Rock Hall Class of ’09: ‘Early Influences’ share Elvis connection

By  Gillian G. Gaar

Wanda Jackson (courtesy of Country Music Foundation/ITVS)

Wanda Jackson (courtesy of Country Music Foundation/ITVS)
Elvis Presley was inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame at the very first ceremony in 1986. But his spirit hangs over this year’s ceremony as well, with the induction of his former bassist, the late Bill Black, and his former drummer, DJ Fontana, in the “Sidemen” category.

One could even say he had a hand in singer Wanda Jackson’s induction as an “Early Influence,” as it was at Presley’s suggestion that Jackson became a rockabilly singer in the first place.

Scotty Moore, Presley’s first guitarist, was inducted in the Hall of Fame’s “Sidemen” category in 2000, the first year the category was introduced. Given that Moore’s chief work as a sideman was with Presley, it was surprising that Black and Fontana, who were equally key to Presley’s success, were not also inducted the same year.

“It was hard to understand why daddy wouldn’t go in at the time that Scotty did,” says Louis Black, Bill Black’s son. “Scotty had even said that he did not want to be inducted until Bill was, because they were the first two sidemen,” adds Nancy Black, one of Bill’s daughters. “He was really hurt. Every opportunity he got after that, he tried to bring up daddy’s name.”

“You wonder why they didn’t bring in all three of us at the same time,” agrees DJ Fontana. “But they finally got around to it, which is okay.”

“I’m just glad that it happened,” Louis Black concurs, noting that “the only thing that’d been better, was if daddy had been alive” — a sentiment shared by Nancy and Black’s other daughter, Leighann Porterfield.

Scotty Moore and Bill Black first met Elvis Presley on July 4, 1954, at the suggestion of producer Sam Phillips, who felt Presley had potential as a singer. After an evening’s rehearsal, the trio reconvened at Phillips’ Sun Studio the following night.

They first worked on some ballads; then, during a break, Presley broke into an impromptu version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” “jumping around and acting the fool,” Moore later recalled. Black and Moore were quick to join in, and music history was made.

A few nights later, magic struck again, this time with Black as the catalyst, when he began horsing around with Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” and Presley and Moore joined in. The two songs became Presley’s first single. No one knew quite what to call this new mix of country and blues, but everyone knew it was exciting and, above all, different. With Presley out front and Moore and Black dubbed “The Blue Moon Boys,” rock ’n’ roll was soon to have its first superstar act.

“They complemented each other,” Nancy Black says of the group’s synergy. “Scotty was the calmest one, daddy was the joker, and Elvis was the singer. When the audience didn’t like Elvis, daddy stepped in and acted silly, which made them laugh, and they were able to go and perform then.”

“When you put Scotty and daddy and Elvis together there, they just had something,” says Louis Black. “It was something that people could feel. That’s why they became as popular as they were. I’m not takin’ nothing away from Elvis at all, but what I’m saying, when you combine it all together, it’s good. That’s like, to me, a glass of tea — some lemon and sugar goes good when I got them other things to go with it.”

Fontana first saw the trio when they became regulars on the “Louisiana Hayride” radio show, where Fontana performed as part of the house band. After backing Presley on the “Hayride” a few times, he was asked to join The Blue Moon Boys on a permanent basis. “I just accidentally was there; I just happened to be there, that was it,” he says of how fate took a hand in changing the course of his career.

He had little difficulty fitting in with the tight knit group.

“They had a unique sound,” he recalls. “After listening to those early Sun records, I said, the best thing for me to do is stay out of the way. They’ve got enough rhythm going; they don’t really need a lot of drums in there. So I’ll just stay out of their way and don’t clutter up things. And Bill, he just had that certain knack of slappin’ that bass. It sounded kind of like a snare drum going on. Most of the guys I see slappin’ ’em are not as good as Bill. You couldn’t miss his beat at all.”

This was the lineup that recorded such classics as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” But the band’s career was put on hold when Presley entered the army in 1958. And by the time he came out in 1960, Black had established a new career for himself, as the leader of Bill Black’s Combo, who enjoyed a string of Top 40 hits in the early ’60s with instrumentals like “Smokie Part 2,” “White Silver Sands” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” In 1961, they were Billboard’s #1 Instrumental Group. Black died of a brain tumor in 1965, but the Combo continued into the ’70s.

Fontana played on Presley’s sessions through June 1968, when he and Moore were part of the live performances taped for Presley’s comeback TV special, “Elvis.” Over the years he’s also played with Waylon Jennings, Tommy James, Merle Travis, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney (who also now owns Black’s original bass) and many others. And he continues to be a regular at Elvis Week events, and other engagements — for more info, check djfontana.com.

Wanda Jackson was making her name as a country singer when she met Presley in 1955, when the two began playing shows together. Jackson was immediately taken by Presley’s music.

“He was fresh and new, young, energetic — it was a whole new era being born,” she says. Presley eventually convinced Jackson that she could start rocking, too. “It was my generation’s music, and I loved it,” she says, “but in my mind, I was just a country singer. Elvis made me stretch myself and try some new things.”

Ken Nelson, Jackson’s producer at Capitol, was amenable to her trying out a new style. Her 1956 single “I Gotta Know” mixed country and rockabilly in one song, while other singles had a country song on one side and a rockabilly number on the other, in the hopes that a DJ would like at least one side. Songs like “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad” and “Mean Mean Man” had a feistiness not seen in other female singers. Perhaps this was why Jackson had trouble getting a pop hit, though 1957’s “Fujiyama Mama,” which compared Jackson’s destructiveness to the atomic bomb, was ironically a #1 hit in Japan.

“I was just determined to get a hit, cause I really liked singing this stuff,” says Jackson. She finally cracked the Top 40 in 1960, when “Let’s Have A Party,” from her first Capitol album, was released as a single. The song was recorded by Presley for his film “Loving You,” and a DJ, who’d been generating interest playing Jackson’s version, urged Capitol to release it.

“I tried real hard to get into rock ’n’ roll but I backed into it!” Jackson jokes. She had subsequent pop hits with “Right Or Wrong” and “In The Middle Of A Heartache,” and she had further country hits with songs like “Tears Will Be The Chaser For Your Wine” and “My Big Iron Skillet.”

Jackson moved into gospel in the ’70s but returned to her rockabilly roots in the ’80s. Her career got a big boost when she appeared on Rosie Flores’ 1995 album Rockabilly Filly, and with a subsequent tour with Flores, “the word got out that I was still singing and working — I hadn’t died or retired!” says Jackson. “I’m not ready to retire, and my fans don’t want me to retire.” Check wandajackson.com for further info.

Jackson credits her induction, in part, to support from another Elvis, Elvis Costello, who she says told the Rock Hall they wouldn’t have one of his guitars to display “until it can hang next to Wanda Jackson’s.” And her induction as an “Early Influence” “actually made me a lot more proud than if I’d been in the general [category],” she says. Being able to count people like Costello, Bruce Springsteen and Brenda Lee as fans, she says, “makes you think, ‘Hey, isn’t that great that I encouraged them just by being different.’ It doesn’t hurt to be different.”

And for the “Sidemen” inductees, Louis Black is pleased about the acknowledgment of the talents of “the instrumentalists, the boys behind a lot of these [inductees]. And not just Elvis, but anybody that goes in there. Most time, these stars — they’re not doing it themselves. People like ’em and enjoy ’em and all that — but there’s also the music behind ’em.”  

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