Woke up this morning to an e-mail from a friend telling me of the death of Scotty Moore, the pioneering guitarist who backed Elvis on his earliest recordings and toured with him until – like so many others – he displeased Colonel Tom Parker by asking for a fair share of the profits. So did Chips Moman, the producer who in 1968 suggested Elvis record ‘Suspicious Minds’, and who also died recently too – but at least he and Moore outlived the avaricious Parker by the best part of 20 years.
Along with producer Sam Phillips, bassist Bill Black and the Hillbilly Cat himself, Moore was a key figure when, between takes at the Sun Studios in Memphis on July 5, 1954, Elvis started hamming it up on an Arthur Crudup blues number called ‘That’s All Right’. Moore and Black joined in and Phillips rushed to set the controls. The recording was completed the same day.
As I wrote in a booklet commissioned in 1987 to accompany a Telstar Records cassette of Elvis material leased from RCA: “Although not the best of the 17 sides Elvis recorded for Phillips and his Sun Records label, ‘That’s All Right’ surely embodies the same sense of freedom a prisoner might feel on breaking loose after years in the pen. Flowing like a river in flood, the song is a showcase for Elvis’ pure high tenor, Moore’s precise guitar figures and the trio’s slapping rhythmic feel. Elvis and his two accomplices had made a dynamic debut.”
In fact, Moore was Elvis’ manager when he first started out and after being ousted by Parker managed to hang on long enough to play beautifully on many more early Elvis recordings, among them ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Blues Suede Shoes’. He also appeared alongside Elvis, with Black and drummer DJ Fontana, on the TV shows in 1956 and ’57, looking for all the world as if they was born on a different planet from the boy at the front who scandalised America until censors decreed he could be shown only from the waist up.
Just about every rock guitarist who has ever learned to play has done his best to emulate the solos on Elvis’ recordings between 1955 and ’58. In a forthcoming Omnibus Press biography of Jimmy Page, author Martin Power quotes Page as saying: “The record that really made me want to play guitar was ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’. When I heard that record, I just wanted to be part of it... the acoustic and electric guitars, the slap bass, those instruments seemed to generate so much energy”, and Power goes on to write: “If one were being picky, ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’’s combination of descending acoustic bassline and bouncing drums was probably more rockabilly than rock’n’roll. In the end, such distinctions were irrelevant. The instrument teasing the best out of Presley’s deliciously slurred vocal and making Jimmy’s ears pop as a result was Scotty Moore’s guitar. Elvis’s secret weapon, Moore was a man who could combine country fills, double stops and hillbilly chord twangs like the ingredients for a gourmet meal, served up on his gold Gibson ES (Electric Spanish) 295 in a way Page once described as ‘heart-stopping’. Obviously, this whole rock’n’roll thing were to be investigated, and quickly.”
Keith Richards, too, was turned around by Moore: “When I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, I knew what I wanted to do in life. All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play like that. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis. I wanted to be Scotty.”
        Moore (and Black) left Elvis’ employ in 1957 over disputes with Parker. In his memoir That’s Alright, published in 1997, he claimed to have made just $8,000 in 1957 while Elvis made over a million. “We couldn’t go to talk to Elvis about anything,” he wrote. “It’s not that I feel bitterness, just disappointment.”
        Moore appeared with Elvis on the 1968 comeback TV special that saw a dramatic reversal in his fortunes, but his fee didn’t even cover his travel expenses, so he and Elvis never worked together again. Nevertheless, like many pioneering background figures from the early years of rock’n’roll, Moore was eventually feted by the guitarists he inspired, many of them British. He went on to work with Ringo, Jeff Beck and others and, despite the rancour of the Elvis situation, whenever he made appearances later in life always came across as a genial and eternally modest old soul, slightly surprised at the credit bestowed upon him, deferring always to Elvis and acting like the dignified southern gentleman he was.
        Scotty Moore died yesterday at his home in Nashville, aged 84.


Ian Gordon Craig said...

A true legend.

Three of my fave Scotty Moore stories, as opposed to solos, which are all great:

“Hound Dog”, Milton Berle Show ’56: Scotty, Bill & DJ had no idea Elvis was going to do that slow ending. Probably neither had Elvis, but he’d been to see Freddie Bell and The Bellboys (who recorded the song before him), and they were doing both Hound Dog and a “slow” more bluesy version of Don’t Be Cruel which he loved. You can hear Elvis enthusing about them on the Million Dollar Quartet tape.

“Too Much” single ’56: Scotty gets completely lost about half way through the guitar solo. Naturally, as a working musician more used to the stage than the studio, he just keeps going. That ends up being the take, and he joked for years that he had no idea what exactly he’d played and couldn’t repeat it again if he tried.

TV Special 1969: During the show Elvis recounts how, at rehearsal, Scotty leaned over to him and said “Would you sing that Lawdy Miss Clawdy one time man?” A nice little intimate moment amidst the otherwise noisy guffaws of the usual Memphis entourage.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Just listened to Too Much and you're right, he does bite off more than he can chew, but does rescue it in the end.

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