There are few people who can legitimately be called pioneers in rock’n’roll. Scotty Moore was one of them. The guitarist on Elvis Presley’s earliest and most legendary recordings, it was his virtuoso playing that provided a backbone for The King to riff over. It’s little wonder that on the day after his passing, aged 84, he has been hailed as a co-founder of the genre. Along with Presley, bassist Bill Black and producer Sam Phillips, Moore changed the course of popular music in the mid-1950s. His work has inadvertently inspired the world’s most popular rock musicians for over six decades.
Born on a farm in the tiny town of Gadsden in Tennessee in 1931 (population roughly 200), Winfield Scott ‘Scotty’ Moore III was the youngest of four boys by fourteen years. He was taught to play guitar by family and friends from the age of eight, before enlisting into the US Navy aged 16 in 1948. Despite being below the minimum legal age to join, he went on to serve in Korea and China until being discharged in 1952. During this period, Moore became interested in R&B and pop music, and was inspired by the likes of Les Paul and the “thumb and finger” guitar technique of Chet Atkins.
Upon leaving the Navy, Moore settled in Memphis and formed a six-piece hillbilly band called The Starlight Wranglers. As well as a fiddle player and steel guitarist, the group included local bassist Bill Black, and together they soon forged a friendship with the then-struggling local producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Working as a hat cleaner at the time, fate was to intervene for Moore on – legend has it – Independence Day, 1954.
“I’d get off at two or three o’clock in the afternoon, and I’d drive by Sun,” he explained in a 2014 interview with Guitarplayer.com. “If Sam wasn’t working, we’d go over to Miss Taylor’s restaurant and have coffee. 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?’”
19-year-old Presley stopped by Moore’s house for a hastily planned rehearsal alongside Black. Dressed in a “pink shirt, [with] pink pants [and] the typical ducktail hairstyle at the time, [and] white shoes”, Presley spent a few hours jamming with Moore and Black. Despite the young vocalist not knowing more than a verse of most the songs he was singing, Moore told Phillips he thought Presley had potential, and a session at Sun was booked for the following evening.
“[Sam] said he didn’t want the whole Starlite Wranglers band, just me and Bill,” Moore explained. “We went in there about six at night, and worked on stuff until at least 9pm or 9:30pm.” By and large, the session was deemed uneventful, with the four men getting ready to leave after working on a number of pop covers (Moore: “You know, we had to work the next day”).
But when Presley started singing an amped-up version of blues singer Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s 1946 track ‘That’s All Right’, Moore, Black and Phillips all realised something special was happening right in front of them.
Moore, speaking in 2014, said: “The door to the control room was open about half-way, and Elvis just started beating the snot out of his guitar – acting the fool and singing – and Bill grabbed his bass and started playing along with him. Sam poked his head out of the door – this was before mixing consoles had a talkback button – and he said, ‘What are you guys doing? That sounds pretty good – why don’t you keep doing it!’ So I got my guitar, ran through it a couple of times, and that was it. That was the beginning of, how do you say it – all hell breaking loose!”
Hell really did break loose. It was fired by Presley’s magnetic vocals, Black’s slap bass and Moore’s aggressive riffs – the kind of which are still being recycled today by guitarists of all genres. The 1 minute 57 second-long recording of ‘That’s All Right’ was released on Sun Records just five weeks later, backed by the equally frenetic ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’. Both tracks showcased Moore’s impeccable playing ability. Local radio presenter Dewey Phillips first played the A-side on July 7, 1954, with the track causing an instant reaction among listeners. He went on to air the song 14 times in quick succession, and with word beginning to spread the single reached Number 4 on the local Memphis charts.
Despite not being a success nationally, ‘That’s All Right’ gave Presley, Moore and Black the opportunity to play ample local concerts and radio shows. A series of performances on the influential country and western show Louisiana Hayride helped to turn Presley into a national talking point, and within a year he had become a worldwide phenomenon. Ever the trusty sidemen, Moore and Black continued to back him on all of his most notable early recordings and live performances – look at almost any live shot of Presley from around the period and you’ll see Moore’s steely presence just to his right, with Black’s towering double bass (now owned by Paul McCartney) angled precariously to his left. Presley tracks from around the time played on by Moore include ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’, ‘Mystery Train’, ‘Hard-Headed Woman’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. These and many more have become classics.
Elvis Presley – Louisiana Hayride, October 1954:
Touchingly, Moore became known as ‘the man behind The Man’. Countless future music icons – the kind The Kinks would sing about knowingly on ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’ – would look to him, rather than the all-conquering Presley, as their hero. “Everyone else wanted to be Elvis,” said Keith Richards. “I wanted to be Scotty.”
Despite briefly managing Presley and appearing in several films alongside him, Moore – alongside Black – stopped playing with him in 1957 due to money issues. Allegedly, he earned just $8,000 in 1956, while Presley became a millionaire. Although both he and Black quickly rejoined the fold, by 1958 Presley was drafted by the US Army, effectively halting the progress of the group. Moore, who had played on over 300 songs for Presley, became a studio manager at the Sam Phillips Recording Service, before relocating to Nashville in 1964. That year he also released a solo record, ‘The Guitar That Changed The World’, on Epic Records.
When Presley made his iconic 1968 comeback special on NBC TV, Moore played in his backing band (Black had died of a brain tumour in 1965). Despite being asked to continue playing with Presley in Las Vegas on a series of six-week stints, Moore was torn about giving up his career as a producer. He decided to stay in Nashville, the 1968 TV show being the last time he publically played with Presley.
Following his days as a working musician, Moore engineered Ringo Starr’s well-regarded post-Beatles country album, ‘Beaucoups Of Blues’ and worked on countless other albums and TV recordings by the likes of Carl Perkins, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
As early rock’n’roll nostalgia kicked in around the 1980s, he was frequently hailed for his contributions. Since then, everybody from Justin Timberlake to Robert Plant has worked with him. In its 2011 list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time, Rolling Stone rated Moore at Number 29, saying of his 1950s work: “The playing was so forceful that it’s easy to forget there was no drummer”.
Today, Moore’s legacy cannot be understated. Following Presley’s death in 1977 and Phillips’ death in 2003, he was the last person alive to have been inside that fabled, pokey studio on the corner of a nondescript street in Memphis when ‘That’s All Right’ – the song that gave rock’n’roll to the masses – was recorded. His contribution to the song, the genre, and to Presley’s work in general, is seismic.
“He was a class act as a human being,” said Moore biographer James L. Dickerson following the announcement of his death, writes Associated Press. “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.”
“Elvis loved Scotty dearly and treasured those amazing years together, both in the studio and on the road,” said Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla in reaction to the news.
Noted fan Richard Hawley also paid tribute: “Thank you, thank you, thank you Scotty for shaping my universe. What a beautiful noise you made. I hope the train isn’t a mystery any more. Bless you dearest and greatest of guitar players.”
Scotty Moore died at his home in Nashville on Tuesday, June 28 following several months of ill health. He was 84. The news was confirmed by a family member of Moore’s late companion Gail Pollock, according to Dickerson. Pollock herself died in November 2015.