When Elvis’s bassist Bill Black picked up a Fender Precision to record ‘Jailhouse Rock’, the double bass’s time as the dominant sound in popular music was numbered.
However, Tim Fletcher discovers that Black wasn’t the only person to play electric bass on the sessions…
Bill Black was born in Memphis in 1926.
His family was very musical and by his teenage years, he was playing guitar in local bars. After a stint in the US Army, he began to play double bass in local bands, and by his mid-twenties, he was playing in country and rockabilly bands with guitarist Scotty Moore. In July 1954, Sam Phillips of Sun Records asked Moore and Black to rehearse and record some songs for a young Memphis singer called Elvis Presley. This session was initially frustrating, as the country songs they initially played didn’t gel, but when Elvis started to goof around with a speeded-up version of Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s Alright Mama’, and the two musicians joined in, the sound was fresh and new. Phillips knew he had something special, but Black was skeptical. He said; “Get that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town!”.
Moore and Black, along with drummer D. J. Fontana were to play on Elvis’s early hits for Sun, and when Elvis moved to RCA Victor, the trio went with him.
At the new label, the recordings became more sophisticated, and the increased exposure to a nationwide audience meant that Elvis became a huge star. He also began to appear in feature films, and his third film ‘Jailhouse Rock’ showcased material written by Leiber and Stoller who composed the title track and three other songs for the accompanying EP.
The recording sessions took place in late April and early May 1957 at the Radio Recorders studio in Hollywood. Bill Black somewhat reluctantly played electric bass for the first time on ‘Jailhouse Rock’, but on the second session, Black found playing the bass part for ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I don’t Care’ too challenging, and he threw the instrument down in frustration and walked out of the studio.
Amazingly, Elvis picked up the bass and recorded the bass-line himself.
As Gordon Stoker of Elvis’s vocal backing group, The Jordanaires recalled;
“Most artists would have said ‘You pick that bass up and play it, buster, that’s your job’, but not Elvis. You know what he did? Elvis thought it was funny. He picked it up and played it himself. He just picked up that bass, put his foot up on a chair, and played that song all the way through”.
After this, Black quickly learned to play the electric bass.
Soon he was playing it on stage as well as in the studio, and it became his main instrument for the rest of his music career. The influence of both the sound of the bass guitar and the exposure that it got from being used by the bass player in the backing group for the most successful artist in the world was immense – the electric bass became the sound of rock n roll, and then dominated all the pop music styles that came afterward.
By late 1957, Black and Moore were unhappy with their rather meagre fees for touring and recording, and they briefly resigned before being assured that the fees would increase. This arrangement continued for a while, but the bassist and guitarist both left again in early 1958.
In 1959, Black formed Bill Black’s Combo and this band had eight hit records between 1959 and 1962, and he opened a recording studio in Memphis.
However, his health was in decline, and by 1964 he was too ill to continue playing live. Sadly, this meant that he couldn’t take part when the band was hired to support The Beatles on their first US tour. Black died in 1965 during an operation to remove a brain tumour, but the band continued to play and record until the early 1980s.
Interestingly, the double bass that Black had used on the early Elvis recordings is now owned by Sir Paul McCartney, and he has used it on a number of recordings including the 1995 Beatles song ‘Real Love’.
McCartney was strongly influenced by Bill Black, and his playing in The Beatles further consolidated the dominance of the electric bass in pop and rock music around the world.