Elvis sideman Scotty Moore, 84, passes . . .
NASHVILLE — Scotty Moore, the guy some say invented rock ’n’ roll guitar, died June 28, at his home in Nashville at age 84. Rock fans recall it was Moore, who with bassist Bill Black and “the kid with the strange name, Elvis” first performed “That’s Alright, Mama” in Sam Phillips’ historic Sun Records Memphis studio, July 5, 1954. They became known as The Blue Moon Boys, thanks to their hip revival of Bill Monroe’s classic “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” and later that year were playing KWKH-Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride.
Moore, a member of both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, had been suffering from ill health in recent months, including heart and liver disease. He was highly rated among guitarists, among those claiming his playing influenced them were Beatle George Harrison, Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Rolling Stone Keith Richards. For Page, it was the Elvis hit “Baby, Let’s Play House,” and listening to Scotty on guitar, that encouraged him to play. Keith told an interviewer that when most people heard Presley’s “That’s Alright, Mama,” they wanted to be Elvis, “but I wanted to be Scotty!”
Winfield Scott Moore III was born Dec. 27, 1931 on a farm half way between Gadsden and Humboldt, Tenn., the youngest in a family of boys, all of whom played an instrument. At 8, “Scotty” began pickin’ on the guitar which an older brother provided. Among his own influences were Merle Travis, B. B. King and later Chet Atkins: “I loved the playing of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, but I didn’t even know their names back then . . . I’ve always said if you can’t play a little blues in any kind of song, it ain’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
Anxious to see the world, in 1948 he lied about his age (being just under the legal enlisting age of 17) to join the Navy. That service found him sailing aboard the ships USS Kent County and USS Valley Forge, to places like Korea and China, before receiving his January 1952 discharge.
Returning to Memphis, he worked at various jobs and was a hatter when he hooked up with Doug Poindexter & The Starlite Wranglers, playing guitar and handling bookings. In early 1954, he decided they needed a record to give them a more professional appeal, accomplishing that at Sun Records: “My Kind Of Carrying On.” Little came of their single, but Sam liked Scotty and engaged him for other projects. In June, Sam suggested Scotty give a listen to a youngster, who had cut a birthday disc for his mom a year earlier, named Elvis Presley. He did just that at his home, inviting Starlite Wrangler bassist Black to sit in on the lad’s July 4th “audition.”
“So he came over, and he had the pink shirt, pink pants on, with the typical ducktail haircut of that time, white shoes, which, well maybe he was ahead of his time, the way he was dressed, which didn’t bother me one way or the other, because I was interested in what he sounded like singing,” recalled Moore, adding neither he nor Black were terribly impressed with the teen singer-guitarist. Still, they thought with the right song, he might sound a lot better, for he was young “. . . and he sang in key.”
Based on their assumption, Sam set up a session right after the Independence Day holiday, for two songs: “Harbor Lights” and “I Love You Because.” During a session break, a bored Elvis began horsing around, pickin’ and singin’ R&B veteran Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup’s “That’s Alright, Mama,” quickly joined by Bill and then Scotty, caught up in their antics. A bewildered Phillips asked what they were up to, and they explained, but to their surprise, Sam said he liked what he was hearing, something new and fresh, so another number was added to the July 5 line-up. The two records created some interest, especially with local DJ Dewey Phillips (unrelated to Sam), particularly “That’s Alright, Mama,” backed by “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Based on airplay garnered, they began making personal appearances throughout the area, with Moore managing and booking the act. On Oct. 16, 1954 the Blue Moon Boys were strutting their stuff for KWKH-Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride audiences, which led to a year’s contract on the weekly program. Earlier, they had bombed at WSM, where an Opry official told Presley he had best go back to driving truck, his former day job.
It was in August ’55 that drummer D. J. Fontana joined the Blue Moon Boys, while on a Louisiana Hayride troupe tour. By then, Memphis booker Bob Neal was managing the act, landing them opening slots with such country stars as Roy Acuff, Martha Carson, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Kitty Wells, Johnnie & Jack, and Slim Whitman, none of whom quite knew what to make of this phenomenon in the wild attire, who attracted screaming teen-age girls and proved a tough act to follow. One such star Hank Snow decided to mentor Elvis and assigned his personal manager Tom Parker to promote the budding star, who had his first #1 single “I Forgot To Remember To Forget,” backed by another hit “Mystery Train” in 1955. Little did Snow or the Blue Moon Boys realize how drastically “The Colonel” would change their star attraction, after signing Elvis to a personal management pact – much to Hank’s chagrin – while securing a lucrative RCA recording contract (Hank’s label) with Steve Sholes in November 1955. The first release “Heartbreak Hotel” stunned the industry, selling in excess of two million singles, hitting #1 on both Billboard’s country and pop charts early in 1956. To the amazement of all, Elvis added three more #1 songs to his country and pop resume that same year: “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Amazingly, the latter two also topped the R&B chart, a first for a country artist.
