Wednesday, September 26, 2007

James Carr - Forgetting You (Goldwax 311)


Forgetting You

Now let's move on to that other vocalist that knocked on Quinton Claunch's door that fateful night in 1964... a man some say was the best soul singer of them all, James Carr.

Carr's story, as a subplot of the whole Goldwax saga, remains one that captures the imagination. It's a tale of madness and 'personal demons', of a twisted and tortured interior struggle that would plague James his entire life... a tale of how that chaos was redeemed in the timeless body of work that he created in just a few short years - a body of work that includes, in my opinion, the greatest song ever recorded.

A simple man who, some say, never learned to read or write, Carr grew up in Memphis singing in local Gospel quartets like the Harmony Echoes. His first record for the label, You Don't Want Me (Goldwax 108), was pretty much a straight-ahead Blues number that was recorded around the same time as O.V.'s big single. The flip of that record, Only Fools Run Away, although kind of like an over-produced Arthur Alexander tune, gives a glimpse of the vocal power that was to come. Lover's Competition (Goldwax 112) would follow, and essentially mine the same syrupy territory without much luck.

By 1965, things were really starting to happen down there in 'Soul City U.S.A.', and Goldwax found itself in the right place at the right time. Claunch's connections in the local music scene began to pay off, especially his friendship with former Sun pedal steel man turned engineer, Stan Kesler. Stan (pictured here with Claunch and Doc Russell) worked the board over at the Sam Phillips Recording Service, the state-of-the-art studio Phillips had set up in 1959.

It was Kesler, they say, that first put together the incredible rhythm section that would later become the 'house band' at Chips Moman's American Studio. Goldwax had no studio of their own, and so booked time wherever they could find it. Carr, as I understand it, was recorded primarily at Sam Phillips, using that core group of Reggie Young, Bobby Emmons, Gene Chrisman, Tommy Cogbill, Mike Leech, and Bobby Woods. Wherever it was that they were rolling the tape, things really began to come together for Carr and the label. Goldwax 119 paired the upbeat Talk Talk with the great She's Better Than You, a song written by a kid named O.B. McClinton.

McClinton had been with the label almost since its inception, and Goldwax had released his own version of the song the year before. Like the personal embodiment of the company's sound, O.B. was a black man who wrote, and performed, Country music. He had been raised in Mississippi and, by his own recollection, had fallen in love with the sound of Hank Williams on the radio when he was a kid. Still a student at Rust College when fellow songwriter Earl Cage brought him to Claunch's attention, he would go on to write some of Carr's best material. McClinton, after recording for Stax subsidiary Enterprise in the early seventies, later became known as The Chocolate Cowboy, breaking down all the barriers as he appeared some fifteen times on the Billboard Country charts before his untimely death in 1987.

It was McClinton who delivered James' first hit, the great You've Got My Mind Messed Up, which would spend two months on the charts, breaking into the R&B top ten in the spring of 1966. The follow-up, Love Attack (penned by Claunch himself, who had become quite the songwriter), hit #21 that summer, and James was on a roll. This was also around the time that Claunch signed on with Larry Utall, whose New York based Bell Records now became the Goldwax distributor.


As I'm sure you know, Peter Guralnick spoke about all of this at length in his ground-breaking work, Sweet Soul Music. Particular attention was paid to the relationship between Roosevelt Jamison and our man James. Jamison had become his confidant, mentor and manager, and saw him as "pure clay to be molded." Once Utall began moving some serious product on him, he convinced Goldwax to fire Jamison, and place Carr with Walden Booking, the mega-agency created by Phil Walden that managed Otis Redding, and just about everybody else in those days. In the book, Jamison says "They didn't know how he actually felt... how hard it was coming from the bottom, from nothing to something so fast. It was like coming from four or five years old to twenty five all of a sudden... within six months he came tumbling all the way down." Be that as it may, it is precisely that period of turmoil that would produce his greatest work.

