"A few days after the taping of "That's All Right" the trio was back in the studio to record a B-side for a single release. The beginning of the session was not unlike the previous one. They tried a few songs, but nothing clicked. Scotty recalled that Bill saved the session: “Bill is the one who came up with ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’. During a break, as Elvis had done during the first recording session, it was Bill that started kidding, slapping the bass and singing that song. He was kind of mocking Bill Monroe, singing in a high falsetto voice. Elvis joined him. He started playing his guitar and sang along with him".
Elvis with Bill Black rockin' out together - April 5, 1955
It is unfortunate that Elvis fans have never had a chance to truly hear Bill Black's version of events through a long, in-depth interview or autobiography but Paul Belard has tracked down some very interesting band interviews - along with post-Elvis newspaper articles - which do provide a good look at Bill Black's side of the story. This includes a lengthy Memphis Press-Scimitar interview from December 1956. It includes..
"Elvis is fun to have around, always got some jazz going, likes to keep up chatter and joking,' says Bill.
"I don't think anyone should criticize him until they try to put themselves in his shoes and figure out what they would do. He's living just as clean and religious a life as any entertainer.
He's just an all-American boy, and all the American girls like him. He's big-hearted, natu¬rally high-strung, not hot-tempered. You can push him only so far, tho’. I've never seen him blow his top more than once or twice, and that was when he was just worn out."
The early part of the book also explains how Blackie’s joking antics on-stage often saved an Elvis performance from a difficult crowd.
Elvis and his new car - Tampa, Florida, August 5 1956
The book also includes plenty of reminiscences from Bill Black’s colleagues, including a delightful interview with his brother.
A fabulous photo of Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black having lunch with 'Pop'
Holifield, April 1955. The Holifield's owned record stores and also booked concerts by artists such as Johnny Cash and Elvis.
Other highlights are discovering new stories including…
1. Bill Black adding his pounding beat to Johnny Horton recording sessions
2. The importance of bass-player Fred Maddox on Bill Black's playing style
3. His friendship with rockabilly star Glen Glenn
4. ‘The miserable life Elvis leads’ Bill Black’s interview from 1962.
5. Bill Black's connection with the very influential “Hi Records” Studios (Al Green etc)
6. Even more shocking facts about how Col Parker ripped off the musicians.
Sidenote: From the Sept 9 1956 Ed Sullivan Show Elvis was paid $6029, Col Parker took $4166 while Scotty Moore and Bill Black only got paid $165 each!
Other joys include a unique foreward by bassist Suzi Quatro “we are the engine that drive the car”- tributes to “Blackie” from other bass players and plenty of comments from Scotty Moore.
'Blackie' with Joe Coughi, owner of Poplar Tunes record store and 'Hi Records' studio.
The story of how Parker successively forced both Scotty and Bill Black to quit the band is particularly disturbing, and the fact that Elvis did not stand up for his friends is also rather sad.
The private letter from Bill Black to Tom Diskin says it all…
Haven't heard a word from you on the money situation you were going to look into after we left. Knowing that you are a man of your word and faithfully devoted to us your complete silence has me worried. What's the lowdown? You realize how important this matter is.
This is in the strictest confidence.
Yours truly Bill Black
Very sadly Bill Black died of a brain tumour in October 1965, he was only 39 years old.
Bill's death obviously hit Elvis very hard and the book includes this positive note - 'Bill's children acknowledged Elvis was always kind to them. His son Louis would frequently visit Graceland. Elvis would chat with him, tell him about his father, Bill. According to Louis Black, Elvis said, "If there's, anything that y'all need, you just let me know and it's yours.”
The number of photographs and relevant memorabilia in the book is extremely impressive and the design very stylish- with each chapter introduced by an old-fashioned ‘silver gelatin’ styled image.
One of the real joys I found about the book was seeing all the later photographs of ‘Blackie’ playing with his combo or standing with friends and seeing that cheeky smile on his face.
'Blackie' with John 'Ace' Cannon and Hank Hankins
A 1961 article about Bill Black notes..
.. Of one thing Bill is certain - he won't leave the road again except to rest and visit friends from time to time. "I find I need excitement", he says. "It makes me feel good when I make people happy, listening and dancing to my music".
Bill is happier leading his own combo than he was in those mad days with Elvis. "I never resented that he had all the glory" Bill says, "But it's better this way".
This is a truly impressive new publication that anyone interested in Elvis' early years and rock 'n' roll history needs to have in their library. Long live Bill Black - what a character..
The Bill Black Combo - with 'Ace' Cannon, Hank Hawkins and a very young Bobby Emmons (later included on Chips Moman's Elvis Memphis Sessions) playing keyboards
Formatted as a large A4 size book, this is an extremely impressive volume.
Sidenote: The book also comes with a neat Bonus of a flexi-disc. A cool collector's item.
Elvis’ ‘Don't Be Cruel’ is featured along with The Bill Black combo version of the same song. I haven't played a Flexdisc in years. Rather strangely fans will find Elvis’ version is actually driven by Bill Black’s bass-line while The Bill Black Combo version lacks Bill Black’s input and instead features more of a jangly yakety-sax!
Overall Verdict: Packed full of rare photos and new stories to add to the Elvis' legacy, this is a truly fascinating book. Author Paul Belard has tracked down so many interviews and news articles, with it all combining to make an enthralling look into the life of bass-man Bill Black. The research is impressive, as are all the delightful stories about this great musician. The commentary on Bill Black's importance and style of his bass playing even made me go back to re-visit some Elvis fifties classics once again, helping me discover something new. And if that isn't a great recommendation for an Elvis book, then what is?
Nashville Bassist Bob Moore stated, “Bill Black is a legend, it’s easy as that”. Elvis said, “From Memphis Tennessee, One of the best bassmen in the business.”
If you have any interest in Elvis’ early sound, American early sixties music, or always wanted to know more about Bill Black then this book is an essential purchase. A key book for anyone’s collection.
Click here to comment on this Review
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
Elvis Presley, Elvis and Graceland are trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises.
The Elvis Information Network has been running since 1986 and is an EPE officially recognised Elvis fan club.