The Black Family Fiddles


Bill Black's father's fiddle, a Bavarian made Stradivarius copy
Photo © courtesy Louis B. Black Jr.

Bill Black, as did his brothers, got his early musical training playing the violin (fiddle) as a child growing up during the depression era in Memphis.  Before buying a violin of his own to play along he learned from his father on his father's Bavarian made Stradivarius copy.  The violin had been handed down to his father by his father before him.  It is marked on the inside as being manufactured by Antonius Stradivarius and bears a circle stamp next to it with a cross inside. Stradivarius only made 512 violins during his lifetime.

The violin that Bill purchased at age 13 has "Nicholaus Amatus in Cremona 1651-Made in Czechoslovakia" stamped on the inside.  These were European made copies of violins made by Nicolo Amati, one of the first great makers who made violins over 400 years ago.  After his father's death, the violin was willed to Bill's uncle and later retrieved by Bill.  Both instruments were left to Bill's son after his death and have since changed hand amongst relatives.  They are currently in the possession of Bill's nephews Louis and Alan who are presently seeking the best means to present these instruments for display to help promote and share their Uncle's legacy with the world.


Bill Black's fiddle, a Nicolaus Amati copy
Photo © courtesy Alan Black

The following article was originally published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar sometime in the late 1970s.  Though many sources have since corrected the sequence of events regarding the details of Bill's association with SUN Records and Elvis and their early recordings, the recollections of Johnny Black were likely believed by him to be true at that time.  The article nonetheless provides a good history of their father's violin and Bill's early musical development which would serve him later on when he, Scotty and Elvis shook the world.

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Johnny Black
Scimitar Staff Photo by Ron Moody

Violin gave start to famed musical family
Charles Goodman
Press-Scimitar Staff Writer

The musical Black family of Memphis rode out of obscurity and poverty on the strings of the father’s old violin. “He brought it with him from North Carolina, and it had been his daddy’s in the Civil War,” said Johnny Black, who will play at the Mid-South Folklife Festival on Mud Island Saturday and Sunday.

The first thing people usually heard – when they came walking down the narrow country road to visit the shabby little cottage south of the Memphis city limits where the Blacks lived – was Johnny’s father, William Black, stomping out the steady beat of a hoedown. “Daddy had a strong beat,” said Johnny. “My brother Bill used the same big beat when his Bill Black Combo made their first record. It was a rockabilly tune. He called it ‘Smoky.’ It sold over a million copies.”

William Black taught all four of his boys – Bill, Kenny, Louis and Johnny – to play the mountain tunes and church hymns he had grown up with in the hills of North Carolina. “Kenny preferred playing the spoons and a harmonica,” said Johnny. “He said violin took too long to get tuned right.” William taught all his sons the violin , but Bill was his best student. “They sat and played for each other by the hour,” said Johnny, “handing Daddy’s violin back and forth. They’d be wrapped up in music. You could say something and they wouldn’t even hear you.”

On Sundays, an old blind man who lived in Memphis would take his banjo and walk all the way out in the country for religious services at the Black’s home. The blind man played his banjo for the hymn-singing. William black played the violin. The preacher brought a guitar. “Daddy built benches and put them under the trees. They’d be full on Sunday. They would sing and preach all morning long. Sometimes we’d have a baptizing in a creek. “Daddy loved the old hymns. His favorite was ‘In the Sweet Bye and Bye,’ I can hear him singing it now. He liked all the songs of hope. “Daddy never played the blues.”

Bill Black began to wonder how he would ever be able to buy his own guitar. His father hurt his back while he was digging a well in the yard. The back hurt so much he couldn’t drive the bouncing, swaying electric streetcar in Memphis any more. He went on a small pension, but money was short for the country family. “But there was a family named Stewart who lived on Billy Goat Hill,” said Johnny. “They had an old guitar sitting in a back room. It didn’t even have any strings on it. Bill told them he would slop their hogs all summer if they would give him that guitar.

“Bill hauled slop all summer. When he finally brought that old stringless guitar home, he was so proud of it he wouldn’t let anyone else touch it. “Daddy got him some strings.” Bigger boys in the area began to get together with their guitars and violins and banjos on somebody’s porch over on Billy Goat Hill. “Bill was getting so good that they’d let him play with them,” said Johnny.

“We didn’t have a radio at home. No electricity. On Saturday nights, we’d all walk up a gravel road to a woman’s house who had a radio, and we’d lie down on a grassy bank outside her window and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. “Then we got electric lights in our house. One afternoon I looked up and saw Bill walking down the road carrying an old radio he bought from someone for $2. That night we sat up listening to music from everywhere – until we all nearly fell asleep. From then on, we picked up on all different kinds of music over the radio.

Johnny said that when he got older, his father wouldn’t play anything but church music. “He said if the Lord didn’t have anything to do with it, he wouldn’t play it.” Then the boys on the front porches on Billy Goat Hill began to discover that they could find honk-tonks and beer joints that would let them play. No pay. But they could pass the hat. They could get bigger tips if they had a pretty girl pass the hat. “One day Bill got an offer to play a big place, way out on Poplar, where they sold beer and danced. Bill and Daddy argued. Mother got into it. But Bill had a way of talking to Daddy. They understood each other, as far as music went. “Finally, Daddy said Bill wouldn’t be out there at the honky-tonk associating with drunks. He’d be ther playing his music.” Later, Louis and Johnny were allowed to go and play.  And pass the hat.

When William Black died, “his folks came from Atlanta for the funeral,” said Johnny. “I looked up on the shelf where his violin always sat – and it was gone. I asked Mama what had happened to it. She said Daddy had promised his brother than the violin would go to his brother’s side of the family when Daddy died. I felt hurt. ‘Don’t make a fuss about it, Johnny,’ Mama said. ‘It was your Daddy’s will.’”

Memphis and the rest of the world were about to discover that special blend of the farmer’s stomping, foot-pounding hoedowns, plaintive mountain love songs and the thumping, joyful sounds of country church revival. Bill Black got a job as a staff musician at Memphis Recording Service studio where anybody could walk in off the street and make a record – with staff musicians backing them if they wanted it.  “Elvis came in one day,” said Johnny. “He was a teenager, and he made a sentimental sounding record for his mother. He sang like all the crooners of the day. Sort of like Gene Autry.” The recording studio owner, Sam Phillips, asked Bill to work with the teenager to see if his talent could be developed.

“Bill was real clown,” said Johnny. “He could make people laugh and relax. He’d try anything, even put on a big pair of bloomers. Every group, in those days, had a clown. Bill was it. He also had a trick bass fiddle that would begin to smoke when he played it hard, and finally shatter in pieces.

“One day he was messing around in the recording studio with Elvis and he started singing in a high, funny, falsetto voice. He sang Bill Monroe’s slow, old ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,’ but he did it at a very fast beat. Real fast. Not crooning. Elvis listened. He got a kick out of it. He picked up on it, too. He got swept up in it – like a cork picked up on a big wave coming in. “They decided to record it. They did ‘That’s All Right Mama’ on the flip side and you know what happened when they talked a disc jockey into playing it on the radio. It changed the musical world for everybody.”

When Presley quit giving concerts on the road to limit himself to movies, the Bill Black combo kept on rolling. Before Black died at the age of 39, he and his combo had recorded a dozen hit records and 30 albums. He had the most popular band in the world for three straight years, according to Billboard magazine. When the Beatles came to the United States, they asked the Bill Black Combo to back them on tour.

“Maybe it’s strange,” said Johnny, “but sometimes, when its quiet and late at night, I almost think I can still hear my Daddy’s old violin.”

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James V. Roy
page added September 7, 2007
 

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