1st Interview by Kevin Woods

Scotty Moore

By Kevin Woods
The year - 1954. The place - Memphis, Tennessee. A certain sound evolved from a small studio called "Memphis Recording Service Studios", better known as "Sun Recording Studios".  The sound caught on and became the roots or standard to most of those who followed.  This sound was raw and it shook the world.  Scotty Moore, a 21 year old guitarist, bassist Bill Black, and a soulful Elvis Presley, were those responsible (D.J. Fontana and the Jordanaires would soon follow).  I can't hardly think of any of the rock-and-roll guitar greats that haven't been influenced by Scotty Moore.  He truly is an innovator and pioneer.
As a professional guitarist for Curb Recording Artist Ronnie McDowell, I have come to know Scotty and have had the opportunity to perform with him.  We are currently working on an album project which reunites Scotty, D.J. and The Jordanaires (Bill Black passed away in 1965).  I must say that this has been a once in a lifetime experience for me.  I would like to thank Vintage Guitar, for giving me the opportunity to interview this humble man.


Kevin Wood and Scotty

Kevin Woods: Let's go all the way back.  At what age did you pick up your first guitar?

Scotty Moore: I think I was about 8 years old.  My dad and three brothers, who were much older than I was, were all playing for their own enjoyment.  They didn't have a band or anything.

So your first interest in playing the guitar came from your family?

Yeah, there was fourteen years different in my age and the brother next to me and by the time I got up around 10 or 12 and really got interested then everyone had gone on and dad was old enough that he didn't want to hear all that noise anymore.

Do you remember your first guitar?

Uh, (pause) I think it was a Kalamazoo, a small Kalamazoo.

Electric or acoustic?

Just acoustic.  I've told this story a couple of times.  Two of my brothers were in the Navy and the one next to me had bought a Gene Autry archtop, I think from Sears.  It was a beautiful and shiny guitar, and of course I didn't know anything about guitars and such then.  And I had this little Kalamazoo which my other brother had given me.  So my other brother, Darrell, was fixing to be shipped off to the South Pacific and he says, "I don't want to take this beautiful guitar out there in the salt water.  Let's trade guitars".  And which foolish me, I did and I didn't know till years later that I got the wrong end of the deal (Laughs).

Did you grow up around Memphis?

No, actually around Humboldt, Tennessee.  It's close to Jackson.  Carl Perkins, as you know, is from down there.  In fact, I'm four months older than Carl and we were born and raised within 18 or 20 miles from each other and never met until we were both on Sun Records.

How about influences?  What were you listening to around this time?

Oh, when I was that young, I don't remember to tell you the truth.  I went into the Navy at the ripe ol' age of 16.  I was listening to primarily jazz and blues.  I wasn't listening to very much country.

Was their any particular player back then that you admired?

No, if it had a guitar in it, it was fine with me, whoever it was.

Who were the Starlite Wranglers?

That was a group I started when I got out of the service.  We cranked up somewhere, I guess 1953, maybe as early as late 52.  When I came out, I just started working with some different groups around Memphis.  I had sense enough to know that if you're gonna get the good jobs, you're gonna have to have a regular band, try to get your record out and get your radio play so you can get your advertisement that way.  Back in those days every little band that could, would get them a 15 minute Saturday morning or afternoon radio show on some local station.  So I worked with all these guys in different configurations for several months.  In fact, I've always said that really the music that Bill, Elvis and I sprang from was really honky tonk music.  I might go out and book a club and then I would start to find guys to play.  We might end up with a trumpet, a steel guitar player, you know, any combination, but everybody had to be able to play a little bit of what was currently the top pop tunes and country tunes, and be able to do some Rhythm and Blues.  But above all, it had to be played where people could dance to it.

Is this the first group that you and Bill had played in together?

Well, as far as a formal band.  Both of us had been playing around Memphis.  Bill had been playing for several years.

Did you come to know Sam Phillips as a result of this band?

Right.  Someone had told me about the place.  In fact, I don't think I knew he had a record label.  But, it was a recording service.  You could go in and pay and make your own demo record.  So I don't really remember any particulars; I only know I went to see him and we got to talking.

How much recording had you done at Sun prior to Elvis?

We had done mainly two or three sides with the Starlite Wranglers.  We put out one record and sold about 12 maybe (laughs).

So Sam knew you and Bill from the project?

