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Guitarist Scotty Moore on Life With Presley
It's the Big Bang theory of rock-and-roll:
Time: The early morning hours of July 6, 1954. Place: Memphis Recording Service, toward the end of a fruitless vocal audition session. Nineteen-year-old Elvis Presley has tackled a few ballads but nobody's particularly excited.
There are three other people present: producer Sam Phillips, guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, called in to provide a little background. The ballads are lugubrious, dull.
There's a little time left before the session ends. Presley suddenly chops an animated rhythm on his guitar, vamping with a little country flavor on Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's blues hit "That's All Right." Ears perk up. Black picks up his upright acoustic bass and falls in with a sly, propulsive slap-beat. Moore comes in on his electric guitar with a heavier rhythm and some stabbing single-note fills.
Presley cuts loose.
Sam Phillips sticks his head into the studio and asks, "What are you all doing?"
"We don't know!"
"Well," Phillips suggests, "back up and do it again."
In the hoopla surrounding the 20th anniversary of Presley's death, all too little attention is likely to be paid to Scotty Moore. Yet of all the musicians who worked with Presley, none was more important than his right-hand man onstage ("It's where I felt comfortable," Moore said).
It isn't just that he played lead guitar on all of Presley's key recordings of the '50s and '60s. And it isn't just that Moore, with Black and drummer D.J. Fontana, helped create the quintessential rock band identity -- guitarist, bassist, drummer, singer. It's also that Presley might never have found his voice, his identity, his destiny without Moore's electric prod.
Scotty Moore came onto the scene before the era of guitar heroes, of course, and he, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley created a brand-new language.
The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards remembers as a 13-year-old hearing Presley's "Mystery Train" with its sinewy, echo-laden Moore lead.
"Everybody else wanted to be Elvis," he said later. "I wanted to be Scotty Moore."
Lighting the Fuse
The soft-spoken Tennessean who abandoned the guitar for almost a quarter-century after Elvis dumped him is in the midst of a professional revitalization. He has a new album, "All the King's Men," teaming him again with a host of his guitar progeny, including Rolling Stones Richards and Ron Wood, and longtime Presley drummer Fontana. [See review on this page.]
He's also written "That's Alright, Elvis," the story of his ups and downs with Presley.
Moore had grown up exposed mostly to country and blues guitarists, notably Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. But at 16, he joined the Navy, an experience that widened both geographical and musical horizons. He was exposed to jazz stylists like Tal Farlow and Django Reinhardt and played in pickup combos whose styles changed from week to week. After his discharge, he moved to Memphis to work in his brothers' dry-cleaning business, and put together the Starlite Wranglers, a country band that included bassist Black.
Early in 1954, the Wranglers recorded a single, "My Kind of Carryin' On," for Sun Records. Though it died, Moore got to know Sun owner Phillips and found they both sensed something big was about to happen to music, though neither had any idea what.
"Sam didn't know what he was looking for," Moore insists. "We'd talk about who had a new song out, and he'd always say we need something different. He didn't say it had to be wild or raucous or whatever."
Moore's book provides an alternative to some parts of Phillips's oft-repeated account of the birth of rock-and-roll. Phillips claimed he said he could make a million dollars if he could find a white boy who could sing like a black man. Moore doubts that. And, Moore says, though Phillips was curious about Presley, he did not actively pursue him. Moore had to bug the producer just to get Presley's phone number to set up an audition.
This is where rock-and-roll history gets a little muddy. If the Memphis Recording Service session is the site of rock's Big Bang, then the fuse was lit the day before -- at high noon on Independence Day -- a few blocks away at 983 Belz St.
That's where Moore lived and where he first met the king of rock-and-roll. Presley showed up sporting a ducktail and wearing a white shirt, black-striped pink pants and white buck shoes.
Presley also brought his guitar. "When he came in, we banged around there for a couple of hours," Moore recalls. "It seemed like that kid knew every damn song in the world. Elvis played good rhythm guitar, but he didn't know all the chords to some of the songs, so he'd play as far as he could and just keep singing."
In a preview of the studio moment less than 24 hours away, Moore started filling in behind Presley. "A lot of songs he was doing I'd never heard of myself so I was sitting there noodlin' little single-note things, maybe playing a little rhythm along with him.
"After a while, Elvis left. I told him, maybe Sam or I will be in contact with you."
Moore then relayed his report to Phillips, remembering that when the Wranglers had recorded, he had complained that the lead singer sounded too much like Hank Williams. "That was in my mind when I called Sam about Elvis," Moore says. "I told him: 'The kid's got a good voice, knows all the songs in the world, but just like you told us, he needs material.' "
Presley might simply have become a crooner in 1954. He loved Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold and Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, and until he started into "That's All Right," it looked as though he might follow in their footsteps.