Meanwhile, musicians Moore, Black and Fontana were caught up in the action, performing on those initial hits, but without sharing in the profits (as Elvis had promised, if they made it big). In fact, the Colonel cut them off from their previous camaraderie with their chief Blue Moon Boy, creating diversions that kept Elvis from them, while convincing RCA chief Sholes to consider veteran session players at studio time. Parker put their salaries at $200 weekly when performing with Presley, and $100 weekly, when sitting out shows; however, with major guest shots on Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan and Frank Sinatra telecasts, Elvis was much in demand. Yet, he was calling less and less on his Boys, prompting Moore and Black to tender their resignation in writing (September 1957), since being denied access to the star of the show. Subsequently, they discussed their dilemma with an inquiring reporter, which infuriated the Colonel, enough so that Presley accepted their offer to quit. But fortunately that was short-lived and the boys returned for a time to backing their buddy, both in the studio and in films like “Loving You,” “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), “King Creole” (1958) and later “GI Blues” (1960). As the world knows, Presley was drafted into the Army in 1958, taking him far from Memphis and Hollywood for two years.
As a result, Bill formed the Bill Black Combo, recording for Hi Records, scoring such pop hits as “White Silver Sands,” “Josephine” and “Blue Tango,” until his death of a brain tumor in 1965 at age 39. Behind the scenes, Scotty invested in and became vice president of Fernwood Records, and personally produced the 1959 Top Five pop hit “Tragedy,” recorded by Thomas Wayne (Perkins), brother to Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins.
Upon Presley’s 1960 discharge, Moore commenced recording sessions with Elvis at RCA, and also served as production manager at Sam Phillips’ Recording Service, which involved supervising all aspects of that operation.
In 1964, Moore recorded his own instrumental LP titled “The Guitar That Changed The World,” with producer Billy Sherrill for Epic, prompting a seemingly jealous Sam to fire him. Scotty relocated to Nashville, starting up Music City Recorders, a studio just off Music Row, and also initiated Belle Meade Records. Finally, in 1968, Moore reunited with Presley for his NBC-TV Elvis: Comeback Special in Hollywood, for what would be Scotty’s last recorded event with The King of Rock & Roll.
In 1970, Scotty engineered Beatle Ringo Starr’s recording “Beaucoup Of Blues,” an Apple release, cut at his Music City Recorders. Finally, in 1973, he sold his interest in the company and began independent engineering, primarily at Monument Studios. In 1975, Moore recorded with longtime friend Carl Perkins on his “EP Express,” a Mercury Records release. Ever the businessman, Scotty bought the building housing Monument Studios and opened his Independent Producers Corporation, a tape duplication firm, though continuing to handle free-lance engineering projects. From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, he engineered numerous TV shows for Opryland Productions, headlining players like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Minnie Pearl, Bob Hope, Perry Como, Ann-Margret and Carol Burnett. Incidentally, we first chatted with Scotty at We Make Tapes, a retail recording duplication business he launched in 1979, just off Music Row, which good friend Gail Pollock helped run. (At the time, we were wrapping a Dick Curless album.)
In 1992, Scotty did another Carl Perkins session – “706 ReUnion: A Sentimental Journey” – released on his Belle Meade Records. A highlight in August that year, was a live gig with Perkins, part of their “Good Rockin’ Tonight” program, boasting the celebrated Sun Rhythm section, featuring James Burton, D. J. Fontana, Ronnie McDowell and The Jordanaires, a project prompting a tour in England. Not necessarily known for writing, among songs Moore co-penned are “My Kind Of Carrying On,” “Now She Cares No More” and the instrumental “Have Guitar, Will Travel.” In 1997, Moore collaborated with James Dickerson to write his memoirs, “That’s Alright, Elvis,” at the urging of Scotty’s daughter Vicki, for Schermer Books. That year, too, Moore and D.J. Fontana recorded a tribute album “All the King’s Men,” which included such guest artists as Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck, Levon Helm, Jim Weider, Rick Neilson.
Another United Kingdom tour occurred in April 1999 with Fontana, which saw Scotty meeting fellow guitarists George Harrison and Robert Plant. Come July that year, he was honored in a gathering of British guitar greats in Sir George Martins Studio, where Gibson Guitars introduced the limited production guitar Scotty Moore Signature ES-295.
Scotty was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman in 2000. He was invited in 2003 to record with Alvin Lee, “Ten Years After,” sharing studio time with Fontana, Pete Prichard, bass, and Willie Rainsford, keyboards. (That album was mixed at Alvin’s Space Studio in England and released in May 2004.)
In April 2003, Moore, along with Fontana and the late Bill Black, became one of the first recipients of NARAS’ Memphis Music Heroes Awards. That year he also underwent brain surgery to treat a subdural hematoma on Dec. 5, which proved successful for the veteran player.
During December 2004, Moore was honored by top UK artists Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, Ron Wood, Bill Wyman and Albert Lee collectively, during an Abbey Road Studio celebration in London. That event was recorded and filmed, and released on DVD.
It was in August 2005 that Scotty made a tour in Norway and the UK, performing what he called his “swan song” abroad at the London Jazz Cafe (Aug. 15). Periodically, Scotty would still tour with such acts as The Mike Eldred Trio, Lee Rocker, Ronnie McDowell and The Jordanaires.
The Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville recognized The Blue Moon Boys, Nov. 26, 2007, with induction, co-sponsored by the Nashville Musicians Association, of which he was a Lifetime Member (AFM Local 257). In 2013, Moore and Dickerson published another bio, “Scotty & Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train” (Mississippi University Press).
Yet another accolade came Moore’s way in October 2015, induction into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, with Keith Richards accepting on his behalf, being too ill to attend.
Less lucky in love, Moore’s three marriages ended in divorce. His longtime companion, Gail Pollock, died in November 2015. Survivors include five children and several grandchildren. Moore was buried June 30, beside his parents in Humboldt, following a private ceremony. – Walt Trott