Yeah, right.  Well, he worked with us and he put it out on Sun.  Sam was great to experiment.  He didn't have any money, we didn't have any money, but he was willing to try because he hadn't done any country things really.  He was cutting a lot of blues artists for other labels.  He would cut things like "Chess in Chicago".  People like Howlin' Wolf.  He also put out a few on his own, not with a whole lot of success, but Okay.

What did you think of Elvis when you first met him?

Well, (pause) I knew he dressed kinda funny, but that was just his way.  I can't explain that.  He came over to my house on a Sunday.  Again, I got his name from Sam because Elvis had been in there a year before and had done one of these demo records for his mother for her birthday.  The job I had, I would get off in the afternoon about 2:00 and I would go by and spend a couple hours with Sam.  We would go next door and drink a cup of coffee and just talk about who's new on the radio, with what record, and just business in general.  We had become good friends at this point, and if he would need somebody in our band, he would call them out on whatever project.
So one day, Marion, his secretary, was having coffee with us and she said, "Sam what about that boy that was in here about a year ago?  Remember, we kept his name and phone number on file.  You thought he had a pretty good voice". "Oh, yeah".  That was enough for me, because for the next two weeks, everyday I would go down there and ask, "Sam, did you call him yet?"  Sam said, "No, I'll get around to it."  So finally he told Marion to get his name and phone number and he turned to me and said, "Scott, give him a call and get him to come over to your house and see what kind of stuff he does".  I said, "Okay".  So I called him and told him that I was working for the record company and would be interested in auditioning for a possibility to do a record.  He said, "Well, I don't know, I guess so."  So anyway, he came over to my house the next day and sat around a couple of hours.  He sang everything from Billy Ekstein to Eddie Arnold.  But, he wasn't locked into anything at all.  Bill lived down a few doors on the same street and he came down and listened for a little while.  After Elvis had left and went home, Bill came back down and we both had basically the same opinions.  In fact, Bill said, "Well, the boy sings good; he don't knock me out.  He didn't do anything spectacular".  I said, "Yeah, he seemed to have a good range in his voice."

So that's basically how you got together then?

Yeah, I called Sam and told him basically the same thing.  I said, "It all depends on the song or arrangement.  I can't tell you right now if he's country, pop, or what."  And he said, "Let me call him and I will see if I can get him to come in tomorrow night.  You and Bill come down, we don't need the whole band.  I just need a little background music to see what he sounds like on tape."  Tape was fairly new then.

When did you realize that there was a distinct chemistry among Elvis, Bill and yourself?

Well, I guess it was after we cut the first song that was released, "That's Alright Mama".  If you listen to some of the very first recordings you can tell we were just experimenting.  Sam was listening to his voice; we were doing the best we could with two instruments.  And as the story goes, which is true, we were taking a break and Sam was putting on new tape or doing something.  He had the door open to the control room, and Elvis with nervous energy--in fact, I think he still had his guitar around his neck--just started flailing the thing and singing "That's Alright Mama".  Bill was sitting on his bass and he jumped up and started slapping it and playing along with him.  I reached back and picked up my guitar and found what key they were in and just started playing a kind of rhythm thing with them.  Sam came out into the room and said, "What are ya'll doing?"  We said, "just goofing around."  He said, "From in there it didn't sound bad.  Let's goof around a little more and let me put it on tape."  So, of course we stopped and figured out some kind of arrangement for it.  We went through it two or three times and that was it.

So this recording of this classic song is only the second or third time you guys had ever played it?

Right, exactly.  And after a few nights later, after we had cut that, we said, "Well, sounds okay, what is it?  How are we gonna brand this sucker?".

It wasn't too country sounding, huh?

Well, we didn't know what it was.  Somebody said, "Damn, if we get that played, they might run us out of town."  But, surprisingly, Sam said, "Okay, we've got to get a back side.  I just can't take one song down to the disc jockey".  Well, again, we went through several songs and one day when we were taking a break, the identical thing happened.  This time Bill picked up his bass and started mimicking Bill Monroe, singing up-tempo and real high falsetto.  Elvis jumped in with him and the thing clicked again.

What song was that?

"Blue Moon of Kentucky".  Alright, so we had those two.  Then we said, "Okay, we've got not necessarily a style, but at least a direction maybe.  It was up-tempo and rhythmic with very little fills or instrumental parts.

