It’s a song that is too cool, calm, and catchy to be forgotten—the tale of a smooth-talking Southern boy wooing a girl from Ole Miss. But the man who wrote “Moonlight Feels Right” never got his long-held, heartfelt wish to actually be a Rebel.
With its poppy groove and sexy summertime vibe, the Starbuck tune soared to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976 and dominated AM radio for months. The drawl behind the song’s magic came right from the Mississippi River mud in Greenville, where Starbuck’s lead singer Bruce Blackman grew up and first started playing music. The subject matter is pure romance—both for the girl he wanted and the university he was in love with.
“I wanted to go to Ole Miss so bad I could taste it,” said Blackman, who graduated high school in Greenville in 1964. “This was in the Johnny Vaught era. A lot of my good buddies on the football team went there—Steve Terracin, Buntin Frame, Don Street and Ben Nelken.”
But Blackman, to his chagrin, could only get a track scholarship to Mississippi State. “All my friends were going to Ole Miss, and at that time Ole Miss simply did not give track scholarships,” he said. “We didn’t have the money, and I’d been an Ole Miss fan forever and wanted to go so bad, to major in journalism.”
Though he didn’t get to go to Ole Miss, he did get the girl. More on that later.
It wasn’t track but music that would lead Blackman to greater things.
He and two fellow Greenville boys, Charlie Ross and Johnny Walker, along with drummer Roy Whitaker, a Delta State football player, teamed with a singer named Linda Lawley as Eternity’s Children, landing a residence at the Biloxi Hotel in 1967.
“Within about a month, everybody was coming to the Biloxi Hotel,” Blackman said. “We were in a big club there called the Vapors. It seated maybe 1,000 people. It was monstrous.”
The group had some success, becoming the first act signed to A&M Records. They put out a remake of an instrumental called “A Taste of Honey.”
“For hoots and hollers, we decided to do it, but instead of the horn parts, we did all those parts with our voices, because we had five singers,” Blackman said. “That’s what got us the deal with A&M.”
The song didn’t hit, and Eternity’s Children went to Liberty Records. Along the way, Eternity’s Children performed “Mrs. Bluebird” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. But Blackman left the group, dissatisfied with their manager at the time. “We were the biggest draw there was on the Gulf Coast, and we starved to death,” he said. “I saw the writing on the wall and walked away from it.” An attempt to reform Eternity’s Children resulted in a lawsuit; management owned the name.
Grasping for the Moonlight
Blackman and fellow Eternity’s Children members Bo Wagner and Johnny Walker reformed under the name Mississippi. They got a deal via famed producer Gary Paxton and cut a pop album with RCA, who informed them they already had another band using the name Mississippi. Starbuck was born, named after Burt Lancaster’s character, an eternal optimist, in the film The Rain Maker (that other band named Mississippi, strangely enough from Australia, happened to also change its name—to the Little River Band). Then came “Moonlight Feels Right.”
The wind blew some luck in my direction
I caught it in my hands today
I finally made a tricky French connection
You winked and gave me your okay
“The song was a true story,” said Blackman, but he admits flexing the right amount of poetic license about the circumstances around courting the girl—who is now his wife. “She wasn’t actually from Ole Miss, but she was from Greenville, and she was going to school over in Moorhead (Mississippi Delta Community College). I went over there and saw her picture hanging on the wall in a dorm; she was in one of the beauty pageants. I said, ‘Who is that?’ They told me, and I went over to Moorhead and actually enrolled just so I could get the girl. The third time I asked her out, that’s when the wind was blowing in my direction. What sounded good was to make her from Ole Miss. She, too, wanted to go to Ole Miss.”
A little more poetic license and a trip to Baltimore later, Blackman struck on “Moonlight Feels Right.” It was the first time Blackman had sung lead, but no other voice could have done the song justice. Blackman and Wagner (he plays the immortal vibes solo in “Moonlight”) went around to radio stations spreading the word. Using mostly their own money and going for broke, the two got in two cars and separately visited around 200 stations. Finally, airplay in San Francisco opened the door for the track, and the hard work paid off.
We’ll lay back and observe the constellations
And watch the moon smiling bright
I play the radio on southern stations
‘Cause southern belles are hell at night
You say you came to Baltimore from Ole Miss
A class of seven-four gold ring
The eastern moon looks ready for a wet kiss
To make the tide rise again
Planting Seeds in the Delta
Now residing in Atlanta, Blackman stays busy in the music business and has put out his own records. In 2014, he came full circle, reconnecting with his hometown when the organizers of his high school reunion in Greenville wanted something to put in swag bags of goodies for attendees.
“I recorded a song called ‘Jim’s Cafe’ for the swag bag and made 70 copies of it,” Blackman said. “It’s actually the continuing story of ‘Moonlight Feels Right.’ It’s a true story about a trip I made from Baton Rouge to Greenville in order go out with the girl I married from ‘Moonlight Feels Right.’ I had to be there at a certain time, or she couldn’t go. We put [the song] in the swag bag, and it kind of blew up on me.” Blackman said articles appeared in some newspapers and a couple magazines, and radio stations in the area, and other places, got hold of it and began playing it.
After receiving a lot more requests for a copy of the song, he posted on his Facebook page saying that anyone who wanted a copy could send him a message, and he’d send one. “That was on a Saturday afternoon,” Blackman said. “By Monday, I had about 500 requests for the CD.”
Before long, he’d gotten more than 5,000 requests, proving that something about his music, like that Mississippi moonlight, still feels right. “I’ve had 30 more years to practice,” he noted on his current website, “so I guess I should be better now than I ever was.”
This article, written by former HottyToddy.com editor Tad Wilkes, originally appeared on HottyToddy.com in June 2014.