Today's unbelievable selection was released as the flip of the upbeat mover, Pouring Water On A Drowning Man, which would cruise to #23 R&B in the fall of 1966. Written by McClinton, it's basically a Country record all the way... that is until the last thirty seconds or so, when the band (led by that incredible Reggie Young guitar) shifts things down to a minor key, then just builds and builds... with those trademark Memphis Horns and James' positively primal howls and shrieks. Whoa!! Goose Bumps, man. This is the pure essence of soul music right here, folks, and when you take it in context as the B side of the single before this next one, it seems even better.

What more can be said about Goldwax 317? What could I possibly add to the discussion of this elemental and pure work of art? Not much, I suppose, except to add my voice to those who consider The Dark End Of The Street the best record ever made. Born of a poker game at a Nashville disk jockey convention in 1966 (the same convention, by the way, that got Huey Meaux in all that trouble for providing the 'entertainment'), and written by an unholy alliance of two white guys who were ultimately too much alike to be together for very long, it doesn't seem possible that it was ever written at all. When the board at American blew up the day of the scheduled session, they had to move it across town to Royal at the last minute. The stars were aligning...

What is it that makes this song so great? To tell you the truth, I don't know, but it still moves me every single time I hear it. Perhaps it's the transparency, the palpability of Carr's unique voice... the unguarded window into his soul. As Robert Gordon put it in his excellent article, James Carr: Way Out On A Voyage; "We are not sung to... the performance is not one we witness from the audience but one we feel through him. [Otis] Redding made a gift of his passion, something we could admire from a distance. Carr's passion is reciprocal..." Amen.

It would reach the R&B top ten in early 1967, and be included, along with most of his other singles, in Goldwax' first LP release later that year. It remains one of the most sought after slabs of vinyl out there. Although James would chart five more times for the label (most notably with O.B. McClinton's great composition A Man Needs A Woman, which would also become the title track for a follow-up LP in 1968), it was almost as if he had left it all out there... I mean, how do you follow perfection?

He was a haunted man.

Stories abound about Carr's descent into a bi-polar depressive nightmare. About failed recording sessions and concert tours. About how, after Goldwax threw in the towel in 1969, and his lone Atlantic single died in 1970, he basically could not account for his whereabouts for the next ten years. Attempts were made to resurrect his career. Jamison himself took him to Japan in 1979, on a tour that was destined to fail.

A re-incorporated version of the Goldwax label would record an album on him in 1990 called Take Me To The Limit, and bring him back out on the road to promote it. This was when I saw James at Tramps in New York. The raw power of his voice was still intact. I was blown away.

At the time, though, I don't think I fully appreciated what I was witnessing... a show that Gordon called a "personal and professional triumph," I didn't know it would be one of his last. There is a chilling video of him at Porretta from around this same time on YouTube. Unreal.

He would record one more album, Soul Survivor, for Soultrax in 1994.

James Carr spent the last few years of his life living at his sister's house in Memphis. After losing a lung to cancer, he died at a nursing home there in January of 2001. He was 58 years old.

That's the way love turned out for him.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

O.V. Wright - That's How Strong My Love Is (Goldwax 106)


That's How Strong My Love Is

Stop Me If You've Heard This One...


What follows is an oft-told tale... a story of unlikely heroes and strange bedfellows. It's a tale that's been told by many before me and, I'm sure, will continue to be told after I'm gone. The power of the story lies, perhaps, in the promise of ordinary people doing extrordinary things, in a whole that somehow exceeds the sum of its parts... in the exalted possibility of 'art' happening when you least expect it. That, my friends, is The Goldwax Story.

Quinton Claunch came up out of Mississippi, but the radio lured him to Muscle Shoals. By the mid-forties, he had founded a down home country outfit that broadcast on WLAY, the Blue Seal Pals. After the addition of 'Washboard' Bill Cantrell in 1946, they were able to step up to the more powerful WJOI in Florence, and actually created their own network of stations that carried their broadcasts, which were sponsored by the Blue Seal Flour Company. Now heard all over the South, they soon became a household name. Clear channel WSM in Nashville, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, signed them on to host their popular Saturday morning show 'Sun-Up Serenade', and things were hoppin'! The Pals just busted 'em up, selling out houses throughout the South, as they toured with folks like Rod Brasfield and Minnie Pearl. By the early fifties, however, as the nature of radio began to change, they were less in demand, and the group went their separate ways.

