composer, saxophonist and trumpeter from Birmingham, Alabama, who spent his
formative years in Memphis, Tennessee, and pursued degrees in music and
English at Tulane University. Going
to school in New Orleans had its perks, like local gigs on the dance club
and jazz circuits.
In 1954, he
moved back to Memphis and slummed in local bands until Sam Phillips offered
him a job at Sun Records. Well,
make that jobs. Not only did Bill issue recordings
under his own name: He also
wrote arrangements for Sun fixtures such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis,
and Roy Orbison.
In 1957, Bill
released an instrumental entitled “Raunchy”, whose title
reflects the sound of the music.
The song features Sid Manker on a guitar
that sounds like it would be perfectly home in the Mississippi Delta and
Bill on a sax that sounds like it would be perfectly at home in a Vegas
strip club. It was an enormous
hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard top forty, where it would hang around for
about four months.
“Raunchy” also achieved international success, topping
the Australian chart and going to #11 in the United Kingdom. Other artists who have had hit
versions of it include Ernie Freeman and Billy Vaughn. George Harrison auditioned for The
Quarry Men with his rendition of it, and we all know where that led.
In 1960, he
discovered a lounge singer in the Sharecropper Club in Memphis who was
doing covers of Frank Sinatra songs.
The young man’s name was Charlie Rich, and Bill whisked him
away from obscurity and inked him to a deal at Sun Records. It did not take long for Charlie to
score a hit, thanks in part to Bill’s arrangement, with “Lonely
Weekends”. The song has a
gospel feel to it, with Charlie having a musical conversation with the
back-up singers. Imagine Elvis
Presley being backed by not only The Jordanaires
but The Anita Kerr Singers plus Ray Conniff and
his singers, and you have some idea.
In 1961, Bill
parted ways with Sun and started up the short-lived Play Me
label. He then did stints at
Monument and Mercury, where he would stay for the remainder of his life, as
an arranger and producer.
As a musician,
Bill cranked out string of albums on the Smash record label with
self-explanatory titles such as Alley
Cat/Green Onions: Bill Justis Plays 12 Big Instrumental Hits. Although he never replicated the
success of “Raunchy”, he did manage #42 in the States with
“College Man” and returned to the top of the Australian charts
with “Tamoure” in 1963.
In 1964, he played sax on the soundtrack of the Elvis Presley
vehicle, Kissin’ Cousins, and took up the
managing reins for Ronny & the Daytonas.
In 1969, he
released Raunchy & Other Great
Instrumentals on Sun and was undoubtedly pleased when Ray Stevens
scored a gold record with “Gitarzan”. (Stevens later credited Bill for
coining the word.)
In the 1970s,
Bill turned his attention to film, writing scores for Dear Dead Delilah, Hooper,
and Smokey and the Bandit. In 1979, he arranged the strings on
Billie Jo Spears’ cover of “I Will Survive”.
away, aged 55, from cancer. The
burial took place at Memphis’s Memorial Park Cemetery.
years, much of Bill’s catalogue has become available on CDs such as Bill Justis’
String of Pearls (Cha Hot Cha) and Selected
- The Beatles Anthology by The Beatles (Chronicle Books)