IT was a Sunday morning and the 22-year-old guitarist was waiting around his apartment in Belz Avenue, Memphis, TN, for the arrival of an auditionee for his band the Starlite Wranglers. They were signed to local record label Sun Records but needed a new singer.
When the 19-year-old finally arrived, Moore was taken aback by his look. “He had on black pants and a pink stripe down the legs, a see-through shirt...” It was all topped off with long greased-back hair. “He was taking after the New York boys, with those ducktails.” It’s fair to say he was a bit odd looking. “For the time he was, yes. He was just a wild and crazy kid.” But not overly impressive.
After running through every song he knew, Elvis Presley went home. Moore would later tell Sun Records boss Sam Phillips that he was just an OK singer, though his sense of rhythm was impressive. The following day, on the insistence of Phillips, the trio went in to the studio after work and tried out a few more numbers. During a break, with everyone feeling discouraged, Elvis suddenly launched in to a hectic version of the blues hit That’s All Right. Moore and Black joined in with this “goofing around” and inadvertently created the sound that Philips said he had been looking for.
Moore remembers: “Just a couple of days later, Sam had took the cut of the song down to a local disc jockey, Dewey Phillips. He liked it, so he started playing it and started getting calls for it.”
It was July 1954 and popular music would never be the same again. What the trio created that day was wild, sexy and — most importantly — mums and dads hated it. “We didn’t think about it at the time,” he says of the significance of those days. Does he now? “Well, yeah, but you look back on a lot of things.” Is he proud of what he was part of? “Oh yeah.”
Scotty Moore, now 72, will be reliving those sessions at the Rescue Rooms next week. Against doctors orders. In December he had brain surgery to remove blood that was trapped between his brain and skull (subdural hematoma). Physically he is fine, but until he is fully recovered Moore has trouble getting his words out. For parts of the interview, his long-term partner Gail Pollock takes over. “I can listen better than I talk,” he chuckles after one such incident.
“We knew what we were playing was different but we didn’t figure it was anything spectacular. As far as we knew it was just going to be a flash in the pan.” As it took off, Scotty signed up as Elvis’ manager and was, he remembers, the band’s leader. Under the name of The Blue Moon Boys the trio played across America for the next year, eventually adding DJ Fontana on drums.
Soon after Colonel Tom Parker began managing Presley, he signed to RCA and in March 1956 Elvis Presley’s first single on the label was released. With Heartbreak Hotel the names of Elvis Presley and rock ’n’ roll became international phenomena. Moore played with Presley for a total of 14 years, right up to the famous 1968 Comeback Special, which helped Presley shake off the years of poor movies and regain his status.
Had he changed? “Not really. He was pretty much the same guy. People always change as they grow older, though.” Was he arrogant? “Oh no, he wasn’t arrogant. Maybe a little more settled. Until he got that whole group around him. Before he got cut up.” He means the Memphis Mafia, the dozen or so men that surrounded Presley everywhere he went for much of his career. Many blame them for failing to protect Presley from self-destructing. Moore blames them for keeping him away.
The ’68 Special was the last time he even spoke to Presley. “I couldn’t get to him. If I called I would never be able to speak to him. It’d be the people around him. And they wouldn’t let you talk to him.” Why did they do that? “Protection. I might get in his pocket book (wallet).”
Moore had already been working as a record producer and boss of his own studio throughout the 60s and 70s. He was in the studio when a secretary told him of Presley’s death in the summer of 1977. Even though he’d neither seen nor spoke to him in nine years, Presley’s failing health was common knowledge. But Moore says he wasn’t expecting it. “Of course not. I wasn’t with him so I don’t know what he had in his mind, what he was thinking, what he was doing.”
Moore continued to work as a recording engineer — he worked on Ringo Starr’s 1970 album Beaucoup of Blues — although he was enticed into recording himself once again, first by Carl Perkins in 1992 then five years later by Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Jeff Beck. The trio were among the guests on his album with D.J. Fontana called All The King’s Men. In recent years he has been happy to take part in Elvis events, particularly revisiting the original 50s material on which he played such an important part. Asked for one moment that stands out, all he says is: “I’m proud that the music has held up all these years.”
Scotty Moore facts:
Born Winfield Scott Moore III December 27, 1931 on a farm near Humboldt, Tennessee. Began playing the guitar aged eight. At 16 joined the Navy serving in Korea and China. Set up his first record label/recording studio in 1958. First solo album, The Guitar That Changed the World, released 1964, featured instrumental versions of early Presley hits. Gibson Guitars produced a limited edition Scotty Moore ES-295 guitar. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Recorded an album in Nashville with Nottingham-born guitarist Alvin Lee, due for release next month.