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Bill Justis: The Sax Behind Sun Records

In the heart of Memphis, Sun Records emerged as one of the most influential labels of the 20th century, giving birth to legends and chart-topping hits. Among the talents associated with Sun, Bill Justis holds a unique place. As a saxophonist, arranger, and bandleader, Justis was instrumental in crafting the sounds that would define an era.

Sun Records, founded by the legendary Sam Phillips, was a hotbed of talent, nurturing the early careers of figures like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, among others. Bill Justis was deeply entrenched in this musical milieu, bringing his expertise on the saxophone and his knack for arrangement to several seminal recordings.

Justis wasn’t just a session musician; he played an integral role at Sun Records. His dual responsibilities as both a saxophonist and an arranger meant that he had a significant influence on the final sound of many tracks. He understood the sonic landscape that Phillips aimed to create and executed it masterfully.

Perhaps the most famous of Justis’ contributions is his instrumental hit, “Raunchy.” This saxophone-driven track, released in 1957, became a massive hit and is often credited as one of the first rock and roll instrumental hits. Its success went on to influence a young George Harrison in his early guitar-playing days.

While at Sun, Justis worked closely with several recording legends:

  • Jerry Lee Lewis: Justis’ sax contributions can be heard complementing Lewis’s explosive piano style, adding a depth and richness to the overall sound.
  • Johnny Cash: The Man in Black’s iconic voice paired with Justis’ arrangements made for some memorable tracks during Cash’s stint at Sun.
  • Carl Perkins: Known for his hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” Perkins’s rockabilly style was enhanced by Justis’s contributions, making their collaborations stand out.

Bill Justis’ impact goes beyond his time at Sun Records. His arrangements and style influenced many musicians in the rock ‘n’ roll and country scenes. His ability to meld seamlessly with different artists and genres speaks volumes about his versatility and talent.

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