What was a typical Elvis session at Sun like, if there was a typical one?

We would just go in and Sam would suggest some songs or Elvis did maybe something he knew.  Nothing was pre-determined.  We just tried different things and probably found one that everyone felt comfortable with and had a good groove, and that would be it.  It's ironic though that the very first things we put down, Sam recorded them and he kept them.  And the only thing I can figure is after we did "That's Alright Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky", he felt like we did have a direction, so we would go through these different tunes.  He may have recorded some of them and played them back and we said, "No, that ain't happening".  Then he would erase the tape.  He never kept any of that.  I guess because tape cost so much.  So those very early things, when we were just experimenting around, he never kept.  I bet he wished he had.

Were you free to play whatever you wanted to?

Yeah, pretty much.  Sometimes Sam would make a suggestion to play in a higher timbre or something of that nature.  But for the most part, I was playing all I could and then some.

Besides "That's Alright Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky", what were some of the early songs?

"I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine", "Good Rockin Tonight", "Milk Cow Blues", "You're a Heart Breaker", Baby, Let's Play House", "Mystery Train".  "Mystery Train" became like a signature thing for me.  That was the first one I played through my custom-made amplifier.  It had the same slapback effect that Sam had been using on the overall record.  So I could even do it myself.

A lot of people may not know that you were Elvis' first manager.

Yeah, that's true.  It was really just a ploy to tell you the truth.  When the radio station got to playing the first record pretty heavy, several people around Memphis started calling Elvis wanting to book him, manage him, or do this or that.  He didn't know what to tell them or how to deal with it.  We were talking about it one day and Sam said, "well, I'll tell you what Elvis.  You and Scotty do a management contract and that way you can tell people that you're already under contract.  Then you won't be lying or anything.  Just do it for a year and that will give us time to look around and find somebody we all like."  And that turned out to be Bob Neal, who was a D.J. on a radio station.  He started booking us on a lot of shows and we all became good friends, and it ended up he signed us on as manager and booking agent too.  And then of course, as everyone knows, Tom Parker came along.  He was just on the next level up from Bob.  He had more contacts and negotiated the buy from Sam to RCA and all of that.

When and how did drummer D.J. Fontana enter the picture?

D.J. was working at the Louisiana Hayride and working clubs in and around Shreveport with all the Hayride acts and we met him when we went down there.  I don't think he played with us the first time we appeared.  The best I can remember, he played with somebody else on the show and we heard and liked him and asked if he would like to play with us the next time.  And he did.  He would speed up or slow down just like we would and we said, "Boy, this is great".  And he started working with us every time there was money to include him on the dates.  D.J. actually went on the payroll in December, 1955.

So this was getting into the RCA period.

Right.

A lot of people may also not know that Elvis actually played your guitar or Bill's bass on some songs.

Yeah, Elvis played my guitar on "One Night".  He also played Bill's bass on "You're So Square".  And although he played fairly good piano and good rhythm, he wasn't an accomplished musician by any means.  But he had a real uncanny sense of rhythm, and I think that's what made him such a great singer.  That rhythm just seem to come out of him, especially on up-tempo things.

Approximately how many songs did you record throughout the years?

I don't have any idea.  Somebody told me one time it was over 500.  I've never tried to count.

So that would be 1954-67?

1968.  The "Comeback Special" was the last thing I worked with him.

Do you have a few favorite tunes?

Oh (pause) yeah.  I have a lot of favorites.  The one I like best on the ballad side is "Don't".  I always really liked that one.  Up-tempo, there were just several of them.  A lot of the early things like "Mystery Train" and "Good-Rockin Tonight".

I always thought that lick on the front of "Don't Be Cruel" was a classic.

Yeah, I believe I got paid for that one.  I believe it was a bout 8 notes on the front and a chord on the end.

Alright, it's time for some guitar talk.  Around 1954 you were seen playing a ES-295, correct?

Right.

Was this your first good guitar?

No.  Actually when I came out of the Navy in 1952, I bought a Fender Esquire and a little Fender amp called a (long pause).

Champ?

Yeah, Champ.  I just couldn't hold on to a Fender.  It had a great neck on it, but I just couldn't hold on to it.  So I traded it in and got the Gibson ES-295, and played it through all of the Sun sessions.  On July 7, 1955, I traded it in on a Gibson L-5.

Why the change?

