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Scotty Moore, ‘co-founder of rock ‘n’ roll’ and Elvis Presley’s guitarist, dies at 84

From left, Elvis Presley, bass player Bill Black, guitarist Scotty Moore, and Sun Records and Memphis Recording studio head Sam Phillips pose during a recording session in Memphis in 1954. (AP (Sun Records/Times Daily via AP)

One summer evening in 1996, Keith Richards and Scotty Moore sat across from each other in a studio in Woodstock, N.Y.

Richards drank a vodka and orange soda, while Moore sipped from a jug of Johnnie Walker Red. By daylight, Moore had finished the jug of scotch and Richards was on his second bottle of vodka. At some point during the drinking, they had recorded “Deuce and a Quarter” with the remaining living members of The Band, Tom Petty’s former drummer and various other musicians, according to Moore’s biography, “That’s Alright, Elvis.”

Richards had brought his father to witness the session, because meeting Moore had been a dream of his for 40 years.

This anecdote might seem odd to some — Richards is one of rock’s most famous stars, and Moore’s name probably rings only vague, if any, bells. But Moore practically invented the modern rock ‘n’ roll guitar sound — bluesy licks and delicate finger picking — as the guitarist for Elvis Presley’s original band, the Blue Moon Boys.

Richards, among many others such as Jimmy Page and Bruce Springsteen, credits Moore for his own career. He decided to become a musician after hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” at 13 years old.

“I had been playing guitar, but not knowing what to play,” Richards said, according to “That’s Alright, Elvis.” “When I heard [“Heartbreak Hotel"], I knew what was wanted to do with my life. … All I wanted to do in the world was be able to play and sound like that.”

Added Richards, “Everyone else wanted to be Elvis. I wanted to be Scotty.”

Moore died in his Nashville home Tuesday at 84, leaving behind a towering legacy.

Discovering Elvis 

Moore was born Dec. 27, 1931 to parents who had hoped for a daughter — “I was a mistake,” Moore joked in his biography. “Boy did I fool them!” He grew up in Gadsden, Tenn., about 80 miles northeast of Memphis, where he would begin his seminal career.

Moore first picked up the guitar at 8 years old, but his time stationed on an aircraft carrier off the coast Japan with the Navy led him to his gold Gibson ES-295, the “guitar that changed the world.”

“When I was in the Navy, buddies and I would buy Japanese guitars that were so bad, the frets would wear out in three months,” Moore said in “Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ‘Round the World.” “I came out of the Navy in January 1952, and said ‘I’m going to buy me a good guitar.”

With his new guitar in tow, he went to see Sam Phillips, the owner and founder of Sun Records, who would go on to discover Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and, of course, Elvis Presley. Phillips, impressed with Moore’s talent, let him cut a country record with Doug Poindexter’s Starlite Wranglers, and the two became fast friends.

Then, as Moore recounted to Guitar Player in 2014:

One day, we went to have coffee with Sam and his secretary, Marion Keisker, and she was the one who brought up Elvis. We didn’t know, but Marion had a crush on Elvis, and she asked Sam if he had ever talked to that boy who had been in there. Sam said to Marion, “Go back in there and get that boy’s telephone number, and give it to Scotty.” Then, Sam turned to me and said, “Why don’t you listen to this boy, and see what you think.” Marion came back with a slip of paper, and it said “Elvis Presley.” I said, “Elvis Presley — what the hell kind of a name is that?”

Moore and Bill Black, the bassist of the Starlite Wranglers, met with Elvis on July 4, 1954, and played through a few tunes. When Phillips later asked what Moore thought, he said, “I thought he was pretty good.”

The next night, the three gathered for a true audition session at Sun, but it was going poorly — 19-year-old Elvis’s voice was too high for ballads, which all three found too slow anyhow. Moore packed up his guitar, and Black was about to.

Maybe in frustration, maybe as a last-ditch effort, Elvis began “beating the snot out of his guitar — acting the fool and singing,” according to Moore. The other two joined in, and Phillips loved it.

They recorded “That’s All Right” that very evening.

The Blue Moon Boys were born.

Together, they would record many of Elvis’s early hits, including “Mystery Train,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

“Elvis Presley wouldn’t have been Elvis Presley without Scotty Moore. I think my dad would agree with that,” Sam Phillips’s son Jerry told Commercial Appeal. “You gotta remember, there were only three instruments on those things. Scotty, Bill [Black] and Elvis. Scotty really just made everything work.”

But all good things must end, the Blue Moon Boys along with them.

In 1958, Elvis was drafted into the army, putting the band on hiatus. A few years later, in 1964, Moore cut a solo record for Epic called “The Guitar that Changed the World.” Phillips long lost his top musicians to bigger labels, and he angrily fired Moore.

A year later, Black died.

Although Moore and Elvis reunited in 1968 for ” ’68 Comeback Special,” their golden run had come to an end. Moore barely touched his guitar for another 25 years, instead focusing on producing artists such as Ringo Starr, Tracy Nelson and Dolly Parton.

Which may have been just as well. Being a sideman wasn’t always a great gig. In 1956, Moore made just over $8,000 while Presley became a millionaire, the AP reported. The New York Times noted that Moore earned just about $30,000 for his work with Elvis.

Moore was introduced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 as a member of the inaugural class of sidemen, and Rolling Stone rated him as the 29th best guitarist of all time. The caption from that ranking reads:

The guitar would never be the same: Moore’s concise, aggressive runs mixed country picking and blues phrasing into a new instrumental language. The playing was so forceful that it’s easy to forget there was no drummer. If Moore had done nothing but the 18 Sun recordings — including “Mystery Train” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight” — his place in history would be assured.

“He was a class act as a human being,” his biographer James L. Dickerson told the Associated Press late Tuesday. “Besides being one of the best guitarists that ever lived and most inventive, he was a great person, and you don’t always find that in the music industry.”

Added Dickerson, “As a musician, I consider him one of the co-founders of rock and roll because of the guitar licks that he invented.”

In memoriam, here is one of the most haunting and gorgeous songs Moore and Elvis ever recorded, a Junior Parker blues tune about death titled “Mystery Train”: