Most of us know about Sun Records in Memphis, and how stars like Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich worked there in the early years — as did a guy named Elvis. But another Sun veteran isn’t quite as well remembered, and yet Bill Justis had a pretty good career too, one that included performing, composing, arranging, and producing. He was also the guy behind what’s generally recognized as the first rock and roll instrumental hit, a Grammy Hall of Fame song with the simple but intriguing title of “Raunchy.”
William Everett Justis Jr. was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but his family moved to Memphis when he was small, and it was there that he grew up surrounded by music. In fact, he studied it in both high school and college while polishing his trumpet and sax skills, and a few years later he found himself working for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. By then he was playing sax in his own group but was also learning the business from the inside out, often working as an arranger and producer for Phillips.
In 1957 Justis and his group recorded a song co-written by him and his guitarist Sid Manker, an instrumental that featured a guitar lead. That was kind of a new thing for early rock and roll, and the record began to build a lot of momentum as it moved up the charts. It also drew a lot of attention from other pros, and before long competing versions began showing up. In fact, for a while there were three different records of “Raunchy” in the Top Ten — the original from Justis and his group, a purely pop version by Billy Vaughn and his orchestra, and a sort of in-betweener from pianist Ernie Freeman’s combo.
Of course, there were a lot of other rock and roll pioneers around in those days. Guys like Duane Eddy and others were adding reverb and pushing the envelope in various ways. As for Justis, he also played around with the song himself and eventually recorded a lot of different versions, and he had a few other good records too (including a minor hit with “College Man”), but as the years passed he turned more and more to working behind the scenes. He continued to perform from time to time and also found some success writing music for the movies, but most of the rest of his unfortunately shortened career was spent in music production and management. He was just 55 when he died of cancer in 1982.