Mainly because the workmanship was just so much better in the L-5 (Blond), of course, it cost more, too ($565.00 #A18195).  Then I used the L-5 until 1957 when we started getting heavy into the movies again and traded in the L-5 for the Blond Super 400 (#24672) and stayed with the 400's pretty much from then on.

So, around 1954 is when you acquired your custom built Echosonic amp.

Right.  I don't remember the name of the record, but I heard one of the Chet's instrumentals on the radio.  His guitar had the same slap, but it was a little bit different to what I was use to hearing Sam do with us.  I said, "Damn.  How is he doing that?"  So I checked around and someone told me that he got a new amp that someone had built for him.  So I kept digging and finally I got the guy's name who built it and called him.  His name was Ray Butts.  He lived in Cairo, Illinois.  He played accordion in a little band.  he was an electronic genius.  He had built this amp for a guitar player he worked with on weekends, just experimenting and trying it out.  It sounded good so he brought, I guess, that one to Nashville and showed it to Chet and he liked it and bought one.  I believe mine was the third one.

How many were made?

At least 7 or 8, I know.  Roy Orbison had one and Carl Perkins had one.  There's a few more out there that I don't remember.

Was that an expensive amp?

Oh Yeah, for the times.  It was a $500 amp.  Another interesting point is, I guess, I had the first high power system onstage.  This little amp is only 25 watts and as the crowds got bigger, well you couldn't hear it.  So Ray built me two 50-watt boosters with four 8-inch Lansing speakers in each one.  Then i could set one on each end of the stage and crank them wide open and use the main amp as like a pre-amp.  So I had a whole 125 watts, and you still couldn't hear it (laughs).  You can take these amps today and blow them suckers away.

What amp did you use prior to that?

I just used my little Fender (Champ).

Did you ever try using a Bassman for guitar?

No.

That's ironic because today that's what a lot of guitar players prefer.

Really.  I be darn.  I didn't know that.  I had to use the Champ because I couldn't afford anything else at that particular time.

What is your current equipment?

About 25 years ago I bought a recording studio.  The '68 Comeback Special was the last playing thing I did for about 25 years.  So back then I just sold everything.  I got rid of all the guitars and everything, but I did keep that ol' amp.  In the last 2 or 3 years I've acquired another super 400 and a Gibson Country Gentleman, which Chet gave me about a year ago.  I'm using a 100 watt Yamaha amp that they've come out with which is tube type.  And that's about it right now.  I've never been one to get into collecting a whole bunch of guitars.

What gauge of strings do you use?

I'm using a .010-046.

Did you always use that gauge?

I don't know what gauge it was.  It was a Gretsch string that Chet had endorsed.  It was a flatwound and it held up better on the road than anything else I found.  I perspired something terrible and most strings would last about two days.

Let's talk about some of your more recent projects?  Didn't you get a phone call a few years ago from an English guitarist who loves your playing?  Who was that guy?

That guy was Keith Richards.  I was never a big Rolling Stones fan, but I was familiar with a few of their tunes.  A call came into the office and the girl came back and said there was a guy on the phone from the group the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards.  I said, "Who in the hell is Keith Richards?"  Of course, I knew who the Rolling Stones were.  Anyway, I talked to him and they were doing their Steel Wheels tour in the states and he invited me up to their show in St. Louis.  I flew up and they gave me the V.I.P. treatment at the show.  And I'll tell you what, I became a fan then because I remember how hard we use to work on stage for maybe an hour or hour and a half.  These boys worked for 2 hours and 40 minutes.  I clocked it.  I mean without a breather.  Keith and I stayed up that night till daylight.  He wanted me to show him how to play "Mystery Train" and "That's Alright Mama".

Didn't you and Carl Perkins collaborate on some recordings?