Claunch and Cantrell gravitated to Memphis, where former WLAY dee-jay Sam Phillips had opened a 'recording service' that soon evolved into the Sun Studio. The two former 'Pals' found work as studio musicians at Sun, backing star-crossed rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers, among others. They were there for what many would call the dawn of rock and roll, as guys like Elvis and Carl Perkins took the place of Howlin' Wolf and Ike Turner at the studio.

Convinced they could carve out a little piece of magic on their own, Claunch and Cantrell joined forces with another 'singing cowboy' turned Sun rockabilly bad boy, Ray Harris. Together they approached local record man Joe Cuoghi about starting their own label. Cuoghi brought together a few other investors, and agreed to give the former Phillips' employees creative control. As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, a record by Carl McVoy would become the first release on their brand new Hi label in 1957. The B side of that record, Tootsie, was written by Claunch and Cantrell.

Like most everybody else involved, Quinton Claunch had a 'day job' as well, as an itinerant hardware supplies salesman. Just as things at Hi started looking good, with the Bill Black Combo's Smokie - Part Two bringing in some cash, something happened. In Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick says that Claunch left Hi in 1959 for 'a number of cogent reasons'. According to a Black Cat Rockabilly web page; "Quinton Claunch was forced out of the Hi partnership after cutting a Bill Black soundalike band for another label. Carl McVoy bought Claunch's share for $7000, which he earned on the next Bill Black record, for which he brought an old Hammond organ to the studio." (which, I imagine, is the one that's still there). In any event, by 1960, Claunch was selling hardware full time.

Guralnick goes on to say that Quinton had become friends with Rick Hall after The Fairlanes recorded for Hi in the late fifties (although there were never any records by them released on the label), and that Hall wanted him to become partners with him when he opened FAME down in his old stomping grounds of Muscle Shoals. Claunch turned him down, and watched as both his operation, and one that had opened in another old movie theater around the corner from his old Hi digs, began to take off. He was itching to get back in to the business. Entering into a loose partnership with a local pharmacist named Rudolph ('Doc') Russell, he took an R&B vocal group called The Lyrics down to see Rick Hall and recorded Goldwax' first release, Darling, in 1964. Although a moderate local hit, Claunch maintains that it was stepped on by his former partners at Hi, as he made the mistake of using the same distributor they did, London Records.

At this point, please allow me to quote from a post I wrote about O.V. Wright back in March of 2006 (an oft-told tale, indeed!):

"Roosevelt Jamison was a hard working lab tech who ran a walk-in Blood Bank in downtown Memphis for the University Hospital. His first love was music, however, and he worked as a manager and promoter of local Gospel acts on the side. The door of the Blood Bank was always open, and singers would drop by to rehearse in the relative quiet of the back room. O.V.'s group, The Harmony Echoes, did so often, and before long the two men hit it off. They began writing songs together, sharing their dream of 'crossing over' and making it big as so many others were doing at the time... Jamison, meanwhile, had made a demo tape of some of the songs he had written, with O.V. Wright and another member of The Harmony Echoes, one James Carr, handling the vocals. He had taken the tape to Jim Stewart over at Stax, but he didn't show much interest, claiming it was 'too Gospel'. As legend has it, Jamison's next move was to show up on Quinton Claunch's doorstep in the middle of the night with the tape in his hand."

Whether it was just a tape Jamison had with him or, as Claunch is quoted as saying in Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted - "...I heard a knock on my door at about ten o'clock one night, and found Roosevelt Jamison, James Carr, and O.V. Wright standing there. They had this little portable recorder, so we sat right down here on this floor and listened to some tapes. Both of them just knocked me out..." - it remains a shining moment that lives on in all of our imaginations.

