Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lost in the Shuffle

Before I get into my post, I want to tell you how much I appreciate the people at Record Research. I contacted them about a book, and they went far out of their way to help me with said item. They didn’t help me in order to make a few extra dollars, because the labor involved in rescuing me was probably more costly than what they got in return. They do amazing work and are amazingly helpful. Keep that in mind. Now, on to the post.

I made an offhand reference earlier this year to a couple of occasions where I fell victim to cases of mistaken musical identity. Once, I thought a song went by one title, when it really had a different name. That’s what happened to today’s song. In the second case, I got the artist wrong. More on that situation in October.

How could I not know the name of a song I played more than one hundred times? First, the song was an instrumental. Second, I couldn’t read when I got the 45. I can remember picking the record off the turntable, taking it to my dad, and asking him the name of the song. The problem was that I held out the single to him in an ambiguous way—edge-on—and he read me the wrong title. It was twenty years before I figured out the error, because the 45 perished even before the Great Vinyl Meltdown, thanks to some mishandling on my part.

My dad told me the song I liked was “White Silver Sands” by Bill Black’s Combo (Hi 2021). I believed that to be the case, so strongly that, when I saw a TV ad for a compilation of instrumental hits that included this title, I ordered it. This was in the early days of CD reissues, so I had no record-store access to this two-disc compilation.

Until the CDs arrived, I thought there were two songs named “White Silver Sands.” One was the Don Rondo/Owen Bradley/Dave Gardner hit from 1957, and the other was the Bill Black hit from 1960. When the package arrived, I ran to my CD player, punched in the proper track, and heard an instrumental version of the Don Rondo hit. What a revelation. What a letdown.

In the time gap between the arrival of these CDs and the arrival of an easy way to look up information about old 45s (i.e. the internet), I spent a lot of time wishing I knew the name of the flip side of Bill Black’s “White Silver Sands.” Eventually, I stopped thinking about it, but once I started looking for replacement 45s, I learned quickly that the song I sought was “The Wheel.” I soon came across a single CD that contained two Bill Black LPs, and “The Wheel” was on it. When that CD showed up, thanks to CDNow, I confirmed that I had found the song I sought.

Bill Black’s Combo was the first band I researched, in the early 1970s. Three of his 45s had worked their way into my collection, and I grew fond enough of them to become curious about his career. I bumped into several of his LPs at Recordland and Camelot Music in Southlake Mall in Merrillville, Indiana, and that interaction led me to find sources where I could learn about his work.

I finally figured out why I liked the Combo so much. First of all, anyone who drops a sax into an arrangement is going to gain my approval. But just as universally, anyone who puts a shuffle beat to a song will win points with me. And I don’t know why yet, so I’ll try to figure it out now.

Do you know what a shuffle is? It’s a song in 4/4 time that is almost overlaid with a rhythm in 6/8 time. Instead of using triplets, though, a shuffle uses “broken triplets”: beat (pause) beat-beat (pause) beat-beat. A shuffle thus sounds (to me) less precise in its 4/4 nature than a straight 4/4, more prone to syncopation even among such rhythm-free singers as Pat Boone. So, to me, a shuffle always sounds more like music than 1950s white pop. A shuffle has emotion. From the start, I could always feel a shuffle more than any other type of rhythm. I don’t mean recognize it; I mean feel it.

If you take that groove (virtually every Bill Black track used that same groove in what was called his “Untouchable Sound”) and add smoky sax by the likes of “Ace” Cannon, you get the definitive caithiseach-pleaser. Bill’s bass and Reggie Young’s rhythm guitar thump in time with each drum note. While the organ on “White Silver Sands” plays with the beat as straight as possible, the sax comes in and tugs on the rhythm, pulling every other sound forward in a tense effort to break out of the constraints of the backbeat. The same thing happens in “The Wheel,” though the lead guitar and the piano cooperate more with the sax than the organ did on “White Silver Sands.” Bill’s trademark sound carried him through eight Top 40 hits from 1959 to 1962.

If you are a Bill Black neophyte, you may well think that I had his 45s because, like so many of the other perpetrators of my early vinyl, he was a failure. Not so. Bill Black is one of the great figures of early rock and roll, and he played on the most successful two-sided single of all time.

Bill Black grew up in Memphis, and he learned to play the upright bass. He had recorded a single at Sun Studio in early 1954, and in July of that year he played bass on a little ditty called “That’s All Right” by an act billed on Sun 209 as Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill. Bill went on to play the upright bass in his crazy slapping way on a number of huge hits through 1958, including “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel”/“Hound Dog.” Bill made the transition to electric bass nicely, as an early adopter of the Fender Precision Bass. He debuted that bass on “Jailhouse Rock” in 1957.

When Elvis (Presley) got his start at Sun, Bill and Scotty Moore were important enough to earn a share of the Elvis royalties. Not so when Col. Tom Parker took over at RCA; at last, Bill decided $200 a week didn’t cut it, considering the money Elvis was raking in. Considering that Bill was a huge part of Elvis’s stage show, being the comic type that loosened up the crowd and a participant in some banter routines with the King, I can’t blame him for walking away from it.

Bill went back to his roots, and soon his Combo came into being. Apart from Reggie Young on guitar and Ace Cannon on sax, the personnel tended to shift, but the sound never varied, to the amusement of some and the awe of others. Who dug the Combo best? In early 1964, it was the Beatles, who requested that the Combo open for them on their first tour of the United States. The Combo is probably the strongest direct link between the King and the Beatles.

The longest-lasting connection between the two acts is Bill Black’s Fender bass. Linda McCartney bought it for Paul, and he still owns it.

In one sense, the performance link is not as firm as it seems. Bill had been suffering from severe headaches for a while, and finally the source was discovered to be a brain tumor. He was told that an operation would leave him paralyzed or otherwise incapacitated, and so, one source told me, he opted not to fight the tumor. Another source says that, once he slipped into a coma, an operation was attempted, and he died on the table. Bill was 39 then. Today, September 17, would have been Bill’s 82nd birthday.

Happy birthday, Bill. Here's Bill, playing bass (right), behind the guy I said would not appear musically in this blog. I just painted myself into a corner, didn't I?

For Saturday, I’ll be looking at yet another Mercury single, one that didn’t chart, though its singer managed one Hot 100 hit. See you then!

Bill Black's Combo, The Wheel

No comments: