Born William E. Justis, Jr., 14 October 1926, Birmingham, Alabama
Saxophonist / bandleader / arranger / producer. Bill Justis grew up in Memphis in an affluent, musical family. His mother was a concert pianist, who encouraged him into music. He studied English and music at Tulane University in New Orleans. After graduation, Justis started playing trumpet in jazz and dance bands in Memphis, and took up the saxophone around 1955. He had little interest in rock n roll until he read an article about Buck Ram and learned just how lucrative the music had become. Justis thought "That's for me!", bought $ 80 worth of R&R hits, and set his sights on stardom.
Having "learned" rock n roll, Justis was soon hired by Sam Phillips, who gave him the official title of Musical Director at Sun Records. In May 1957, Justis decided that he would try to record an instrumental rock n roll tune. Together with guitarist Sid Manker, he wrote "Raunchy", a word that was seen as the apex of hip teenage jargon at the time. The melody was based on an old southern tune called "Backwoods". Released among the first batch of Phillips International singles on September 23, 1957, it went to # 2 on the pop and # 1 on the R&B charts in late 1957 ; cover versions by Ernie Freeman and Billy Vaughn also made the Top 10. It was the first instrumental R&R hit ("Honky Tonk" was more R&B than rock n roll), paving the way for such artists as Duane Eddy, the Champs and Johnny and the Hurricanes. "Raunchy" is a true classic of instrumental rock 'n' roll and has been recorded by countless artists and groups. I think that I have at least 15 different versions of the song in my collection, including a vocal version by Webb Pierce ("The New Raunchy", credited to 'Shady Wall').
Justis followed "Raunchy" with a series of less successful, but often very good instrumentals, of which only "College Man" charted (# 42, March 1958). As a result of his two hits, he had an LP released ("Cloud Nine", the first album on the Phillips International label), not an honour that befell many Sun artists. He was the main instrumental man on Sun. The 'Bill Justis Orchestra' was basically the Sun rockabilly rhythm section of 1957-58 : Sid Manker on guitar, Billy Riley on bass, Jimmy Van Eaton (sometimes Otis Jett) on drums, and Jimmy Wilson (later Charlie Rich) on piano. There was usually a second saxophonist, Sid Lapworth or Vernon Drane.
Being one of the few people at Sun who could read music, Bill did most of the arrangements for Sun recordings during the two years that he spent with the label, including those by Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. His hilarious between-takes exhortations to his fellow musicians are thankfully preserved on tape ("Come on girls, let's get really bad now so we can sell some records"). Justis also brought Charlie Rich to Sun.
In circumstances that are still not entirely clear, both Bill Justis and Jack Clement were fired by Sam Phillips, for "insubordination", in the spring of 1959. Each started his own record label. Justis founded Play-Me Records, but the label didn't last long. In 1961, Bill moved to Nashville, where one of his first sessions was as one half of Cornbread and Jerry, who recorded the instrumental "Lil' Ole Me"/"Loco Moto" for Liberty. Justis was Cornbread and Jerry was pianist Jerry Smith.
The next year, 1962, he joined Mercury Records as an arranger and producer and became one of the label's key Nashville staff members. Mercury had him record a series of instrumental albums (released on their Smash subsidiary) that were steady sellers. Smash didn't issue too many singles ; one of them, "Tamoure" (1963) became a # 1 hit in Australia, though it didn't get higher than # 101 on Billboard's 'Bubbling under' charts. Between 1962 and 1966 Justis usually had at least one of his arrangements on the pop or country charts. Over the years his clients have included Brook Benton, Ray Charles, Fats Domino (during his tenure at ABC-Paramount), Willie Nelson, Bobby Vinton, Roy Orbison, Bobby Goldsboro, Brenda Lee and countless others. As a songwriter, his biggest successes were - apart from "Raunchy" - "The Ways Of A Woman In Love" by Johnny Cash (co-written with Charlie Rich) and (using the pseudonym Bill Everette) "Gitarzan", written with and for Ray Stevens. Justis moved to Los Angeles in 1966, trying to get into film scoring, but he returned to Nashville in 1972, his ambition still unfulfilled. Not much later though, he was given the chance to provide the music for several films, including "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977) and "Hooper" (1978), both starring Burt Reynolds. Bill Justis remained in Nashville until his death from cancer in 1982. The huge crowd that attended his funeral attested to the respect in which he was held. For rock n roll fans, it is the instrumental stuff on Phillips International that really matters. Unfortunately, some of his best numbers, like "Wild Rice", "Bop Train", "Flea Circus" and "Cloud Nine" are not [yet] available on YouTube.
More info : http://www.allmusic.com/artist/bill-justis-p18601 (All Music Guide)
Discography : http://countrydiscography.blogspot.com/search/label/Justis%20Bill
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins (book "Good Rockin' Tonight", page 163-165) ; Hank Davis ; liner notes (by Martin Hawkins) for the LP "Tough Stuff : Sun's Instrumental Gold" (Charly CR 30186, 1980).
- CD: Raunchy : The Very Best Of Bill Justis (Collectables). Released 1999. 19 tracks from the Sun/Phillips International period.
Dik March 2011
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