The incredible selection we have here today (yes, it was released as a B side, as Claunch apparently thought Jamison's There Goes My Used To Be had more commercial potential), is the result of that night on Quinton's living room floor, and represents so much. This confluence of Gospel and Country, of very black and very white... this touchstone, if you will, of a whole genre that was to follow, just slays me. Here on his first 'secular' release, O.V.'s fully formed vocals (earned through his many years of singing in the Church) go right through you.

A couple of questions I have about this monumental record remain unanswered... Guralnick reports that Claunch "took O.V. into the studio'"... what studio? I'm guessing FAME, but I'm not sure. It'd be great to identify that cool guitarist... and who, pray tell, were 'The Keys'?

Guralnick goes on to say; "The record, distributed by Vee-Jay this time out, was a hit, eclipsing even the version by Otis Redding, which was recorded about the same time (late 1964) despite Stax's purported lack of interest..."

Well, as you may know, Billboard did not publish an R&B chart from 11/30/63 to 1/23/65, an idea that just didn't make sense. It is exactly that period which was home to so many seminal and influential 'race' records, like the one we have here today. In Whitburn's Top R&B Singles, he says that he has done research "to determine which R&B titles would have crossed over to an R&B singles chart." He reports the Otis version at #18 R&B on 1/30/65 (a week after Billboard re-instituted the chart). The O.V. Wright original is nowhere to be found. Which version was the bigger hit?

As the story goes, Don Robey threatened to sue Goldwax, claiming that he already had Wright under contract from his days with The Sunset Travelers. His reputation certainly preceded him, and Claunch and Russell were happy to settle out of court, retaining their rights to O.V.'s lone Goldwax release. As our man over at the awesome Testify reported recently, however:

"Speaking to Tim Perlich for Soul Survivor magazine in 1988 Roosevelt Jamison said:
“Y'know, personally, I doubt that any such contract between O.V. and Don Robey ever existed. If there was, I never saw it. That was only part of the reason why O.V. left Goldwax though. O.V. had an engagement to do a show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for some local D.J. named Dickie Doo, but Quinton Claunch refused to give us the money for gas to get there. Ricky Sanders, Earl Forrest and I went with O.V. and did the show anyway, but after that incident O.V. went straight to Texas.”

An arrangement that, after all, didn't turn out too bad.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Don Bryant - I'll Do The Rest (Hi 2104)


I'll Do The Rest

Don Bryant grew up in a large family in Memphis. His father, Edward, was a member of Gospel Quartet The Four Stars Of Harmony, who were among the first outfits to broadcast live on local radio. Traveling with the group, young Don felt the power of song within him, performing at area churches at five years of age.

By the time he was in high school, Don and his brother Jamie had organized a vocal group of their own, The Quails. In the tradition of other popular doo-wop 'bird' groups of those days, you could find them singing out under the streetlights most nights. Taking a page from their father's book, they began hanging around radio station WLOK in Memphis, hoping to get noticed. It wasn't long before popular dee-jay Dick 'Cane' Cole heard them, and offered to let them sing live on his show, providing they changed their name to 'The Canes'. No problem. They would go on to win the fabled amateur night at the Palace Theater down on Beale Street, and were soon the most popular teenagers in town.


Our man Willie Mitchell was the leader of the house band at Danny's, a busy night-spot out on the strip in West Memphis. There are conflicting stories about exactly how it came about (some say that they replaced a previous vocal group, The Four Dukes), but by 1957 the group had changed their name to The Four Kings, and were knocking 'em dead working with Willie at the club. Supposedly, Willie had to sign the papers to become Don's legal guardian, as he was still under age. In any event, they soon became the hottest ticket in town, packing 'em in at places like Curry's Flamingo Room, The Manhattan Club, and The Plantation Inn.