But then . . .
"When we listened to it, we knew it was different," Moore says.
Released on July 19, 1954, "That's All Right" (Sun 209) is credited to "Elvis Presley, with Scotty and Bill." The first few Sun singles were billed the same way. In early 1955, the billing changed briefly to "Elvis Presley and the Blue Moon Boys."
"We thought of ourselves as a group, we sure did," says Moore, who was the band leader and booking agent. He was also Elvis Presley's first manager, an arrangement made to shield the young singer from other potential bookers and, Moore says ruefully, "to give us time to find somebody we all liked and wanted to work with."
In that 1954 management contract, Presley is described somewhat hopefully as a singer who "possesses bright promises of large success." Moore's cut was 10 percent, not much compared with the 50 percent later extracted by Presley's far better known manager, the late "Colonel" Tom Parker.
Parker "was like kudzu," Moore says without much affection. "He just kept encroaching and then when he got Elvis, he knew he had a product. And I'll give the old feller credit where credit was due: He'd spend $100 to beat you out of one buck just to prove he could do it."
Moore was suspicious of Parker from the start, refusing to use Parker's preferred title "Colonel" (a made-up honorific). Moore stuck to "Tom." Whether this bothered Parker is not known, but it wasn't long before he began gradually disassociating the musicians from Presley, the rising star. Parker killed a long-planned instrumental album and sought to further move Moore and Black from being partners to salaried sidemen, paying them piecemeal for recording sessions and tours, and badly at that. At one point, they were told not to talk to Elvis -- except onstage. Finally, in 1957, Moore and Black quit, telling reporters they were flat broke and couldn't afford to continue in the King's court.
Though that schism healed, things were never the same. Presley sank further under the sway of Parker and eventually incarcerated himself in Fortress Graceland. Moore, Fontana and Black (who would die of a brain tumor in 1965) continued to record with Presley and also appeared in the films "Loving You," "Jailhouse Rock" and "King Creole."
Things got worse in 1958, when Presley was drafted into the Army for two years. The band was stuck. Moore started a label and quickly scored a Top 10 hit in 1959 with Thomas Wayne's "Tragedy," but nothing else came out of it. Things didn't get much better after Presley got out of the service. After a brief flurry of concerts, he stopped touring to concentrate on his awful movie career.
Then, in December 1968, Presley made his famous NBC "comeback special." He turned to Moore and Fontana for the show's most famous segment, an informal round-table jam in which the lithe, leather-clad singer revisited his '50s musical roots. He even commandeered Moore's Gibson Super 400 for one number. The special gave Presley's moribund career a second wind, but was the last time he worked with Scotty Moore.
"Afterwards, we went out to his house for dinner, and he called D.J. and me into another room and asked if we'd like to do a European tour, something he really wanted to do," Moore says. Presley said he wanted to book a big block of studio time, too, to record with Moore in Memphis.
In fact, they never even talked again. "People asked why not, and I said he could call me a lot easier than I could call him," Moore explains diplomatically. In early 1969, the final break occurred when Parker offered Moore, Fontana, the Jordanaires and other longtime Presley backups insulting wages to drop what they were doing and back Elvis at a Las Vegas concert. When they all balked, Parker put together a new band. Moore put his guitar away for almost a quarter of a century.
"When Elvis went to Vegas I figured that's it, he's got a whole new thing happening there. When I saw that, I said the heck with it, I've got a studio here in Nashville, I got plenty of work to do. I didn't officially say, 'Today I'm through.' I just didn't do anything. Sold all my equipment, the guitars I had left, and just went about my business."
Over the next two decades, Moore focused on studio production and engineering. Later he owned a tape duplication and print shop. He avoided the limelight, living in a log house in the country outside Nashville, turning down recording offers and interviews alike. Many of the people Moore worked with had no idea he even played guitar, much less whom he'd played with.
In 1992, he finally picked up a guitar again, recording a pair of limited-edition albums (now collectors' items) with his old pal Carl Perkins, who had been battling throat cancer. "I felt like I was trying to jack him up to get back going and at the same time he was doing that for me," Moore says.
He even participated in that year's pay-per-view Presley tribute, which eventually led to "That's Alright, Elvis," authored with Memphis writer James Dickerson.
Today, Scotty Moore, like the American public that voted for the Young Elvis postage stamp over the Las Vegas Elvis, prefers to remember the Elvis he worked with rather than the one who abandoned him.
"A month or two before he died, I saw some film, and he was so bloated, he looked like death warmed over," Moore recalls sadly. "I knew there was something terribly wrong."
Twenty-three years earlier in Memphis, something had been terribly right.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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