Best known to most listeners for the aptly titled instrumental smash "Raunchy," Bill Justis was also a longtime linchpin of the Nashville recording community, working as a producer, musical director, and A&R man for labels including Sun and Mercury. Born October 14, 1927, in Birmingham, Alabama, he grew up in Memphis, studying music and English at Tulane University while playing trumpet in local jazz and dance bands. In 1957, the legendary Sam Phillips hired Justis to serve as the musical director for his Sun Records label. At 30, Justis was a good decade older than most of Sun's artists and had little interest in rock & roll until he learned just how lucrative the music had become. With guitarist Sid Manker, Justis composed a wild, primitive instrumental they dubbed "Backwoods"; Phillips renamed the tune "Raunchy," releasing it as a single in November 1957. Although Justis' honking tenor sax assumed center stage, what made "Raunchy" so unique was Manker's guitar; he forged the song's distinctive riff not from the traditional middle strings but from the bass strings, creating a cavernous, resonant sound further buffered by studio echo. The single proved Sun's best-selling instrumental release ever, staying in the pop Top 40 for 14 weeks.
Justis would nevertheless score only more chart hit, "College Man," which only went as high as number 42. He continued recording the occasional single (including "Flea Circus," penned by Steve Cropper), but by and large focused the remainder of his career on studio work, arranging sessions for Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. Justis also discovered Charlie Rich at Memphis night spot The Sharecropper Club and brought him to Sun in 1960, arranging Rich's first major hit, "Lonely Weekends." However, squabbles with Phillips prompted Justis to leave Sun soon after, and he formed his own label, the short-lived Play Me Records. After moving to Nashville and briefly reuniting with Rich at RCA, he landed with Mercury, which remained his home for the remainder of his career. In the years to follow, Justis would arrange records for everyone from Patsy Cline to Dean Martin to Tom Jones, also recording a series of instrumental LPs for Mercury's Smash subsidiary. In 1972 he scored his first film, Dear Dead Delilah. In 1977, he scored the smash Smokey and the Bandit, reuniting with star Burt Reynolds a year later for Hooper. Justis died of cancer on July 15, 1982. ~ Jason Ankeny