You know the more I do this, the more I am amazed at how everything, eventually, seems to be connected. After hearing them perform at the Manhattan Club in 1957, local rockabilly legend Eddie Bond (whose guitarist, you may recall, was about to join Bill Black's Combo at Hi Records) signed them to his Stomper Time label. Two singles would follow, Tell It To Me Baby and Walkin' Alone in 1958. Although big local sellers, neither record dented the charts. They continued to work regularly, and when Mitchell himself signed on with Hi Records in 1962, he brought the Four Kings with him, resulting in two ultra-rare singles on Hi's subsidiary label M.O.C..

In an interesting aside, Cane Cole brought a group around the corner to Stax at about the same time, and their lone release, Why Should I Suffer With The Blues (Stax 123), was released under the name of 'The Canes' in April of 1962. None of the original Canes were involved. With brother Jamie drafted, and the usual ego problems within the group, The Four Kings would go their separate ways in 1963.

Bryant was signed as a solo artist by Hi the following year. His first release for the label, a cover of Chris Kenner's I Like It Like That (Hi 2087), didn't do much. Don's nascent songwriting skills would be showcased on his next release, the excellent Don't Turn Your Back On Me (Hi 2095), a sweet country soul record that could have been a huge hit if it had been distributed by somebody like, say, Atlantic...

Just a word here on the whole R&B chart thing; it's tempting to look up a song in Whitburn's Top R&B Singles, and figure that, since there's no listing for it in the Billboard charts, the record must have tanked. I'm beginning to learn that that's simply not true, and that those charts can be misleading, especially when it comes to the Hi label. Owner Joe Cuoghi had no illusions about the record business, and was first and foremost a jukebox distributor. He knew he could move over 150,000 copies of a record to the guys on the jukebox routes, and so never really bothered with the whole radio 'promotion' thing. When Billboard stopped using the 'Most Played R&B In Juke Boxes' formula for its charts in 1957, guys like Cuoghi didn't care. The new charts were based on radio station playlists (often influenced by 'payola' of one form or another) and sales reported by stores. Consequently, a single could break really big in local markets like Memphis and New Orleans, get played to death in the bars and juke joints, and never show up in the national charts... just my two cents.

After an uncredited appearance as the vocalist on Willie Mitchell's two sider That Driving Beat/Everything's Gonna Be Alright (Hi 2097) in 1965, Bryant would write this absolutely killer B side we have here today (issued as the flip of Glory Of Love). Sounding even more like a Solomon Burke or Joe Tex record, perhaps there's a reason for that. This is one of the last releases to feature the original Hi Rhythm section, an incredibly tight group made up of the remnants of Bill Black's Combo and members of Willie Mitchell's Jumpin' Band. These are the guys crankin' it out on virtually every Hi instrumental release from 1962 to late 1965, no matter what the label said. Although there were personnel changes over the years, by this time, in addition to Hi stalwart Howard 'Bulldog' Grimes on the drums, the group would also include Bobby Emmons on the organ, Mike Leech on the bass and the man who'd been there all along, Reggie Young. That's Reggie's unmistakable trademark guitar on here, a sound that would go on to illuminate so many of the best records ever made. Be that as it may, Don Bryant had him first. Check out the horns, the bass, the drums... just top shelf stuff, man. How Bryant could not have been considered among the greatest soul singers (and songwriters) of his day is beyond me.

Don would go on to release seven more singles for Hi under his own name over the next four years, and all of them are worth seeking out. An album of cover songs, Precious Soul, would also be released by the label in 1969. In early 1970, Willie Mitchell's contract expired. Realizing how much he needed him, Joe Cuoghi made him the Vice-President of the company. That July, Joe died suddenly of a massive heart attack at age 47. Willie was now the president and principal owner of Hi Records. After all those years in the business, Willie knew how things worked, and it was obvious that the most succesful labels employed at least one 'staff songwriter'. Aware of Don's talents, he put him on the payroll.

