Review - Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis - The Bill Black Story

Elvis Presley’s success is built on the contributions from many people, all with a different background. Most of them - even those who may have met Elvis only briefly - have written their life’s story and thereby claiming their place “in history”. 

But one man had not received the credit he is more than due, Bill Black. 

And now, in 2021, Elvis biographer Paul F. Belard puts the record straight with his book ‘Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis – The Bill Black Story’.


Design

The book is a big 260 full-color paperback, printed on glossy paper. The modern design by Søren Karstensen has some vintage touches, using a touch of “silver-foil” on the pictures separating the chapters. 

The writing is not only insightful and knowledgeable, but Belard’s enthusiastic writing style really takes you by the hand. The book is written in short stories covering all persons and all events that tell the Bill Black Story. Sometimes he takes the perspective of an observing biographer and historian, describing what / when happened, he also uses dialogues, placing the reader in the situation at hand or quotes newspaper and interviews. Using these different ways of writing keeps you intrigued. Also funny to read some personal observations, thoughts and opinions from the author between the lines, showing his involvement.

Illustrated with known and unknown pictures of Bill Black and many other people that are part of his story, the book balances between a biography and a photobook. Like we know from previous books by Paul Belard he managed to find relevant pictures to illustrate the text. 

Added to that are many original newspaper and interview fragments, documents and other memorabilia. I especially enjoyed the private and on-the-road pictures, they reminded me of the great book ‘The Beat Behind The King’ by D.J. Fontana, that showed the same kind of pictures.  


Content

The book was written with the help of Bill Black’s family, who shared the family scrap-book - containing all kinds of material from Bill’s years with Elvis and with his own Bill Black Combo - with Henrik Knudsen, who published the book. 

A well-structured story line, sets the scene for the birth of Rock and Roll against the - still racially divided - Southern parts of the United States. Reading this story you learn that growing up in the poor parts of Memphis wasn’t always easy, but it formed the man that we now know so well. But life as a musician wasn’t that romantic either. It was hard work, low pay and a lot of shopping around in your network getting your song recorded and after that, released. Most of the musicians, studio’s, record labels and so on depended on that one song hitting the high regions of the charts for survival. 

Many of the names that come by in the book, from Billy Swan to Reggie Young to Stan Kesler to Joe Coughi to Chips Moman to Boots Randolph to … they all crossed paths with Elvis at some point of his career.  

The book can roughly be divided in two parts, the Elvis years and the Combo years. The split in the middle was caused by Elvis, who was “cruel” toward Bill Black and Scotty Moore when they rightfully asked for a pay raise, which resulted in the guys quitting their work for Elvis. In the background, both Elvis and his father probably have been played by the Colonel, trying to get complete control over his client and who he worked with. 

After quitting Elvis - just before the September 1957 Tupelo Fair concerts where these two didn’t appear, something that slipped by my attention - Bill and Scotty had to find new ways to make a living. Although the guys would work together later that year, with different, and for Scotty and Bill better, arrangements. 

I was surprised to read that that Elvis let them go so easily and apparently never invited the guys to Graceland or gave them any gifts where most of the members of the Memphis Mafia, Jordanaires, Imperials, Stamps, people in the audience or complete strangers, received everything from jewelry to cars and houses … And here we read that Elvis, Scotty and Bill parted ways over a couple of hundred dollar … 

As Belard observes, what if RCA had released Elvis’ first singles as “Elvis and The Blue Moon Boys”, similar to the billing of ‘The Jordanaires’ and other backing groups on Elvis’ later releases. Could that have been the basis for a longer cooperation with Elvis and perhaps a step-up for a serious recording career of both gents? 

Nice to read that when Bill walked through the doors of the Hi Records studio at 1320 South Lauderdale Street in the summer of 1959, he saved the studio and record label when he and his new combo recorded ‘Smokie Part2’. 

He created his own sound, based on an “old funky shuffle beat”, played by accident by Reggie Young. With that “goofy little instrumental” he and his combo had success in the US and abroad, topping the charts, touring the country and opening for the Beatle’s first appearances in the states. 

Looking back now it is interesting to see how he created success with Elvis “going wild” in the SUN studio and again with a slow rhythm and uncomplicated sound recorded for Hi Records. 

His music was enjoyed by young and old, abroad and especially in the United Kingdom, by sound-experts who used his recordings to demonstrate the quality of new High Fidelity stereo consoles, to visitors of strip joints across America watch “a chick taking her clothes off to a Bill Black record” according to combo-member Bob Tucker. 

When his health deteriorated, he did a step back from recording and performing. Under his name, the combo performed across the country. After he died in 1965, “his” combo continued to record until 1978, with several singles still hitting the charts in 1975 and 1976. 

His legacy and the name Bill Black, “Blackie” for friends, lived on. 

The last part of the book cover the afterlife, tracing his famous bass to Paul McCartney, an overview of some of his awards and the recognition as a performer on lists from Rolling Stone magazine, Guitar World and others, and of course his records and promotional material. 

Flexi-disc

A book about a great musician is not complete without a bit of music. As a bonus the book contains a flexi-disc with two versions of ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. One version by Elvis and one by the Bill Black combo with Black performing on both. 


Conclusion

When it was announced that Bill Black would be introduced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, his son Louis Black said: “I’m Thrilled, it’s been a long time coming”. The same lines could be used for this biography. 

With this well researched, well-written and nicely designed book, Bill Black gets the recognition he deserves. He left a musical legacy, not only in his contributions to the birth of Rock and Roll’, but also through the combo that carried his name, even after he was gone.  

If it hadn’t been for Bill, we would have bombed many times in the early days” – Scotty Moore.


The book is available from the >>> Memphis Mansion webshop. 


Henrik Knudsen discussed the book with Richard Crofts for his Elvis Workshop channel.