Yeah, 1992.  Well, to backup a little bit,  I hadn't seen Carl for several years, and it must have been around 1990 when a friend of mine, David Conrad, had a little party for Carl.  The Judds had recorded one of his songs which was a smash and Carl played on it.  So anyway, David called and invited me over.  So I went over and was chatting with Carl about getting together and doing something.  I had recorded with Carl one other time in 1975.  I did a session with him called E.P. Express.  In fact, I don't think I had seen him since 1975.  We made a promise, "Okay, we are going to do this thing; we'll get together".
Very shortly after that is when the throat cancer hit Carl and put him out for about 18 months.  One day I picked up the phone to call him to see how he was doing.  He said, "Scott, I just came back from the doctor a few minutes ago, they think they got the cancer; they can't find any trace of it.  The radiation has burned out my saliva glands and my taste buds, but they assured me that would come back."  I told him, "That's fantastic.  Shoot, you'll be able to do that record we were going to do."  He said, "I'm ready now, let's do it."  This was February, 1992.  I said, "Where do you want to do it?"  He said, "I hear the ol' boy that's got the Sun Studio down there has been doing some recordings, and they tell me it sounds real good.  How about that?"  I said, "Fine with me."  So we went down there and spent a couple of days, basically just had a good old jam session and cut a few old tunes.  He wrote two or three on the spot.
Later in April, I took the sound track down to his house in Jackson and we did two or three more tunes there in his den.  We are just selling it mail order and its doing pretty good.  I had a record label years ago when I had the studio.  I've cranked that back up and we've put this project on my label, Belle Meade Records.  I thought we kind of come up with a good name for the album, Carl and Scotty 706 ReUnionThe address of the old Sun Studio is 706 Union.  We call it it a "Sentimental Journey".  We didn't go in and try to cut a hit record, it was more of a documentary or just two old friends having a ball.
Being that I already started the label back up, I said, "We'll just have sort of a picker's label."  So far it's kind of leaning toward guitar, but we are going to do some other things.  We've got Thom Bresh, who is Merle Travis' son, and I'm telling you he has the genes, no question about it.  We've got Chip Young, who's a big session player here; he does 10 songs.  A lot of the guitar players here played on it--Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Reggie Young and Grady Martin.  I'm even doing one with him.  There's also four or five other guys that played on it and we're gonna keep pushing it.  We also have a jazz trio.  We're trying to do things that people just don't get to hear anymore.  Reggie has promised to do one.

What is Moore Feel Good Music?

When Carl and I did the first one, I had two or three cuts left over.  Gosh, I had some stuff left from 1970 when I had the studio.  So I more or less cleaned off the shelves and did a compilation of some stuff.  Tracy Nelson, who is big on her own and had a group of the sixties called Mother Earth is doing two or three tunes on here.  Local boy, Willie Rainsford, also does some great blues things.  It's just jump up and down, clap your hands type things for the most part.

How does it feel getting back together with D.J. and the Jordanaires, and doing this album with Ronnie McDowell?

It worked.  It's almost like practically starting over.  the old fingers have arthritis in them, and they're stiff and don't move as fast as they did (laughs).  But I'm really having a good time doing it.  Ronnie is such a great guy, as well as the whole band.  It's like one big family when we get together.

Where can people see Scotty Moore performing in the near future?

D.J. and I are going to Europe October 23 - November 22.  These shows will all be Elvis fan clubs which range from 600-1,200.  They are great people to work with.  They really enjoy the old stuff.  We will be making stops in England, Switzerland, Paris, Germany, Dublin and Holland.

People can watch you on TV this January, right?

Well, there's a big monster pay per view (cable) show that's supposed to happen about January 6, which is Elvis' birthday.  Ronnie, The Jordanaires, D.J., myself and a lot of big names will be on.  It's about a 99% sure thing.

Do you always participate in the annual August get-together in Memphis?

No.  I did do the one in 1992.  Carl and I had just finished the album and he was already booked to go down there, so I went.  I had a couple of days of practice, so I went in.  That was the first time I had played live since the '68 special; twenty-four years at that point.

Any future plans?

Well I hope the ol' hands and body holds out, I'd like to keep on working with Ronnie, Carl and doing a few select things.  I want to try to keep my little record company moving ahead.  I would like to get together a big tour of Europe, if the economy will pick up, with Carl, Ronnie, The Jordanaires, D.J and myself.

Scotty, I appreciate this interview.  It's been  a once in a lifetime experience for me.  You are definitely a guitar legend.  you are one of the chosen few who gave Rock-n-Roll its name.  you had that certain something that was different.

I guess it was forced.  I used to kid Sam and say, "You need to hire some more pickers."  But you had to do the best you could.

It's been fun Scotty.

I appreciate it, Kevin.


Kevin Wood and Scotty



This interview originally appeared in VGs Dec 93 issue.
For more articles like this each month, subscribe to Vintage Guitar magazine.

 

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