As one of his first assignments, Willie told Don to work on developing the delivery of a young singer that fellow bandleader Gene 'Bowlegs' Miller had brought to the label, Ann Peebles. Although they both resented the arrangement at first, they began making some beautiful music together (for more on Ann, please check out this post from last year). Shortly after the success of their soul masterpiece I Can't Stand The Rain, the couple were married in 1974. I guess Willie knew what he was doing...

They would go on to create and perform together throughout the seventies, and weathered the whole disco era in fine fashion. Staying with Hi even after Willie sold it in 1977, the couple would have the very last release on the label, a duet called Mon Belle Amour in 1981.

By the mid-eighties, Bryant had decided to return to his first love, Gospel music, and was back singing at the Carnegie Church Of God In Christ, where he had performed with his father all those years before. He continued to write and, in 1987, he started his own label, By Faith Records. Although he recorded two excellent albums for the label (What Do You Think About Jesus and I'm Gonna Praise Him) by the end of the decade, neither has been released commercially.

Still as much in love as they ever were, Don would supply material for Ann's great 1992 album, Full Time Love. He would rejoin with her and sing two duets on her 1994 effort, Fill This World With Love. The couple began collaborating with Paul Brown (from whom I've borrowed many of these photographs) in 2000, and are involved in the local Gospel community. An album, It's All In The Word, has recently been completed, and is featured on Bryant's MySpace site.

Don and Ann's incredible soul chops remain intact, as evidenced by the song they co-wrote with Brown for Joe Henry's I Believe To My Soul project in 2005, When The Candle Burns Low. Great stuff, it is, in my opinion, the best thing on the album. Just this past Friday night, Mr & Mrs Bryant were onstage in Memphis at the local NARAS chapter's awards dinner, and honored their old boss Willie Mitchell with a couple of soul songs (I'm still trying to find out which ones) as he recieved the chapter's regional Lifetime Achievement Award (along with Booker T & The M.G.'s, Irma Thomas, and Sun heir Knox Phillips).

Apparently at peace with walking the line between Gospel and R&B (as folks like Al Green and Roscoe Robinson have done throughout their careers), I think it's high time we got Don Bryant back into Royal Studio working on some Soul with Poppa Willie, in addition to the Sacred Music he's been producing with Brown...

Is That Asking Too Much?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Bill Black's Combo - Willie (Hi 2027)


Willie

THE UNTOUCHABLE SOUND



Memphis 1954:
A kid named Elvis Presley kept pestering Sam Phillips to sign him to his Sun Records label. Sam asked his friend Scotty Moore to check him out. Scotty had been hanging around the studio himself for a while, and Sam had just issued a single by Moore's band The Starlight Wranglers that May. On June 27th, Scotty agreed to let Presley come over his house and 'try out', calling his best friend, and bass player for the Wranglers, Bill Black to come over as well. Even though Bill told Phillips that Elvis "didn't impress me too damned much!", Sam signed him anyway.

Together they would alter the course of history. When Phillips heard them 'messing around' with Big Boy Crudup's That's Alright Mama at the studio that July, he cranked up the machine and started rolling the tape. Released as Sun 209, it's one of those timeless records that just changed everything. By October, the trio was playing on the immensely popular radio show Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport, Louisiana, and tearing up the South playing anywhere and everywhere that would have them.

It was on the Hayride that they met drummer D.J. Fontana, who soon became an integral part of their sound. With 'Blackie' riding and slapping his 'doghouse' bass, the 'big beat' these guys were laying down became the very foundation of what would become known as 'rockabilly'. When RCA offered Sam Phillips a previously unheard of $40,000 to buy out Presley's contract in 1955, he took it, as he figured he'd have 'the next Elvis' knocking on his door any minute, as Sun was now crowded with eager prospects like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison.

After a Grand Old Opry gig with Hank Snow, Presley would hire the imperious Colonel Tom Parker as his manager. When Budy Killen successfully shopped a song he owned the publishing on to the RCA suits in Nashville, the pieces of what would become the Elvis mystique were in place. Heartbreak Hotel careened into the #1 spot by March of 1956, and stayed there for a solid two months. By September, Presley and his band would play the Ed Sullivan Show, reportedly earning $50,000.

