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Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore were just a couple of Memphis session musicians when Sun Records boss Sam Phillips hired them to play with a young truck driver named Elvis Presley for a few sides, including a revved-up rockabilly version of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right, Momma." Within a year or so, Elvis was the biggest thing since Jesus, while Bill and Scotty remained a couple of anonymous faces strumming and thumping away behind him. They eventually got fed-up with their anonymity and Colonel Parker's lousy pay and quit in 1957.
Scotty Moore went on to be a successful session musician, mostly based in Nashville. Black was approached by Joe Cuoghi, owner of a fledgling Memphis label, Hi Records. Black pulled together an instrumental combo and recorded two sides. The A-side, "Smokie," shot right to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart--as did each of their next four releases: "Don't Be Cruel," "White Silver Sands," "Josephine," and "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White."
Black's formula was simple but reliable: himself on electric bass, Reggie Young on electric guitar, Martin Wills on sax, Jerry Arnold on drums, and Carl McAvoy on piano, playing unadorned sax/guitar R&B/rock 'n' roll arrangements of current hits. In some ways, it wasn't far afield from Bill Justis' approach to the same material. In fact, a cover of Justis' own hit, "Raunchy," was one of their best-selling singles. For the next three years, radio DJs around the country voted the group as the "Most Played Instrumental Combo" in the country.
The combo churned out a steady stream of singles and albums for Hi Records, and by 1962, Black was financially secure enough to hire Bob Tucker to replace him and retire from playing. Sadly, he soon after was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died in 1965 during the third operation to remove the tumor. Tucker kept the combo going on without him. Although their last single to hit the charts was recorded in 1969, the group continued to record until Hi Records was sold in 1979, and with Tucker in the lead, carried on performing at clubs, shows, and fairs into the late 1980s.
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