The King and Him
Scotty Moore on Life With Presley
Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 1997;
by Richard Harrington
Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley and Bill Black at the Louisiana Hayride January 15, 1955
Photo© courtesy of Louisiana Hayride Archives - J. Kent
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
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
"We don't know!"
"Well," Phillips suggests, "back up and do it again."
As Peter Guralnick puts it in his definitive biography "Last Train to
Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley": On that night "nothing had
been said, nothing had been articulated, but everything had changed."
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
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
"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
teaming him again with a host of his guitar progeny, including Rolling
Stones Richards and Ron Wood, and longtime Presley drummer Fontana.
He's also written "That's Alright,
Elvis," the story of his ups and downs with Presley.
Elvis and Moore, who is three years older, were both born in hardscrabble
communities not far from Memphis. Moore grew up in Gadsden, Tenn., in a
family of musicians. He started playing guitar at 8. He dropped out of
school in the ninth grade to pick cotton so he could buy a black jumbo
Gibson ES 295 (actually a used Gibson flat-top
acoustic). It cost him $150.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
This article was obtained from and appears online at the Washington
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