That same year, he signed a seven year movie deal with Paramount Pictures, and the first Elvis Movie, Love Me Tender was released in October of 1956. It was readily apparent that neither RCA nor Colonel Parker (or Paramount for that matter) had much use for the affable country boys that had been with their big star all along. They were kept on a $100 a week retainer, which rose to $200 on the road. After the filming of Jailhouse Rock in 1957, both Scotty Moore and Bill Black quit. When Elvis personally guaranteed them another $50 a week, they agreed to return. By February of 1958, however, Blackie had seen enough. He walked, never to return. Elvis was drafted into the Army in March.

Returning to Memphis, Bill fell in with Joe Cuoghi, a local fixture who had jumped on the Sun bandwagon, and opened his own Hi record label with a few friends as an adjunct to his highly succesful record shop, Poplar Tunes. The first release on the label had been by Jerry Lee Lewis' cousin, Carl McVoy in 1957. It didn't do much. Enlisting McVoy, a kid named Jerry Arnold on the drums, and Martin Willis on the saxophone, Bill set out to find the right guitar player to round out what would come to be known as his 'Combo'.

He found him in the person of Reggie Young, who had cut his teeth as the guitarist for Eddie Bond's Stompers, a local rockabilly band that had a big regional hit with Rockin' Daddy in 1956. Reggie had followed in Scotty Moore's footsteps, following 'the boys' on the Louisiana Hayride, and tracing the same southern circuit that Elvis had blazed before them. He was glad to hook up with Bill and come off the road to take up residency at Hi's recently outfitted Royal Studio, housed in an old movie theater on South Lauderdale Street in East Memphis.

Bill worked with the band until he thought they were ready, and their very first release on the label, Smokie - Part 2 (Hi 2018) would crack the Pop top twenty in late 1959. When sax player Martin Willis backed out because he didn't want to go out on the road, Black enlisted Sun sideman Ace Cannon, and 'the untouchable sound' was born. Their follow up record, White Silver Sands, broke into the top ten, and further established Memphis as the home of the instrumental (Hi - get it?). More hits would follow, like Josephine and the Combo's own version of Don't Be Cruel, before the A side of today's selection, Blue Tango, hit #16 in the fall of 1960.

This rockin' record we have here is named, in my opinion, not in honor of Willie Mitchell (who wouldn't appear at Hi for another two years), but Willie Dixon, as the piano line is very reminiscent of another fave of ours, 1955 hit Walkin' The Blues. You can really see what they meant by 'untouchable', as you couldn't squeeze a dime between the bass, guitar, and drums - all locked firmly onto that relentless beat. Just elemental stuff, man, and at only 1:55 it ends way too soon!

Bill Black was back in the thick of things, with his Combo named 'top instrumental group' three years in a row. They were back out on the road, with their own appearances on Ed Sullivan and the whole deal. In 1961, they would even appear in the rock & roll film Teenage Millionaire. By the end of the year, Black began having some health problems that would keep him close to home. The Combo continued to make records, both for themslves and as the 'house band' at Royal, backing the label's other artists. One of those was their own Ace Cannon, who began to chart for Hi under his own name in 1962.

The Combo evolved in those days, with personnel changes kept behind the scenes, as their records remained in the Hot 100. When The Beatles came to the States for their first tour in 1964, they (bless their Liverpudlian little hearts) wanted Bill Black's Combo to be their opening act. With Black too ill, It was up to Reggie Young to put a band together and bring them out on the road in front of hundreds of thousands of screaming teenagers. The Fab Four loved them, reportedly holding a 30 hour jam session down in the Florida Keys at one point, with a young George Harrison just eating up Young's guitar licks.

Bill Black was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1965. He slipped into a coma at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis on October 8th. He would die on the operating table two weeks later.

He was 39 years old.